Callaghan dead

by Chris Bertram on March 26, 2005

Jim Callaghan, the Labour Prime Minister defeated by Thatcher in 1979 and, amazingly the oldest living former British PM in history, has died at 92. I’m struggling to think of anything nice to say about his tenure as Home Secretary, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary or PM. He was a machine politician rather than someone animated by a sense of social justice, and it is noteworthy that “the BBC obituary”: can’t find a single policy achievement worth listing to his credit. His government collapsed in chaos and recrimination and was followed by bitter civil war with Labour. Thanks to him and his ilk we suffered 18 years of Tory misrule. Still, RIP and all that.



Raimo 03.26.05 at 1:54 pm

RIP too, of course.

I could be wrong, but didn’t he end a refuse relocation facilitators’ strike some time in the 70s?


Kevin Donoghue 03.26.05 at 2:01 pm

“Thanks to him and his ilk we suffered 18 years of Tory misrule.”

Well if his ilk includes Arthur Scargill and millions of voters that may be fair comment. As I recall Britain went through a phase of being practically ungovernable in the 1970s. Wilson didn’t do very well either and I can’t imagine that things would have been much better if Michael Foot had won the leadership contest.


Giles 03.26.05 at 2:27 pm

Actually wasn’t monetarism introduced under his stewardship (not Thatcher as is often beleived)? That was a seminal political acheivement – even if you disagree with the theory.

Although things didnt look good in ’79 is worth bearing in mind that he had to very much clean up the mess left by the Heath and Wilson goverments and IMF bailout.


Simon 03.26.05 at 3:10 pm

Giles – not really. £M3 growth was actually higher in Callaghan’s three years as PM than it had been the previous two under Wilson. Most of the reduction in inflation was due to fiscal tightening.


Bob B 03.26.05 at 3:44 pm

This was a career achievement of a kind:

“[Callaghan’s] background in the trade union movement led to his being a focus for opposition to the employment laws proposed by his cabinet colleague Barbara Castle in 1969. In this struggle (called: The Battle of Downing Street) he ultimately prevailed, and the proposals (set out in the White paper: In Place of Strife) were dropped. Some within the party who disliked Harold Wilson began to plot to destabilize him and have Callaghan take over at about this time. Callaghan also took the decision to deploy United Kingdom troops in Northern Ireland after a request from the Northern Ireland Government.”

There is a fairly broad consensus across sources that Callaghan, more than any other individual member of Harold Wilson’s cabinet of 1966-70, was responsible for forcing the prime minister to eventually back down from the proposals for curbing abuses of trade union power as set out in the white-paper: In Place of Strife (January 1969). The standard history Kenneth Morgan: Britain Since 1945 (OUP 2001) summarises:

“Some of [the white paper’s] provisions, for instance over registration, notably strengthened the role of the unions. But what captured attention were three other proposals – that there should be a twenty-eight day ‘conciliation pause’ [prior to strikes], that the minister could if necessary impose a settlement in inter-union disputes, and that that there should be power to order a strike ballot if circumstances dictated. All these would backed by ‘discretionary reserve powers’, with the threat of penal powers lying behind them. . .” [pp.300].

It was a supreme irony that, in due course, Callaghan’s own premiership in 1976-9 was finally discredited and brought down by what was dubbed the “winter of discontent” of 1978/9, when refuse piled up in the streets of central London and, in places, the dead went unburied. The Conservatives with Mrs Thatcher’s leadership won the election on 4 May 1979:


John Isbell 03.26.05 at 5:05 pm

“Crisis? What crisis?”


Patrick Nielsen Hayden 03.26.05 at 5:46 pm

“Thanks to him and his ilk we suffered 18 years of Tory misrule.”

Just guessing, but I suspect the Tories had something to do with it too.


bob 03.26.05 at 6:13 pm

Watch out for the Kamm obit.


Rob 03.26.05 at 10:21 pm

“Just guessing, but I suspect the Tories had something to do with it too.”

Not to mention the British people. Oh, those pesky electors!


Giles 03.26.05 at 10:23 pm

Simon – he may have been unsuccesful in controlling the money suppply but he was the first to try.


Bob B 03.27.05 at 1:11 am

But that was before the IMF concluded:

“…instability of monetary demand, especially in the context of supply shocks and declines in potential output growth, complicated the task of monetary authorities. As a result, during the 1980s most central banks — with some notable exceptions — either abandoned or downplayed the role of monetary targets”.
IMF World Economic Outlook, October 1996, p.106.


nick 03.27.05 at 9:59 am

Probably worth mentioning that Callaghan was behind the 1979 Scottish and Welsh referenda on devolved government; had Scotland not done so badly in the 1978 World Cup, who knows what the outcome might have been there?


Matthew 03.28.05 at 6:21 am

“Watch out for the Kamm obit”

I imagine Oliver’s obit, if he does one, will be reasonably symphathetic. Callaghan came fifth out of eleven in his list of best PMs since the war (, and indeed he said,

“I take a minority view in holding James Callaghan to have been a good Prime Minister”

I agree. It’s remarkable how much the Tory (and perhaps more relevantly hard left?) demonisation of the Callaghan years has seeped into British political consciousness. After the turbulent Heath/Wilson years things were actually on the whole improving quite well by 1979.


Giles 03.28.05 at 9:39 am

I agree – Callaghan was very much given a hospital pass by Wilson and handled his portfolio with both dignity and competence.

Its just a little unfair that he seems to be the one associated with the failures of the 70’s when virtually all the problems were caused by Heath and Wilson.

At the end of the day his main weakness was that he lacked Wilson’s political savy – if he’d called an election in 78, he’d probably have won and by 83 maybe things would have been alot better and history would remember him better.


Rick 03.28.05 at 12:06 pm

Well Giles as I recall Wilson was seriously ill with a degenerative ailment (Alzheimer’s it turned out to be)………..he had taken office after the Heath Disaster left the country with Emergency Powers, a 3-day week, TV shutdown at 10pm, petrol-rationing coupons issued, and a Miners’ strike which was leading to rota power cuts and inflation running around 20%.

So Wilson became the first PM in history to have to return the country to normality after Heath started his credit deregulation and property boom which brought Midland Bank to the brink of ruin and a B of E rescue.

That Callghan succeeded him allowed for the corruption of David Owen as Foreign Sec putting Callaghan’s son-in-law as Ambassador to the US; that same Peter Jay who had persuaded Callaghan to back Monetarism.

Then we had Healey running a budget every 3 months and putting 25% VAT on “luxuries” like irons and electronic components, but 8% VAT on ironing-boards.

We had already endured Shirley Williams putting on food subsidies – decidig that Blue Stilton was “too middle class” for subsidy but that Danish Blue was suiably proletarian to merit subsidy.

Callaghan cobbled together a working coalition by getting Michael Foot to work with the Liberals vote by vote. Foot also brought in the Job Subsidy scheme (TES) which seems now to be a forerunner of Brown’s Working Families Tax Credit (which is even there for single people).

Did I forget Tony Benn and the Meriden Motorcycle Cooperative, and the National Enterprise Board under Lord Ryder, and the crooks who got rich at British Leyland..?……… of two still meet Gordon Brown to advise on dodgy accounting.

Ah yes, Callaghan and Healey who were stuffed by the Treasury on the basis of false numbers to call in the IMF………that was a farcical stunt. Just as in 1931 the Treasury stiffed them and they fell for it; pity Healey and Callaghan were such dunderheads at Economics.

So, we can think of Margaret Jay as the daughter of this relica Stanley Baldwin; the Tammany Hall politician……………yes Lady Jay who shacked up with Carl Bernstein before being reinvented as the Leaderless of The Lords…………..poor Ivor Richards….dumped to make way for a lightweight.

What can I say about Callaghan ? That since Macmillan political memoirs have not been worth reading let alone writing.

Most of the problems faced in the 1976-79 LCallaghan Government were ones he had caused in part by his deadbeat performance as Chancellor and Home Secretary in the 1960s – he botched Northern Ireland; he botched devaluation; he botched In Place of Strife…………………………all in all he lived a long life, bought a farm, and was absolutely superfluous to the national good.


Mike S 03.28.05 at 12:54 pm

“Thanks to him and his ilk we suffered 18 years of Tory misrule.”

And thanks to you and your’s we are suffering our ninth of Tony and his cronies. Pots and kettles.


Bob B 03.28.05 at 3:10 pm

The great but mostly uncelebrated achievement of Blair’s governance after 1997 has been to leave largely intact the trade union legislation inherited from the Thatcher and Major governments. Callaghan more than any other minister in Harold Wilson’s governments of the 1960s went out of his way to block the attempts Wilson and Barbara Castle were making to curb abuses of trade union power. Callaghan’s petty vindictiveness in pursuit of that cause even extended to sacking Barbara Castle from ministerial office when he took over from Harold Wilson as prime minister in 1976.

The winter of discontent of 1978/9, which brought an end to Callaghan’s premiership, was an entirely fitting retribution. Sadly, the population at large had to suffer the consequences.

Claims that the economy was on the mend when Callaghan left office in May 1979 are pure myth – for accounts of reality, try: Richard Coopey & Nicholas Woodward (eds): Britain in the 1970s (UCL Press 1996). The inflation rate had already started to rise again towards the end of 1978. Several of the major state-owned industries – like British Steel and the then recently nationalised British Leyland motor group – were each running at annual loses of hundreds of millions, all duly subsidised by taxpayers. The complacency of the Callaghan government about all this was staggering. However, Britain had become a net oil exporter by the end of the 1970s when world oil prices had about quadrupled in 1973/4 and doubled again as a consequence of the Iranian revolution 1978/9. The ensuing appreciation of the Sterling real exchange rate was bound to have depressing consequences for British industries open to international competition, whatever the complexion of Britain’s government in the 1980s, as was reining back inflation, which had begun to accelerate again by the end of 1978.

After Callaghan resigned as Labour leader following the election defeat of May 1979, the party took a huge lurch into political fantasy land – check Tony Benn’s diaries on that. Come the 1983 election and the party was saying the way forward was to withdraw from the European Common Market, take into state ownership the commanding heights of the economy and unilateral nuclear disarmament, the cause celebre then of Blair, Straw and Cook: Blair was first elected to Parliament on that platform. Only in 1999 from the Stasi files in the reunified Germany did we learn of the presence of a Stasi spy on the national council of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament:

Comments on this entry are closed.