Dingle Foot, 1905-1978

Throughout Britain, particular constituencies and cities have had a long connection with certain families – for instance, the Chamberlains in Birmingham and the Cecils in south Dorset. In Plymouth, politics has been dominated by the Foot family, principally Isaac Foot but also four of his five sons. These include Hugh (later Lord Caradon), John, and the former Labour Party leader, Michael. The eldest, Dingle, had the unique distinction for the Foots of being elected to the House of Commons for both the Liberal and Labour parties. Yet despite his changing party, he never really embraced socialism; he began his political life as a Liberal, and, to quote Simon Hoggart, there his heart remained.

Dingle Mackintosh Foot was born in Plymouth on 24 August 1905, the son of Isaac Foot and his wife Eva, ne Mackintosh. He was educated at Bembridge School, Isle of Wight; Balliol College, Oxford (where he obtained a second in modern history); and Grays Inn, where he was called to the bar in 1930. Whilst at Oxford, he was President of both the Liberal Club (1927) and the Union (1928). It did not take him long to transfer his political skills to the House of Commons.

Although he lost his first parliamentary contest (to the Conservative candidate in Tiverton in 1929), he was elected in Dundee in 1931, and again in 1935. In 1940, Winston Churchill appointed him Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Economic Warfare, where his role in the furtherance of the blockade of Germany and the Axis powers was vital, being sent on important missions to Washington and Switzerland. In 1945 he was part of the British delegation to the San Francisco conference which framed the United Nations charter.

However, his career was cut short in the 1945 general election, when he lost his seat, although in becoming Vice-President of the Liberal Party the following year he remained politically prominent. But he was unable to return to Parliament, coming a close second to the Conservatives in Cornwall North in 1950, and a more distant second in the same seat the following year.

Foot opposed closer links between the Liberals and the Conservatives at a national level, although the two parties cooperated in Dundee to ensure that only one candidate from each party fought Labour for the two-member seat. A Samuelite rather than a Simonite in the 1930s, Foot felt that the both the Conservatives and Labour had put administrative expediency before civil liberties. He perceived a drift to the right by the Liberal Party under Clement Davies’ leadership, and did not seek re-nomination as a party Vice-President in 1954, claiming to be out of sympathy with its present policy. A close political ally of Lady Megan Lloyd George, he followed her into the Labour Party in 1956. He felt this was his only way of maintaining political influence, and he (unsuccessfully) urged his brother John to defect too. He soon re-entered Parliament, winning the Ipswich by-election in 1957, and defending the seat successfully in 1959, 1964 and 1966. He lost it by only thirteen votes in 1970.

In 1964 he was appointed Solicitor-General in Harold Wilson’s first administration, reluctantly accepting the knighthood which went with it. He resigned in 1967, shortly after becoming a member of the Privy Council, to avoid condoning government policy on Rhodesia; he urged that Britain must not rule out police action, if necessary, since the guerrillas could not afford to lose the struggle. His 1970 election address, condemning Labour’s manifesto commitments on immigration restrictions, may have contributed to his defeat.

Human rights provided the stimulus for much of Foot’s legal work throughout the world. He appeared as counsel in Basutoland, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria, defending Jomo Kenyatta and Hastings Banda amongst others. His relationship with Nigeria proved problematic – he was expelled from there in 1962 while challenging the validity of the Emergency Powers Act on behalf of the western Nigerian premier, Alhaji D. S. Adegbenro, and as a result was refused entry the following year to defend Chief Enahoro on treason charges. Much of his most distinguished legal work took place when he was out of office, or, indeed, Parliament; he became a bencher of Gray’s Inn in 1952 and treasurer in 1968, having become a QC in 1954. He continued to practice after 1970, and he died during a case in Hong Kong on 18 June 1978.

Foot’s views were strongly based around his beliefs in social justice, civil liberties and racial equality, underpinned by the scrutiny of Parliament over the executive and the rule of law. In this respect he remained a liberal even when he joined Labour; indeed, in 1974, he wrote that Labour had become the party of human rights in a way which it had not been in the 1930s. Although internationalist in outlook, as his legal career suggests, he opposed British membership of the EEC, and voted down the Labour governments proposals for reform of the House of Lords in 1968 on the grounds that it would enhance the governments powers of patronage. However, he was in favour of electoral reform.

His one book, British Political Crises (1976), mostly concerned Liberal Party disunity in the early twentieth century, which he described as the principal tragedy of British politics in modern times.

He married Dorothy Mary Elliston in 1933; her social style contrasted with Foot’s Methodist background and she was nicknamed within the family as Dingle’s Tory wife. They had a long and happy marriage. There were no children.


Aidan Thomson was President of the Oxford University Liberal Democrats in 1993.