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  Leonard James Callaghan (1912–2005), by Bryan Organ, 1983 Leonard James Callaghan (1912–2005), by Bryan Organ, 1983
Callaghan, Leonard James [Jim], Baron Callaghan of Cardiff (1912–2005), prime minister, was born at 38 Funtington Road, Copnor, Portsmouth, on 27 March 1912, the only son and younger child of James Callaghan, formerly Garoghan (1877–1921), a sailor who rose to the rank of chief petty officer in the Royal Navy, and his wife, Charlotte Gertrude, widow of Daniel Speare, seaman, and daughter of William Henry Cundy, naval shipwright, of Tavistock, Devon. His sister, Dorothy, was born in 1904.

Family, marriage, and early career

Petty Officer James Callaghan was of Irish descent (his grandfather had left Ireland at the time of the potato famine). He had changed his name from Garoghan, without recourse to deed polls, when he joined the fleet. He was by birth and upbringing a Roman Catholic. But when he met and fell in love with Charlotte Speare, a Baptist, he left the church after being refused permission to marry her and became a member of a Baptist chapel. His decision was to prove crucial to the life of his son. Although there is much doubt about how much belief Callaghan retained into adult life, the nonconformist ethic was a profound influence on all of his public and private life. By telling his son stories of ships and the sea Callaghan's father also encouraged in the young boy a romantic attachment to all things naval that, although uncharacteristic of his essentially down-to-earth character, remained with him for all his life.

After the First World War Callaghan's father left the Royal Navy and became a coastguard at Brixham (where Callaghan attended Furzeham School). Three years later, at the early age of forty-four, he died suddenly of a heart attack. Callaghan was nine. From then on his mother was the dominant influence in his life. But his attachment to his father's memory never faded. In 1975 he had decided that his duties as foreign secretary—particularly the renegotiation of the United Kingdom's membership of the European Community—would make it impossible for him to accompany the queen on a visit which took the royal yacht down the Kiel Canal. It was not a decision that he took lightly or with any great pleasure, for he was an ardent admirer of the queen. However, on the day before HMS Britannia was due to set sail he sent for his minister of state—the reluctant substitute—and said that he had changed his mind. Affairs of state would have to wait. He had discovered that on the only previous occasion when the royal yacht had sailed that way his father had been on board. Callaghan was determined to make a devotional repetition of the journey.

After her husband's unexpected death, and the consequent loss of the coastguard's house in Brixham, Charlotte Callaghan returned with her children to Portsmouth, where they lived in a variety of rented properties and varying degrees of poverty. Leonard, as he was then called, attended Portsmouth northern secondary school—and found it generally unsatisfactory. One of the landladies, of whom the Callaghans were subtenants, encouraged them to rejoice at the election of Ramsay MacDonald's Labour Government in 1924. The family's allegiance was cemented by the award, after a long battle, of a naval widow's pension—16s. a week with an additional 10s. for her son.

Callaghan borrowed books from the Carnegie Library in Portsmouth, but the real influence on his adolescence was the Baptist church. At the age of fourteen, a year before his formal baptism, he became a Sunday school teacher. A year later he took the Oxford senior certificate. He passed with second-class honours. This qualified him for employment by the Inland Revenue. At the age of seventeen he became a clerk in the Maidstone office on a salary of one pound a week plus cost of living allowances. The Portsmouth Baptists made sure that their Kent co-religionists found him comfortable, and respectable, lodgings.

In 1934, four years after he joined the Inland Revenue, Callaghan became a trade unionist. His membership of the Association of the Officers of Taxes was, initially, prompted more by the attraction of the correspondence courses they offered than by a feeling of class solidarity or the hope of becoming part of an irresistible movement for improved wages and conditions. Nevertheless he became impatient with what he regarded as the incompetence of the local branch and the inefficiency of the national organization and successfully contested the election for branch secretary, defeating the long-serving incumbent. He was regarded, for the first and perhaps only time in his life, as a young revolutionary—particularly by Douglas Houghton, the effective head of the union (who was later to serve as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster in the 1964 Labour government). Promoted to the London office, he became an official of the union's City East branch and was reconciled with Houghton, who recognized that the man who became his protégé was ambitious not anarchic.

Perhaps Callaghan had been tamed by a seismic change in his personal life. At the Maidstone Baptist church he met Audrey Elizabeth Moulton (1913–2005), then only sixteen but, like Callaghan, a Sunday school teacher. It was something approaching love at first sight, and it lasted for a lifetime. Callaghan's feelings were illustrated by an uncharacteristic willingness to embrace energetic physical activity. He joined the local tennis club, though he did not excel. The relationship was cemented by his almost instant acceptance by the Moulton family. Frank Moulton, Audrey's father, was the managing director of a Maidstone machine-tool company and deacon of the Baptist church. On Callaghan's promotion to the London office he was neither surprised by, nor opposed to, his daughter following. Audrey Moulton registered at the Battersea College of Domestic Science. She qualified as a teacher and began work in a school in Eltham. Many of her evenings were spent—in a combination of conviction and companionship—at Fabian Society meetings. She and Callaghan married on 28 July 1938 at the Baptist chapel in Maidstone, with Audrey's parents as witnesses. They had two daughters, Margaret (b. 1939), later Baroness Jay of Paddington, and Julia (b. 1942), and a son, Michael (b. 1945).

In August 1936 Callaghan had stood for election as full-time assistant general secretary of the union. He won against a selection of more experienced candidates, and also Cyril Plant, who became both president of the union and chairman of the Trades Union Congress (and was an invaluable ally of his old opponent during the Labour government's fractious negotiations with the unions in the turbulent 1970s). Callaghan's salary was spectacularly improved. The basic pound a week of his apprenticeship had increased to £2 16s. a week with an allowance of £30 a year. Both Callaghan and the union prospered. The assistant general secretary, happy in suburban Norwood, began to meet the great names of the trade union and labour movement and always treated them—as throughout his life he treated everyone—with a mixture of courtesy, genuine interest, and cautious suspicion. Later in 1936 the association joined with the National Association of Assessors and Collectors of Taxes and the Valuation Office Clerical Association to form the Inland Revenue Staff Federation—a union of which Callaghan initially aspired one day to become general secretary. But by 1940 his ambition had grown and, much to Douglas Houghton's distress, he applied first to be general secretary of the Ministry of Labour Staff Association then general secretary of the Federation of Post Office Supervising Officers. Neither application was successful.

War service and early political career

Technically a civil servant, Callaghan was in a ‘reserved occupation’ following the outbreak of the Second World War. But in June 1940—perhaps the low point of the allies' fortunes, for the war in France had just ended with the evacuation of Dunkirk—he applied to join the Royal Navy and was told he could enlist as an ordinary seaman. His release from the Inland Revenue Staff Association required Douglas Houghton's approval. It was not given until the autumn of 1942, so Callaghan did not get to sea until the summer of 1943. In April 1944 he was promoted sub-lieutenant and was about to see active service when he was diagnosed as suffering from a mild form of tuberculosis. After his discharge from hospital he was employed writing a manual on Japan, its people and customs, in preparation for victory in the Far East. But, eventually, he saw action of a sort. On VE-day he was on board HMS Queen Elizabeth on its way to cover the allies' landing at Rangoon.

The months ashore, although regretted and resented, had in reality been a stroke of good fortune. At some point—possibly before his naval service, for his latter-day detractors claimed that it was the reason why he volunteered—Callaghan had decided to aim for a seat in parliament. Once again there were objections from the union and once again Callaghan dismissed them out of hand. Hopes in co. Durham, Birmingham, and Reading were not realized. But he was selected for Cardiff South—beating, in the final ballot, George Thomas, who was later to become speaker of the House of Commons. According to Thomas's biography—which Callaghan greeted with the comment ‘Until I read it, I thought that we were friends’—he introduced himself by saying ‘My family call me Leonard, but for politics I'm going to use my second name James’ (Thomas, 49). Whatever the truth of the story, James (or, more often, Jim) is what he became.

Callaghan was a personable candidate, appearing at meetings in his naval uniform and then, as always, careful that his shoes were polished and his trousers creased. But his success in the selection process for Cardiff South, by a single vote, might well have been the result of his reputation as a ‘genuine socialist’ preceding him to Wales. At the Labour Party conference, in December 1944, Ian Mikardo (the successful aspirant to the Reading candidature) had moved a resolution that committed a future Labour government to the public ownership of the basic industries. Jim Callaghan had supported it with a call for a ‘restatement of our fundamental principles’ (Report of the Labour Party Conference, 1944, 169). When the resolution was carried—against the wishes of the leadership—Herbert Morrison, deputy leader and once the philosopher of public ownership, told its supporters ‘You've lost us the general election’ (I. Mikardo, Back-bencher, 1988, 77). In fact Labour won 393 seats to the Conservatives' 213 in the election of July 1945. Callaghan defeated his tory opponent with a majority of 5944.

Callaghan's maiden speech on 20 August 1945 dealt—with an absence of party polemic appropriate to such occasions—with the difficulty of establishing a stable government in defeated Japan. He received the usual formal congratulations and spent the next few weeks working, assiduously, on questions related to taxes, the subject he knew best, and Wales, the topic which he was expected to air. He was invited to join the XYZ Club—a Labour group that was usually confined to professional economists. To less surprise at the time than the memory of the event caused thirty years later, he exhibited both his independence of mind and radical inclinations by voting (alongside more durable left-wingers) against the $3.75 billion American loan that John Maynard Keynes had negotiated with the American treasury. He was not called during the debate that endorsed the decision. But later that day, during a discussion on the civil war in China, he referred (gratuitously, his critics thought) to ‘economic aggression by the United States’ and declared that ‘as a socialist’ he demanded international control of industrial investment (Hansard 5C, 417.750 13 Dec 1945). As a result of his rebellion he was forced to step down from the first rung of the promotion ladder. He had, briefly, been parliamentary private secretary to the under-secretary for the colonies.

The trivial set-back did not dampen Callaghan's radical ardour. In October 1946 he was one of twenty-two back-benchers—most of whom were involved in the Keep Left group—who signed a letter calling for a more sympathetic attitude towards the Soviet Union and was open in his criticism of, perhaps even hostile towards, Ernest Bevin as foreign secretary. But he was increasingly regarded as a ‘coming man’. Hugh Dalton, who usually only cultivated young Oxbridge ‘intellectuals’, added Callaghan to his protégés. And in October 1946 he was invited to join a parliamentary delegation to Russia. It was led by A. V. Alexander, the first lord of the Admiralty, who insisted that Sub-Lieutenant Callaghan, still not formally demobilized, should travel in his naval uniform. Although Callaghan continued to express reservations about some government policies he managed, with remarkable facility, to avoid being labelled as a pathological rebel. Nevertheless, when in October 1947 he joined the government as parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Transport it was not clear whether his promotion owed most to a recognition of his undoubted ability or the wish to stifle his criticism.

Largely thanks to Dalton's patronage, in the summer of 1950 Callaghan was asked to act as deputy leader of the British delegation to the Council of Europe—an unusual appointment for a serving minister. It was his first experience of the conflicting claims of national interest and European unity, and he gladly articulated the government's belief that no international institution should diminish the sovereign powers of national governments. It was a view that he was to hold until, in 1976, he attended a meeting of foreign ministers in Schloss Gymnich and became convinced that, in some particulars, co-operation was better than competition.

The general election of 1950 (which, after boundary redistribution, Callaghan fought and won as candidate for Cardiff South-East) marked the effective end of what had been one of the great radical administrations of the twentieth century. In the reshuffle that followed Labour's victory Callaghan became parliamentary and financial secretary to the Admiralty—not technically a promotion, but a clear sign of growing importance as the first lord, Viscount Hall, was in the upper house and his junior minister had, therefore, to answer for all naval matters in the Commons.

After the Conservative victory in November 1951 Callaghan was ideally placed to represent a new generation of MPs in the Labour leadership. Only two MPs from the 1945 intake were elected to the post-election shadow cabinet. The parliamentary party shrewdly chose two future prime ministers: Jim Callaghan and Harold Wilson. Callaghan became spokesman on transport, often the graveyard of ambition, and then on fuel and power, but found more excitement (as well as important additions to his income) in journalism and broadcasting. His weekly column for the Women's Sunday Mirror had the dated title of ‘The intelligent women's guide to world affairs’, and the ‘Free speech’ debates on BBC television often ended in a verbal brawl. But the young shadow minister was becoming known to the general public. Together with his appointment as parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation (on an annual retainer of £500 a year, with £300 expenses) his freelance employment removed all financial worries. His family was secure in their modern flat overlooking Blackheath. It was at this time that Audrey Callaghan began to play her own part in public life. It culminated—after some years on the London county council—in her becoming chairman of Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital. Her work there was so distinguished that Margaret Thatcher, when prime minister, wanted her to become a dame of the British empire. Audrey Callaghan declined with thanks.

There is little doubt that Jim Callaghan agreed to advise the Police Federation (effectively the trade union of junior officers) for no better reason than that he wanted the money. But once on the pay roll he became emotionally committed to their cause. That was always his way. The trade unions, the Royal Navy, the police: once an association was established, his loyalty was unwavering, and his pride in the various partnerships was never hidden. As chancellor of the exchequer he described his economic policy ‘in the old naval term, steady as she goes’ (The Times, 12 April 1967), and he told Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles MP, ‘I have never slept in the captain's cabin, but I have slung my hammock on the quarterdeck’. His abiding, and obvious, affection for the police and the trade unions was to prove a source of both strength and pain. In his years in Downing Street he was more loyal to them than they were to him.

After a brief period as spokesman on education (a subject that, over the years, he continually claimed to be his primary interest) Callaghan succeeded Aneurin Bevan as shadow colonial secretary in 1956. It was a period of colonial transition. Iain Macleod became colonial secretary in 1959 with a clear mandate to dissolve the empire—a view that Alan Lennox-Boyd, his predecessor, had not shared. But the dissolution of empire proved barely less painful than its acquisition. The idea of federation, in the Caribbean and in Central Africa, although fashionable in Britain was unpopular in the colonies themselves. Callaghan was deputy leader of a parliamentary delegation to the Central African Federation that, in a unanimous report, predicted that the union of Nyasaland and the two Rhodesias would only succeed if the African population within them was given a stronger voice in the eventual government. The predictions proved depressingly correct and unrest turned into open revolt. After a state of emergency was declared and nationalist leaders arrested in 1959, Macleod asked Lord Monckton of Brenchley—sometime adviser to Edward VIII, tory cabinet minister, and friend of Sir Stafford Cripps—to chair a royal commission to inquire into the federation's future. Callaghan was asked to become a member, an appointment that required him to be a member of the privy council. Membership was offered him but, according to his autobiography and an account he gave to the cabinet during a discussion on the ‘Lib-Lab pact’, he replied that to accept the distinction from a Conservative prime minister would be like ‘a Welsh rugby forward accepting an English cap’ (Time and Chance, 142). In fact he disagreed with the commission's terms of referral. It should, in his opinion, have been empowered to consider the desirability of any one of the constituent states seceding from the federation.

In 1960—Harold Macmillan's ‘never had it so good’ election having secured the third consecutive Conservative victory a year before—Aneurin Bevan died, leaving vacant the post of shadow foreign secretary. Harold Wilson was chosen to succeed him and Callaghan became the shadow chancellor. After fifteen years in the House of Commons he had become an indisputable member of the Labour leadership. Three years later that status was confirmed when in February 1963, after Hugh Gaitskell's death, he stood for election as leader of the Labour Party. It is impossible to believe that he ever thought that he could win—an assumption supported by the brevity with which the subject was dealt in his autobiography. It is far more likely that he was establishing his credentials as one of Labour's ‘big three’. He came bottom of the poll with just forty-one votes and, like many candidates in subsequent Labour leadership contests, boasted about the quality rather than the size of his support. He was particularly flattered by the endorsement of Tony Crosland, a man of vastly different background and temperament. It was Crosland, not Roy Jenkins, he chose to make foreign secretary in 1976.

Chancellor of the exchequer, 1964–7

Reginald Maudling—shadowed as chancellor of the exchequer by Callaghan for two years before the 1964 election—believed that the solution to Britain's economic malaise was expansion at all costs. The result was increased pressure on the already precarious pound. When Labour won the election with an overall majority of four seats Callaghan was required to wrestle with a sterling crisis that was likely to be exacerbated by the arrival of a government in which international creditors did not repose immediate confidence. Maudling, packing to leave the chancellor's residence in Downing Street, passed on the torch to his successor with an apology: ‘Sorry old cock to leave it in this shape. I suggested to Alec [Douglas-Home] this morning that perhaps we should put the bank rate up but he thought it best to leave it to you’ (Time and Chance, 162). Callaghan was about to make the first of the two great mistakes which removed at least a little of the shine from an otherwise glittering career.

On the day that Callaghan became chancellor Harold Wilson, the new prime minister, called a meeting in Downing Street to discuss the outline of government economic policy. Only two other ministers were present, Callaghan and George Brown, the first secretary of state for economic affairs, and head of the new department that was supposed, when pitted against the Treasury, to provide the energy that comes from ‘creative tension’. In the months that lay ahead the tension was more apparent than the creativity. But at that first meeting of the Labour government the two ministers—and the four senior officials who accompanied them—were unanimous in support of the wrong decision. It was agreed that the pound should not be devalued, virtually without discussion and completely without thought of consulting cabinet colleagues.

It was later often argued that Callaghan—despite taking a course in economics while a visiting fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford—lacked the intellectual self-confidence to argue against the decision not to devalue. In fact the decision was based more on patriotism and politics than economics. Wilson, Callaghan, and Brown took an old-fashioned pride in the integrity of sterling. Devaluation was, to them, capitulation. It was also a betrayal. Two years later, during his visit to see President Lyndon Johnson in Washington, Callaghan asked a young back-bencher—who had impatiently argued for devaluation back in 1964—if he realized that the pound was a reserved currency and that to have reduced its value would have been to rob the developing nations of the Commonwealth that held sterling balances in the Bank of England. There was also the government's reputation to consider. To economists devaluation was no more than an economic adjustment. To the general public it was both a humiliation and proof that Britain was a step nearer to bankruptcy. Ramsay MacDonald (admittedly after he formed the National Government) and Clem Attlee had both presided over a devaluation. Wilson and his ministers did not want it to seem a Labour habit.

Callaghan's first budget had therefore to respond to the nation's traditional weakness with traditional methods. The reduction in international confidence and the inevitable run on sterling that followed was to be combated with spending cuts of approaching £240 million—though the increases in pensions, national assistance, and national insurance benefits (promised in the budget) were honoured. The standard rates of income tax and petrol duty were increased by 6d. and a new capital gains tax and corporation tax were introduced. The hope that the bank rate would not have to be raised was confounded within days. On 23 November 1964 it was increased by two points to 7 per cent.

The balance of payments deficit was tackled by an ‘import surcharge’, a temporary financial imposition which was intended to make foreign purchases more expensive and therefore less attractive. The European Free Trade Area, of which Britain had retained its membership after President de Gaulle vetoed the application to join the Common Market, claimed that the scheme was an infringement of Britain's treaty obligations. The foreign secretary, at an EFTA summit meeting, had to agree to limiting the life of a policy that was clearly an inhibition on free trade. But the crisis, which could not be avoided, had been postponed. An electioneering budget on St David's day 1966, which included the promise of a decimalized currency, was followed by a general election on the last day of March, which Labour won with an overall majority of ninety-six seats. The chancellor of the exchequer's stock was high. In the autumn of 1967 he was elected treasurer of the Labour Party with an automatic seat on the national executive. It was an eminence which could not last—though for a time public attention was diverted from the economy by the rebellion in Rhodesia and the attempts by George Brown (transferred from the Department of Economic Affairs to the Foreign Office) to prepare the way for another British application to join the Common Market.

A forced devaluation was only a matter of time. It came on 18 November 1967, the day that the trade figures for October were released showing a monthly deficit of £107 million, the largest on record. What doubts there might have been about taking that drastic decision were removed on 16 November when Robert Sheldon (a Labour back-bencher and accountant) asked, during questions to the chancellor of the exchequer, if Callaghan would confirm that a £1000 million loan had been negotiated with foreign banks. The question was followed by supplementary questions about the prospects of devaluation. Despite Callaghan's impassive procrastination £1500 million was lost in twenty-four hours in an attempt to prop up sterling. The chancellor's performance got very near to deceiving the House of Commons. Everyone agreed that deception had been justified. Callaghan made a statement to the House of Commons that spoke of both his ‘great personal regret’ and the prospects of ‘a lasting and substantial improvement in the balance of payments’. Iain Macleod, the shadow chancellor, accused the chancellor of having ‘broken faith’ and ‘devalued his word’. He ended his philippic with the dubious compliment that, since Callaghan was ‘an honourable man, he should resign’ (Hansard 5C, 754.939, 20 Nov 1967).

Home secretary, 1967–70

After defending his decision in the House of Commons debate, Callaghan told the prime minister that he must return to the back benches. Wilson urged him to stay. Callaghan agreed and asked to become secretary of state for education and science. That, the prime minister said, was too junior a portfolio. A move there would look like punitive demotion. The best—and easiest—solution would be a straight swap with Roy Jenkins at the Home Office. Callaghan took up the new post on 30 November. The new department was to prove his passport to the triumphs that were to follow.

Callaghan's period as home secretary began badly. On 20 February 1968, following a number of suspicious deaths in Fulham and Acton, he informed the House of Commons that ‘the murderers’ had been arrested—and refused, absolutely, to apologize for stigmatizing the men while they were still only suspects. But he dealt with the anti-Vietnam war protests outside the American embassy in Grosvenor Square with a mixture of strength and sensibility that the public applauded. He received—generally unfairly—much criticism for the introduction of the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Bill. He began the press conference at which the bill was unveiled with the announcement—brazen in the opinion of many of his critics—that the proposed legislation was the work of Jenkins, his predecessor at the Home Office. The disclaimer was an indication of his acceptance that succeeding the conspicuously ‘liberal’ Jenkins would be a difficult task. But it was also a tacit admission that the bill was a moral embarrassment to a government that prided itself on taking a stand against racism. When Kenya and Uganda had been granted independence the British government of the day had made an explicit promise to the Asian minorities within those countries that if the process of ‘Africanization’ drove them out of east Africa, they could always find a home in Britain. The Commonwealth Immigrants Bill legalized the breaking of that promise. But there were other initiatives that illustrated Callaghan's own libertarian instincts. Rudi Dutschke, a German radical, was, despite a tabloid outcry, allowed into Britain to study for a research degree at Cambridge. And Callaghan expressed strong and public opposition to all-white South African sports teams touring Britain. A more truly characteristic initiative was Children in Trouble, a white paper of May 1968, which prepared the way for the Children and Young Persons Act 1969, which provided a more humane system of detention for young offenders. There was a moment of deep embarrassment before the general election of 1970 when, as home secretary, Callaghan performed his statutory duty of presenting the boundary commission's report to the House of Commons but then—knowing that the redistribution of seats disadvantaged the Labour Party—recommended that his honourable friends vote against it.

If Callaghan performed the domestic duties of the office of home secretary with mixed success and acclaim the task of supervising the governance of Northern Ireland, then one of the home secretary's responsibilities, was discharged with undisputed brilliance. The late 1960s marked the beginning of new Irish ‘troubles’. Callaghan proved the ideal man to deal with them. His period as effective viceroy, lord lieutenant, and chief secretary lasted for less than a year. It began with mass riots in Belfast on 2 August 1969 and ended with Labour's general election defeat on 18 June 1970. Throughout August 1969 the situation—bad at the beginning of the month—deteriorated. Peace had barely been restored in Belfast when the Apprentice Boys' march in Londonderry provoked an outbreak of even greater violence than that which had scarred the provincial capital. Then it was Belfast again. Nationalists, reinforced by members of the Irish Republican Army, fought with police and B special paramilitaries, who made no secret of their support for continued protestant domination of the Northern Ireland government. On 14 and 15 August two hundred houses were burned down in Belfast's predominantly Catholic Falls Road area. Seven people, including a nine-year-old boy, were killed. In the Short Strand area of the city a massacre of Catholics was only averted by the intervention of republican gunmen.

On 7 August the Londonderry police had made an official request for ‘the military to come to the aid of the civil power’. The Ministry of Defence, conscious of the implications of taking such a step, recommended the home secretary to tell the chief constable that the time had not yet come to put soldiers on the streets of a city in the United Kingdom. Wilson supported that view with the comment, ‘Once the troops go in, they could be there for weeks’ (personal knowledge). But on 14 August the line could be held no longer. Reinforced by a plea from Bernadette Devlin—later a republican MP—the home secretary accepted that British soldiers were needed to prevent Irish deaths. The Prince of Wales's Own Yorkshire regiment entered Londonderry and imposed something approaching martial law. Callaghan realized that nothing in Northern Ireland could ever be the same again and that if the situation was to improve rather than deteriorate a political, rather than a military, solution would have to be found.

The solution—only partial, but clearly a great leap forward—had to be imposed on the protestant majority on behalf of Catholic communities that had suffered a whole range of gross injustices. The RUC was disarmed and the B specials disbanded and replaced by the Ulster Defence Regiment, operating under strict military discipline. The Whitehall government provided money for slum clearance and house building, on the strict understanding that the allocation of the new tenancies should be even-handed between Catholics and protestants. But Callaghan's greatest contribution to the fragile peace was the atmosphere of calm that his persona exuded and the promise of a fairer society that he bravely made. His year in charge of the troubled province is best remembered by the photograph taken on his second visit, in October 1969, in which an obviously adoring crowd listened to him speak from the bedroom window of a terraced house. Asked, years later, what he remembered about the moment of triumph Callaghan said that all he could recall was that his special branch escorting officer lost a shoe in the crush—and charged for a new pair on his expenses.

Callaghan's year of Ireland was not all triumph, however. Barbara Castle, first secretary of state and secretary of state for employment and productivity, had never been one of his favourite politicians and in the dying days of 1968 she had compounded all the other causes of his criticism by circulating the draft of a white paper that proposed that the conduct of trade unions should be regulated by an industrial relations act. (A royal commission, under the chairmanship of Lord Donovan, had come to quite the opposite conclusion, but the ever active Mrs Castle wanted direct government intervention.) Her proposals—paradoxically set out in a command paper entitled In Place of Strife (1969)—were anathema to the TUC. Negotiations between employers and employees had always been carried on by the process of ‘free collective bargaining’ and in 1969 there were many influential figures in the Labour movement who could not imagine why that should change. Callaghan, still loyal to his trade union roots, was among them.

In his autobiography Callaghan insisted that he had always believed that industrial reform was necessary but had no doubt that the best way to bring it about was for the trade unions to make the changes themselves. Indeed, before the royal commission reported he told the Fire Brigades Union that the TUC should anticipate its recommendation with reform proposals of its own. He should have known, and perhaps did know, that there was no chance of the unions accepting his advice. He nevertheless argued against Castle's proposals in cabinet and organized against them in the Parliamentary Labour Party and in the party in the country. Ministers—before and since—have been known to do the same. But Callaghan took his rebellion a step further. On 26 March 1969, at the meeting of Labour's national executive, he voted in favour of a resolution that condemned government policy. Not surprisingly his cabinet colleagues (at least those who supported In Place of Strife) regarded his conduct as unforgivable. Dick Crossman, secretary of state for health and social security and a Castle ally, shouted that he should resign. Wilson removed Callaghan from the management committee—known colloquially as the inner cabinet—and made his demotion public.

Callaghan was not deflected from his purpose. In any event it was too late for him to recover his colleagues' esteem by recanting his strongly held views. And he had little doubt that feeling was running too strongly in his favour to leave him, at the end of the argument, on the losing side. The climax of the drama came at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party with Douglas Houghton, Callaghan's old trade union boss, in the chair. That afternoon, speaking at a trade union conference, Callaghan had reiterated his opposition to the statutory control of collective bargaining. Houghton began the meeting with a resounding declaration that the party ‘simply would not accept’ the proposed legislation. His proclamation was greeted with thunderous applause. Barbara Castle's parliamentary secretary hurried to her department with the news, ‘It's dead’, she said. ‘It's dead. That bastard Callaghan has killed it’ (personal knowledge).

It is at least arguable that the defeat of In Place of Strife—both because of the popularity of trade union reform and the inevitable consequences of so obvious a cabinet split—was the cause of Labour's unexpected general election defeat in June 1970. Other possible explanations were canvassed, including the publication, in the week before polling day, of balance of payments figures that were made to look far worse than they were by the inclusion of the cost of several commercial aircraft bought from America. But the general view was that the dispute over In Place of Strife had made the government seem divided and its eventual abandonment had caused the prime minister to appear ineffectual. The defeat was as substantial as it was surprising. Edward Heath's Conservatives enjoyed a majority of thirty over all other parties. However, in the post mortem Labour did not turn on Callaghan and accuse him of ensuring a tory victory. In the shadow cabinet elections that followed the convening of the new parliament it was Barbara Castle who failed to gain a place. Callaghan—always able to judge the mood of the party—came a respectable fifth.

Opposition, 1970–74

Anthony Barber, chancellor of the exchequer in the Heath government after the death of Iain Macleod, suggested to Callaghan that he might be interested in becoming managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). For a time he was tempted, even though Audrey Callaghan had expressed her doubts about moving to America. But before he had made up his mind the French vetoed his nomination. His career was saved for British politics.

Callaghan played a remarkably passive role in the four years of opposition that followed Labour's 1970 defeat. As shadow home secretary he dominated the debates on Ireland which preceded the suspension of Stormont and the imposition of direct rule. But the real issue of the 1970 parliament was Europe. Heath secured Britain's entry into the Common Market—an achievement that eluded Labour in government and one the party opposed in opposition. Sixty-nine Labour MPs, under the leadership of Roy Jenkins, the deputy leader of the party, voted with the government in favour of British entry. Callaghan was a passionate—at times it seemed pathological—opponent of British membership.

In the spring of 1972 Jenkins, unable to reconcile his conscience to the need to vote with his party during the long committee stage of the Common Market Entry Bill, resigned as Labour's deputy leader. Several prominent trade unionists urged Callaghan to contest the consequent vacancy. In all probability he would have won an election, which in those days was carried out exclusively in the Parliamentary Labour Party. However, he declined. But he was again the beneficiary of events outside his control. Denis Healey became shadow chancellor in place of Jenkins, and Callaghan moved from shadowing the Home Office to become shadow foreign secretary.

The Heath administration ended with the election in which the prime minister invited the voters to decide ‘Who governs Britain?’ In 1972 the National Union of Mineworkers had—after much agitation, a strike, and an arbitration award—won a wage increase that flouted the government's pay guidelines. Faced with a second confrontation the Conservatives decided to appeal to the electorate for a mandate to put the mineworkers' union in its place. The election was anticipated weeks before it was declared. In Birmingham, at Labour's local government conference, Callaghan, that year's chairman of the Labour Party, spoke solemnly about the ‘constitutional outrage’ of holding a general election on a voters' register that was out of date. ‘Surely’, he said, ‘the Prime Minister will wait for the new register’ (The Times, 14 Jan 1975). In private he conceded, ‘Of course he won't’. Nor did he. The election was held on 28 February 1974 and, to general surprise, Labour won 301 seats to the Conservatives' 297 (though on a lower share of the vote). After a futile attempt to attract the Liberals into a coalition Heath resigned. Wilson became prime minister again and Callaghan his foreign secretary.

Foreign secretary, 1974–76

During the campaign—as the Labour Party struggled to distract the public's attention from the striking miners—Callaghan had constantly warned the country about what, according to Labour's manifesto, were the dangers of Common Market membership. Chief among them was the rising price of food. The shadow foreign secretary had gone so far as to appear on platforms carrying a basket of groceries that illustrated, or were said to illustrate, Europe's influence on the cost of living. There is no doubt that many of the Foreign Office staff who watched his performances comforted themselves with the belief that the grocery stunt proved that his antagonism was no more than cheap populism. They discovered they were wrong during his first week in the Foreign Office, when he convened a meeting of British ambassadors to the Common Market capitals. Immediately, before he addressed them, he gave each one a copy of Labour's election manifesto. One of the more senior ambassadors, anxious to demonstrate independence of mind, thought it would be amusing to ask if he and his colleagues were expected to buy their copies. ‘No’, the foreign secretary replied, ‘just implement them’ (private information). There was a gasp of amazed realization that Callaghan really meant ‘to renegotiate the terms of British membership’—or leave the Common Market.

The ‘renegotiation’ began in Luxembourg on 1 April 1974. Callaghan had rejected all official advice to seek the new terms in a spirit of friendship and compromise. Emollience was not to be part of his negotiating technique. He could not address the council of foreign ministers until a debate had been concluded on the export of cattle between France and Germany. The delay neither improved his temper nor softened his approach. As a result both the content and the manner of his speech (which became a government white paper) shocked his fellow foreign ministers into believing that not only was Britain prepared to leave but that withdrawal was the option Callaghan wanted. The Foreign Office officials, who still hoped that they might rescue British membership, were certain that Callaghan's aggressive attitude had made an acceptable outcome more difficult to achieve. Even other ministers, present with him at those early meetings, were unsure if he wanted the renegotiation to fail or to succeed. And they feared that if he had made a calculated decision to begin hard and gradually soften he might well not win the support of Europe but lose the support of the Labour Party. Fortunately for those who believed Britain's destiny to lie in Europe, his attitude changed, almost overnight.

Two months after he became foreign secretary Callaghan attended a ‘political co-operation meeting’ at Schloss Gymnich in Germany. His suspicion that much of the talk about European unity was rhetorical was confirmed. He was reinforced in the view that heady promises about closer integration would not be matched with either hard thought about how it could be achieved or a willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve it. But although he was irritated by his colleagues' style, the absence of substance made him realize that Britain need not fear being sucked into a federation. Equally important, he enjoyed the discussions with his fellow foreign ministers and welcomed the opportunity of the European powers to combine their strength in voluntarily agreed policy positions. From then on he wanted the renegotiations to succeed. But a renegotiation there had to be.

The two key issues that had to be resolved were Britain's budget contribution and access for Commonwealth agricultural products, particularly sugar from the Caribbean and New Zealand cheese, butter, and lamb (known in the Common Market as ‘sheep meat’). The argument over the budget illustrated a difference in logic between Britain and her European colleagues. The United Kingdom paid a contribution of between 10 and 12 per cent of the total Common Market budget, and received 8 per cent of Brussels' expenditure in return. Worse still, the contribution was estimated to rise to 20 per cent of the total after the transition period consequent on Britain's entry. The French and Germans did not think the arithmetical discrepancy was important. Britain did not behave in a way that attracted expenditure. They did.

Callaghan found the Common Market's methods hard to accept. British empiricism often clashed with the continental reverence for rigorous rules. Occasionally the tension turned into violent dispute. Discussions on the proposed meeting of oil producers was proceeding peacefully until Callaghan discovered that Britain, an oil producer, was not to participate directly but would be represented by Gaston Thorn, prime minister and foreign minister of Luxembourg, and temporary president of the council of ministers. That was the requirement of the rules, but Callaghan would not accept it. After a morning of angry confrontation it was agreed that Britain should be added to the list of participants.

Even as Callaghan edged closer to a deal both he and Wilson were careful to protect their position within the party by preserving the appearance of scepticism. Callaghan's autobiography later suggested that they welcomed the French proposals that heads of government should meet regularly in a formal European council. But at the time the idea was proposed both he and Wilson were so cautious about appearing to support the idea that they refused to attend the inaugural meeting. A trembling junior minister went in their place. The early vicissitudes of the Foreign Office were also made more tolerable by retreat to his farm (on the Weald of Sussex) and his family. One day, leaving unexpectedly by the ambassadors' entrance in Horse Guards Parade, he told a startled junior minister, ‘You take the meetings this afternoon. I'm going to see my granddaughter’ (personal knowledge).

There were other moments of drama during Callaghan's eighteen months at the Foreign Office. The Turks, having given assurances to the contrary, invaded Cyprus. Callaghan, impatient to get to Whitehall at the first opportunity, refused to wait for his official car to arrive and commandeered a milk float. Idi Amin, the president of Uganda, arrested a British citizen, Denis Hills, and, accusing him of imperfectly defined crimes, threatened execution unless Callaghan visited east Africa and pleaded for his release. Callaghan duly complied. Britain fought (and lost) a ‘cod war’ with Iceland. The Armed Forces Movement restored democracy to Portugal and Callaghan insisted to Henry Kissinger that the new government should not be ostracized. But the real issue was the Common Market. By the end of the negotiations—the principle of a budget rebate being conceded, and sugar and diary product imports having won a temporary stay of execution—Callaghan felt able to announce that the renegotiation had succeeded. But the Labour Party still had to be convinced. The solution (a tribute to Wilson's traditional tactical ingenuity) was a referendum on continued membership—a constitutional innovation the prime minister had dismissed out of hand two years earlier. A special Labour Party conference, basing its debate on a general ‘anti’ party document and the government's unequivocally ‘pro’ white paper, agreed that ‘the government proposes and the people decide’. On 5 June 1975 the people duly decided that Britain should remain a member of the Common Market.

Callaghan enjoyed the Foreign Office. And, after the Foreign Office got used to his occasionally irascible ways, the Foreign Office enjoyed him. Often his short temper was the result of a (usually mistaken) view that he was being patronized by the over-educated. The suggestion that Bryan Gould (a former diplomat and Oxford don, now Labour MP for Southampton Test) should be made a parliamentary secretary was greeted with the announcement that he did not promote anyone who ‘talks to me as if I have just come down from the trees’ (private information). The intellectual parity of his relationship with officials was confirmed when, frustrated by an abstruse explanation of what he regarded as a simple point, he quoted Roy Campbell, the South African poet:
I'm with you there of course:
They use the snaffle and the curb all right
But where's the bloody horse?

Prime Minister, 1976–79

On 16 March 1976—much to general surprise—Harold Wilson first told the queen, then the cabinet, and eventually the general public, that he proposed to resign his seals of office as soon as a successor was appointed. Long after the event, soi-disant close friends claimed that they had known of his decision long in advance. Few of the claims were justified. But it does seem that Callaghan knew at least the night before the announcement. He asked a couple of carefully selected ministers of state which cabinet job they would most like in what he described as an imminent reshuffle. It seems that none of them realized that it would not be Wilson who carried it out. Wilson predicted to his staff that the following day's headlines would proclaim ‘It looks like Jim’. The prediction proved to be correct.

Before the outcome of the leadership election was determined, Callaghan, already a declared candidate, announced to parliament the details of an initiative, unsuccessful as it turned out, by which he had hoped to break the deadlock in negotiations with still unlawfully independent Rhodesia. Cynics said that it was part of his election campaign. In fact it was the result of another facet of his character which became more apparent as the years passed. A few days earlier he had sat next to the queen at dinner in the Italian embassy and had told her of his hopes of moving towards a peaceful settlement. She had expressed her approval of the plan. Callaghan, a monarchist who held the royal family in personal esteem, accepted his sovereign's implicit command. His reverence for the institution and the individuals who embodied it increased with the years. During his retirement he developed the habit of writing to the queen, who invariably replied.

At this time the leader of the Labour Party was elected by Labour MPs. Six candidates contested the election held on 5 April 1976: Callaghan, Roy Jenkins, Michael Foot, Denis Healey, Tony Benn, and Tony Crosland. Callaghan—with a strong following in parliament—was sure that he would top the first ballot. He came second, with 84 votes to Michael Foot's 90. Jenkins, Crosland, and Benn pulled out or were eliminated. On the second ballot Callaghan won 141 votes to Foot's 133 and Healey's 38. He won on the third ballot by the decisive, but not overwhelming, majority of 39 votes. The next day he was prime minister.

A new prime minister has to put his decisive stamp on the cabinet. Callaghan accomplished that necessity by sacking Barbara Castle, his old adversary from the days of In Place of Strife. It was a controversial beginning to what was to remain a controversial premiership. At the first party conference he addressed as leader Callaghan, encouraged by Peter Jay, his son-in-law and sometime economic correspondent of The Times, renounced John Maynard Keynes's belief in a ‘cosy world … where employment could be guaranteed by the stroke of a pen’. He went on to argue that Keynes was not just outdated but plain wrong. ‘We used to think that we could spend our way out of recession … That option no longer exists … In so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion … by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy.’ Reality—as the prime minister saw it—burst in on the conference next day when Denis Healey, the chancellor of the exchequer, returned from Heathrow airport, where he had been about to board a plane for New York and a meeting of the IMF, to deal with a sudden deterioration in the value of sterling. There followed the IMF crisis, during which the government boosted international confidence in the pound by reducing what was thought to be a public sector borrowing requirement of £12 billion. In fact the deficit was barely £8 billion. But, working on the over-estimate, the cabinet struggled through October 1976 to cut public expenditure and services to a level at which the imagined deficit was reduced by half.

For the next three years the government was derided for accepting a more rigorous fiscal regime imposed on it by the IMF. In fact Callaghan used the pressure of international opinion to implement policies he had meant to employ from the day on which he became prime minister. Public expenditure had been cut by £1 billion during the previous July, but that clear indication that the government intended to operate a more stringent economic policy had little effect on either the balance of payments (in deficit by £3 billion) or the value of the pound (almost two dollars in January 1976 but only $1.64 in September and forecast to fall by a cent a day until it reached $1.50). The crisis made the need for dramatic action more urgent and the justification easier to explain. But accepting the IMF's stern advice was what Healey called a ‘Pyrrhic defeat’. He allowed himself to be forced to do what he had always wanted to do.

Concern for the state of the economy did not prevent Callaghan from pursuing what, back in 1967 when he resigned from the Treasury, he had described as his ‘real interest’—education. Within days of becoming prime minister he had sent a memorandum to the secretary of state for education asking about the quality of basic teaching, the relevance of the curriculum for older children in comprehensive schools, and the examination system's competence to test ability and attainment. While the department was still composing its answer the prime minister laid the foundation stone for a new hall of residence at Ruskin College, Oxford. The speech that accompanied the ceremony horrified the education establishment. Its insistence that the purpose of education was ‘to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively and constructive place in society and also fit them to do a job of work’ (The Times, 19 Oct 1976) was interpreted—almost certainly correctly—as an expression of doubt about the non-selective (comprehensive) system of secondary education and a declaration that the traditional freedom of teachers to teach how and what they chose could not continue. It began a debate about teachers and teaching that was still raging decades later.

The economic policy the Callaghan government had inherited from its predecessor was crucially dependent on income restraint, which its economic advisers believed was vital to the defeat of inflation. Experts later disagreed about how much the reduction of the retail price index, from over 20 per cent to single figures, was the result of the wages policy and the price code that accompanied it (largely to convince the unions that profits, like earnings, were being held down). What is certain is that, at the time, it was believed to be crucial. Callaghan, unlike Wilson, felt emotionally involved in the campaigns to encourage the trade unions to co-operate in holding wages down. He supported the trades unions and they should support him.

In the summer of 1977 Callaghan was at least privately sympathetic towards the moderate ministers who joined the picket lines outside the Grunwick film processing laboratory in Willesden, where the largely female and Asian workforce had been refused the right of trade union membership. And although he supported—indeed initiated—the cabinet's hard line towards the Fire Brigades Union (which was on strike in support of demands for a 30 per cent wage increase and a reduction in the working week) he admitted to feeling deep regret that a generally devoted group of men and women were being used, by less worthy comrades in other unions, to blow a hole in wages policy.

The feeling of mutual affection survived, despite some strain, until the summer of 1978, when it became clear that trade unions were unlikely to accept any level of wage restraint and certain to reject the 5 per cent ceiling (with exceptions for the lowest paid) on which Callaghan personally insisted. Co-operation broke down in part because of two misconceptions. One was that real wages would be higher if freely negotiated. The other was that the IMF settlement had marked the end of the Labour government's commitment to high levels of public expenditure providing a constantly improving level of public services—regarded by the TUC as the quid pro quo of old justifications for pay policy. And, since the economy was obviously improving, was pay policy still necessary?

The path towards full rejection of income restraint was marked by a series of mile posts that should have left the prime minister in no doubt that the 5 per cent limit on earnings increases would be impossible to enforce. But he remained determined to impose it on the unions. Indeed, he was far more resolute (or inflexible) in pursuit of the impossible than was Healey and actually sent messages to some cabinet ministers that, if they argued for an even lower figure, he would have no objection. Throughout 1977 it was nevertheless clear that support for a voluntary incomes policy had ebbed away. The TUC general council was evenly tied on a vote proposing support of the government's proposal and Tom Jackson—chairman, leader of the Post Office union, and himself a supporter of ‘restraint’—thought it his constitutional duty to declare the resolution ‘not carried’. The biennial conference of the Transport and General Workers Union not only rejected 5 per cent but shouted down Jack Jones, the general secretary, when he asked the delegates not to risk the re-election of a tory government.

By the time the prime minister addressed the TUC in Brighton, in September 1978, it was clear that pay policy was dead. But as the economy improved so did the government's opinion poll rating. Pundits agreed that if there were to be an autumn election Labour would—at worst—be the largest single party. At dinner with the general council on the night before he addressed the delegates Callaghan gave the impression that an announcement was imminent. Even his speech, which included an embarrassing version of ‘There was I, waiting at the church’, did not convince them that the election would not be announced before the end of the week.

At the end of the last cabinet meeting before the summer recess Callaghan—in typical style—had told ministers that he did not want letters advising him what the election date should be. When the cabinet reassembled, on the day after his TUC speech, he informed them of the decision he had taken by reading a letter he had sent to the queen earlier that morning. He clearly enjoyed the atmosphere of increasing tension as he went through the opening paragraphs which set out the state of the nation—inflation down, sterling stable, productivity improving. However, there was much work still to be done. There was a dramatic pause before the last paragraph. ‘I therefore do not propose to ask Your Majesty for an early dissolution of Parliament.’ There was a second pause and then—the style maintained—he added, ‘You can discuss it if you want to. But I doubt if you'll persuade me to write to the Queen again, telling her that I've changed my mind.’ There was a ripple of half laughter round the Cabinet table. ‘You're laughing with relief’, the prime minister said. ‘But if we have trouble with the unions during the winter, we lose our majority and are forced out, you'll all feel differently’ (personal knowledge). Few prime ministers have made a more prophetic announcement.

The alternative to an incomes policy accepted by the unions was a statutory pay code enforced by penalizing companies that agreed to wage increases above the government's stipulated maximum. Sustaining such a controversial policy—indeed making progress in any field of government—required a robust House of Commons majority. And the Callaghan administration, with never more than a handful of votes more than the combined opposition, lost by-elections. The only way to retain office was to forge a pact with the Liberal Party. It was a stratagem that Michael Foot, effectively the deputy prime minister, pursued with enthusiasm. Callaghan himself regarded it as no more than a tedious necessity, even though the Liberal Party never imposed one of its policies on the government as the price of co-operation. The pact offended his partisanship and his pride. And it was those emotions that prevented him, in the end, from extending the government's life by the arrangement of another humiliating deal.

Although the Liberals asked for very little Callaghan asked his cabinet to throw a crumb in their direction by supporting, in a free vote, proportional representation as the method by which members of the European parliament should be elected. Some ministers responded to his wishes. But indiscipline was becoming endemic. The government lost the vote on the annual estimates and was beaten in the major attempt to impose sanctions on companies that breached pay policy. On both occasions Labour back-benchers had made the difference between victory and defeat. There was only one moment, during those fractious days, when members of the cabinet thought the prime minister looked less than composed. That was when a note was passed to him from an official and he immediately—and peremptorily—left the meeting. Audrey, his wife, had received slight injuries in a motor accident.

In the middle of what came to be called the winter of discontent Callaghan joined the presidents of the United States and France and the chancellor of Germany on the island of Guadeloupe. There was no doubt about the importance of their discussions. They tried to lay the foundations of a world stability pact that would underwrite the value of currencies and they examined the emergence of militant Islam in Iran and the pressure that might be brought on the apartheid regime in South Africa. A new round of arms limitation talks was initiated. But they met in the sun while Britain was in the grip of a politically bitter winter. On his return the prime minister's staff urged him not to hold a press conference at the airport. But Callaghan—happiest when he was talking to other world leaders—insisted on giving the newspapers an immediate account of his discussions. A reporter from The Sun asked if it had been right to abandon Britain at such a time. The prime minister replied with a homily on discussions about great international events putting domestic issues in perspective. It ended, ‘I don't think other people in the world would share the view that there is a crisis’. The Sun paraphrased his comments on its front page as ‘Crisis. What Crisis?’ (11 January 1979). Support, in and out of parliament, continued to ebb away.

There was, however, one policy that—as long as its implementation remained possible—was guaranteed to ensure that the Liberal Party would keep the Labour government in power. It was the devolution of power from Westminster to Edinburgh and, to a lesser degree, to Cardiff. It was not a policy for which Callaghan felt any great enthusiasm. But, although it was an initiative with too intangible benefits to stir his passions, he realized the advantages of pursuing the idea with resolute determination.

The devolution bill made slow progress through parliament. However, trade union dissatisfaction with government policy accelerated more quickly. It was the public service unions which took the most dramatic action. Hospital porters picketed hospital gates, allowing the entry only of patients whom they regarded as emergencies. Refuse collectors refused to empty dustbins, forcing householders to leave rubbish in black bags at street corners and thus creating ideal photographs for use by anti-government newspapers. In a cold winter school caretakers neglected to switch on classroom heating and local government workmen left icy roads ungritted. In Liverpool members of the General and Municipal Workers Union parks and cemeteries branch refused to bury the dead.

Parochially minded MPs in the House of Commons—uncertain about the constitutional propriety of a bill to devolve power from the Westminster parliament—inserted a clause that required the proposal to be subject to a referendum that must endorse the notion not only with a majority of the votes, but with 40 per cent of the electorate voting in favour. When the referenda were held on 1 March 1979 Wales voted against it, Scotland just in favour, but with only 33 per cent of the registered electorate in favour. Devolution was dead and the nationalists withdrew their support from the government. Margaret Thatcher, the leader of the opposition, knowing that the government no longer commanded a majority, tabled a vote of no confidence that was debated on 28 March 1979. Much work was done to persuade individual MPs from the minority parties to support the government—but not by Callaghan. Indeed, when Enoch Powell offered at least the abstention of the Ulster Unionists, in return for a gas pipeline joining the province to the mainland, he explicitly vetoed the idea on the grounds that it had not been properly discussed by the cabinet. He had grown weary of cobbling together fragile and temporary majorities and lost patience with the indignity of modifying policies to meet the whims of fractious back-benchers. The vote of no confidence was carried by one vote.

The cabinet and the national executive of the Labour Party met in the Waterloo room of 10 Downing Street to consider the election manifesto. There was argument about almost every paragraph. But the fiercest argument was over a proposal to promise the reform of the House of Lords. Although it was fierce it did not last for long. It had barely begun when Callaghan announced that, if the party fought the election on a promise to make radical changes to the upper house, it would do so under another leader. During the campaign that followed Callaghan put on a convincing show of optimism. But, at least according to Bernard Donoughue, the head of his political office, he always believed that the tide had turned irrevocably. The likelihood was, however, that he would have won in the previous autumn and might well have been equally successful a year later when the memory of the winter of discontent had begun to fade. Choosing the wrong election date was Callaghan's second great mistake—greater even than his reluctance to devalue the pound in 1964. In the event, the Conservatives won 339 seats to Labour's 269.

Defeat, and later years

Some of Callaghan's closest friends advised him to resign as leader of the Labour Party immediately after the new parliament assembled. He rejected the idea on the grounds that he should ‘take some shine off the ball’ in the hope of making the batting easier for Denis Healey, his preferred successor. The months that followed were, he freely admitted, among the unhappiest in his life. The Labour Party was in open revolt—not simply hell-bent on moving policy to the left, but equally determined to change its constitution in a way that made the leftward shift permanent. The leader should be elected by the party at large. Candidates should be subject to re-selection (or not) by their constituency parties. The Parliamentary Labour Party should be denied all influence over the contents of the manifesto. In an effort to hold back the tide Callaghan met those he believed to be the most tractable trade union leaders at the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs training college at Bishop's Stortford. The re-selection of MPs was conceded but the battle over the method of electing the leader went on. It was still raging when Callaghan resigned his leadership of the Labour Party, on 15 October 1980. He was succeeded not by Denis Healey but by Michael Foot.

Callaghan stayed to fight the 1983 election in the re-drawn Cardiff South and Penarth constituency, dissociating himself from the party's defence policy in a speech made there. But his interest increasingly turned to international affairs. He was never so happy as when he was with the other great men of his era—Helmut Schmidt, Gerald Ford, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing—discussing how to put right the world they could no longer influence. He became father of the House of Commons and, much to his monarchist delight, in 1987 a knight of the Garter. True to both his affection for Wales and his well-ordered life, he arranged—long before he died—to have his Garter banner hung in the cathedral at Llandaff. On retirement from the Commons he was made a life peer, as Baron Callaghan of Cardiff, later in 1987.

The abiding feature of Callaghan's final years was his devotion to Audrey, his wife. For the last decade of her life she suffered from accelerating Alzheimer's disease. Towards the end she was cared for by nuns at St George's Retreat, Burgess Hill, a home for the elderly near the Callaghans' farm near Ringmer in Sussex. Callaghan visited her every day and sat by her bedside for hours. At the party in Downing Street given by Tony Blair to celebrate Callaghan's ninetieth birthday he confided to an old associate, ‘She does not recognise me. But I recognise her. And that's what matters’ (personal knowledge). Audrey Callaghan died on 15 March 2005. In the words of Peter Jay (his son-in-law), in the week after her death, ‘He decided that there was nothing else he had to do. The work was finished’. He settled down in the room at St George's Retreat which she had occupied during her final days and went peacefully to his rest on 26 March; the causes of death were given as lobar pneumonia, cardiac failure, and kidney failure.

Jim Callaghan risks the judgements of history that haunt almost all prime ministers whose tenure was brief and ended in defeat. But he deserved much better. He inherited an administration that would not, or could not, face up to Britain's burgeoning economic crisis and he left office with sterling stable, the balance of payments in surplus, and inflation moving down. He was a good prime minister. Given another four or five years he might have become a great one.

Roy Hattersley


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Bodl. Oxf. |  Bod. RH, Fabian Bureau MSS · Bod. RH, Welensky MSS · CAC Cam., John Silkin MSS · King's Lond., Liddell Hart MSS · NL Wales, Lord Cledwyn MSS · NL Wales, Viscount Tonypandy MSS  



BFINA, ‘Government’, Callaghan, J. Bush (director), Channel 4, 10 April 1987 · BFINA, ‘Society’, Callaghan, J. Bush (director), Channel 4, 17 April 1987 · BFINA, ‘Britain and the world’, Callaghan, J. Bush (director), Channel 4, 24 April 1987 · BFINA, current affairs footage · BFINA, documentary footage · BFINA, party political footage




BL NSA, current affairs recordings · BL NSA, documentary recordings · BL NSA, parliamentary recordings · BL NSA, party political recordings · BL NSA, recorded speeches


Bassano, six half-plate film negatives, 1947, NPG · Elliott & Fry, vintage print, 1947, NPG · W. Stoneman, bromide print, 1947, NPG · photographs, 1954–2002, Getty Images, London · photographs, 1955–2002, PA Photos, London · Daily Herald, bromide print, 1960–69, NPG · P. Keen, 35mm colour slide, c.1965, NPG · P. Keen, double portrait, 35mm colour slide, c.1965 (with Lady Callaghan), NPG · photographs, 1965–2002, Rex Features, London · photographs, 1965–2003, Photoshot, London · photographs, 1975–2002, Camera Press, London · B. L. Schwartz, dye transfer print, 1977, NPG · A. Newman, bromide print, 1978?, NPG · J. Pannett, drawing, 1980, priv. coll. · R. Spear, oils, exh. RA 1980 (I told you so) · B. Organ, oils on canvas, 1983, NPG [see illus.] · J. Mendoza, group portrait, oils, 1986–7, House of Commons, Westminster, London · G. Jones, pastel on paper, 1991, House of Commons, Westminster, London · H. Ocean, portrait, exh. RA 1991 · F. Topolski, black chalk drawing; Sothebys, 15 July 1998, lot 288