Michael Foot died yesterday. He was 96 years old. The last time I saw him was 1998, at a funeral. He was physically frail then, but his whip sharp mind was there, his passion, his decency and his amazing voice, having to stop to breathe between sentences. Everyone in the room was with him. We would have waited all day.
Of course, I filter Michael Foot's death through the experience of John, my Dad. Looking back at the pair of them, I think John when he was a politician must have admired Michael Foot enormously, and been very influenced by his example. John did love being the centre of attention, and he could do the political game playing with ease and what he wanted to do was work for fairness. John was a thinking, conviction Socialist with a strong sense of equality. I've said before that John would get to know and talk to anyone, and Michael Foot was very much that sort of person. He had no sense of hierarchy, but he loved the cut and thrust of the House, and the energy of being a change maker.
I was reminded yesterday that Michael Foot denounced the USSR and Stalin in The Tribune, the Socialist weekly paper and mouthpiece for the left in the Party. The left went mad, but the point is you see, that Michael Foot wasn't an Idealogical Socialist, he was a Conviction Socialist. He was fighting injustice, Fascism, racism, poverty... he was part of the pacifist generation of conviction Socialists who reacted strongly against the mass poverty of the first half of the 20th century. Imagine the conviction behind the decision then to try to join the army, to fight Fascism in Europe, because that was more important than personal pacifism. The medics rejected him for his asthma, so he fought on the home front, editing The Evening Standard. I can imagine how influential a strident, intellectually challenging voice like his would have been throughout London, helping to pave the way for the massive upheaval of the status quo post-war. Later, despite supporting the war, he helped to found CND. From a compassionate position, nuclear weapons are an abhorrence. He was rejected from the parliamentary party for two years in the sixties because he could not square his own convictions with the compromises being made by the party whilst in power. He was a curious mix of a brilliant speaker, MP, player in the House, and conviction led idealist, which if I look at the House now, is entirely absent. How rarely anyone would resign now. The only resignations in years have been due to graft, not conviction.
But it was Michael Foot and his generation of freedom warriors that helped forge our way out of the mess of post-WW2 confusion, and gave us a moral compass. We are not a racist nation, we protect our workers with Health & Safety legislation, we have an NHS, we support education. The conviction Socialist ideals of the post war era built the fundaments of the way we see ourselves as a nation. Decent, honourable and fair. Whether that is true or not is debatable indeed, but Michael Foot's torch beam energy, rooted as it was in ideals which are worth fighting for, standing up for and stating This Is What We Must Do, is an example not simply worth remembering, but worth emulating, as I think my Dad tried to do.
John would be sad beyond belief that he didn't have the chance to eulogise Michael Foot in death. Partly because it would be any excuse for a meander down honourable memory lane, but also because Michael Foot meant something, and stood for something. I don't have a tenth of John's eloquence, but I wanted to make that connection, because John would have wanted to say something.
John and his wife used to go to the Gay Hussar, once he'd moved to London, so often that the owners knew him and cared about him. The reason he went was because Michael Foot went (and many others, but for John, Foot was probably the main reason to go), which gave it a history of meaning something. Deals were done, but over a decent meal and red wine by honourable people. I don't know if he ever went and said hello - they had known each other. But I think John was in awe of the man, so he might well have never dared to disturb.
I think my brother Owen might have more memories of Michael Foot coming down to the Slough Labour Party than I do - I only really remember him picking me up and giving me a hug when I was about 6. He had come down with his old friend Fenner Brockway, to be wheelchair bearer for the day. Owen? Do you remember much?