The man with two lives

Michael Foot's political achievements may fade - but his writing will endure. David Marquand on the

Now well into his nineties, Michael Foot is unquestionably a grand old man, albeit with the soul of a sprightly young one. The only problem is to decide what kind of grand old man he is. He was born into a nonconformist family of staunch West Country Liberals and he has carried that inheritance with him all his life. In his astonishingly precocious twenties he breakfasted with Lloyd George, holidayed with Stafford Cripps and graduated to champagne with Beaverbrook. At 27, he was part-author of Guilty Men, one of the most corruscating political pamphlets of the century, in which he and his co-authors lashed the appeasers of the 1930s - unintentionally helping to create a myth that Blair and Bush put to disastrous use 60 years later. At 29, he became a brilliant editor of Beaverbrook's London Evening Standard, to which he attracted a glit tering array of writers, including H G Wells, Arthur Koestler and Isaac Deutscher. He lived an intense and raf fish life in the thick of the vibrant literary London of the war years, when Orwell and a host of others were in full spate. He was platonically in love with the beautiful, tempestuous Barbara Betts (better known to history as Barbara Castle) and politically in love with the Merlin of the Labour left, Aneurin Bevan. At 32, he was elected to Parliament for a constituency in his native Plymouth.

He became the mainstay and later the editor of Tribune, the Bevanite house journal. In Labour's vicious civil wars in the 1950s, he was an unsleeping Bevanite frondeur. Although, in the most anguished moment of his political life, he and Bevan parted company over the latter's contempt for unilateral nuclear disarmament, after his idol's untimely death Foot became the chief keeper of the Bevan flame. He sat for Bevan's old constituency of Ebbw Vale, and published a beautifully written, wonderfully insightful, but ferociously partisan, two-volume biography of the departed leader, in which he harried Bevan's enemies with Old Testament zeal. In a happy phrase, Kenneth Morgan suggests that it is less a biography than a latter-day equivalent of the Mabinogion, a medieval Welsh saga embellishing and perpetuating the glory of ancient chieftains.

As that insight shows, Foot has been fortunate in his biographer. Morgan is one of Britain's most distinguished modern historians, whose books combine scrupulous scholarship with limpid prose. He has thrown brilliant light on the gran deurs and servitudes of his native Wales. His revisionist study of the post-1918 Lloyd George coalition overturned the conventional wisdom, and showed that, far from selling out to the English Establishment, Lloyd George was still the Welsh radical he had always been. In his equally revisionist biography of Jim Callaghan, he managed, with a remarkable mixture of empathy and analytical skill, to get inside the skin of that surprisingly complex and enigmatic figure. Now he has done the same with Foot - another complex and enigmatic figure, but cut from very different cloth.

Morgan has clearly been captivated by Foot (no bad thing for a biographer) and his portrait is warm, affectionate and moving. Foot springs to life in his pages, and helps his readers see the world through Foot's eyes. But he is too good a historian to ignore the warts. Morgan's Foot is a lovable, sometimes entrancing man, with a big heart as well as a seductive voice and an angelic pen, but he is not a saint. The nonconformist conscience can be unforgiving and intolerant, and Morgan leaves the reader in no doubt that Foot was both of those things. His loathing for Gaitskell (amply reciprocated, it must be said) added an extra touch of venom to the fratricidal strife that almost destroyed the Labour Party in the 1950s, while his disdain for those he saw as Gaitskell's heirs helped to drive the SDP's founders out of the Labour Party.

Morgan does his best to put Foot's agonised three years as Labour leader into their historical context, but he is far from tender to them. He makes it clear that Foot's leadership was a disaster, partly because he was too nice a man for the job, but even more because he was trapped in a myth of proletarian solidarity and socialist advance in which hardly any Labour voters still believed. But the real strength of Morgan's biography lies elsewhere. Foot had two lives, not one. He was drawn to politics like the proverbial moth to a candle flame, but for most of his life he was a writer first and a politician second; and Foot the writer will be a figure of enduring significance in the cultural history of Britain long after Foot the politician has been forgotten.

He was an outstanding parliamentary debater, a powerful platform orator and a hero of the Labour left before becoming a minister in two cabinets. But his political achievements were written in sand. The issues at stake in Labour's feuding in the 1950s and early 1960s now seem unbelievably arcane. In the age of global capitalism and post-industrial economies, it is as hard to understand how grown men and women could have savaged each other over public ownership as to appreciate the niceties of 17th- century debates between Calvinists and Arminians. Foot's contributions to the feuding are about as resonant today as the proceedings of the Westminster Assembly of Divines in 1643. The same applies even more strongly to the tortuous comings and goings between Foot, as employment secretary, and the trade union leaders of the day. Not just trade-union power, but the Labourist mind-set that Foot, most of his min isterial colleagues and the union leaders all shared has vanished, along with the industrial age that spawned it.

Morgan deals faithfully and fairly with Foot's political career, but to the great good fortune of his readers the Foot he loves and illuminates is the Foot that still endures - the writer, the pol emicist and, in another happy Morgan phrase, the man of letters. Indeed, my only quarrel with Morgan is that I would have liked more about the writer and less about the politician: more Orwell and less Jack Jones. Still, there is enough gold in Morgan's treatment of the man of letters to encourage the reader to dig for more. What emerges is an irony, tinged with tragedy - not so much for Foot as for our public culture.

Morgan rightly thinks that Foot's greatest book is his study of the struggle between Jonathan Swift and the Duke of Marlborough, The Pen and the Sword. It is history (and better history than most professional historians can boast), not polemic. But an inescapable moral leaps from its pages. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword; an obscure Irish clergyman, armed with nothing but stylistic brilliance and forensic force, could and did bring down the most powerful politician-general in Europe. The irony is that Foot did not apply that moral to himself. He was out of parliament when he wrote The Pen and the Sword. But when Ebbw Vale beckoned after Bevan's death he went back - spurning the mantle of Swift and Orwell for the mantle of Nye and, like Edmund Burke 200 years before, giving to party what was meant for mankind. In a beautifully written envoi, Morgan writes that Foot taught his comrades "how to live". The tragedy is that he spoke too much to his comrades and too little to his country.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom