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James Callaghan

Prime Minister 1976 - 79

James Callaghan, prime minister of Britain 1976 - 79, grew up as a baptist. Significantly for the type of politician Callaghan was later to become, it is quite difficult to work out what a baptist is. People calling themselves baptists have many shades of belief. There is little centralisation to the Baptist Church, with individual churches having characteristic autonomy. In later life Callaghan would become a consensus politician, acting to hold together a wide range of opinion in one party.

Leonard James Callaghan was born in the Copnor area of Portsmouth on 27th March 1912. His father, James Garoghan - who changed his name to Callaghan - was a sailor in the Royal Navy. His mother, Charlotte, was daughter of a naval shipwright. Following the First World War in which James Callaghan senior was away at sea for much of the time, the family moved to Brixham in Devon, where young Leonard was to lose his father to a heart attack, when he was only nine years old. The family moved back to Portsmouth where Charlotte was grateful for a widow's pension she received from Ramsey Macdonald's first Labour government, which came to power in 1924. Life for Leonard revolved around school where he was a bright if mischievous pupil, and the Baptist Church. By age fourteen Leonard was himself a teacher at the Baptist Sunday School. He had gained this post not through his earnestness, but because he had questioned the views of his own teacher. Using a trick that would be useful in the tough world of politics, the potential rebel was dealt with not by expulsion but by bringing him deeper into the fold as a teacher.



Knightrider Street Baptist Church, Maidstone, Kent.

Leonard was bright enough to go to university, but simply did not have the necessary money. So he entered the Civil Service, and in 1919 went to work for the Inland Revenue in Maidstone, Kent. Naturally he joined the local baptists, meeting and marrying a local girl, Audrey Moulton at the church in Knightrider Street. Meanwhile Leonard developed his career in Inland Revenue union activities. He was always a moderate, promoted at the expense of more extreme colleagues. Moderation, however, did not rule out firm action in pursuit of practical goals. The upheaval of relocation at short notice, and the need to develop new entrants to the service, were all given energetic attention. It was at this point that religion and politics seemed to become incompatible for the young man. A slow drift away from the Baptist Church began. Nevertheless the basic social philosophy of this particular faith still seemed to mould the politician Callaghan was becoming.







The famous zebra crossing outside Abbey Road studios, London - zebra crossings were introduced when Callaghan was transport minister in 1947

When the Second World War began, Callaghan was in a reserve occupation, and could have avoided military service. Instead he joined the Royal Navy. Although active service was limited by a long bout of tuberculosis, he served on the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth in the Pacific in 1945. Then entry to Parliament as MP for Cardiff came in the famous election of July 1945, which saw a landslide victory for Labour. As in the union work, it was practical issues which predominated over theoretical posturing. Callaghan, now calling himself James or Jim, became minister for transport in 1947. Memorials to his time as transport minister can be seen in two innovations of the time, reflective cats eyes on roads, and zebra crossings. By 1950 Callaghan was junior minister for the navy.


In 1951 Labour lost to the Conservative Party in the general election, with Winston Churchill returning as prime minister. Callaghan then served through long years of opposition, through a succession of Conservative prime ministers - Churchill , Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, and Sir Alec Douglas Home. In opposition Callaghan confirmed his position as a tough but moderate MP, and rose to shadow chancellor. This led to the post of chancellor when Harold Wilson took Labour back into power in 1964. The new chancellor inherited a situation where Britain's balance of payments was £800 million in deficit. Labour offered "planning" as the answer, though the actual experience of planning for Wilson's government did not bear out faith put into it. A Department of Economic Affairs was created, the responsibilities of which overlapped with those of the Treasury. Rather than getting on with economic planning, DEA officials spent most of their time fighting for influence with Treasury officials. Harold Wilson, a cunning political operator probably didn't mind this political infighting too much, as it kept two major rivals occupied, with Callaghan at the Treasury having to spend his days fighting with the volatile George Brown at the DEA. Meanwhile Britain just went on its way, with centralised planning consisting more of words than any practical outcome. Perhaps the former baptist Callaghan, brought up in a church where central control was vague, was more able to accept such a situation. He was never a very keen proponent of nationalisation, and hoped for a more equable society not through rigid central control, but through a combination of financial redistribution, education, legislation on democratic industrial practices, and improved social services. He battled on, and after about eighteen months of struggle managed to win his battle with the Department of Economic Affairs, which wound down from then on.



Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square - scene of an anti-Vietnam war student demonstration in 1968

Plans might be reassuring, but Callaghan as chancellor got on with the real business of dealing with unpredictable crises as they came up. A scheme to ease economic problems by entering the European Economic Community was demolished by French leader Charles de Gaulle vetoing Britain's application in May 1967. This was followed in June 1967 by the Six Day War in the Middle East. Nasar of Egypt claimed that Britain had been aiding Israel in the war, which led to an oil embargo, and a consequent economic crisis. In November 1967, in one of the most painful episodes of his career Callaghan was forced to devalue the pound by 14% to make British exports cheaper abroad, and to help the balance of payment's deficit. The value of sterling had a symbolic significance, and its loss of value was a great blow. Harold Wilson's speech about the "pound in your pocket" being as valuable today as it was yesterday became notorious. Callaghan resigned, and was made home secretary. At the Home Office, a short period of depression was followed by a successful term. The home secretary presided over the abolition of hanging in December 1969, and instituted the Race Relations Act. He came in for criticism in suggesting measures to limit immigration, but the rantings of Conservative MP Enoch Powell on race issues, made James Callaghan look eminently reasonable. Policy on Ireland was also a success. The catholic community in Northern Ireland had suffered years of discrimination since the partition of Ireland in 1921. Unrest had broken out, and in 1969 Callaghan was responsible for sending in the army, welcomed, initially at least, by the catholic communities in Northern Ireland. Callaghan was a man who was naturally at home in admitting different people to a broad church. He suggested to the bigoted protestant leader Ian Paisley that "we are all the children of God". After Paisley bizarrely replied "no we are all the children of wrath" Callaghan is supposed to have given Paisley such a ferocious dressing down, that Paisley emerged from the meeting visibly shaken and white faced. The home secretary was also judged favourably for his handling of student and youth unrest during the late 1960s. Remembering perhaps his own youthful rebelliousness, he combined toughness with restraint, seen particularly in the management of an anti-Vietnam war demonstration in Trafalgar Square in 1968.


Labour was to lose the 1970 election, but returned to power in 1974, with Callaghan now in the role of foreign secretary. Then on 16th March 1976, Harold Wilson unexpectedly resigned as prime minister, and Callaghan won the vote to take over the leadership. James Callaghan's elevation was the result of his being a moderate and a compromiser. He did not align himself with the interests of one group, but endeavoured to maintain the kind of broad church in which he grew up. Ironically Callaghan said in a lecture given at the University of Minnesota in 1982: "If action and inaction seem equally valid, then act." (Quoted by Kenneth Morgan in Callaghan a Life P485.) In fact prime ministers, as figures of unity, often find action difficult to take. The instinct of such politicians is to leave things alone. Callaghan left the Civil Service alone, left the House of Lords alone. For the early part of his premiership this approach worked well. 1977 was a year of economic peace and success. Successful policies on pay restraint had helped reduce inflation to single figures. But then a combination of circumstances created an economic storm, the intensity of which has rarely been seen in Britain. 1978 saw the retirement of a number of union leaders such as Jack Jones, who had helped the government sell the idea of pay restraint to the unions. The absence of generally sympathetic leaders like Jones contributed to disenchantment with government policies on pay. The crisis began to build in October and November 1978 with a strike by Ford workers. Into early 1979 there were strikes amongst oil tanker drivers, lorry drivers, British Leyland workers, water and sewerage workers. Pay claims ranged between 20% and 40%. On 10th January 1979 Callaghan returned from an international summit in Guadeloupe and held a press conference at Heathrow airport. He dismissed questions about strikes with the words: "I don't think other people in the world will share the view that there is mounting chaos." (Quoted in Callaghan A Life by Kenneth Morgan P662.) The next day The Sun newspaper ran its famous headline "Crisis? What crisis?"


Through January the chaos worsened. There were shortages of food and medicines, with ports and distribution depots blocked by secondary picketing. On 22nd January 1979 1.5 million public service workers began intermittent strikes. Schools closed because there were no caretakers to look after them. Ambulances stopped answering emergency calls. Roads were not gritted in cold weather, and refuse was allowed to pile uncollected in the streets. The prime minister, meanwhile, seemed plunged in gloom and inertia. Union power was overwhelming, and it seemed that nothing could be done. Ironically it was in doing nothing that the power of the unions was finally broken. Immoderate union behaviour, unrestricted by an inactive government, was to create a backlash, which was to see the triumph of Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party in the general election of May 1979. Callaghan had spoken of talking over the unions to the general public, and in a sense this is what happened. Public opinion turned on the unions, but rather than expressing itself in support for James Callaghan, it was his successor who benefited. The unions' moment of victory was also their moment of undoing. Margaret Thatcher now had a mandate to move firmly against union power. The measures she introduced were left untouched when "New Labour" took power in 1997. You almost wonder whether the wily Callaghan planned it this way, In 1979 Barbara Castle was telling Callaghan that legislation had to be passed curbing union power. Callaghan agreed, but said "let the Conservatives do it" (See Callaghan A Life by Kenneth Morgan). On the other hand Callaghan also realised that events had simply moved away from him: "There are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea-change, and it is for Mrs Thatcher." Callaghan the easy going baptist, was to be replaced by Margaret Thatcher, a methodist - a very different, firmer philosophy.

James Callaghan stepped down as Labour Party leader in 1980, and retired from the House of Commons at the 1987 general election. He spent a happy retirement, as is fitting for the sociable family man that he was. Much time was dedicated to charitable and educational concerns, including an eight year presidency of Swansea University. James Callaghan died 26th March 2005 at his farm at Ringmer, East Sussex.