Paul Anderson, Chartist, May-June 2010
The death of Michael Foot at the age of 96 in early March has been marked by dozens of appreciative obituaries – and a few examples of shameless scandal-mongering – but so far few have had much to say about his long association with Tribune. Even the appreciations published by that paper mentioned it largely in passing, preferring to concentrate on his roles as a politician and as an author of pamphlets and books.
This is quite understandable in some respects. It is primarily as a key player in the 1974-79 Labour government and as Labour leader between 1980 and 1983 that he is remembered by anyone under 60 today, and very few people under the age of 70 have any but a childhood memory of Tribune even at the very end of his second spell as editor in 1960. Just as important, Foot’s lasting legacy is most likely to be his prodigious output between hard covers, in particular his 1957 book on Jonathan Swift, The Pen and the Sword, and his massive biography of Aneurin Bevan, which appeared in two volumes in 1962 and 1973.
But it is worth highlighting his Tribune connection, which lasted from the paper’s foundation in 1937 to his death (with a few gaps while he was otherwise engaged or at odds with an editor). He was hired as a junior journalist when the paper was launched by Stafford Cripps as the organ of his Unity Campaign, a quixotic attempt to forge a united front against fascism and war among the Labour, Communist and Independent Labour parties; one of his colleagues was Barbara Betts (later Barbara Castle), who was having an affair with the paper’s first editor, William Mellor.
Foot resigned from Tribune after 18 months in sympathy with Mellor after Cripps fired the editor for refusing to take a political line much closer to the Communist Party’s than hitherto – and Foot went off to make a reputation in the journalistic mainstream, first as a writer on Beaverbrook’s Evening Standard and then from 1942 as its editor. He gave that up in 1945 after being selected as Labour candidate for Plymouth Devonport – which he won in Labour’s 1945 landslide. Soon after becoming an MP, he took over the political direction of Tribune (which had long since abandoned its sympathies for the CP) from Bevan, who had joined the cabinet, and in 1948 he formally became joint editor with Evelyn Anderson.
They stepped down in 1952, but Foot remained the dominant political voice in Tribune, and in 1955, after losing Devonport, he became sole editor – a post he relinquished in 1960 after being elected as MP for Ebbw Vale as successor to Bevan. He was a contributor (sometimes more than others) for the rest of his life.
It is no disrespect to anyone associated with Tribune since to argue that the Foot years marked the height of its influence in Labour politics in particular and British politics more generally. In the late 1940s, it played a critical role both in the Labour left’s attempt to forge a “third force” foreign policy in 1946-47 in opposition to Ernest Bevin’s Atlanticism and then in turning the left in favour of Bevin’s policy in 1948-49. In the 1950s, it was the organ of the Bevanite movement, one of the most outspoken critics of the Eden government on Suez and a major player in the creation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the cause on which Bevanism foundered. A lot of that was down to Foot. He wasn’t the only great British left-wing editor of the 20th century – but he was certainly one of the greatest.