Isaac Foot was born in Plymouth, Devon on 23 February 1880, the fifth child of Isaac and Eliza, nee Ryder. His father was a carpenter and undertaker, who, as a young man, had migrated from Horrabridge, Devon, the family home for at least three centuries, to Plymouth, building his own home at 20, Notte Street. Brought up a staunch Methodist, Foot’s political and religious beliefs were symbiotic and he first practised oratory in his local chapel. His formal schooling was limited by his family’s pecuniary resources; he attended Plymouth Public School, paying tuppence a week for the privilege, and then the Hoe Grammar School, leaving at the age of fourteen.
Not being of practical bent, Foot did not enter his father’s carpentry business, instead leaving Plymouth for London to work in the Paymaster-General’s department at the Admiralty, preparatory to the civil service examination. The lure of his native city proved too much, however, and he returned to train for five years as a solicitor, qualifying in 1902 and forming the partnership Foot & Bowden in 1903, which still exists today. The partnership provided him with the ability, financial and otherwise, to enter into a political career, of which he was shortly to take advantage.
Meanwhile, in 1904, he married a young Scotswoman, Eva Mackintosh, by whom, between 1905 and 1918, he had five sons and two daughters. She was, until her untimely death in 1946, his loving and beloved companion.
Aside from his nonconformity in religious matters, there was another spring to Foot’s political beliefs. From his earliest years he was a passionate reader. Later in his life, when his achievements came to merit an entry in Who’s Who, he listed reading and book collecting as his recreations. It was a description bordering on misrepresentation. His son Michael (who more than any of his progeny shared his reading addiction) wrote of him, more accurately, that it was by reading that he taught himself almost everything he ever knew. He read voraciously, but at an early stage one subject began to emerge as a dominating interest – the history of his native land, and, as Edmund Burke expressed it: ‘The achievement of free government [which] is the main glory of the British nation. This struggle for liberty throughout the world is supremely the effort and accomplishment of the British people.’
To that affirmation of the pre-eminence of British people in the cause of freedom, Foot would have added two riders – that the years of greatest glory had been those in the seventeenth century when an English Parliament had challenged and overthrown a tyrannical king, and that that supreme accomplishment had been achieved under the leadership of a handful of plain English esquires, all Members of that Parliament, including John Eliot, John Pym, John Hampden, Oliver Cromwell, Henry Vane and John Selden.
Given these influences and associations, it was not surprising that Foot should have entered politics as a Liberal. He was elected for the Greenbank ward of Plymouth City Council in 1907, serving for twenty years; he was Deputy Mayor in 1920. He stood as Liberal candidate for Totnes, in the general election of January 1910 but lost to the incumbent Liberal Unionist. In the December election of that year he came within forty-two votes of unseating another Liberal Unionist at Bodmin. In normal circumstances, Foot might have hoped to win Bodmin at the next general election, but political events during the First World War were dramatically to alter the course of his career. Foot was a noted supporter of Asquith following the formation of the coalition government under Lloyd George, particularly after the Maurice debate which confirmed and cemented divisions within the Liberal Party. As a consequence, Foot was not in receipt of the notorious coupon granted to supporters of the coalition at the 1918 election and lost at Bodmin by over 3,000 votes.
His fourth electoral contest was in a byelection against Nancy Astor in Plymouth Sutton in 1919, when he was prevailed upon to uphold the Liberal cause in what was from the beginning a hopeless venture. The electors were still in the state of feverish support for Lloyd George’s coalition which had characterised the 1918 election; in a three-cornered contest Foot was at the bottom of the poll, only narrowly saving his deposit. Any grief he suffered was more than compensated for by discovering in Lady Astor a life-long friend.
Foot was finally elected to Parliament in 1922. His Tory opponent in Bodmin in 1918 died early in the year and a by-election ensued at which Foot was again Liberal candidate. The coalition government was beset with industrial strife and severe problems in Ireland; the land fit for heroes had not materialised. Fighting on the issue of the government’s record, Foot won by over 3,000 votes. His victory, by intensifying Tory dissatisfaction with Lloyd George, played a significant part in the downfall of the coalition at the Carlton Club meeting eight months later.
Foot was re-elected in the general elections of 1922 and 1923, but lost his seat in the Liberal disaster of 1924. Despite fighting eight elections and winning three, he had sat in Parliament for only two years. Nevertheless, he had established a national reputation as a debater and an orator; his son Hugh, later Lord Caradon, was later to describe him as the best speaker he had ever known. Out of Parliament, he was able to concentrate on family affairs, without any relaxation in his work on the party’s behalf. In 1927, he moved from Plymouth to Pencrebar, a large manor house in the village of Callington, in the Bodmin constituency, where he remained until his death in 1960.
Campaigning strenuously in favour of the policies contained within the Liberal Yellow Book, Foot could claim some credit for the Liberal victories in all five Cornish seats, including his own, in 1929. Nevertheless, the national result confirmed the Liberals’ relegation to the electoral wilderness. In the feverish political atmosphere prior to the election of 1931, Leslie Hore-Belisha, with the concurrence of Sir John Simon, circulated a document among his parliamentary Liberal colleagues which invited them to pledge their unqualified support to the National Government in any measures that it might take after its election. (Over the next eight years those who signed it fulfilled their undertaking to the letter, never dissenting over the emasculation of the League of Nations, the betrayals of Abyssinia and the Spanish Republic, or over Munich or appeasement). Foot rejected the invitation with scorn, reminding Hore-Belisha and Simon that subservient submission of individual MPs to the executive was what the civil war had been all about.
In the negotiations before the election, Foot, like Sir Herbert Samuel, had agreed to join MacDonald’s National Government only for the purpose of carrying through the economies necessary to meet the immediate financial crisis, and that on all other matters there should be an agreement to differ. On this limited basis Foot accepted the office of Minister of Mines, and it was on that account that, when the election came, the Conservative Party in Bodmin decided of their own volition not to oppose him; thus, for the first and last time, he was returned unopposed. This, his only experience in office, was short-lived. When Chamberlain, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, sought to implement the protectionist Ottawa Agreements he resigned his post, as did Samuel that of Home Secretary.
If there are any certainties in politics, one is that Foot would have been defeated in the election of 1931 had it not been for the unforeseen accident of his having been given a ministerial appointment shortly before; and as things turned out, defeat was only postponed. In 1935 he lost his seat in Bodmin to a Tory by a majority of nearly 3,000 a result due, at least in part, to the electors having received letters of advice from Simon, Runciman and Hore-Belisha urging them to support his Tory opponent.
He never regained a seat in Parliament, but fought a by-election at St Ives in Cornwall in 1937. Runciman had, with Foot’s support, won the seat in 1929 as a Liberal. In 1931 he had joined the Liberal Nationals and been rewarded with the office of President of the Board of Trade; in 1937 he was further rewarded with a peerage and resigned his seat. With the connivance of the local Conservatives, he now sought the right of succession to the constituency for the Liberal Nationals. The local Liberals were not surprisingly outraged and Foot accepted their invitation to fight the election on their behalf. The local Labour Party was scarcely less incensed than the Liberals and agreed to stand aside so that Foot could have a clear run.
Foot fought on two issues. One was a demand for the return of common decency in the conduct of British politics and an end to the deceit of aliases and false identities. More importantly, he warned of the horrors of the Nazi dictatorship, and of the wickedness as well as the futility of seeking an accommodation with dictators by way of surrender. He lost by only 210 votes. He said later, looking back on his career, that, although he had suffered more defeats than won victories, on the whole his eight defeats had been more honourable than his five victories. There can be little doubt that of those honourable defeats he gave first place to those of 1935 and 1937.
Foot was appointed to the Privy Council in 1937 and, although fighting just one more election, at Tavistock in 1945, his career of public service was far from over. He remained a senior figure in the Liberal Party, becoming its President in 1947, and delivering an influential Ramsay Muir lecture in the same year; later, he was to offer considerable encouragement to Peter Bessell and Jeremy Thorpe in their electoral efforts. A Methodist lay preacher, as his father had been before him, he was Vice-President of the Methodist conference (1937-38). He was appointed a Deputy Chairman of Cornwall quarter-sessions in 1945 and Chairman in 1953.
Perhaps most impressively, he was unanimously chosen as Lord Mayor of Plymouth in 1945, an honour rarely accorded to a non-member of the council. In 1959 he was given the honorary doctorate of DLitt by Exeter University. He published two books: Oliver Cromwell and Abraham Lincoln: a comparison (1944) and Michael Verran and Thomas Carlyle (1946). A brief biography, My Grandfather: Isaac Foot, has been written by Sarah Foot (Bessiney Books, 1980).
Following the death of his wife he married, in 1951, Catherine Elizabeth Taylor, an old friend of the family. His eightieth birthday was marked by a dinner in his honour, hosted by Plymouth City Council. Months later, on 23 December 1960, he died quietly, survived by his wife and seven children. Four, Dingle, Michael, Hugh and John were or became parliamentarians in their own right, and all recognised their debt to one of the century’s most remarkable politicians.
John Foot was the son of Isaac Foot and became a life peer in 1967 on the recommendation of former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. He died in 1999.