Michael Foot: A Hazlitt for Our Age?

The late Labour leader, who died in March aged 96, was the last great radical voice of Parliament and stands comparison with the celebrated 18th-century polemicist, writes Brian Brivati.

The Times journalist Peter Riddell once saved Michael Foot from being run over. Foot was about to step in front of traffic on Hampstead Hill when Peter pulled him back. ‘Oh, thank you,’said Foot. ‘I was thinking about Hazlitt.’

William Hazlitt was the greatest essayist of the era of transition from the politics and sensibilities of the 18th century to the new world of the 19th. In the attempt to make the case for Foot’s own greatness, can we use Hazlitt as a measure? I think we can.

Hazlitt created the feature article when writing about boxing. He drew the finest pen portraits of the political figures of his age and in the process invented the parliamentary sketch. He inserted psychology into literary criticism before either practice was named. He took the polemic to new heights. He laid the foundations for our modern reading of Shakespeare. He took political hate into new dimensions of sustained invective.

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