Michael Foot RIP: The British Cicero

The whole History Books Review organisation was saddened to hear this week of the death of Michael Foot. In addition to his career as a politician he was of course also a historian of some note and his biography of Aneurin Bevan is on the list of books I intend to review. This particular book is interesting as an example of a history of his own time written by a participant in that history. This is quite a rare thing nowadays.

In fact I can’t think of another twentieth century example apart from Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People. But it used to be far more common. Caesar’s Gallic Wars spring to mind, but also Thucydides Peloponnese War and Xenophon’s Persian Expedition.

For some reason thinking about Michael Foot always gets me thinking about classical era politicians. The one that is the closest to the career of Foot himself is Cicero. Both men were famous for their oratory. The samples we have heard of Foot in the tributes paid to him on the television and radio remind us of a great speaker who could hold his listeners spell bound with his eloquence. It is a shame we will never be able to hear Cicero.

Cicero combined rhetorical skills with political cunning, as did Foot. Anyone who remembers the seventies will remain amazed at how the Callaghan government managed to struggle on for years without a proper majority – or indeed any majority towards the end. This wasn’t the Labour Party’s finest hour but it probably was Foot’s who managed to keep the show on the road somehow.

Both used their writing skills as well as their voices. Cicero wrote the Phillipics against Mark Anthony. Foot castigated the appeasers in Guilty Men – a runaway best seller in the Forties.

Neither Cicero nor Foot can really be described as successful politicians despite their skills. Cicero ended up with his head nailed to a post in the forum in Rome with his offensive tongue removed and stabbed by the wife of Mark Anthony. The republic he strived to preserve was destroyed. Michael Foot led the Labour Party into its worst ever election defeat, and was mocked in the media for looking shabby at a first world war memorial. Becoming a national figure of fun is pretty much the modern equivalent of decapitation and public humiliation.

Augustus said of Cicero, long after he had been killed by Augustus’ own faction, he was a learned man who loved his country. The same tribute can be paid to both men.

 

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