Sunday, March 7, 2010

Michael Foot (1913-2010): “Wales’s Most Brilliant Adopted Son”

Michael was perhaps Wales's most brilliant adopted son.
Never again will we see such soaring oratory, socialist passion and wit.
--Secretary of State for Wales Peter Hain, March 3, 2010

His is a dying breed.  Our politicians have looked more and more like grey-suited purpose-built machines ever since Labour's image-makers forced Neil Kinnock to throw away his houndstooth suit.

--Francis Beckett, The Guardian, March 31, 2007

Michael Foot, who died March 3, 2010, at the age of 96, served as Ebbw Vale’s MP for thirty-two years.  Foot was a grand old man of the British Labour party, an unreconstructed radical, one of the last of his kind.  He was known equally for his erudition and his disheveled appearance, most notably the jacket he wore at the Remembrance Day ceremony in 1981.  (Not all were opposed to his sartorial choice:  the Queen Mother complimented him on choosing “a smart, sensible coat for a day like this.”)

As The Economist described him,
He died a much-loved Englishman, renowned for his untidy shock of white hair, his shambling wanderings on Hampstead Heath with his dog Dizzy, his devotion to literature, and the modesty that allowed him, when leader of the Labour Party, to stand in his anorak waiting at the bus stop, comme tout le monde.  Deep into old age, half-blind, he never failed to keep up with the latest works on his great loves, Shelley and Byron, and to hold forth over breakfast—several eggs running all over his plate—about the latest troubles of his beloved party, and its prospects for the future.
Foot wasn’t Welsh, but he worked for his constituency tirelessly, and the citizens of Ebbw Vale re-elected him until he retired in 1992.  This was so despite his position as employment secretary when Ebbw Vale’s steel mills closed, which, rest assured, did not go unremarked.

In 2005, in the tenor of the times, Labour lost the seat to an Independent, and there it has remained.

Though politically engineered rather than home-grown, the connection of Foot to Ebbw Vale has its own kind of logic:  Ebbw Vale has a reputation as a rough and rundown place with its better days well behind it.  (Have I shared with you the story of the six-month-old mince pie?)

At its height, Ebbw Vale boasted the first integrated steelworks in Europe.  Today, not a single steel mill remains.  In 1992, a steelworks site was used for a national garden festival that attracted over two million visitors, but the festival turned out to be the last of its kind.  The site is now home to a shopping mall.

This year, for the first time in more than fifty years, the National Eisteddfod of Wales will be held in Ebbw Vale.  The Eisteddfod is the national celebration of Welsh poetry, song, culture, and language.  Every event is held in Welsh.  Like the garden festival, the Eisteddfod’s reappearance at Ebbw Vale will take place on the grounds of an old steelworks, purpose-built for the occasion.  The site is part of a development called “The Works”:
Out of the demolition and reclamation of the iconic old steelworks, Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council and the Welsh Assembly Government are working together to create a new vision for Ebbw Vale.
One has to wonder, in these hard economic times, how “The Works” project is faring.  We hope for the best.  As for the Eisteddfod, Welsh harpist Catrin Finch will perform at the closing concert.  We’ll be there, cheering for her and for Michael Foot’s former constituency, Ebbw Vale.


Oh, and, as promised, here’s the story of the six-month-old mince pie, as told by Welsh comedian Rhod Gilbert (though the Welsh are profligate in their use of consonants, Gilbert’s last name has one “l,” not two):


  1. A wonderful read from the curmudgeon at the beginning, to the comedian at the end, and a lovely and detailed biography of the Queen Mum in between.

    Who could ask for more.....

  2. Glad you enjoyed it! As for Michael Foot, an interesting man, to be sure, though I don't know if I'd say a curmudgeon. Perhaps one of our British correspondents will chime in on that. In the meantime, here's a snippet from the Economist I found appealing: "As a minister, he once boarded a plane to . . . Europe without a penny in foreign currency, carrying only a leather-bound volume of Hazlitt."

  3. Such a juicy post, so much of interest.

    For instance, the quote at the beginning - could cybersr be referring to Peter Hain as "the curmudgeon?" Now, that's a name that brings back memories! I did not know that he was Secretary of State for Wales - amazing! I knew that name well, in 70s South Africa, and not in a good way. In that heavily censored environment of state propaganda, we were told he was practically the devil incarnate - a "terrorist" (which is what the apartheid government labeled all opposers), etc, etc. So interesting to read about his path since then...

    And thanks for that mince pie clip - funny! Makes me think of that Welsh comedy series on BBC - "Gavin and Stacey."

    You're in for a wonderful trip.

  4. Micheal Foot was a person of principle,compassion, intellect, unaffected, genuine and lacked the celebrity, superficial,smooth packaging that permeates all media and cyber-politics today. How we wish for a return to that these days in the Labour Party. Well, actually, we wish for a Labour Party! As to Ebbw Vale, we look forward to the concert. It would be good also to find a culture in Wales that recognises that exploitation and discrimination are without national boundaries.I am sure the past MP for Ebbw Vale would agree.

  5. A curmudgeon never, a man of principle and always himself.There will sadly be no more Michael Foots and Tony Benns.


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