Foot's finest hour

The former Labour leader's courageous stand against appeasement.

In addition to being a great parliamentarian, Michael Foot was a brilliant essayist and polemicist. I first discovered his writing in the form of his book Guilty Men, a coruscating attack on the pro-appeasement faction of the Tory party.

Foot co-wrote the book with the former Liberal MP Frank Cook and the Conservative Peter Howard under the pseudonym Cato. It was published by Victor Gollancz, founder of the Left Book Club, shortly after Winston Churchill took over as prime minister in July 1940. The "guilty men" of the title included such figures as the then prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, and the lord chancellor, John Simon.

The irony, rarely noted by Conservative admirers of Churchill, is that had it not been for left-wingers such as Foot, Churchill would almost certainly never have become prime minister. As Foot later recalled:

Churchill, on his entry into the Commons, was greeted with loud Labour and Liberal cheers, but with almost total silence on his own side. So deeply ingrained was the subservience to Chamberlain among the men who still retained a parliamentary majority. This fact was quickly blotted from the public memory.

The moral clarity of Foot's attack on those who believed it was possible for Britain to compromise with Nazism made this his finest hour.

His principled anti-fascism later led him to defy many of his comrades and support both the Falklands war and the Nato intervention in Kosovo. He had little patience with those on the left who denounced the rescue of the province from Slobodan Milosevic as an act of western imperialism.

This self-described "peacemonger" turned out to have a lot to teach the left about the need to intervene against tyranny. In the coming days, Foot's contribution to this cause deserves to be recognised more widely than it has been.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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