From left to right: the former Prime Minister Lord Home, Liberal leader David Steel, Michael Foot, Chancellor of Exchequer Geoff Howe (back), PM Margaret Thatcher
A trenchant philosopher, giant of belles-lettres, eloquent orator and skillful Machiavelli of backbench politics, Michael Foot seemed well suited for the premiership. A Victorian one that is. In practice, however, his deeply cerebral aloofness and don-like pedantry proved to be his undoing. Michael Foot, as the Opposition Leader, presided over a three-digit electoral defeat, Labour’s worst defeat in 60 years, which ended his political career as much as the old Labour itself.
Oxford-educated, Byron-quoting old guard of Labour politics, Foot became the Opposition Leader just before his 70th birthday. White-haired, asthmatic and disheveled, he would walk into the Commons leaning on a walking stick, accompanied by his dog. Regardless of weather, he would refuse all offers of official cars or a lift and would limp off to catch a bus back home. And it took only one sartorial choice to finish off Michael Foot’s quirky leadership.
On 8th November 1981, Foot attended the Remembrance Day ceremony at the Cenotaph, wearing a so-called “donkey jacket”. Although the Queen Mother was quite amused by the jacket, the media was not. Already mocked in the media for looking like “an out-of-work Irish navvy”, Foot appeared “as if he had just completed his Sunday constitutional on Hampstead Heath,” criticized the Guardian. He earned an enduring nickname, Wurzel Gummidge. Foot always denied that it was a donkey jacket, merely a short overcoat, but the jacket inevitably became a major issue that election season.
Margaret Thatcher riding high on Falklands fervor readily won the election and Michael Foot was promptly shown the door by his party. A man of principle, Foot refused to enter the House of Lords whose abolition he championed. He left politics, never to return, even when his beloved Labour slowly came to embrace Thatcherism he denounced vehemently. Foot’s stature as an international statesman was unparalleled: he spoke out against aristocracy, nuclear weapons, Franco’s Spain, Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and Milosevic’s Yugoslavia. In his Edwardian nature, Michael Foot was a romantic refuge from an earlier era, and the last of his breed. They don’t make politicians like Foot anymore. Michael Mackintosh Foot, Esq. was a sound man, and as one who refused to trade his clothes, appearances or principles for popularity, he remained an aberration throughout his entire career, and died as one this morning. He was 96.