Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?: James Callaghan and Jimmy Carter Re-visited

By Tyler Hawkins @TylerCHawkins

Britain. 1976. Harold Wilson ends his reign as Prime Minister. In his place comes one the most experienced politicians in modern British political history. Meanwhile, in America, a former Georgian Governor shocks the world by winning the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.

James Callaghan and Jimmy Carter led the United Kingdom and the United States at one of the most tumultuous periods in either nation’s history. While both men had humble beginnings – and pursued a naval career – their respective rises to power could not have been any more different. 

‘The Keeper of the Cloth Cap’

Jim Callaghan was elected to Parliament in 1945 for Cardiff South and served as a Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Transport during the Attlee years. In opposition, he remained popular with the Parliamentary Labour Party, eventually being named Shadow Chancellor by Hugh Gaitskell. Upon Gaitskell’s death, Callaghan was defeated for the Leadership of the Party by Harold Wilson. 

He would remain Shadow Chancellor, but he would not remain in the shadows for long. Between 1964 and 1976, Callaghan held the distinction of being the only person in history to hold the three Great Offices of State: Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary before finally becoming Prime Minister.

In stark contrast to James Callaghan, the senior statesman and political veteran, Jimmy Carter was the proverbial outsider. Following a Naval career, he took over the family business and became a successful peanut farmer in his home town of Plains, Georgia.

‘The Peanut Farmer’

Jimmy Carter was very active in his church and his community, and his first attempt at politics would be to run for State Senate in 1963. From there he would rise within the state Democratic Party and would run for Governor of Georgia in 1966. 

Between 1966 and Carter’s next attempt at the Governorship in 1970, his political style changed. While he was himself very much in favour of civil rights, in 1970, he would run a campaign which would appeal to the racial tensions in the south on a populist platform. 

Gone was Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer and in his place was Jimmy Carter, the ruthless politician who would do whatever it took to win.  It worked, as he was elected Governor of Georgia. He quickly changed tact, opening with an inauguration speech stating “the time for racial segregation is over”; repudiating his populist message in favour of his actual values.

By 1976, on the heels of Watergate, Carter, famously characterised by the press as “Jimmy who?”, ran an insurgent campaign and clinched the Democratic nomination and the presidency.

The March of the Moderates 

Jimmy Carter meets James Callaghan in 1977 - BBC News

One of the first Leaders to visit the newly inaugurated President Carter was James Callaghan. Both Carter and Callaghan were keen to cultivate a healthy relationship after the challenging decade in Anglo-American relations. For Carter, a strong European ally in Britain could defrost the tense relationship that America had with the West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. 

On 11thMarch 1977, Callaghan visited Washington DC but was met with very little fanfare. A schedule nineteen gun salute was cancelled as, less than a mile away, Washington’s City Hall had been raided by gunmen. What was lost in pomp was made up for in warm words with Carter reaffirming the “unbreakable friendship” between the US and the UK. He admitted to feeling that  “Great Britain is still America’s motherland”.

Callaghan praised Carter in equal measures for improving “the political tone of the world”. However, in and amongst the political posturing was the decline in global economic conditions. Free trade and economic recovery were high on the agenda as well as relations with the Soviet Union.  

Both President Carter and Callaghan’s Foreign Secretary David Owen were critical of the human rights abuses being perpetrated by the Soviet Union – which was a significant shift from the previous Nixon/Ford policy of détente. Callaghan struck a more cautious tone, fearing continued tension would lead to further splintering of East and West. For a British Prime Minister to meet a sitting US President so early int their tenure showed a real commitment to the improving relations which would continue into May for the G7 summit in London. 

Jimmy Carter was a fan of Dylan Thomas and had hoped to visit the poet’s home in South Wales on his visit to Britain. Callaghan, who was facing several by-elections in the North, convinced Carter that he would have an excellent time in Newcastle instead. A President visit to anywhere outside of London is a relatively novel event, and the Georgie faithful showed their appreciation by lining the streets for Carter. Treated to a Rockstar reception, he spent four hours at the head of a procession, stopping to make his first speech in Newcastle. 

After some coaching from Callaghan, the President showed himself to be in touch with the Geordie public. He greeted the crowd with “Howay the Lads”, honouring himself as “a proud Geordie from Georgia”. He spent the day greeting crowds of people young and old, more akin to a Presidential Campaign than a G7 summit. 

In a sense, with Carter’s natural campaigning abilities and Callaghan’s wealth of statesman experience, the two complimented each other.  There was a real admiration between them. Callaghan admitted that Carter is “a man who combines such hard-headed common sense with an idealism that has given America a new thrust since he came to office.” While it is easy to dismiss such events as mere publicity stunts, an American president visiting Britain and receiving an overwhelmingly positive reception seems very bizarre today. 

Carter and Callaghan would continue to work together on issues, from nuclear proliferation and the environment to peace in the Middle East and closer relations in Europe. Carter often sought advice from the more experienced Callaghan as they worked towards achieving a more stable and peaceful world.  

While the “special relationship” had arguably never been stronger, by the end of the 1970s, both Cater and Callaghan – and their respective parties – would meet similar fates. 

Callaghan was sustained in Parliament only by alliances with other parties such as the Lib-Lab pact, but the events of the 1979 “Winter of Discontent” would fatally wound the Labour Government. Returning from Guadeloupe after a four-nation summit with Carter, Chancellor Schmidt and French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Callaghan response to waiting journalist was infamously reported by the Sun to be “Crisis? What crisis?” Labour dropped from holding a five-point lead in the polls in November 1978 to trailing the Conservatives by 20 points in February 1979. The opposition parties won a motion of no confidence, and the stage was set for a landslide victory for Mrs Thatcher. 

One year later, despite the great strides Jimmy Carter had made on the international stage, issues such as the Iran Hostage Crisis dominated the headlines. Seen as a symbol of America’s lost prestige in the world, it opened the door for Reagan and the Republicans revival. 

A consequence of this was an energy crisis which saw Crude Oil prices skyrocket. This lead to several states such as California, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and New Jersey, introducing gas rationing. It ended in the bizarre spectacle of drivers being able to purchase fuel every other day: based on whether the last digit of their license plate numbers was odd or even.

The low economic growth and inflation (dubbed stagflation) which had plagued President Ford continued for much of Carter’s term in office. Against this backdrop, Carter delivered one of the most extraordinary speeches a sitting President had ever given: The ‘Malaise’ Speech. More of a sermon than an address, Jimmy Carter reflected on the depressed state of the union and the more profound problems behind the issues facing America.

Ahead of the Election, Carter’s prospects were not good. He was facing a bitter internal challenge from the “Lion of the Senate” Ted Kennedy. Although Cater secured the nomination, animosity between the two men ran deep. In the election, Carter was up against the charismatic ex-Hollywood star Ronald Reagan. In similar tactics to Callaghan, Carter painted his opponent as an extreme candidate who would divide the nation. Reagan zeroed in on the failures of the Carter administration to remedy the nation’s problems. Carter was swept from power, and Ronald Reagan was elected the 40thpresident of the United States in a landslide election. 

Reflecting on their times in office, both Callaghan and Carter believed they were victims of a political sea change. Thatcherism and the Reaganism dominated the 1980s. There would not be another Democratic President for twelve years, and Labour would be out of power for eighteen years, and both parties had been transformed during that time. 

However, both men remained very active following their respective defeats. Callaghan remained an MP and became Father of the House in 1983 before becoming Baron Callaghan of Cardiff and serving in the House of Lords until he died in 2005. 

Meanwhile, Jimmy Carter completely redefined what a post-presidential career looked like. He established the Carter Centre which has advanced the quality of life of millions of people across the world, especially in some of the poorest nations. Carter and his wife Roselynn have played an incredibly active role, observing elections, fighting diseases, improving agriculture, and assisting diplomacy over the years. Along with a Noble Peace Prize in 2002, Jimmy Carter, at 96 years of age, continues his work and has become one of the most respected humanitarians in the world.

Labour leaders have often had mixed results on the international stage but the closeness of the relationship between Callaghan and Carter in the latter years of the 1970s represents a level of respectful cooperation that had not been seen since the post-war Attlee/Truman years. It now remains to be seen whether Biden and Starmer will get the chance to rekindle the special relationship betwen the two parties.

Tyler Hawkins is from Huddersfield and is working as an engineer. He has been involved in the Labour Party for the past 10 years. His research looks at the politics of Britain and America.

One thought on “Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?: James Callaghan and Jimmy Carter Re-visited

  1. Great article, I lived through there time in office albeit as a child and I have often thought that history needs to reevaluate the Sterling work that these men did in office. They have sadly been defined by the winter of discontent and the Iranian hostage crisis.


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