Thirty five years ago, in the middle of the 1983 election campaign, I was heckling Michael Foot at a packed election meeting in a disused church in Norwich. He, of course loved it, and I helped turned a pedestrian election speech into a humdinger.
I wrote to Michael Foot after he stood down as Labour leader telling him what an honourable man I thought he was, even though our political views were miles apart. I still have the reply.
It was this thought that entered my head as I arrived at his Hampstead home a in the summer of 2003 to interview him for a radio show I was hosting for Oneword Radio called Planet Politics. To be honest I felt a bit of a fraud – an avowed Thatcherite interviewing the doyen of nuclear disarmers to mark his 90th birthday.
We’d already decided that Michael’s loquaciousness would mean extending the programme to an hour and boy were we right.
It’s terribly difficult interviewing someone who doesn’t look at you once while he’s speaking. It’s almost impossible to interrupt, so the result was that his first answer lasted 25 minutes! Thank God for editing suites.
Another interviewing first was being constantly prodded during the whole of the interview. Whenever Michael had a particular point to make my arm was grabbed and put in a vice like grip. Thank God Theresa May hasn’t yet perfected that particular art.
But it was during that 25 minute answer that I realised these words deserved a wider airing and I had the idea of releasing the interview on CD.
Michael had lost none of his eloquence and humanity. His delightful memories of his father and sister’s early influences on his literary and political views were a joy to listen to. He then talked about the early days of Tribune and the book Guilty Men. It is difficult to comprehend today the impact that book had. Sadly no one has been able to imitate it following the Blair escapades in Iraq.
Where are the modern day Michael Foots, or indeed the Beaverbooks, for it was Beaverbrook who stood by Foot when the going got tough.
And in Plymouth, Michael’s first seat in parliament, things were indeed tough in the postwar world. His love for all things Plymouth shone through his words and he clearly enjoyed every minute of his time in Parliament representing the City. He relates a fantastic anecdote of Churchill’s last speech in Parliament in 1954 where he warned of the dangers of weapons of mass destruction.
We moved on to discuss his beloved wife Jill, her influence on him, how they met, their rather unconventional honeymoon and her writing. They really were a marriage of equals, neither jealous of the other’s success and both full of encouragement and support.
From my point of view the most interesting aspect of the interview concerned Foot’s perspective on his period as Labour Party leader. He is quite clear that his greatest achievement was to keep the Labour Party together at a time when it was entirely possible that the Party could have split into several factions. What surprised me more was the fact that he didn’t believe the 1983 election result to be his greatest failure. Indeed, he still believed that if he and his colleagues had been able to sell the policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament in a better way things might have been different.
He also placed no blame at all on the unions for aggravating the winter of discontent and heralding the dawn of Thatcherism. I suspected a few rose tinted spectacles being worn at that point, but didn’t push the point.
And we finished on the most important subject of all. Football. Michael was a director of Plymouth Argyle and clearly still enjoyed his trips down to Home Park.
To be frank, I hardly got a word in edgeways. The subtitle of the CD I subsequently released of the interview was “In Conversation with Iain Dale”, but you didn’t hear much of my dulcet tones in the interview. But in a sense that’s what I’m most proud of. I remain sick and tired of hearing five minute long political interviews where the interviewer feels he or she has to be the star of the show. People tune in to listen to the guest, not the interviewer trying to make him/herself a star.
The fact of the matter is that digital and internet radio, as well as podcasts, have brought untold goodies for those interested in serious political programmes. Where else could you hear an hour long interview with anybody – certainly not on most of the terrestrial stations who think a five minute interview is an eternity. It’s why I’m loving my new evening show. If I want to do a long interview, I can.
When I look back on the politicians I have interviewed Michael Foot will remain in my mind as the one which brought me most pleasure. When I was with him I sensed that I was in the presence of someone who will go down in political history as a towering orator in twentieth century politics. He inspired thousands.
His book of essays that I published back in 2003, Uncollected Michael Foot, The - Essays Old and New 1953-2003, shed light on a surprisingly complex character. And his warmth of personality shines through in every word he utters.