Anthony Broxton

James Callaghan: The Crisis PM

A new collection of essays provides a welcome reappraisal of the only man to hold all four offices of state. 

“If you must have a Conservative Prime Minister, I’m your man” – Sunday Mirror, April 1979

At the end of season three of Netflix’s The Crown viewers watched a tearful Harold Wilson hand in his resignation. After ten tumultuous episodes, Olivia Colman’s Queen concludes that “this will come as a terrible shock to the country”. Season four then opens with the election of Margaret Thatcher.  

Overlooked by the series was the three years in which Britain was governed by James Callaghan. Once described by the Labour historian Kenneth O’Morgan as Britain’s “most underestimated prime minister”, a new collection of essays, edited by two academics, Kevin Hickson and Jasper Miles, (James Callaghan: An Underrated Prime Minister? Biteback) revisits his life and times. Its timing, as Britain heads for its toughest Winter since 1978, could not be more apt.

The Keeper of the Cloth Cap  

The crisis of British governance in the 1970s means that Callaghan enjoys something of a battered reputation.  On the right, he was framed as in the pockets of the militant trade unions. On the left, he was seen as the father of neoliberalism, the man who used his first conference speech to say Britain could no longer spend its way out of recession: “I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists.”

If Britain’s post-war history can be split into two halves then, James Callaghan was the bridge between the two eras, as the country transitioned from the era of Keynesianism to the new market economy. 

For the average voter, however, Callaghan is remembered for something he did not actually say. In January 1979, as strikes crippled public services, the country shivered in the coldest winter since the early 60s. With the government drawing up plans for a state of emergency, the Prime Minister was at a summit on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. The Sun raged “Britain could well be on the brink of a disaster that will make Ted’s three-day week seem like a golden age. Meanwhile Jim yawns lazily on his tropic isle.”

On his return to Heathrow Airport, a reporter asked him: “What is your general approach, in view of the mounting chaos in the country?” He replied: “If you look at it from outside I don’t think that other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.” 

For several days the Sun ran a banner across the top of its news pages with the words ‘What crisis?’ and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Crisis what Crisis? As Britain remains in the grip of public sector workers on going strikes, Prime Minister James Callaghan takes a break from the international conference at Guadeloupe in the caribbean, by taking a walk along the beach.

In the academic world, many have attempted to revise our understandings of the 1970s. In the 1990s, Colin Hay argued that the media had primarily constructed the collective mythology of the Winter of Discontent (WOD), to pave the way for Thatcherism and the ‘decisive intervention’ of the New Right. Likewise, Tara Martin López has explored how the WOD myth became enshrined in popular memory. 

All of which has done little to change the standing of the Callaghan Years. The historical reputation of the event is perhaps unique in that even Labour use it as a way of framing themselves against the failures of the past.

It is little wonder then, as Dominic Sandbrook observes in this book that Callaghan is lumped in with “the bleak, broken landscape of British Leyland and the National Enterprise Board, endless pay disputes and double digit inflation, bin bags in the streets and publicly funded factories making both car radiators and orange juice.”

That, as the authors set out, is an unfair assessment. We are reminded that he was a significant player in the critical events of our post-war history, from the 60s devaluation, to mobilising troops in Northern Ireland, to the renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership of Common Market (in the run-up to the EEC referendum) to the IMF crisis and the WOD. The range of contributors is impressive; from those who had a ring seat in the battles of the age (Roy Hattersley, David Owen, David Lipsey and Austin Mitchell) to experienced academics and journalists. 

Underpinning the collection of essays is a call for the contemporary Labour Party to rediscover Callaghan’s values “which were once mainstream in the party but are now viewed with disdain by many of its activists”. The editorial team were behind the recent biography of Peter Shore, which was a call for the Labour Party to rediscover its ‘lost Eurosceptic tradition’. This work tries to situate Callaghan as Britain’s last ‘conservative’ Prime Minister.

The idea of Callaghan as a ‘Red Tory’ was central to the intra-party Labour debates of the 1980s. Simon Hannah argues that it was his failure to implement the manifesto line to “bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families” that fuelled Benn’s ‘betrayal’ theory which captured the mood of the grassroots. That feeling can be best summed up by the 1979 party conference where General Secretary Ron Hayward ironically quoted Julius Caesar, “I come not to praise Callaghan but to bury him” to loud applause from conference delegates.

To further admonish him on the left, perhaps it is worth remembering what Margaret Thatcher once said about him: “Despite our disagreements” he was “a superb political opponent”: “I always respected him because I knew he was moved by deep patriotism.” Long before Tony Blair assumed the mantle of betrayal, it was Jim Callaghan’s to carry. It meant that he was airbrushed out of Labour history. When Tony Blair sought leadership advice in the early 90s, it was Roy Jenkins, not Callaghan, he turned too.

Yet despite the range of crises he navigated in his tenure as Prime Minister, he achieved the rare feat for a Labour politician of being more popular than his party. Indeed, why the non-election of 1978 matters to historians is because Callaghan was polling well ahead of Mrs Thatcher (50%-26%) at the time. In February 1979, Thatcher led Callaghan by 41-32% – which was tied to a deep unfavorability at Labour’s management of the economy and the ongoing devolution debate. However, despite all the press support and a far superior advertising team behind her, ‘Sunny Jim’ ended the 1979 election campaign with a ten-point lead over Mrs Thatcher on who would be the best Prime Minister. 

His conservatism, as Kevin Hickson examines, came from his upbringing. A puritanism (from his grounding in the Baptist church) and patriotism, (which saw him follow in his father’s footsteps in the navy) combined with the harsh poverty he endured following the death of his father in the 1920s.

For three years the family lived on the breadline. It was only when his MP secured a meagre pension for his mother that they had some security. “After that”, he argued, “we were staunch Labour for life.” His mother, needing an income, demanded one thing from him: find a job that guaranteed a pension at 60. “And can you blame her?” Callaghan once told interviewers. 

In 1929, Callaghan became a junior clerk at the Inland Revenue. Unusually for a Labour leader, Callaghan rose through the trade union ranks, becoming the country’s first – and presumably last – trade unionist Prime Minister. This put him at odds with the public school liberalism of the Crosland’s and Foot’s, as well as the unckecked romanticism for the workers espoused by Tony Benn and the Militant left. 

It was the MPs that put Callaghan in Number Ten, but polls conducted at the time showed that he was the people’s choice too. A Sunday Times poll conducted in the run-up to the leadership election saw him receive 48%. A remarkable feat in a  six-horse race with some of the titans of the post-war era. “Prime minister! And I never went to university!” he said after he won the leadership. But he was subject to educational-snobbery in the hot-house of the Cabinet battles.  

James Callaghan MP on Holiday August 1957 in St Davids, Pembrokeshire with family Daughter Margaret Callaghan ( Baroness Jay) 17

As Dominic Sandbrook recounts, Roy Jenkins once remarked there was “no case I can think of in history where a man combined such a powerful political personality with so little intelligence”. However, as the only member of Labour’s big six who did not go to university, he was much more in line with the 75% of the population who did not achieve higher education in the 1970s. 

His working-class background meant he had limitations. He did not carry himself with the intellectual gravitas of a Wilson or a Blair. But he understood his weaknesses. He was comfortable enough to surround himself with intellectuals from different traditions within the party. Anyone hoping to study how various components of the Labour Party can come together should look at the way he and Michael Foot worked in tandem to keep the minority administration in power for three years. Foot could have sunk the government but was given a significant role as Leader of the House and was instrumental in the formation of the Lib-Lab Pact. 

Most crucially perhaps was Callaghan’s ‘feel’ for where the country was at. His two great ‘What If’ moments came from an understanding of his own weaknesses. In 1978 he opted not to go to the polls for fear of defeat and another five years of a Hung Parliament. A few months later in the no-confidence vote of 1979, his advisors worked to secure agreements with minority parties. Roy Hattersley and John Smith thought they had secured “a gift from the gods” when the Ulster Unionists asked for a gas pipeline to be installed in exchange for votes. 

A more egotistical Prime Minister – an old Etonian perhaps – would have blustered his way through – agreeing to any requests from opposing parties for peerages and special favours. That Callaghan decided not to pursue deals at any cost was a conscious strategy, quite simply, he admitted in his memoirs that he no longer wished to survive ‘wheeling and dealing’.

He understood the mood of change towards the end of the 1979 election too:

“”You know there are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of.”

Perhaps then, there are lessons in this premiership for all political leaders. His frankness and the belief in collegiate leadership are qualities that are severely lacking in today’s politics. As Britain navigates a new period of crisis, this revision of the Callaghan Years is a timely and welcome addition to the debate.

James Callaghan, An Underrated Prime Minister (ed) Kevin Hickson and Jasper Miles is published by Biteback, priced £25


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