Review by: Bryan S. Glass University of Texas at Austin
Michael Foot: A Life, Kenneth O. Morgan (London: HarperPress, 2007), 568 pages
The authorized biography of Michael Foot by Labour Lord Kenneth O. Morgan provides readers with an intimate look at the embattled political leader of the early 1980s. As Morgan properly observes, Foot’s tenure as Labour leader from 1980 to 1983 can only be described as disastrous. Foot, a strong left-wing socialist with the heart of a nineteenth century liberal, established his reputation as an agitator of protest in the early 1950s over the budget row. His outright rejection of Chancellor Gaitskell’ s budget, which stripped money from the National Health Service for rearmament purposes, placed Foot squarely at odds with the Labour Government of Clement Attlee. Foot followed his good friend, and stringent socialist, Nye Bevan, the mastermind behind the National Health Service, in opposition to the 1951 budget and never seemed to understand the intricacies of power politics. Accordingly, ‘Foot’s political biography reads like a broken record as he engaged in consistently vehement criticism of the establishment until reaching the Government benches for the first time in the 1970s. Thus, the most fascinating and revealing sections of this thorough biography address the literary and personal life of Michael Foot.
Morgan portrays Foot throughout as an indefatigable spirit always in search of greater accomplishments. One of Foot’s favorite quotes, which could easily sum up his life, comes from the French socialist thinker Saint-Simon. Saint-Simon instructed his servant to tell him every morning to “Get up. . . because you have great things to do.” Foot’s literary career, when taken with his other time-constraining journalistic and political occupations, proves all the more amazing. Foot’s first work “Guilty Men,” while not always factually accurate, did turn him into an overnight celebrity and forever sullied the word appeasement. Foot and his collaborators Frank Owen and Peter Howard wrote the book in three days and saw it published only a month later on 5 July 1940. The book demanded that those politicians in the government responsible for appeasing Hitler should be publicly shamed and forced into retirement. Although the book appeared under the pseudonym “Cato”, mainly because the three authors wrote it during work hours at the Evening Standard, it would soon leak out that this work of biting satire came mainly from the pen of Michael Foot. From this point on, his career as an. author would prove to be the stabilizing force in an otherwise hectic life.
Michael Foot the person also shines through in this biography. Morgan treats the reader to an in-depth look at Foof s relationships with famous personalities such as Lloyd George, Sir Stafford Cripps, Lord Beaverbrook, Randolph Churchill, Nye Bevan, Indira Gandhi, and Tony Blair. Most important of all, Foot’s strong relationship with his wife, Jill Craigie, powers itself onto the page. The highs and lows of their relationship make for interesting reading. Most importantly, though, it proves that underneath Foot the vitriolic speaker lived a frail, fallible human being. As much as Foot’s political, journalistic, and literary accomplishments threaten to overwhelm any narrative on his life, Morgan finds subtle ways throughout the biography to ground his subject through the medium of personal relationships. This tactic allows the reader to connect with Michael Foot and makes the work utterly attractive to the general public.
Although Michael Foot led a privileged life, his tireless efforts to promote causes such as the National Health Service, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and protection for the working classes exemplify his place in history as a man of the people. His corpus of work should be honored not only for its scale but also its quality. Kenneth Morgan, in turn, deserves the highest praise for a biography that illuminates the complexity and humanity of its undeniably controversial subject.