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Michael Foot 1913-2010

The last published interview with the former Labour leader, who died today aged 96.

I’ve just arrived at Hampstead Tube station. I’m going towards Michael Foot’s house down the hill. Just to the right is Tribune; it’s based at the headquarters of Aslef, the train drivers’ union, in an old mansion once owned by Sir Thomas Beecham. Michael and the paper go all the way back to the 1930s, when he was a cub reporter. His first printed story was as an industrial correspondent, when he covered the aftermath of the General Strike and the bitter disputes in the Nottingham coalfield. Michael has lived on Pilgrim’s Lane for many years, most of them with his late wife, the film-maker Jill Craigie, and I’m thinking about the first time that I met him in 1983. Great campaigner that he is, Michael had come from the north-east of England to Norwich on what was known as the People’s March for Jobs. As Britain goes into recession, it’s easy to forget that back in the early 1980s there were more than three million people out of work. That’s when I began a relationship with Michael that’s lasted until this day, through the peace movement, through my own attempts to get elected to parliament and all the travails at Tribune over the years.

Nowadays Michael moves around the house with the aid of a walking frame. The sun is pouring into the downstairs kitchen through French windows as he sits reading the Guardian and prepares to talk.

Mark Seddon: It's looking good in here. I suppose you can thank [Rupert] Murdoch for that.

Michael Foot: Well I don't know what to tell you, because he paid for my kitchen, you see [laughs]. The money came from the Sunday Times, they coughed up when we were really up against it, when we had our libel action.

MS: I remember that. That was in 1995 when the Sunday Times accused you of being Agent Boot.

MF: They called me a traitor, er, what was it they called me, a Russian agent. And they stuck to their story until we were absolutely sure that we had a decent lawyer. Jill was very concerned, because in a previous libel action it looked as if we might go under. She didn't want that to happen again. She had some legitimate anxieties, although she was of course very angry about what they'd said in that bloody paper about us.

“When we got to one of the London stations and stepped off on to the platform, they had people lining up and calling us murderers”

MS: I remember going on the radio with George Robertson, who was later a Labour defence secretary. We were agreed this was all complete nonsense. But your libel winnings from Murdoch not only helped Jill and you with the kitchen and to recarpet your house but some of it also helped save Tribune [Foot gave £10,000 to the publication].

[Foot stumbles.] Are you all right there, Michael?

MF: I just fall sometimes and it makes me nervous.

MS: So, I was thinking about when I first met you in 1983.

MF: Yup.

MS: You came into Norwich.

MF: Ya.

MS: You spoke to an absolutely packed meeting and we all felt like a lot of people do now about Obama - you were going to win! The manifesto then, which talked about the banks being nationalised if they behaved irresponsibly, seems to have been adopted by the government.

MF: Yes, well, they got it all slightly wrong, I thought, when they attacked that manifesto back then. "The longest suicide note in history", that was what Gerald Kaufman called it. Gerald was actually elected on the same manifesto, so I do still hold that against him, you know. We proposed taking over the banks, not being at the mercy of capitalist forces and all the rest of it. Although it was Jill who suffered the worse from all of that media attention.

MS: Now what is your happiest memory from your time in the Labour Party? I seem to remember you mentioning the CND marches, the peace marches.

MF: Oh, well, the one against the Iraq War. Ken Livingstone came of course, it wouldn't have happened if he hadn't been there. Some of the papers wobbled on the war. Tribune didn't and so I hope it should always survive. The Labour movement needs the Tribune arguments more than ever. [pause] But you know about that better than anybody. It really is a terrible tragedy, if it doesn't continue.

MS: You know Michael, Tribune has had a lot of support from Gordon Brown. He told me once that he began his activity in the Labour Party by selling the paper outside Rosyth Dockyard in his constituency.

MF: Well he was helping to keep the dockyard alive, good thing that too. I hope he's going to come through these difficult times. It's not so easy, it's a damn difficult thing to deal with altogether. But it looks as if he and the government are coming out of it a bit better.

MS: When I was based in New York at the United Nations, I met a Moroccan journalist in his eighties who remembered your brother, Hugh, Lord Caradon [governor of Jamaica and of Cyprus in the 1950s and British ambassador to the UN from 1964-70].

MF: Yes, he was one of the first people to live upstairs here [laughs]. Jill's mother was the very first but after her was Mac, that was what we called him, because his second name was Mackintosh. We're all called Mackintosh in our family, but he was Mac himself. He, ha, he went off, he did strange things, like going to Cambridge instead of Oxford. He did other strange things - went into the colonial service, but he enjoyed it very well. Up there now in those rooms, you see, we have his grandson Tom Foot living there [Tom is the son of Michael's late nephew, the campaigning journalist Paul Foot].

MS: I know Tom, yes.

MF: I think he's off writing in the Camden New Journal. He's doing very well. But we can't forget Mac doing that job at the United Nations.

MS: I read a book which said that when he arrived in Cyprus at the height of the troubles and the Eoka insurgency, that he took a white horse and rode down Ledra Street in Nicosia [which divides the Greek and Turkish communities] to try and bring the warring sides together.

MF: That's right, he did [laughing]. He was quite something, wasn't he? We used to joke about that a bit. Some of the other members of the family were rather critical about him because he went to Cambridge instead of Oxford, and he also became a rower and a swimmer and a horseman and all the rest of it. But of course in the end what he was doing in Cyprus was very fine. He made peace with Archbishop Makarios.

MS: Have you been watching the American elections at all?

MF: Indeed, of course. It's well reported, isn't it? Especially by our friend, Jon Snow. He was very good during Iraq and the war in Yugoslavia. We watched the film that Jill made about Yugoslavia [together]. He was sitting there where you're sitting.

MS: That was about Bosnia wasn't it, what was it called, Two Hours from London? He was here and Clare Short was here.

MF: Yes, give her my love and warm wishes. It's not so easy when you resign, you sometimes get in trouble with these things. But I'm sure what she did was right. [pause]

Jenny, the wonderful lady who looks after me, is back on Monday. I'm really very lucky, that I'm still in this house, where I still stay, nothing can shift me out of here.

MS: You have a beautiful garden, Michael. Ah, you've got a grapevine. Do you get any grapes from it?

MF: We do indeed. Real grapes.

MS: You've got all sorts of things in here. You've got bay trees, actually there's a plant there with white flowers that's called nicotiana. It's related to the tobacco plant. You've got tobacco growing in your garden.

MF: You got that in your bloody garden? [laughing]

MS: There's a picture here on the wall, Michael, there's you and Gordon Brown at the Tribune party. You probably can't see from here. This is Gordon Brown shaking your hand.

MF: Oh, yes, and Sarah was there, who is marvellous.

MS: Did you hear that Leo Abse died?

MF: Now, Leo, yes.

MS: He was a great character wasn't he? You must have known him very well.

MF: Very well. Leo himself was a real friend in many ways, a real radical. Not right about everything but [laughs] right about many things.

MS: He was very anti-abortion, wasn't he, but he was something of a social pioneer. Roy Jenkins seems to get all the credit for all the hard work that Leo actually did. [A Labour MP from 1958-87, Abse promoted many liberalising laws in the 1960s from the back benches.]

MF: He was lovely. But on abortion . . . I was in the bloody House of Commons when we were in charge of the whole [parliamentary] timetable and we were refusing time for a fresh debate on that. When we got to one of the London stations and stepped off on to the platform, they had people lining up and calling us murderers because we were not allowing time for the abortion laws to be debated again.

MS: Do you still get the Indian newspapers, Michael?

MF: Yes, every morning.

MS: You always used to phone up and tell me what was in Indian newspapers.

MF: The Asian Age. Best column on America, too. When you're in New York, which papers do you read?

MS: I used to read the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Nation of course, which is like a sister magazine of the New Statesman, and another regular magazine called Dissent.

MF: Dissent, oh, I read that quite often. There was a friend of ours who was there with you in the United States, he was in charge of Dissent. Right, now, where are my glasses? Time for some lunch!

Reading is what matters most to Michael Foot. He is blind in one eye and must hold books very close to his one good eye, yet he remains, as he has always been, surrounded by teetering piles of books on his kitchen table. He has reached a great age, but none of his spirit and optimism has disappeared. His great passions are undimmed - for Byron, the Labour Party, Plymouth Argyle. For many, Foot is the greatest living Englishman. No one could dispute that he has walked and talked with the great.

Mark Seddon is diplomatic correspondent for Al Jazeera English television. He was editor of Tribune 1993-2004


Born Michael Mackintosh Foot. His father Isaac is later Liberal MP for Bodmin. His brothers Dingle and John go on to be Liberal parliamentarians.

1933 President of Oxford Union.

1934 Becomes a socialist after working as a clerk in Liverpool and witnessing poverty and unemployment.

1935 Stands unsuccessfully as Labour candidate for Monmouth.

1942 Editor of the London Evening Standard, aged 28.

1945-1955 Labour MP for Plymouth Devonport.

1948 Editor of Tribune until 1952; and again1955-1960.

1949 Marries film-maker Jill Craigie. The marriage lasts 50 years until her death in 1999.

1960 Wins by-election in Aneurin Bevan's old seat of Ebbw Vale in Monmouthshire.

1964 Turns down office under Harold Wilson, leading Labour's left-wing from the back benches.

1974 Secretary of state for employment.

1980 Elected leader of the Labour Party.

1983 Resigns after Tories win general election in a landslide.

1992 Retires from parliament but remains politically active.

2006 Becomes the longest-lived leader of a British political party, aged 93.

Research by Liana Wood

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Change has come