James Callaghan as Chancellor of the Exchequer in November 1964

Britain’s last conservative prime minister

A new collection of essays provides a welcome reappraisal of Labour leader James Callaghan

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This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


Forty years ago, in November 1980, James Callaghan resigned as leader of the Labour Party having lost the general election the previous year. He neither could — nor wished to — hold out any longer and his party duly bifurcated into that led by Michael Foot and the Gang of Four’s breakaway SDP.

The four decades since Callaghan’s departure have scarcely changed settled perceptions of him: his three years in office ushered in 18 years of the Tories. But he was more than the last authentically, unmistakably, “old Labour” prime minister. Such were his party politics. In his attitudes and instincts, he was more like the last Edwardian to occupy Downing Street. 

In this, he led by example. A family man, contentedly married to his wife, Audrey, whom he had first met when she was a Baptist Sunday school teacher, Callaghan’s formidable ambition was fixed on politics as an end in itself. Exposed ankles could swing across his field of vision without his gaze following them out the door. The possibilities of high office bringing auxiliary financial gain were equally invisible to him.

James Callaghan was repelled by the Sixties’ counter-cultures of anti-Americanism and anti-militarism. Albeit without success, he pledged to “call a halt to the rising tide of permissiveness” — legalised by his Home Office predecessor, Roy Jenkins — which was “one the most unlikeable words that has been invented in recent years”. 

He withstood pressure to commit sterling to join the key features of the European Monetary System, including the ERM

To Callaghan, pornography was repellent and drug use rightly a crime. He was not only made uncomfortable by homosexuality, he claimed to not know it existed until well into adulthood. When assured that there were gay men even among his Labour colleagues, he was astonished and begged, “You won’t tell those stories in front of Audrey, will you? She would be very shocked.”

He was the last prime minister of Great Britain to have served in her armed forces. Indeed, he was the only one to have been in the senior service, having spent the second world war on board HMS Queen Elizabeth. In doing so, he followed on from his father, who had joined the Royal Navy whilst still underage (signing-up under the assumed name “Callaghan” and not his actual Garoghan surname) and who fought at Jutland aboard the dreadnought HMS Agincourt. 

In Downing Street, James Callaghan and his chancellor, Denis Healy, responded to the mid-1970s economic mess by turning to the IMF and implementing public sector cuts far greater than Margaret Thatcher later attempted. Between 1975 and 1979, spending on the NHS fell from 4.5 per cent to 4 per cent of GDP. The defence budget was pared back too, but only to 5.5 per cent of GDP (the current government boasts proudly that it is 2 per cent). 

His personal rapport with the Queen was probably the strongest she had with any prime minister besides Churchill

Royal Navy projects that might have been cancelled were completed, most importantly HMS Invincible — the carrier that the Thatcher government was poised to sell off only months before it became indispensable in the Falklands. Callaghan’s January 1979 trip to Guadeloupe is now chiefly remembered for his misjudged throwaway lines on returning to Heathrow, which gave rise to the damning headline, “Crisis? What Crisis?” But he had been in Guadeloupe to tell Jimmy Carter that Britain wanted to replace Polaris by upgrading its nuclear deterrent to Trident and was interested in procuring the cruise missiles that eventually ended up at Greenham Common.

At Upper Clayhill, the 138-acre farm on the Sussex Downs he had bought in the 1960s to provide additional income and relaxation, Callaghan decorated his part-Elizabethan, part-Georgian farmhouse with pictures of Royal Naval sailing ships. This is hardly the artistic taste of a man at ease with Britain’s global decline. His collection included a picture of King Edward VII’s royal yacht, Victoria and Albert, upon which his father had been a rigger. 

He revered the monarchy — his personal rapport with the Queen was probably the strongest she had with any prime minister besides Churchill. Her Majesty and Callaghan shared a belief in the centrality of the Commonwealth and in 1977 he threw himself with gusto into the festivities marking her silver jubilee.

Although committed by past government obligations and precarious parliamentary arithmetic to pursue limited devolution to Wales and Scotland, Callaghan had no faith in the process. A man of part-Irish descent who represented a Welsh constituency, Callaghan expressed his unified notion of British patriotism in a faint Hampshire burr.

Whilst he accepted Britain’s membership of the EEC as a done deal (not least since he had helped Wilson renegotiate it), he did so without enthusiasm. “I know that there are many people whom I like and respect, who really have a vision about Europe. I’m sorry to say I don’t share it,” he said in 1975. It was perhaps a worthwhile commercial “instrument”, but “it is not a vision in the way that the Empire was a vision, the way the people hoped that the Commonwealth would be.” 

The winter of discontent happened because Callaghan, ever the patriot, mistakenly thought we were all in it together

He told other European leaders in 1977, “We do not believe that the Community can develop into a federation. It is our view that Europe will make most progress if the rights of national governments are parliaments are upheld,” and he withstood the pressure to commit sterling to join the key features of the European Monetary System, including the ERM. Roy Jenkins deduced that he had been beaten to the premiership by a lesser being. There was, he concluded, “no case I can think of in history where a man combined such a powerful political personality with so little intelligence”.

In his faith in Britain’s armed forces, the monarchy, and the police, Callaghan believed fundamentally in institutions. Most of all, he believed in trade unions as the bonding agent that secured working class interests in the institutional structure of the British state. Personal experience played its part. When Callaghan was nine, his father had died of a heart attack, plunging the family into penury. It was the 1924 Labour government that prevented near-destitution by extending widows’ pensions. Unable through hardship to attend university, he instead found purpose and status as an official of a trade union for inland revenue clerks. 

It was this reverence for unions and their place in society — and, let it be clear, an awareness of his political dependence upon them — that led him to oppose Barbara Castle’s attempts to curb “wildcat” strikes in 1969, a decision he had cause to rue a decade later.  Put simply, he believed unions were repositories of national culture and aspiration as well as partners in fighting inflation. He rarely seemed more at ease than at trades union gatherings, even bursting into song. He serenaded the Durham miners’ gala with “I’m the man, the very fat man, who waters the workers’ beer” and sang Vesta Victoria’s end-of-the-pier number, “There was I waiting at the church” to the 1978 TUC conference in Brighton. The union delegates roared with delight. And two months later knifed him in the front.

The winter of discontent happened because Callaghan, ever the patriot, mistakenly thought we were all in it together. Inflation was at 8 per cent and rising, so in that fateful autumn of 1978 he offered public sector workers a pay “norm” of 5 per cent, believing a tough incomes policy could bring inflation down and boost economic recovery. To protests from his political aides that this was too tough, he responded tartly, “What are you saying? That 5 per cent wouldn’t be best for the country?”

It is certainly time for a reappraisal of Callaghan as a conservative Labour politician

The difference between Callaghan and Thatcher was that he shied away from statutory restrictions on union power but in 1978 took a tough line against their wage demands. This was the wrong way around. Thatcher bought off the unions (25 per cent pay increase for public sector workers in 1980; 10 per cent increase for miners in 1981) and while they were enjoying the taxpayers’ generosity, she eviscerated them.

It is certainly time for a reappraisal of Callaghan as a conservative Labour politician, a reassuring figure in tumultuous times like a Stanley Baldwin of the left. He was defeated, but assailed by forces that none of his allegedly more brilliant cabinet colleagues could probably have indefinitely outmanoeuvred. 

Kenneth Morgan’s 1997 biography of Callaghan produced a compelling, sympathetic, portrait in the year that a progressive-liberal and distinctly unconservative younger leader steered his party back to power. Now, a collection of essays, edited by two academics, Kevin Hickson and Jasper Miles, entitled James Callaghan: An Underrated Prime Minister? (Biteback, £25) provides a longer perspective, including besides the latest scholarship, contributions from those who worked with — and against — him at the time.

Throughout this varied and stimulating new book the deep conservatism of this committed Labour Party man shines through. From it, two vignettes must suffice. 

In a typically insightful chapter, Dominic Sandbrook unearths from the 1983 general election campaign The Times’s sketch-writer, Frank Johnson, observing Callaghan campaigning in the rain in his Cardiff constituency. Johnson noticed he was like a “territorial magnate among his tenants”, his constituents greeting him with familiarity restrained by profound respect, whilst he remained “a proletarian or lower-middle class version of the Third Marquess of Salisbury — wary, experienced, loathing ideological fervour”.

My favourite insight, though, is provided by Austin Mitchell, who called him “a man of common sense who never hesitated to express it, or to call an intellectual a twerp”. Mitchell’s admiration for Callaghan and his blunt matter-of-factness has never faded. Then the newly-elected Labour MP for Grimsby, Mitchell invited his prime minister over to his house. Impressively, Callaghan found the time. “I showed him a wonderful John Hopkinson painting of Grimsby, of which I was very proud (it was rumoured that Elton John also bought one),” Mitchell recalls. “‘How much did you pay for it?’ asked prime minister Jim. I told him. ‘You were robbed.’”

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