AS A LEADER of the Labor Party, Michael Foot is Britain's alternative prime minister. By profession a journalist, he has written a two-volume biography of Aneuran Bevan, has a reputation as an orator and a radical, and was recently referred to by The Washington Post's London correspondent as "an eccentric intellectual." If there is an eccentric streak, it may be more in his romanticism than in his interest in books, of which several of Britain's Labor Party leaders have been reasonably productive. R.H.S. Crossman's edition of Walter Bagehot on the British constitution, Anthony Crosland's The Future of Socialism and Roy Jenkins' studies of the House of Lords reform question and of Asquith all suggest how well they occupy their time in the years of opposition.
Michael Foot, son of the former Liberal M.P. and nonconformist lay peacher Isaac Foot (who became lord mayor of Plymouth after the Second World War) sprang from a background of intense but joyous puritanism and bibliophilia. In this collection of essays which delineate his intellectual, emotional and political debts to a variety of figures, Foot includes a brilliant portrait of his father. He tells us that whenever a member of the family left home, the loss was bearable because the liberated wall space could be used to give a complete room to Wordsworth or Milton or Montaigne or Napoleon or Johnson.
Michael's own political fame arose during the war when it became known that he was a coauthor of Guilty Men, surely one of the most devastating pamphlets of modern times. This scathing attack on the men of Munich did much to discredit the Conservative Party in British public opinion.
Foot owed his appointment as editor of the London Evening Standard to Lord Beaverbrook, the Canadian press baron who came to Britain in 1910 and wielded a far-reaching but obscure influence in British politics. (He had a powerful hand in making Lloyd George prime minister in 1916.) Through his morning paper, The Daily Express, Beaverbrook blazed out old-style British imperialism, "splendid isolation" and wholly unsubstantiated optimism. "There will be no war" he told his readers early in September 1939. Yet he has captivated more than one radically minded intellectual, and Foot writes a long, informative and closely observed account of him here as "The Case for Beelzebub."
Beaverbrook had great tolerance for those who disagreed with him if their work was good. He allowed complete freedom to David Low, the most famous cartoonist of his age, who differed from the Standard's politics in every way and actually made fun of the boss through Colonel Blimp's Turkish bath utterances, usually beginning, "Gad, sir, Lord Beaverbrook is right. . . ." Foot here confirms A.J.P. Taylor's story that when the left- wing Tribune was in desperate financial trouble and Foot (by then its editor) went to him for help, the old Tory imperialist gave him s3,000. From a greater distance he admits that Beaverbrook could look less attractive. If not with much personal affection, Foot writes about him with a strain of sympathy, elicited by the streak of radicalism he finds in the Canadian intruder with his scorn for the pomposities of unearned privilege.
This theme suggests a link connecting many of the political and literary heroes to whom Foot here repays his obligations. There are long, perceptive studies of Hazlitt, Disraeli and Swift. He is certainly not going on record to approve the politics of the latter two; but in each he finds a streak of the brilliant outsider's skepticism of settled establishments and a capacity for indignation against injustice.
As an intense believer in the rights of women it seems strange that he has no female debts and only by indirection (at his wife's instigation, it seems!) introduces a heroine in the person of the Duchess of Marlborough. He apprecitates male authors, among whom he includes Defoe and Disraeli, who are not afraid to express their obligations to women and to defend their interests. He goes to some lengths to defend Swift against the familiar charges of bitterness, cruelty and eventual insanity. Foot (whose earlier book, The Pen and the Sword deals with this period) makes a powerful case for Swift's sense of humor, his concern for others and his capacity for friendship.
When one reminds oneself that the author is a Labor leader, the book's most curious aspect is the total absence of heroes from the British working class. The truth is that the emotional sources of Foot's radicalism lie in the age of romantic reform that actually precedes the emergence of heavy industry and the modern working class movement. His father admired Burke, Cromwell and Lincoln; Michael loves Hazlitt, Shelley and Godwin (but Mary Wollstonecraft appears only as Godwin's wife). His admiration for the romantic revolutionary, H.N. Brailsford, one of the leading socialist writers of this century, is wholly consistent with this style. He also deeply admires only one foreigner--the Italian socialist Ignazio Silone.
This is a dashingly--at times brilliantly--written little book which tells much we may soon want to know about a man for whom history, literature and politics are inseparable and who may yet be a prime minister.