Foot became a Member of Parliament (MP) from 1945 to 1955 and served again from 1960 until he retired in 1992. A passionate orator and associated with the left-wing of the Labour Party for most of his career, Foot was an ardent supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and British withdrawal from the European Economic Community. He was appointed to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Employment under Harold Wilson in 1974, and he later served as Leader of the House of Commons under James Callaghan. He was also Deputy Leader of the Labour Party under Callaghan from 1976-80.
Foot was Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition from 1980 to 1983. His strongly left-wing political positions and criticisms of vacillating leadership made him an unpopular leader. Not particularly telegenic, he was also nicknamed "Worzel Gummidge" for his rumpled appearance. A right-wing faction of the party broke away to form the SDP. Foot led Labour into the 1983 general election, when the party obtained it's lowest share of the vote since the 1918 general election and the fewest parliamentary seats it had had at any time since before 1945. He resigned after the election.
Foot was born in Lipson Terrace, Plymouth, Devon, the fifth of seven children of Isaac Foot (1880–1960) and Eva (née Mackintosh, died 17 May 1946), who was Scottish. Isaac Foot was a solicitor and founder of the Plymouth law firm Foot and Bowden (which amalgamated with another firm to become Foot Anstey). Isaac Foot was an active member of the Liberal Party and was the Liberal Member of Parliament for Bodmin in Cornwall from 1922–24 and again from 1929–35, and a Lord Mayor of Plymouth.
Michael Foot was the brother of Sir Dingle Foot MP (1905–78), a Liberal and subsequently Labour MP; Hugh Foot, Baron Caradon (1907–90), Governor of Cyprus (1957–60) and representative of the United Kingdom at the United Nations from 1964–70; Liberal politician John Foot, Baron Foot (1909–99); Margaret Elizabeth Foot (1911–65), Jennifer Mackintosh Highet (born 1916) and Christopher Isaac Foot (1917–84). He was the uncle of campaigning journalist Paul Foot (1937–2004) and charity worker Oliver Foot (1946–2008).
Foot was educated at Plymouth College Preparatory School, Forres School in Swanage, and Leighton Park School in Reading. When he left Forres School, the headmaster sent a letter to his father in which he said “he has been the leading boy in the school in every way”. He then went on to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Wadham College, Oxford. Foot was the President of the Oxford Union. He also took part in the ESU USA Tour (the debating tour of the United States run by the English-Speaking Union). Upon graduating with a second-class degree in 1934, he took a job as a shipping clerk in Birkenhead. Foot was profoundly influenced by the poverty and unemployment that he witnessed in Liverpool, which was on a different scale from anything he had seen in Plymouth. A Liberal up to this time, Foot was converted to socialism by Oxford University Labour Club president David Lewis, a Canadian Rhodes scholar, and others: "... I knew him [at Oxford] when I was a Liberal [and Lewis] played a part in converting me to socialism." Foot joined the Labour Party and first stood for parliament, aged 22 at the 1935 general election, where he contested Monmouth. During the election, Foot criticised the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, for seeking rearmament. In his election address, Foot contended that "the armaments race in Europe must be stopped now". Foot also supported unilateral disarmament, after multilateral disarmament talks at Geneva had broken down in 1933.
Foot became a journalist, working briefly on the New Statesman, before joining the left-wing weekly Tribune when it was set up in early-1937 to support the Unity Campaign, an attempt to secure an anti-fascist United Front between Labour and other left-wing parties. The campaign's members were Stafford Cripps's (Labour-affiliated) Socialist League, the Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CP). Foot resigned in 1938 after the paper's first editor, William Mellor, was fired for refusing to adopt a new CP policy of backing a Popular Front, including non-socialist parties, against fascism and appeasement. In a 1955 interview, Foot ideologically identified as a libertarian socialist.
On the recommendation of Aneurin Bevan, Foot was soon hired by Lord Beaverbrook to work as a writer on his Evening Standard. (Bevan is supposed to have told Beaverbrook on the phone: "I've got a young bloody knight-errant here. They sacked his boss, so he resigned. Have a look at him.") At the outbreak of the Second World War, Foot volunteered for military service, but was rejected because of his chronic asthma. It was suggested in 2011 that he became a member of the secret Auxiliary Units.
In 1940, under the pen-name "Cato" he and two other Beaverbrook journalists (Frank Owen, editor of the Standard, and Peter Howard of the Daily Express) published Guilty Men, attacking the appeasement policy of the Chamberlain government (thus Mr Foot reversed his position of the 1935 election – when he had attacked the Conservatives as militaristic and demanded disarmament in the face of Nazi Germany), which became a run-away best-seller. Beaverbrook made Foot editor of the Evening Standard in 1942 at the age of 28. During the war, Foot made a speech that was later featured in the documentary TV series The World at War broadcast in February 1974. Foot was speaking in defence of the Daily Mirror, which had criticised the conduct of the war by the Churchill Government. He mocked the notion that the Government would make no more territorial demands of other newspapers if they allowed the Mirror to be censored.
Foot left the Standard in 1945 to join the Daily Herald as a columnist. The Daily Herald was jointly owned by the TUC and Odhams Press, and was effectively an official Labour Party paper. He rejoined Tribune as editor from 1948 to 1952, and was again the paper's editor from 1955 to 1960. Throughout his political career he railed against the increasing corporate domination of the press.
Foot fought the Plymouth Devonport constituency in the 1945 general election. His election agent was Labour activist and lifelong friend Ron Lemin. He won the seat for Labour for the first time, holding it until his surprise defeat by Dame Joan Vickers at the 1955 general election. Until 1957, he was the most prominent ally of Aneurin Bevan, who had taken Cripps's place as leader of the Labour left, though Foot and Bevan fell out after Bevan renounced unilateral nuclear disarmament at the 1957 Labour Party conference.
Before the Cold War began in the late 1940s, Foot favoured a 'third way' foreign policy for Europe (he was joint author with Richard Crossman and Ian Mikardo of the pamphlet Keep Left in 1947), but in the wake of the communist seizure of power in Hungary and Czechoslovakia he and Tribune took a strongly anti-communist position, eventually embracing NATO.
Foot was however a critic of the West's handling of the Korean War, an opponent of West German rearmament in the early 1950s and a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Under his editorship, Tribune opposed both the British government's Suez adventure and the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. In this period he made regular television appearances on the current affairs programmes In The News (BBC) and subsequently Free Speech (ITV). "There was certainly nothing wrong with his television technique in those days", reflected Anthony Howard shortly after Foot's death.
Foot returned to parliament in 1960 at a by-election in Ebbw Vale in Monmouthshire, left vacant by Bevan's death. He had the Labour whip withdrawn in March 1961 after rebelling against the Labour leadership over air force estimates. He only returned to the Parliamentary Labour Group in 1963 when Harold Wilson became Labour leader after the sudden death of Hugh Gaitskell.
Harold Wilson – the subject of an enthusiastic campaign biography by Foot published by Robert Maxwell's Pergamon Press in 1964 – offered Foot a place in his first government, but Foot turned it down, instead becoming the leader of Labour's left opposition from the back benches. He opposed the government's moves to restrict immigration, join the Common Market and reform the trade unions, was against the Vietnam War and Rhodesia's unilateral declaration of independence, and denounced the Soviet suppression of "socialism with a human face" in Czechoslovakia in 1968. He also famously allied with the Tory right-winger Enoch Powell to scupper the government's plan to abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers and create a House of Lords comprising only life peers – a "seraglio of eunuchs" as Foot put it.
In 1967, Foot challenged James Callaghan but failed to win the post of Treasurer of the Labour Party.
After 1970, Labour moved to the left and Wilson came to an accommodation with Foot. Foot served in the Second Shadow Cabinet of Harold Wilson in various roles during 1970–74. In April 1972, he stood for the Deputy Leadership of the party, along with Edward Short and Anthony Crosland. Short defeated Foot in the second ballot after Crosland had been eliminated in the first.
When, in 1974, Labour returned to office under Harold Wilson, Foot became Secretary of State for Employment. According to Ben Pimlott, his appointment was intended to please the left of the party and the Trade Unions. In this role, he played the major part in the government's efforts to maintain the trade unions' support. He was also responsible for the Health and Safety at Work Act. Foot was one of the mainstays of the "no" campaign in the 1975 referendum on British membership of the European Economic Community. When Wilson retired in 1976, Foot contested the party leadership and led in the first ballot, but was ultimately defeated by James Callaghan. Later that year, Foot was elected Deputy Leader and served as Leader of the House of Commons, which gave him the unenviable task of trying to maintain the survival of the Callaghan government as its majority evaporated.
In 1975, Foot, along with Jennie Lee and others, courted controversy when they supported Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India, after she prompted the declaration of a state of emergency. In December 1975, The Times ran an editorial titled 'Is Mr Foot a Fascist?' – their answer was that he was – after Norman Tebbit accused him of 'undiluted fascism' once Foot said that the Ferrybridge Six deserved dismissal for defying a closed shop.
Following Labour's 1979 general election defeat by Margaret Thatcher, James Callaghan remained as party leader for the next 18 months before he resigned. Foot was elected Labour leader on 10 November 1980, beating Denis Healey in the second round of the leadership election (the last leadership contest to involve only Labour MPs). Foot presented himself as a compromise candidate capable, unlike Healey, of uniting the party, which at the time was riven by the grassroots left-wing insurgency centred around Tony Benn.
The Bennites were demanding revenge for what they considered to be the betrayals of the Callaghan government. They called for replacement of MPs who had acquiesced to Callaghan's policies by left-wingers who would support unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the Common Market, and widespread nationalisation. (Benn did not stand for the leadership: apart from Foot and Healey, the other candidates – both eliminated in the first round – were John Silkin, a Tribunite like Foot, and the Eurosceptic; Peter Shore.)
When he became leader, Foot was already 67 years old; and frail. After the 1979 energy crisis, Britain went into recession in 1980, which was blamed on the Conservative government's controversial monetarist policy against inflation, which had the effect of increasing unemployment. As a result, Labour had moved ahead of the Conservatives in the opinion polls. After Foot's election as leader, opinion polls showed a double-digit lead for Labour, boosting his hopes of becoming Prime Minister at the next general election, which had to be held by May 1984.
When Foot became leader, the Conservative politician Kenneth Baker commented: "Labour was led by Dixon of Dock Green under Jim Callaghan. Now it is led by Worzel Gummidge." Foot's nickname in the press gradually became "Worzel Gummidge", or "Worzel". This became particularly common after Remembrance Day 1981. After his tenure as leader, Foot would be "depicted as a scarecrow on ITV’s satirical puppet show Spitting Image."
Almost immediately after his election as leader, he was faced with a serious crisis. On 25 January 1981, four senior politicians on the right-wing of the Labour Party (Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and William Rodgers, the so-called "Gang of Four") left Labour to form the SDP on 26 March 1981. This was largely seen as the consequence of the Labour Party's swing to the left, polarising divisions in an already divided party.
The SDP won the support of large sections of the media. For most of 1981 and early-1982 it's opinion poll ratings suggested that it could at least overtake Labour and possibly win a general election. The Conservatives were then unpopular because of the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher, which had seen unemployment reach a postwar high.
The Labour left was still strong – in 1981 Benn decided to challenge Healey for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party, a contest Healey won; albeit narrowly. Foot struggled to make an impact and was widely criticised for his ineffectiveness, though his performances in the Commons, most notably on the Falklands War of 1982, won him widespread respect from other parliamentarians. He was criticised by some on the left for supporting Thatcher's immediate resort to military action. The right-wing newspapers nevertheless lambasted him consistently for what they saw as his bohemian eccentricity, attacking him for wearing what they described as a "donkey jacket" (actually he wore a type of duffel coat) at the wreath-laying ceremony at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day in November 1981, for which he was likened to an "out-of-work navvy" by a fellow Labour MP. Foot did not make it generally known that the Queen Mother had described it as a "sensible coat for a day like this", which could be considered a slight or a compliment depending on whether irony was intended. He later donated the coat to the People's History Museum in Manchester, which holds a collection that spans Foot's entire political career from 1938 to 1990, and his personal papers dating back to 1926.
The formation of the SDP – who formed an alliance with the Liberal Party in June 1981 – contributed to a fall in Labour support. The double-digit lead which had still been intact in opinion polls at the start of 1981 was swiftly wiped out, and by the end of October the opinion polls were showing the Alliance ahead of Labour. Labour briefly regained their lead of most opinion polls in early-1982, but when the Falklands conflict ended on 14 June 1982 with a British victory over Argentina, opinion polls showed the Conservatives firmly in the lead. Their position at the top of the polls was strengthened by the return to economic growth later in the year. It was looking certain that the Conservatives would be re-elected, and the only key issue that the media were still speculating by the end of 1982 was whether it would be Labour or the Alliance who formed the next opposition.
Through late-1982 and early-1983, there was constant speculation that Labour MPs would replace Foot with Healey as leader. Such speculation increased after Labour lost the 1983 Bermondsey by-election, in which Peter Tatchell was Labour candidate, standing against a Conservative, a Liberal (eventual winner Simon Hughes) and John O'Grady, who had declared himself the Real Bermondsey Labour candidate. Critically, Labour held on in a subsequent by-election in Darlington and Foot remained leader for the 1983 general election.
The 1983 Labour manifesto, strongly socialist in tone, advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament, higher personal taxation and a return to a more interventionist industrial policy. The manifesto also pledged that a Labour government would abolish the House of Lords, nationalise banks and immediately withdraw from the then-European Economic Community. Gerald Kaufman, once Harold Wilson's press officer and during the 1980s; a prominent figure on the Labour right-wing, described the 1983 Labour manifesto as "the longest suicide note in history."
As a statement on internal democracy, Foot passed the edict that the manifesto would consist of all resolutions arrived at conference. The party also failed to master the medium of television, while Foot addressed public meetings around the country, and made some radio broadcasts, in the same manner as Clement Attlee did in 1945. Members joked that they had not expected Foot to allow the slogan "Think positive, Act positive, Vote Labour" on grammatical grounds.
Foot's involvement in the nuclear disarmament movement gave rise to the beloved story that The Times ran the headline "Foot Heads Arms Body" over an article about his leadership of a nuclear-disarmament committee. Some decades later, Martyn Cornell recalled the story as true, saying he had written the headline himself as a Times subeditor around 1986. The headline does not, however, appear in The Times Digital Archive, which includes every day's newspaper for the years 1785–2010.
The Daily Mirror was the only major newspaper to back Foot and the Labour Party at the 1983 general election, urging it's readers to vote Labour and "Stop the waste of our nation, for your job your children and your future" in response to the mass unemployment which followed Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's monetarist economic policies to reduce inflation. Most other newspapers had urged their readers to vote Conservative.
The Labour Party led by Foot, lost to the Conservatives in a landslide – a result which had been widely predicted by the opinion polls since the previous summer. The only consolation for Foot and Labour was that they did not lose their place in opposition to the SDP-Liberal Alliance, who came close to them in terms of votes but were still a long way behind in terms of seats. Despite this, Foot was very critical of the Alliance, accusing them of "siphoning" Labour support and enabling the Tories to win more seats.
Foot resigned days after the bitter election defeat, and was succeeded as leader on 2 October by Neil Kinnock; who had been tipped from the outset to be Labour's choice of new leader.
Foot took a back seat in Labour politics after 1983 and retired from the House of Commons at the 1992 general election, when Labour lost to the Tories (led by John Major) for the fourth election in succession, but remained politically active. From 1987 to 1992, he was the oldest sitting British MP (preceding former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath). He defended Salman Rushdie, after Ayatollah Khomeini advocated killing the novelist in a fatwā, and took a strongly pro-interventionist position against Serbia during its conflict with Croatia and Bosnia, supporting NATO forces whilst citing defence of civilian populations in the latter countries. In addition he was among the Patrons of the British-Croatian Society. The Guardian's political editor Michael White criticised Foot's "overgenerous" support for Croatian leader Franjo Tuđman.
Foot remained a high-profile member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He wrote several books, including highly regarded biographies of Aneurin Bevan and H. G. Wells. Indeed, he was a distinguished Vice-president of the H. G. Wells Society. Many of his friends have said publicly that they regret that he ever gave up literature for politics.
Michael Foot became a supporter of pro-Europeanism in the 1990s.
Foot was an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association. In 1988, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
In a poll of Labour party activists he was voted the worst post-war Labour party leader. Though Foot is considered by many a failure as Labour leader, his biographer Mervyn Jones strongly makes the case that no one else could have held Labour together at the time, particularly in the face of the controversy over the infiltration of the party by Militant. Foot is remembered with affection in Westminster as a great parliamentarian. He was widely liked, and admired for his integrity, habitual courtesy, and generosity of spirit, by both his colleagues and opponents.
A portrait of Foot by the artist Robert Lenkiewicz now permanently hangs in Portcullis House, Westminster.
Oleg Gordievsky, a high-ranking KGB officer who defected from the Soviet Union to Britain in 1985, made allegations against Foot in his 1995 memoirs. The Sunday Times, which serialised Gordievsky's book under the headline "KGB: Michael Foot was our agent", claimed in an article of 19 February that the Soviet intelligence services regarded Foot as an "agent of influence", codenamed "Agent BOOT", and in the pay of the KGB for many years. Crucially, the newspaper used material from the original manuscript of the book which had not been included in the published version. At the time a leading article in The Independent newspaper asserted: "It seems extraordinary that such an unreliable figure should now be allowed, given the lack of supporting evidence, to damage the reputation of figures such as Mr Foot." In a February 1992 interview, Gordievsky had claimed that he had no further Labour Party revelations to make. Foot successfully sued the Sunday Times, winning "substantial" damages.
However, in the Daily Telegraph in 2010, Charles Moore gave a "full account", which he said had been provided to him by Gordievsky shortly after Foot's death, of the extent of Foot's alleged KGB involvement. The account provides additional information concerning the allegations, but no new evidence. The evidence against Foot consists solely of Gordievsky's testimony. Moore wrote that, although the claims are difficult to corroborate without MI6 and KGB files, Gordievsky's past record in revealing KGB contacts in Britain had been shown to be reliable. However Moore did not think that Foot would have known that he was considered an agent, and he probably considered that he was simply keeping the Soviet Union well informed in the interests of peace. There is no evidence Foot gave away secrets.
Foot was a passionate supporter of Plymouth Argyle Football Club from his childhood and once remarked that he wasn't going to die until he had seen them play in the Premier League. He served for several years as a director of the club, seeing two promotions under his tenure.
For his 90th birthday, Foot was registered with the Football League as an honorary player and given the shirt number 90. This made him the oldest registered professional player in the history of football.
Foot was married to the film-maker, author and feminist historian Jill Craigie (1911–99) from 1949 until her death fifty years later. He had no children.
In February 2007, it was revealed that Foot had an extramarital affair with a woman around 35 years his junior in the early-1970s. The affair, which lasted nearly a year, put a considerable strain on his marriage. The affair is detailed in Foot's official biography, published in March 2007.
On 23 July 2006, his 93rd birthday, Michael Foot became the longest-lived leader of a major British political party, passing Lord Callaghan's record of 92 years, 364 days.
A staunch republican (though well liked by the Royal Family on a personal level), Foot rejected honours from the Queen and the government, including a knighthood and a peerage, on more than one occasion.
He was also an atheist. He was one of three leaders of the Labour Party to positively declare that they disbelieved.
Foot suffered from asthma until 1963 (which disqualified him from service in the Second World War) and eczema until middle age.
In October 1963, he was involved in a car crash, suffering pierced lungs, broken ribs, and a broken left leg. Foot used a walking stick for the rest of his life. According to former MP Tam Dalyell, Foot had up until the accident, been a chain-smoker; but gave up the habit thereafter.
In 1976, Foot became blind in one eye following an attack of shingles.
Foot died at his Hampstead, north London home in the morning of 3 March 2010 at the age of 96. The House of Commons was informed of the news later that day by Justice Secretary Jack Straw, who told the House: "I am sure that this news will be received with great sadness not only in my own party but across the country as a whole." Foot's funeral was a non-religious service, held on 15 March 2010 at Golders Green Crematorium in North-West London.
A memorial to Foot in Plymouth was vandalised with Nazi symbols in the wake of the 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum in July 2016.
Foot was portrayed by Patrick Godfrey in the 2002 BBC production of Ian Curteis's long unproduced The Falklands Play and by Michael Pennington in the film The Iron Lady. Foot was likened to the scarecrow Worzel Gummidge in Dear Bill, a long-running series of fictional letters which appeared in the British satirical magazine Private Eye, purportedly written by Denis Thatcher, husband of Margaret Thatcher, to his friend and golfing partner Bill Deedes, former editor of the Daily Telegraph.Hoggart, Simon; & Leigh, David. Michael Foot: a Portrait. Hodder. 1981. ISBN 0-340-27040-3
Jones, Mervyn. Michael Foot. Gollancz. 1993. ISBN 0-575-05933-8
Morgan, Kenneth O. Michael Foot: A Life. HarperPress (HarperCollins) 2007. ISBN 978-0-00-717826-1