I was shocked, and I must say a little surprised, yesterday when I heard Michael Foot had died. I had been thinking about him around a month ago, and to be honest I thought that he had died some time ago. I suppose at 96 it was unlikely that he would still be regularly in the lime light.
Foot had become something of an anomaly in the present day, a real politician who spoke his mind and told things as he saw them, a major contrast to the squeaky clean, on message, media friendly career politicians we are given today. Foot belonged to an era when politics was an active battleground, where passion and dynamism were often seen.
My abiding memories of him would be his speech at the winding up of the debate which brought down the Callaghan government in 1979, and an electioneering speech four years later.
His speech in the 1979 Confidence debate, I remember listening, spellbound to his performance around 10 o’clock one evening on a crackling radio, very soon after broadcasts of parliamentary debates were first permitted. It was clear that the labour government was about to fall, but Foot produced a 30 minute speech of humour and passion that was justly admired on all sides of the house.
I listened again last night, and it had lost none of its magic.
Four years later, for the only time, I heard him speak in real life. On the eve before the 1983 general election he gave his last call to arms as Labour leader in the Civic centre at Newcastle upon Tyne. He must have been about 70 then, and as he walked into the hall through the audience, surrounded by press and TV cameras, he looked totally shattered and exhausted. I think by that stage it was already assumed that his Labour party were about to suffer one of the biggest defeats in their history – his election manifesto still known as “The longest suicide note in history”. But again, on that night in Newcastle, before his own supporters, he produced a rallying call that could bring tears to the eyes in a way that no other politician working today could do.
Foot’s only misfortune was to outlive his time, politics has moved on to a sadly more sanitised and user friendly era.