Who was James Callaghan? Ahead of the publication of his book, Kevin Hickson reintroduces us to a man who has been largely forgotten by history...
James Callaghan stood down as leader of the Labour Party forty years ago this year, bringing to an end a long period on the frontbenches stretching back over thirty years. during which he uniquely held all of the top four offices of state.
Critics would contend that his record in each of the top posts was questionable. As Chancellor of the Exchequer he had fought against the inevitable devaluation of the pound, as Home Secretary he had upset many on his own side by imposing what were seen as racist restrictions on Commonwealth immigration and as Foreign Secretary he had appeared to gain very little from the renegotiations over the terms of membership of the EEC. His detractors – from both wings of the party – expected little from him as Prime Minister, and would later claim not to have been surprised by the course of his premiership, still most often associated with having to go ‘cap in hand’ to the IMF, and culminating in the dead going unburied and the rubbish left to pile up in the streets during the ‘Winter of Discontent’.
After the election of Margaret Thatcher there were few defenders of his record. The left accused him and his government of ‘betrayal’ and called for the grassroots activists and the party conference to have more control over a future Labour government’s policies. Those on the right of the party who believed their cause was best secured through the formation of a new party also trashed his record in order to justify their departure. By the time Labour had recovered electorally in the mid-1990s, the leading modernisers of ‘New Labour’ did everything they could to distance themselves from the old party and Callaghan’s era in particular. For New Labour, history began in 1994.
Yet, as many of the essays in this new book show, the record was actually much better than these accounts would allow. The government’s position was precarious, with the absence of a parliamentary majority and bitter internal divisions at every level of the party. But Callaghan was the only person who could have held it all together for as long as he did given his unique political skills and instinctive feel for the mood of the Labour Party. Moreover, the economy recovered from the IMF cuts in the two years that followed before the winter of 1978–79. Callaghan also sought to innovate in certain fields, notably in education policy.
Not all of the authors would agree – and one aim of the book is to encourage diversity of opinion, thus allowing the reader to make up their own mind on Callaghan’s legacy – but the editors certainly believe that Callaghan deserves more credit than he got at the time or subsequently, not least from his own party.
Callaghan personified a certain kind of politics, respectability and common sense, underpinned by a quiet sense of patriotism. Not for him the tendency of the left at different times to rip into Britain’s past, something that is arguably all too prevalent inside and outside the party today. At a time of social, economic and cultural upheaval, Callaghan offered the public reassurance. Note that in spite of everything that had happened during the years of his premiership he was still more popular than Mrs Thatcher in the 1979 election. The more honest of political commentators from across the ideological spectrum recognised his political skills. His own sense of betrayal by the trade union militants and the left-wing ideologues in the Winter of Discontent and after the defeat was palpable, and it was he and not they who were closest to the views of its working-class voters.
Yet those who fail to learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat them, and the re-emergence of the socialist dogmatists under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership combined with the refusal to accept the 2016 referendum outcome led Labour to an even worse electoral defeat in 2019 than that of 1983. The ‘red wall’ came tumbling down and Labour now finds itself in its worst position since 1935. In order to revive its electoral fortunes, the party would be well advised to rediscover Callaghan’s values, which were once mainstream in the party but are now viewed with disdain by many of its own activists.
James Callaghan: An Underrated Prime Minister? by Jasper Miles and Kevin Hickson is out on 3 November. Take a look at it here.