Yes, James Callaghan was an underrated British prime minister. Hickson and Miles present a compelling psychological portrait of a fervent political operator who rose from humble circumstances to the highest office in the land.
Reviews of his legacy as a Labour leader whose one term in office spanned three years and thirty days are mixed. “Sunny Jim” was an engaging personality, yet he led a fractious party which was divided by diverse ideological polarities. He could not always command their respect or support from his members, who often voted against him, crossing the floor to defeat his policies. Yet he presided in office in a most difficult period, as Britain was beset by chronic economic and industrial strife.
On entering 10 Downing Street, Callaghan found enemies inside his own party. The maverick Tony Benn did his best to undermine their new leader. Callaghan’s deputy, another left-winger, Michael Foot, was covertly complicit. His rivals, unholy rollers, did their best to steal his revivalist tent. Margaret Thatcher replaced Ted Heath as the Conservative’s party leader in opposition. Despite her shrill attempts, she could not lay a glove on “Big Jim.” In turn, Callaghan was often condescending and patronising towards his in-experienced Tory opponent.
Born in 1912, in impoverished circumstances, Callaghan persevered taking the best of opportunities. He left school early, for financial reasons, to be appointed to the civil service as a junior taxation officer, and became an inspector. He could not afford a university education, and that rankled him as PM. Proud of his working-class background, he later became a full-time trade union official. It was a solid grounding, as he was in tune with economic inequalities and the rise of the modern welfare state.
After the outbreak of World War II, he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as an ordinary seaman, and was later commissioned, being promoted to paymaster lieutenant. He was well qualified for the responsibilities of accounting and storekeeping. Callaghan was the last PM to have seen active service and the only former Royal Navy officer.
Why is it necessary to emphasise his war-time experience? It was a formative period in his life as he was steeped in traditional naval values, which shaped his future career. They included the tenets of honour, integrity, loyalty, courage, and honesty. These characteristics shape personal behaviour in any societal role, irrespective of level or station. He accepted liability for his decisions as a democratic socialist who sought the ideal betterment of others. Being a lapsed Baptist also helped.
This politician had a warm personal and official relationship with the Queen. Her Majesty held him as an avuncular type, and there was much affection between them. Prime Minister Callaghan could talk frankly to his sovereign. Any regular meetings between the two would have been mutually respectful. The Queen welcomed his candour as he also confided on social and cultural changes in Britain beyond her control.
These introductory remarks serve to describe if not explain him. So, what do we make of this book? This book has tried to account for a one-term British Labour prime minister. The work mostly succeeds, and it will find a sympathetic market in Britain. It is a boutique academic profile which will likely make less impression on any vectored Australian readership.
The book is written with an assured authority. Political historians, writing at an academic level, are objective as balanced. Only by comparing and contrasting his strengths and weaknesses can the lay reader discern his character and his overall influence and impact as a politician, in or out of office. But any book written by several authors suffers. Individual chapters repeat his early background and experience without new insights.
For many, Callaghan the political man was born on his election to Parliament as the Labour member for South Cardiff in 1945. After two decades of loyal parliamentary service, Callaghan enjoyed a steady progress discharging exacting positions. He was ambitious, yet he drifted away from his working-class roots and the traditional sway of Labour’s trade union base. He turned right and became a “small c” conservative, also appealing to both his urban and rural constituents to support him.
There is much to like about James Callaghan, who strived to project a new vision. He had his flaws, but politics is a blood sport, and his office was not without achievements. There is little point in starting on all the political problems the Callaghan government faced. As PM from 1976-1979, he had many fires in his in-tray, some were intractable as insoluble. Many were never-ending. The unions were feral and bloody-minded. Forces within British society were doing their worst to mimic their economic chaos by sabotaging a functional democracy for their own perverse ends. British rail was paralysed by wild-cat work to rule strikes. Garbage filled the streets as workers deigned not to remove it. In the ultimate indignity, the dead remained unburied, and the morgues soon filled to capacity. In the international arena, Callaghan grappled with the European Union, the Common Agriculture Policy, the troubles in Northern Ireland, terrorism, relations with Scotland and Wales, a viable contribution to NATO, the state of Britain’s armed forces, and the weakened strength of the British economy after an earlier humiliating IMF bail-out.
He was a good man confronting bad times. The small decisions were resolved, but the bigger challenges were often outside of any workable initiatives to overcome. He did whatever he though was correct.
Callaghan avoided a winnable election in 1978 only for Margaret Thatcher to wrest power from Labour in 1979. Labour had defeated itself. The British winter of discontent was a lasting fey coda under Callaghan. History should be generous to his long parliamentary career as he succumbed to its eventual centrifugal forces.
This is a review of Kevin Hickson and Jasper Miles (eds.), James Callaghan, An Underrated Prime Minister? (Biteback 2020). ISBN: 9781785906336 (Hardcover) & 9781785906343 (eBook)
Mike Fogarty is a former RAN supply officer and diplomat.
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.