Michael Foot, the fifth son of Isaac Foot, the Liberal Party MP for Bodmin, was born on 23rd July, 1913. He was educated at Leighton Park, a fee-paying school in Reading. He went on to obtain a second-class degree in Classics at Wadham College. In 1933 he became president of the Oxford Union.
After leaving university Foot found employment in a shipping firm in Liverpool. He was also an active member of the Labour Party and was an unsuccessful parliamentary candidate for Monmouth in the 1935 General Election.
Foot now moved to London seeking a career in journalism. After being rejected by Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, he began working for The Tribune, a newspaper founded by Stafford Cripps. He soon became close friends with two of the newspaper's writers, Aneurin Bevan and Barbara Betts.
In 1938 Stafford Cripps sacked William Mellor, the editor of the newspaper. He tried to persuade Foot to take the job. However, as Mervyn Jones has pointed out: "It was a tempting opportunity for a 25-year-old, but Foot declined to succeed an editor who had been treated unfairly." Instead, Aneurin Bevan arranged for Foot to work for the Evening Standard, a newspaper owned by Lord Beaverbrook. Foot and Beaverbrook soon became good friends. This surprised his left-wing colleagues but Foot admitted: "I loved him, not merely as a friend, but as a second father".
Beaverbrook was a supporter of appeasement but in 1940 he changed his views and employed Foot to write leaders in the newspaper that attacked the policies of the government. Foot now joined forces with Frank Owen and Peter Dunsmore Howard to publish The Guilty Men. The book was an attack on the politicians who were associated with appeasement. This included Neville Chamberlain, Lord Halifax, John Simon, Samuel Hoare, Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Kingsley Wood.
The following year Foot and a group of friends established the 1941 Committee. One of its members, Tom Hopkinson, later claimed that the motive force behind the organization was the belief that if the Second World War was to be won "a much more coordinated effort would be needed, with stricter planning of the economy and greater use of scientific know-how, particularly in the field of war production." Other members included J. B. Priestley, Tom Winteringham, Edward G. Hulton, Kingsley Martin, Richard Acland, Michael Foot, Peter Thorneycroft, Thomas Balogh, Richie Calder, Tom Winteringham, Vernon Bartlett, Violet Bonham Carter, Konni Zilliacus, Tom Driberg, Victor Gollancz, Storm Jameson, David Low, David Astor, Thomas Balogh, Richie Calder, Eva Hubback, Douglas Jay, Christopher Mayhew, Kitty Bowler and Richard Titmuss.
In December 1941 the committee published a report that called for public control of the railways, mines and docks and a national wages policy. A further report in May 1942 argued for works councils and the publication of "post-war plans for the provision of full and free education, employment and a civilized standard of living for everyone."
In 1942 Foot bacame acting editor of the Evening Standard. However, Foot's socialist views antagonized Lord Beaverbrook and in 1944 Foot resigned from the newspaper: "Your views and mine are bound to become more and more irreconcilable. As far is this socialist business is concerned, my views are unshakable.... There does not seem much sense in my continuing to write leaders for a newspaper group whose opinions I do not share and some of whose opinions I strongly dissent from. I know you never ask me to write views which I disagree. But as this works out is is good business neither for you nor for me."
Foot wrote a regular column for the Daily Herald as well as contributing to The Tribune and the New Statesman. In the 1945 General Election Foot won Plymouth Devonport. In the House of Commons Foot became associated with the left-wing of the party led by Aneurin Bevan. Foot was critical of Clement Attlee and his government, especially the foreign policy being followed by Ernest Bevin and was a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). In 1947 he joined forces with Richard Crossman and Ian Mikardo to write the pamphlet Keep Left. The following year he became the editor of The Tribune, a post he held for four years.
Foot was defeated in the 1955 General Election and as a result returned to the editorship of The Tribune. He also published The Pen and the Sword (1957), a book about Jonathan Swift. Foot returned to the House of Commons when he won Bevan's old seat at Ebbw Vale in November, 1960. Foot immediately clashed with Hugh Gaitskell, the party leader, and was deprived of the whip for voting against the defence estimates. It was restored when Gaitskell died in 1963.
During the 1964 General Election campaign, the new leader, Harold Wilson promised to modernize Britain. Making full use of his academic background and poking fun at the aristocratic Alec Douglas-Home, Wilson was able to obtain a five-seat majority in the House of Commons. After the 1966 General Election this majority was increased to 97. Foot was a fierce backbench critic on several issues including wage restraint, the Vietnam War and Rhodesia.
When the Labour Party lost the 1970 General Election, Foot, aged 57, accepted a place on the opposition front bench and was given the task by Harold Wilson of opposing British entry to the European Economic Community. When he first appeared on the Labour front bench a journalist observed that "it was as if Mrs Mary Whitehouse had turned up in the cast of Oh! Calcutta!".
Edward Heath, the new prime minister, came into conflict with the trade unions over his attempts to impose a prices and incomes policy. His attempts to legislate against unofficial strikes led to industrial disputes. In 1973 a miners' work-to-rule led to regular power cuts and the imposition of a three day week. Heath called a general election in 1974 on the issue of "who rules". He failed to get a majority and Harold Wilson and the Labour Party were returned to power.
Wilson appointed Foot as his Secretary of State for Employment. Foot began by settling the miners' strike which had toppled the Conservative government. Over the next two years he restored trade union rights lost in Heath's Industrial Relations Act. He also created the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) and the Health and Safety Executive. When he left the post in April 1976, one of his senior servants commented: "You posed a quite exceptionable challenge to my powers of obstruction."
Foot took on James Callaghan for the leadership of the Labour Party when Harold Wilson retired in 1976. Callaghan defeated Foot and he had to be satisfied with the post of Lord President of the Council and leader of the House of Commons.
Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 General Election and Foot returned to the backbenches. The following year Callaghan resigned and Foot defeated Denis Healey for the leadership of the party. The Daily Telegraph argued: "Two days later he fell downstairs and had his leg encased in plaster. The accident created an image of Foot which he was never able to throw off, that of an old man struggling gamely, but ineffectively, against manifold physical disabilities. It was true that, since a bad car crash in 1963, he had been obliged to walk with a stick; while in 1976 he had lost the sight of an eye after an attack of shingles. But Foot did not lack energy; his problem was that he was crippled politically." As a result of Foot's victory, 25 right-wing Labour MPs formed the Social Democratic Party.
Foot was more popular that Thatcher until the 1982 Falklands War. The journalist, Matthew Norman wrote: "What if the frictions of 1982 had been resolved, as the present ones will be, by diplomacy? Without that war, which, as a venerable foe of fascist dictatorship Mr Foot felt obliged to support, would Margaret Thatcher have been sunk by the employment exclusion zone she'd imposed on three million people?"
Foot published a left-wing manifesto for the 1983 General Election. This included unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the Common Market, the re-nationalisation of industries privatised by the Thatcher government, the abolition of the House of Lords, an annual wealth tax and a large increase in public investment. The Labour MP Gerald Kaufman described it as "the longest suicide note in history". At 27.6%, Labour's share of the poll was the lowest since the 1920s.
Foot immediately resigned as leader of the party and told the annual conference: "I understand the scale of the defeat which we suffered at the general election... I am deeply ashamed that we should have allowed the fortunes of our country and the fortunes of the people who look to us for protection most… to sink to such a low ebb."
Foot remained MP for Ebbw Vale until 1992. Books by Foot include a two volume biography of Aneurin Bevan, Aneurin Bevan: 1897-1945 (1962) and Aneurin Bevan: 1945-1960 (1973), Debts of Honour (1980), Another Heart and Other Pulses (1984), Loyalists and Loners (1986), Politics and Paradise (1988), HG: the history of Mr Wells (1995), Dr Strangelove, I Presume (1999) and The Uncollected Michael Foot (2003).
Steve Richards wrote: "His principles were always strongly held. Last year (2009) he wrote a letter to The Guardian on nuclear disarmament, his deepest passion. By then he could hardly walk or see, but still had an undiminished interest in events and of course the way they were reported."
Michael Foot died after a long illness on 3rd March 2010.