A great democrat and a great Briton

I remember the 1983 general election well.  I turned seventeen less than a week before polling day.  The Falklands conflict was still fresh in our minds.  A year previously a wave of jingoism that would have done the tabloids proud swept our school as children with no conception of the horrors of war cheerfully dehumanised the Argentinians to mere Argies and unthinkingly called for nuclear bombs to rain down on Buenos Aires.

Pitted against a Margaret Thatcher who might as well have been armoured in Britannia’s breastplate and shield was a wild-white-haired, bespectacled man in a donkey jacket.  His eloquence was the eloquence of an age when citizens strained from the back of vast crowds to catch the distant words of their political leaders.  His intellect was forged at a time when the most brutal poverty still disfigured this country and when socialism offered for many the only answer to their plight.

He was as unconscious of the demands of the television age as he seemed to be of the national mood where the only Marx most people cared about was the one who sold socks and shirts with his friend Spencer.

But time has been kind to Michael Foot.  When he passed away today he represented a fading tradition of honourable, principled politics, of substance rather than style, where it was issues that were important rather than how the headlines would play in the morning.  Those fast held principles gave him a stamp of authenticity of which Cameron, Clegg and even Gordon Brown cannot dream of bearing.

Above all he was a man who genuinely didn’t care if most people thought he was wrong so long as in his own mind and heart and out of conviction he believed himself right.  That was simply an invitation to try to persuade those who disagreed with him.

Foot’s own intellectual leanings led him to enlightenment figures like Keats and Paine rather than to Trotsky or Engels.  He was a liberal radical in the great 18th century tradition, his Quaker roots grounding him firmly in notions of personal liberty coupled with mutual responsibility amongst citizens.

He has been called many things today, overwhelmingly kind, almost all deserved.  He was a great democrat, a great parliamentarian, a great defender of the people’s liberties and most certainly a great Briton.  Would that there were more lined up to take his place.

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