Michael Foot was a political lodestar of my youth. In the 60s I marvelled at his oratory at CND rallies. A decade later, when I got to know him a little, I was in awe of his infectious love of learning, his way with words and the simple human decencies which marked his conduct towards others. I had put behind me a background in science and a career in education in search of a more personally fulfilling path through life. Already in my 30s, I decided to dabble in the backrooms of politics, taking a badly paid job as a researcher for the Labour party in Scotland.
When I first heard yesterday that Michael was dead at 96, my mind flew back to that time, to the first days of April 1978, and a fraught Westminster by-election, already under way in the north-west Glasgow seat of Garscadden. Party machines were pretty ramshackle vehicles back then. When the sitting MP, Willie Small, died, I was despatched to the constituency to help run the party's campaign.
Centred on the sprawling Drumchapel housing estate, Garscadden was safe Labour territory with a majority of more than 7,000. However, the Callaghan government was increasingly unpopular. The IMF had been through the UK's books and found them wanting. The Winter of Discontent loomed. Margaret Thatcher's years in power lay just beyond. Even in its heartlands, Labour was, as now, struggling to retain its grip on power.
And across Scotland the SNP was on a powerful surge. The party of Donald Stewart and Winnie Ewing had captured 11 Commons seats in the previous general election. All six council seats in Garscadden were already held by nationalists. Our candidate in this by-election, my dear friend Donald Dewar, faced the fight of his life if he was to get back into parliament.
Michael Foot had come north to address a big Labour rally in the constituency. One of my jobs was to drive him around. He was then the age I am now, eligible to draw the state pension. But there, sitting in the front passenger seat of my battered Ford Escort, was 'a good man fallen among politicians,' as someone once dubbed him, who would never be stilled as long as his convictions burned bright within him. Here surely was a mentor for what I should do next with my own life.
The hours I spent with him turned out to be a bitter-sweet experience for me. I have no doubt to this day that Michael, speaking with all his trademark verve and passion to a packed assembly hall in a local secondary school, helped turn our faltering campaign around. I learned a lesson that endures still – no election is ever in the bag for any party, or down the drain for that matter, until the votes are finally counted. Donald Dewar, despite telling me on the afternoon of the Garscadden poll, as the snow began to fall, that all was lost, emerged the victor by a margin of 4,552.
But the way Michael Foot was greeted on the steep streets of Kingsridge-Cleddans that night helped persuade me, a year later, to walk away from a life in politics and build a new career in his own first love, journalism. By-elections throw up all sorts of issues and challenges. One of the most intractable in Garscadden was abortion. SPUC, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, didn't put up a candidate in the contest. But it was determined to have its say.
We arranged a private meeting for its representatives with Michael, then leader of the House of Commons, in a local party member's flat. It lasted more than two hours. Michael would not, could not, give them what they wanted, a promise to repeal David Steel's 1967 abortion act. He was, as ever, patient, informed, considerate. The Dumbarton lawyer who led the SPUC delegation had the good grace to accept they had had a fair hearing. When the meeting broke up I drove Michael to his rally.
We parked in the school playground and had to walk up the street to access the main entrance. Along that pavement stood a long line of primary-age schoolgirls, each in a first communion white dress, each holding a flickering candle. As we passed, each one hissed in his ear 'Murderer, murderer.' I think it was Michael's late wife, the film-maker Jill Craigie, who once observed that he was 'not really cut out for political intrigue.' That night, walking beside him, I felt him physically flinch and flinch again as that orchestrated charge was repeated by each innocent child in turn. We said nothing as we endured the ritual humiliation. But I knew I wasn't cut out for such intrigue either.
I don't where he found the reserves to make the speech he subsequently delivered. But I do know that evening changed my own view of how suited I was to a life in politics. Within a couple of years I had given up my Labour party card to concentrate on a new life in journalism. But before that happened I had one other moment of political epiphany that involved Michael Foot.
In the final, disintegrating phase of the Callaghan government, the party's Scottish leadership tried to get the prime minister to see the wisdom of holding a two-question referendum on constitutional change. One question on a measure of home rule. The second on outright independence. I wrote the paper that proposed the strategy. But before it could be presented to Callaghan in Downing Street, it was leaked to the Daily Telegraph. Callaghan was incandescent. He wanted to know who had had the temerity to spin him into such a corner.
The buck was passed around the cabinet table by Labour's Scottish leadership until it settled with me, the author of the offending paper, but not the source of the leak. Callaghan, at his bullying worst, gave me, a minor party functionary, a roasting. Taking a leaf from Michael's book, I decided to stand my ground, defend my convictions. I told him precisely why his approach to the Scottish question was so misguided, why, without a second question on any devolution referendum, it would all end in tears. As we left the cabinet room, Michael came up to me, put his arm round my shoulder and said: 'Well done. It's high time someone had the courage to stand up to him.'
So farewell Michael Foot. You'll never know how much our brief encounters helped shape my own journey through life. We both learned, in our different ways, that there is more to life than politics. Much, much more. Especially when one surveys what masquerades as political choice at the moment of your death.
This article first appeared in March 2010