Dean Swift turns in his grave

Michael Foot, Dalrymple explains, was the scion of an upper-middle-class English family who became a left-wing leader of the UK’s Labour party. He was a decent man, though naïve and misguided, and

unlike most of the politicians of today he was cultivated, being a literary scholar.

He published a study of a year in Swift’s life, called The Pen and the Sword (1957). After his death, his large collection of books by or about Swift was sold. Dalrymple intended to buy a few of the items that he could (barely) afford from the bookseller’s catalogue,

but the whole collection was suddenly bought by an American university library. It was worth more than the total wealth of all but a tiny minority of his countrymen, but Foot devoted his life to bringing about the economic conditions to ensure that no one would ever again be able to assemble such a collection.

In Dr Strangelove, I Presume (1999), Foot argues for total nuclear disarmament,

a cause long dear to his heart, or mind, or some combination of the two.

The first words of the author’s preface are:

Every day when I tried to complete this book with a proper review of the latest evidence, I was interrupted by new discoveries. One of the most moving and instructive was the letter printed opposite.

The letter printed opposite was an open one from ‘Naveena’, a 12-year-old schoolgirl, to the Indian prime minister. It starts:

I am writing on behalf of all children.

Michael Foot

Dalrymple finds this

grandiose, self-important, arrogant and presumptuous, in the manner of youth of a certain kind. It irritates me.

‘Naveena’ goes on to lecture, or hector, the prime minister:

I don’t think bombs protect anybody. You don’t get power by possessing arsenals.

These statements

are highly disputable. Naveena is no little boy crying out that the emperor is naked; she reveals nothing and speaks and writes in clichés that have been uttered hundreds of millions of times, daily and for years.

What is significant, says Dalrymple,

is that a man like Foot — who had spent a lifetime studying and appreciating Swift, of all people — should have claimed to be moved by such claptrap. I suspect that he was not so much moved by ‘Naveena’ as moved by the goodness of his payment of attention to her, and anxious to demonstrate it to the world. Therein lies a sickness of our time.

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