India friend Foot dead

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By AMIT ROY
  • Published 4.03.10
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London, March 3: Michael Foot, the former Labour Party leader and a lifelong friend of India and especially the Nehru family, died today at his home in Hampstead, north London, aged 96.

Though troubled by Indira Gandhi’s declaration of an emergency in 1975, he was unwavering in his support for her and felt vindicated when she called a general election.

With his death ends India’s link with the last of the great Labour Party politicians who fought for Indian independence. He had championed the cause of India’s freedom since joining the India League under Krishna Menon and after independence continued to stick up for India when the country was not the global power that it is today.

Tributes poured in from across the political spectrum for Foot was much loved as a true British eccentric with his dishevelled look, his trade mark duffle coat which he wore even to formal state occasions and his habit of espousing lost causes such as a nuclear weapons free Britain.

His friend of many years, Lord Swraj Paul, who set up a steel plant in Wales where Foot represented the constituency of Ebbw Vale, told The Telegraph: “I was very sorry to learn of Michael Foot’s death today. He was a great friend, one of the nicest human beings I have known and a great statesman and visionary. I first met him in the early 1970s when I was putting up a plant in his Gwent constituency and it was Michael who inspired me to join the Labour Party, which I have been a member of since 1974. He was also one of the most principled politicians I have come across and his contributions to the political, literary and humanitarian arenas are well recognised.”

Foot died at 95, only a few weeks after Jyoti Basu, who passed away at 95. The two men, who met in London and admired each other, had something in common. Some think that Foot was a great prime minister Britain never had.

He succeeded James Callaghan as Labour leader but led his party to its biggest defeat in 1983. His friends believe the electorate committed a historic blunder. But Foot was undone by his support for nuclear disarmament which enabled his Tory opponents to portray him as a man who would weaken Britain irretrievably.

The former Labour MP and ex-Father of the Commons, the Eton-educated Tam Dalyell commented: “Michael Foot would have been a first-class prime minister, because he was a shrewd chooser of people and an imaginative delegator of colleagues.”

Unlike Basu, Foot had deep interests outside politics. He was a man of many talents – he was a wonderful orator, a journalist who edited the Evening Standard before he was 30, a prolific columnist and an author.

It was his habit of inviting journalists to meet him at his home at 5.45am and then accompany him and his dog “Dizzy”, which look as dishevelled as its master, for a walk across his beloved Hampstead Heath. With his walking stick he was a familiar figure on the Heath, a spitting image of his cartoons in the papers.

He wrote many books and liked reviewing, too. “My great ambition is to write a big book on India,” he once told The Telegraph.

Alas, he never got to fulfil this ambition but he would have been eminently qualified to do so as an outsider with an insider’s vision. Anyone who was anyone in Indian politics would drop in to see him and he was also a frequent visitor to India.

His death was announced to the House of Commons by Justice Secretary Jack Straw, who told MPs the news would be received “with great sadness not only in my own party but across the country as a whole”.

The prime minister Gordon Brown hailed Foot as “a man of deep principle and passionate idealism” who fought all his life for his beliefs and for the Labour Party.

In 1981, Foot had said of his opponent Margaret Thatcher: “She has no imagination and that means no compassion.”

Today, Baroness Thatcher said: “He was a great Parliamentarian and a man of high principles.”

Another political adversary, Tory peer and former cabinet minister Lord (Peter) Walker, added: “I think I disagreed with him on almost everything in politics, but I came to admire him as a man of integrity and passionate beliefs. When I was Secretary of State for Wales I discovered how passionate he was to improve the quality of life of people in Wales and we worked together to help transform Ebbw Vale. He was a great parliamentary orator and I will always remember him.”

Foot’s actress wife, Jill Craigie, predeceased him in 1999 at the age of 85. The couple did not have any children.