Michael Foot dies at 96; last of the British Labor Party's socialist leaders
He advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament and led Labor to an overwhelming defeat at the hands of Conservative Margaret Thatcher in 1983. The revered politician was the author of several books.
Under Michael Foot, the Labor Party's 1983 platform advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament, state takeover of banks, abolition of the House of Lords and leaving the European Economic Community. (John Redman / Associated Press)
Foot died peacefully at his home in north London following a long illness, historian John Foot, the politician's great-nephew, said.
Foot personified the socialist tendency in the Labor Party, which Tony Blair erased when he won power at the head of a business-friendly, interventionist "New Labor." Yet Foot remained a respected, even revered, figure.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Blair's partner in creating "New Labor," praised Foot as a "genuine British radical" and a "man of deep principle and passionate idealism."
Foot, a founder of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, led the Labor Party from 1980 to 1983 at a time when it was split by factionalism and had lurched to the left.
Labor, running on a platform which advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament, state takeover of banks, abolition of the House of Lords and leaving the European Economic Community, won less than 28% of the vote in 1983, barely holding on to second place, as Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives gained a second term in government.
Labor lawmaker Gerald Kaufman memorably described Labor's manifesto as "the longest suicide note in history."
"We had not the armor, the strength, the quickness in maneuver, yes, the leadership," Foot said of the defeat in his 1984 book, "Another Heart and Other Pulses."
In her memoirs, Thatcher described Foot as a gentleman, "a highly principled and cultivated man, invariably courteous in our dealings."
"In debate and on the [campaign] platform he has a kind of genius," Thatcher wrote, but added that his policies offered "an umbrella beneath which sinister revolutionaries, intent on destroying the institutions of the state and the values of society, were able to shelter."
In a statement released by her office Wednesday, Thatcher said: "He was a great parliamentarian and a man of high principles."
Foot was born in Plymouth, southwest England, on July 23, 1913. His father was a member of Parliament and a lay preacher.
An honors graduate in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford University, Foot first made a mark as a writer, as the anonymous co-author of "Guilty Men," published in 1940, which attacked the Conservative Party's policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler in the 1930s.
He also edited the London Evening Standard newspaper during World War II.
First elected to the House of Commons in 1945, Foot retired as a member of Parliament 47 years later. He served as employment secretary under Prime Minister Harold Wilson and as leader of the House of Commons under James Callaghan during the 1970s.
In Parliament, he emerged as a leader of the party's left wing after World War II. He spoke against the rearmament of Germany, the British invasion of Suez and nuclear weapons.
"We are not here in this world to find elegant solutions, pregnant with initiative, or to serve the ways and modes of profitable progress. No, we are here to provide for all those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and crippled than ourselves," Foot, an eloquent orator, said during the 1983 campaign.
"That is our only certain good and great purpose on Earth, and if you ask me about those insoluble economic problems that may arise if the top is deprived of their initiative, I would answer 'To hell with them.' The top is greedy and mean and will always find a way to take care of themselves. They always do."
A shambling figure with thick glasses and an untamed white mane, Foot offended some in 1981 by attending the annual Remembrance ceremony in London in a casual coat described as a "donkey jacket." Although Foot said Queen Mother Elizabeth had complimented his choice of "a smart, sensible coat for a day like this," the incident attained legendary status.
His wife, Jill Craigie, said she had tried but failed to get him to smarten up for the occasion.
"Michael will look scruffy whatever he wears," said Craigie. "He thinks pockets are not there for decorative purposes but to put things in."
Foot's literary output continued throughout his career, including biographies of Labor politician Aneurin Bevan, Wilson and H.G. Wells; he edited the "Thomas Paine Reader" in 1987, and a 1988 book on Lord Byron, "The Politics of Paradise."
Foot's wife died in 1999. They had no children.