Tuesday 9 November 2010

Celebrating Michael Foot

The boards outside the Lyric Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue advertise the Michael Jackson tribute musical 'Thriller Live' but the king of pop was displaced for one night only as the Labour tribe gathered last night for a warm celebration of the life of former leader Michael Foot, and his love of and speakers celebrating Foot's love of football, poetry and politics, with the Tredegar brass band, the London Welsh Chorale and Lesley Garrett supporting a cast of Labour luminaries.

Gordon Brown read On Another's Sorrow from Blake's Songs of Innocence, arguing for its fierce contemporary urgency in dedicating it too to Aung Sung Suu Kyi and the struggle for democracy in Burma.

Neil Kinnock read Dylan Thomas' And Death Shall Have No Dominion, noting that Foot had shared a jar or two with the Welsh Laureate.

Cherie Blair read a warm letter from her husband, in which Tony Blair noted that giving Blair his first political break would not count as one of Foot's finest moments for some. He recounted this exchange following Foot's arrival as beleagured party leader to support Blair's by-election candidacy in the hopelessly true blue territory of Beaconsfield:

Blair the candidate: What would you like to know about Beaconsfield?

Michale Foot: Not much. I understand you like PG Wodehouse. Let's talk about that.

Trade unionist Rodney Bickerstaffe added some political edge to the proceedings in a warm yet combative contribution, in which he suggested that Foot might have laughed at at least a few of the lavish tributes paid to him from all points on the political and media spectrum.

"His intellectual integrity is an example to everyone in politics"

That, of course, was Nick Clegg, said Bickerstaffe.

He also declared himself "proud to be a footsoldier" in the enduring causes for which Foot stood, noting the resonance of Foot's first speech to the Commons as a government minister, where he noted that:

"Nothing can be more absurd than the spectacle of a few fat men exhorting all the thin ones to tighten their belts"

Foot himself appeared in clips on a cinema screen. The familiar image of the 90 year old former political leader addressing the 2003 anti-war rally in Hyde Park, but also a fantastic clip of Foot the 29 year old editor of the Evening Standard offering a staunch defence of the liberty of the press in 1942, as the wartime Coalition government threatened to close down the Daily Mirror.

The ministers come along to tell us that, of course, it's only the Daily Mirror they were trying to get at. The attack is over, they say. No other demands on any other newspapers. All other newspapers may continue to live in tranquility and in freedom and in peace. There's something rather familiar about those words. "I have no more territorial demands." I can picture in my mind's eye right now Herbert Morrison himself uttering those words. "I have no more territorial demands," coming down Shoe Lane with a firm look on his jaw and a hot gun in his pocket, with the Evening Standard safely suppressed under 2 (d) [one censorship provision] and its proprietor safely looked after under 18 (b) [another].

The liberty of the press in this country can only be maintained by the vigilance of the people and the vigilance of the Parliament and the courage of the newspapers themselves. That's the only way. Therefore we must fight, fight, fight to retain those liberties.

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