Michael Foot, who died yesterday, was a great champion of the working class. A bookish man, his working class was one that had the ideal qualities of the conceptual rather than the all too human attributes of the actual.
I recall him during a TV interview when I was a boy - so probably in the early '80s - criticising those members of the working class who rose out of their communities 'kicking the ladder away as they did so'. Conversely, he lauded those who stayed put in their communities, helping lift everyone up.
At the time, I struggled to understand the critical end of this point of view, wondering in what way the people I knew had 'kicked the ladder away' when they'd moved from their particular industrial Welsh communities to better themselves by becoming variously bus conductor, lecturer, shop worker and opera singer. At this distance, I'm struck by how the comment was a bit rich coming from someone fortunate enough to find himself already situated on the sort of elevated plane where ladders were surplus to requirements.
Foot was a socialist of principle. He was a thoroughgoing egalitarian, someone who had no qualms about levelling down if that was what was required to lay the groundwork for a more regimented and consequent levelling up (all too rare).
However, there was one quirk - perhaps an inconsistency - in his thinking which has always intrigued me. Foot was a dedicated admirer of great men, which evolved occasionally into full-blown hero worship. In this he emulated his greatest hero, William Hazlitt, who himself had a very special place in his heart for Napoleon Bonaparte. Foot put his more politically palatable contemporary Aneurin Bevan on a pedestal. More inexplicably he was also attracted to press baron Lord Beaverbrook.
To both he lent his formidable pen and his pointed rhetoric. His polemical and propagandist ability - cf. the best-selling, wartime 'The Guilty Men', which helped shape the subsequent appreciation of the politics of the 1930s, somewhat unfairly and hypocritically - was much valued. Looking at the life as a whole, he probably had more of a talent for followership than for leadership.
But isn't it remarkable how the follower of progressive doctrines based on the working of large, impersonal historical forces is so often attracted to the promethean hero? Presumably, a role for which only people with vaulting poles rather than ladders need apply.
Some footage of Foot - he's lodged in present memory as a harmless old duffer with literary tastes. In his younger days he was a dashing and sometimes devastating debater and polemicist:
H/t for the clip to Alex Massie.