Michael Foot

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Socialism without public ownership is nothing but a fantastic apology.

Michael Mackintosh Foot (23 July 19133 March 2010) was a British politician, son of the politician Isaac Foot. He was leader of the Labour Party from 1980 to 1983.



  • Even the victor in a just cause is susceptible to the passions which war arouses. Every inhuman feeling is at once exacerbated. Truth, decency, morality, justice are the first casualties in any war. The accumulated effect makes a just settlement impossible. ... The pacifist treasures justice, liberty; but he believes that they can only be lastingly secured by peaceable means and that the use of force will only contaminate them. ... Armaments themselves provide an independent cause of war owing to the suspicion and fear which they breed. ... Unilateral disarmament offers the only way to escape once the policy of collateral disarmament has failed.
    • Article in Young Oxford and War (1934), quoted in Mervyn Jones, Michael Foot (1994), p. 30
  • Socialism with its ideal of the national control of consumption and production, its substitution of national barter for the processes of foreign trade, is by no means an international force. ... It looks inwards rather than outwards and sets up a national economy, which every true protectionist should envy. Russia is a powerful national state and has indulged in nationalist policies. ... Even a Socialist state cannot provide against war unless a world authority has been formed.
    • Article in Young Oxford and War (1934), quoted in Mervyn Jones, Michael Foot (1994), p. 31
  • I am a Liberal, first of all, because of the unfaltering resistance which liberalism is pledged to offer to those twin dangers of fascism and war.
    • 'Why I am a Liberal', News Chronicle (4 April 1934), quoted in Kenneth O. Morgan, Michael Foot (2008), p. 30
  • THE ARMAMENTS RACE IN EUROPE MUST BE STOPPED NOW. ... I am not in favour of going to war in order to defend the Foreign Investments of British financiers, or the protective tariffs of British industrialists. ... I am a young man. I appeal to the Youth of the Monmouth Division to consider what the world offers to our generation. WAR and POVERTY are the twin dangers which threaten our chances of a decent, happy life in the World. All over Europe youth is being recruited into the ranks of Fascism. Fascism represents the last attempt of those who control economic power to maintain their supremacy. ... I WANT TO SEE A GOVERNMENT IN THIS COUNTRY WHICH WILL SERVE THE INTERESTS OF THE DESERVING MANY, AND NOT THOSE OF THE WEALTHY FEW.
    • Election address (c. November 1935), quoted in Mervyn Jones, Michael Foot (1994), p. 43


  • American capitalism is arrogant, self-confident, merciless and convinced of its capacity to dictate the destinies of the world.
    • Article in The Daily Herald (14 December 1945), quoted in Mervyn Jones, Michael Foot (1994), p. 141


  • Is the Labour Party to remain a democratic party in which the right of free criticism and free debate is not merely tolerated but encouraged? Or are the rank and file of the party to be bludgeoned or cowed into an uncritical subservience towards the leadership?
    • Tribune, 1954.
  • Socialism without public ownership is nothing but a fantastic apology.
    • The Daily Herald, 1956.


  • Like it or not, one of the most spectacular events of our age is the comparative success of the Communist economic systems. ... Do you seriously imagine that there is no challenge from the Communist States on this level? And who do you think will win the contest if we stumble on as we are—the Communist States, which are not afraid of full production, or the Western States, which have still never achieved for any considerable period full production and full employment without inflation? Yes, who will win—the Communist States, who are turning out trained technicians at an unexampled pace, or the Western powers, who contentedly spend more on advertising than education?
    • 'Up The Garden', The Spectator (22 January 1960), pp. 8–9
  • A Britain which denounced the insanity of the nuclear strategy would be in a position to direct its influence at the United Nations and in the world at large, in a manner at present denied us
    • newspaper article, 1960.
  • The only man I knew who could make a curse sound like a caress.
    • (Aneurin Bevan, Vol 1, 1962)
  • President de Gaulle is a rebel against American leadership. Some of us who are also rebels have some sympathy with him on that account. ... [O]ne of his long-term aims is to secure a settlement between East and West in Europe. ... The whole situation is altering between East and West. The planet is trembling with alterations and differences in alliances and arrangements. I do not believe in the old configuration of the cold war. ... It is out of date. It is five years, even ten years, out of date. ... [W]e may, whatever may have been his motives and reasons, thank President de Gaulle for doing for us what the British Government had not the courage and energy to do for themselves.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (11 February 1963)
  • The members of our secret service have apparently spent so much time under the bed looking for communists that they haven't had the time to look in the bed.
    • on the Profumo Scandal, 1963
  • When I was a small boy, following the affairs of the House of Commons as closely as I could, I asked my father what a Royal Commission was. He said, "It is a broody hen sitting on a china egg".
    • Speech in the House of Commons (3 December 1964)
  • It is a justifiable proposition that every wave of immigration we have had into this country has benefited this country.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (23 November 1965)
  • I am bitterly opposed to any form of legislation, particularly legislation introduced by a Labour Government, which involves an element of colour bar. It is an appalling thing to have happened. I want to see us returning as swiftly as possible to a situation where we wipe away this stain on the reputation of the Labour movement.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (23 November 1965)
  • Think of it! A second Chamber selected by the Whips. A seraglio of eunuchs.
    • Speech in the House of Commons against proposals for reforming the House of Lords (3 February 1969)
  • What we are doing is to ensure that for the next 20, 30 or 40 years the constitutional balance will be heavily weighted on the side of reaction, the elderly and the Establishment, those who in the main have exhausted the contribution which they can make to the political life of the country and who wish to sustain all the old institutions.
    • Speech in the House of Commons against proposals for reforming the House of Lords (12 February 1969)


  • I have respect for the history of this House. There is nothing reprehensible in people recalling that some of the liberties of the people of this country enshrined in this House go back not merely to the conflicts of the seventeenth century, which will certainly apply to many of the matters with which we have to deal—the power over taxation which resides, or is still to reside, in this House—but to the controversies which prevailed in the House of Commons during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. If people say to me that all these are remote, old-fashioned ideas, I reply that they are as up-to-date as the ideas that brought the Labour Party into being.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (17 February 1972)
  • …no one can dispute the proposition that the Bill is the most deliberate proposal for curtailing the powers of this House that has ever been put before Members of Parliament.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (17 February 1972) on the European Communities Bill
  • If the Government say they are going to ram through this measure to reduce the power of the Commons it would be scandalous. It is one of the most shameful frauds ever perpetrated. It would break the control between government and the people and this would inflict serious injury on our democratic institutions. If they do that we will be nearer the day when people will say 'All right, let us settle things by violence'.
    • Speech in Connah's Quay, Flintshire (10 March 1972) regarding the European Communities Bill, quoted in The Times (11 March 1972), p. 2
  • If the Common Market Bill goes through, Parliament will have been deprived of some of the essential instruments for planning the nation's economy.
    • Speech in Newport (18 March 1972), quoted in The Times (20 March 1972), p. 2
  • How long will it be before the cry goes up: "Let's kill all the judges"?
    • Attacking the National Industrial Relations Court and its President, Sir John Donaldson, in a speech at the Scottish Miners' Gala in Edinburgh (3 June 1972)
  • The issue of sovereignty...was always intertwined with the issue of democracy. Many of us held that it was not only unwise but wanton for British MPs to surrender a part of our democracy to institutions which were so grotesquely undemocratic.
    • Letter to The Times (4 January 1973), p. 13, regarding Britain's membership of the EEC
  • What I do seek to do is contest the suggestion that the present arguments in the Labour Party can be categorized as those between Social Democrats and Marxists. This strikes me as misleading and indeed politically illiterate, since, historically speaking, many Social Democrats have regarded themselves as Marxists. Moreover, the idea implicit in this false distinction that Marxism is somehow inherently undemocratic or anti-democratic is a perversion of thought and language comparable with that perpetrated by the Stalinists. May I add that those engaged in destroying British Parliamentary democracy by the acceptance of the European Communities Act in all its immeasurable undemocratic manifestations are in no position to "lecture" others about how to preserve British democracy?
    • Letter to The Times (30 November 1973), p. 19
  • I certainly think that a Labour Government will have to have effective powers to control the outflow of capital.
    • On Election Call (21 February 1974)
  • Some fool or some trigger happy judicial finger.
    • On the NIRC Judge Sir John Donaldson (Hansard, 7 May 1974, Col. 239)
  • [There are] judges who stretch the law...to suit reactionary attitudes.
    • On ITV's People and Politics (9 May 1974)
  • The national strike of the miners in 1972 performed, I believe, a great service, not only to the miners, but the people in Britain today who wanted coal
    • House of Commons speech (1974)
  • Disraeli was my favourite Tory. He was an adventurer pure and simple, or impure and complex. I'm glad to say Gladstone got the better of him.
    • (March 1975)
  • In the Labour movement they said they would have no truck with coalition, but if Britain stayed in the EEC then for decades to come they would be enmeshed in various forms of coalition government than ever before. That was the most important issue of all. If in Britain the people did not like a government they could vote it out of office, but they had no similar recourse in the case of the institutions of the EEC, which had supreme powers and which were undemocratic.
    • Speech to the Labour Party conference on Britain's membership of the EEC (26 April 1975), quoted in The Times (28 April 1975), p. 4
  • They had been told that those political disabilities, the delegations from our sovereignty and the dismemberment of Britain's parliamentary institutions, must be accepted because of economic circumstances; that there was no choice. But [I] did not believe that. I hope the message which will go out from this conference to our movement up and down the country is, 'Do not let this great Labour movement be afraid of those who tell us that we cannot run our own affairs, that we have not the ingenuity to mobilize our resources and overcome our economic problems'. Of course we have, and we can save our democratic freedom at the same time.
    • Speech to the Labour Party conference on Britain's membership of the EEC (26 April 1975), quoted in The Times (28 April 1975), p. 4
  • I am asking this movement to exert itself as it has never done before, to show the qualities which we have, the socialist imagination that exists in our movement, the readiness to reforge the alliance, stronger than ever, between the government and the trade unions, and above all to show the supreme quality in politics, the red flame of socialist courage.
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool (29 September 1975), quoted in Kenneth O. Morgan, Michael Foot (Harper Perennial, 2008), p. 319
  • The crisis afflicting this country, along with other countries of the Western world, is a crisis of capitalism. It is a crisis of the dominant economic system that prevails in all those countries.
    • Speech to the House of Commons (Hansard, 20 January 1976, Col. 1126)
  • I've been on the left of the Party since I joined it about 1934 and I haven't seen much reason for altering...I have always been a strong libertarian both inside the Labour Party and outside...what I want to seek to do over a period of course is to establish a Socialist society.
    • On BBC's Panorama (22 March 1976)
  • It's impossible to write the history of freedom in this country without telling how trade unions have contributed to it.
    • On the ITV's Weekend World (4 April 1976)
  • People must learn more and more that the strength of this country is the democratic power of the trade union movement
    • The Morning Star (1976)
  • [The constituency will be certain to return a socialist candidate] and this will help gain a socialist majority in the Commons and help Britain on the way to becoming a socialist republic.
    • Speech during the Ashfield by-election campaign (April 1977), quoted in Simon Hoggart and David Leigh, Michael Foot: A Portrait (1981), p. 184
  • It does so happen to be the case that if the freedom of the people of this country—and especially the rights of trade unionists—if those precious things in the past had been left to the good sense and fairmindedness of judges, we would have precious few freedoms in this country.
    • Speech to the Union of Post Office Workers at Bournemouth (15 May 1977)
  • There is nothing wrong with being a Marxist. Their point of view is essential to a democratic debate
    • The Daily Telegraph, 1977
  • You just want the Tories in, and then we will be in the Common Market for life. You, with your halo of martyrdom. I've been anti-Market longer than you.
    • Remarks to Tony Benn (22 November 1977), quoted in Tony Benn, Conflicts of Interest: Diaries 1977–80 (Hutchinson, 1990), p. 250
  • It is not necessary that every time he rises he should give his famous imitation of a semi-house-trained polecat.
  • He's passed from rising hope to elder statesman without any intervening period whatsoever.
    • On David Steel, 1979
  • What is needed is a strong shift leftwards. This party in Parliament ought to start the process, and if it won't, the party conference will do it for them
    • Tribune, 1979


  • Of all the sights and sounds which attracted me on my first arrival to live in London in the mid-thirties, one combined operation left a lingering, individual spell. I naturally went to Hyde Park to hear the orators, the best of the many free entertainments on offer in the capital. I heard the purest milk of the world flowing, then as now, from the platform of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.
    • Debts of Honour, 1980.
  • He was without any rival whatever, the first comic genius who ever installed himself in Downing Street
  • Men of power have not time to read; yet men who do not read are unfit for power
    • On Benjamin Disraeli, in his own book, 'Debts of Honour (1980)
  • In my opinion, Marxism is a great creed of human liberation. It is the creed which says that when all other empires fade and vanish, our business is to enlarge the empire of the human mind
    • Morning Star, 1980
  • Most liberties have been won by people who broke the law
    • interview, 1980
  • I first joined the Labour party in Liverpool because of what I saw of the poverty, the unemployment, and the endless infamies committed on the inhabitants of the back-streets of that city. I am horrified that the threat of unemployment and economic misery is now being deployed against the same kind of people once again.
    • Press conference after his election as Labour leader (10 November 1980), quoted in Simon Hoggart and David Leigh, Michael Foot: A Portrait (1981), p. 57 and The Guardian (11 November 1980), p. 1
  • Since the matter has been raised, may I say that the individual concerned is not an endorsed member of the Labour Party, and, so far as I am concerned, never will be endorsed? [Interruption.] May I add that, as the Labour Party has played the leading part in the establishment and sustenance of parliamentary democracy, we do not need any instructions on the matter from skin-deep democrats on the Conservative Benches or defectors on this side?
    • Remark in the House of Commons (3 December 1981), referring to Peter Tatchell. Foot subsequently corrected "endorsed member" to "endorsed candidate".
  • She has no imagination and that means no compassion
    • On Margaret Thatcher, 1981
  • The rights and the circumstances of the people in the Falkland Islands must be uppermost in our minds. There is no question in the Falkland Islands of any colonial dependence or anything of the sort. It is a question of people who wish to be associated with this country and who have built their whole lives on the basis of association with this country. We have a moral duty, a political duty and every other kind of duty to ensure that that is sustained. The people of the Falkland Islands have the absolute right to look to us at this moment of their desperate plight, just as they have looked to us over the past 150 years. They are faced with an act of naked, unqualified aggression, carried out in the most shameful and disreputable circumstances. Any guarantee from this invading force is utterly worthless—as worthless as any of the guarantees that are given by this same Argentine junta to its own people.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (3 April 1982) after Argentina's invasion of the Falkland Islands.
  • We are paramountly concerned, like, I am sure, the bulk of the House—I am sure that the country is also concerned—about what we can do to protect those who rightly and naturally look to us for protection. So far, they have been betrayed. The responsibility for the betrayal rests with the Government. The Government must now prove by deeds—they will never be able to do it by words—that they are not responsible for the betrayal and cannot be faced with that charge. That is the charge, I believe, that lies against them. Even though the position and the circumstances of the people who live in the Falkland Islands are uppermost in our minds—it would be outrageous if that were not the case—there is the longer-term interest to ensure that foul and brutal aggression does not succeed in our world. If it does, there will be a danger not merely to the Falkland Islands, but to people all over this dangerous planet.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (3 April 1982) after Argentina's invasion of the Falkland Islands.
  • “Think of it, a free Italy: it is the poetry of politics”, wrote Byron at a dark moment in the history of the Italian Risorgimento. Think of it, a free, democratic Socialist Spain – there is surely still some poetry in that kind of politics today, even if it is beyond the imagination of such stunted, pusillanimous souls as Bernard Levin.
    • Letter to The Times (25 October 1982), p. 11
  • We are not here in this world to find elegant solutions, pregnant with initiative, or to serve the ways and modes of profitable progress. No, we are here to provide for all those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and crippled than ourselves. That is our only certain good and great purpose on earth, and if you ask me about those insoluble economic problems that may arise if the top is deprived of their initiative, I would answer 'To hell with them.' The top is greedy and mean and will always find a way to take care of themselves. They always do.
    • Speech before the 1983 General Election.
  • We had not the armour, the strength, the quickness in manoeuvre, yes, the leadership
    • explaining Labour's 1983 election defeat when he was leader in his book Another Heart And Other Pulses, 1984.
  • One of the worst aspects of this incursion is the conspiratorial way in which the leaders of the Militant Tendency have sought to operate without a membership and thereby to circumvent the rules of the [Labour] party, with or without any proscribed list. It was for this reason that, on my initiative, we took steps, with the later full backing of the party conference, to exclude the Militant leadership from our ranks. ... The task of freeing the party from Militant and kindred pestilences is not an easy one. But it has to be done, and it has to be done by methods which are fair. I strongly support all the steps which Neil Kinnock has taken to this end.
    • Letter to The Times (11 December 1985), p. 15
  • It is all the more necessary that we should prevent an extension of the powers of the European Assembly, however it may be elected. I have been opposed to the extension of those powers, and I remain so. ... We must preserve every precious part of the power that we retain in the House.


  • The right hon. Member for Heseltine—[Laughter.]—well, that is what he is; he sticks to that principle more than he does to Henley.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (26 March 1991), referring to Michael Heseltine. MPs are referred to in the House by the constituency they represent rather than by their name, so Mr Heseltine would be "Rt. Hon. Member for Henley". Whether by accident or intent, Foot mixed this up in a way which clearly amused other MPs.
  • It's quite a change to have a prime minister who hasn't got any political ideas at all.
    • On John Major, 1991
  • No rising hope on the political scene who offered his services to Labour when I happened to be its leader can be dismissed as an opportunist.
    • On Tony Blair, 1995
  • I think the House of Lords ought to be abolished and I don't think the best way for me to abolish it is to go there myself
    • On his departure from the House of Commons, 1992.

Quotes about Michael Foot[edit]

  • Foot has not built a wall of words so much as a battering ram. It is a lexicon of positive politics; an overtly partisan rhetoric that has been forged from an intimate acquaintance with three centuries of radical writing. ... It is based on a belief of our shared humanity across races, peoples and to a lesser extent classes. At the heart of Foot's political credo is the articulation of a burning desire for equality of outcome. But perhaps even more pressing is the unrelenting demand for a peace that means more than simply an absence of war: a peace based on justice and international accountability. ... Much of the writing in this collection is as much about literature for its own sake as about politics; as much about love as Labour; as much about passion as power. Indeed, Foot the great humanist has a credo based on a trinity: politics, poetry and passion.
    • Brian Brivati, ‘Introduction’, The Uncollected Michael Foot: Essays Old and New, ed. Brian Brivati (2004), p. xiv
  • Michael Foot was a genuine British radical - one who possessed a powerful sense of community, a pride in our progressive past and faith in our country's potential for a radical future.
  • I was caught on the hop in one of my interviews last week with the question: “Of all the people you have served with, who would you like to serve with again?” ... My reply was instinctive. Believe it or not, I said “Michael Foot”.
    • James Callaghan to Foot (1985), quoted in Mervyn Jones, Michael Foot (1994), p. 399
  • We remember Michael and celebrate his life not just as the life of an intelligent and principled politician but as a great British Humanist. A good life for all is a humanist aspiration, and Michael was one humanist who worked hard to make that a reality for every man and woman. His steadfast dedication to humanist and progressive ideals of freedom, peace, social justice was pursued in a life of both thought and action – another humanist ideal.
  • Michael Foot has been a great parliamentarian – perhaps the best I witnessed during my 33 years in the House of Commons. He had a particular talent for the spontaneous epigram. Jim Callaghan, he said, “does everything on purpose”. He loved the business of Parliament and believed in the Commons as a bastion of democracy. He would have been most at home in the Victorian Westminster when literature and learning were an essential requirement of success.
  • Michael and I went together to Buckingham Palace in the year of the Prince of Wales's engagement to Princess Diana. ... As we stood awkwardly in line...the Queen said that ‘Carlos’ (by which she meant the king of Spain) was being difficult about the honeymoon yacht calling in Gibraltar. “I told him,” the Queen said, “it's my son, my ship and my dockyard.” There was a long pause before Michael responded: “The first Elizabeth could not have put it better.” On the way back to the Commons I expressed my surprise that a man whom I supposed to be a republican should have said such a thing. I expected him to plead good manners. Instead he told me – more by way of reproof than explanation – “She was standing up for England.” Michael Foot is a patriot.
  • The fact is that if Michael had gone well before the [1983] election, we might have won. We had no chance whatever so long as he was Leader.
  • Michael Foot, who has died aged 96, was a supreme parliamentary democrat who used his great gifts as an inspiring speaker and writer to urge peace, security, prosperity and opportunity for humanity and punishment for bigots and bullies of every kind. His bravery and generosity were unsurpassed. He used both to ensure that the Labour party survived as a political force when self-indulgent factionalism could have doomed it to irrelevance.
  • Foot's ultimate task, as orator, pamphleteer, and communicator extraordinary, has been to educate, and to relate the British variant of socialism to a long, but still relevant, history of British libertarian protest—in other words, to the real world. In his respect for parliament, for the rule of law (subject to some very valid doubts about the judgement of judges), for representative democracy, for the pluralism and tolerance embedded in the culture of his people, he has been in the best sense a force for stability. … He has re-articulated and vindicated a long, creative legacy of protest which in the 1970s seemed close to being corrupted or destroyed.
    • Kenneth O. Morgan, Labour People: Leaders and Lieutenants, Hardie to Kinnock (1987), p. 287
  • I revealed how, when in Government, Michael Foot never once sat with the four senior Ministers who made the decisions on nuclear policy. It reflected my very strong view that a man who had deliberately avoided sharing responsibility before was not fit to take the sole responsibility now. Under Michael Foot, Labour would not have been fit to govern.
  • The great talents and the outstanding oratory which have made the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) easily the first, facile princeps, among the parliamentarians of this day have been displayed for week after week and month after month in the opposition to the [European Communities] Bill. When the history of this episode comes to be written his part in it will be seen to have been at a level with those of the great figures of parliamentary history.
  • Michael Foot is a master of English. Both in parliamentary debate and in the written word his diction has the qualities of purity and terseness which the Augustans admired and sought. Indeed, it is of the age of Dryden and Pope, Addison and Swift, where he personally feels most at home, that he is the foremost modern heir and representative. His writing, like his speaking, is almost invariably perspicuous and graceful, offering no avoidable impediment to the reader, and concealing its imaginative quality with the artist's art. … Foot's Bevan will be among the outstanding biographies of the twentieth century.
    • Enoch Powell, 'Bevan Agonistes', The Listener (11 October 1973), quoted in Reflections of a Statesman: The Writings and Speeches of Enoch Powell (1991), p. 310
  • He was without question the master, spell-binding orator in the House of Commons in my day. When his name came up on the ticker-tape, people would come to hear him. He had this capacity for immense passion laced with humour.
  • Michael Foot was, and is, adored in the Labour movement, a movement he himself idealised. Neither the trades unions nor the many left-wing groups that found shelter within that big tent were as high-minded as Michael thought. They saw in Michael's kindly image of them what they would have liked to be, and they loved him for it. His own commitment to democratic socialism took the form of a passionate belief in social justice coupled with an equal passion for Parliament. Like the great nineteenth-century reformers, he linked the two, holding that the former could only be achieved through the latter. Michael was a radical, a reformer, an inspirer, but lacked the element of brutality political leadership requires. His judgements on national issues were too much affected by partisan proclivities. But he and I shared similar ideals. We trusted one another as people, even if we didn't trust one another's judgements. We were both optimists.

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