Progress has been running a series of articles debating Labour's greatest leader (articles so far have focused on Tony Blair, Hugh Gaitskell and Neil Kinnock). A comment in one of the articles erroneously said that "Rightly, no-one tries to make a case for James Callaghan as part of the pantheon." Well, I'm perfectly happy to take up a challenge on behalf of a man who was a Labour Prime Minister, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary as well as a Cardiff MP for 42 years, so reproduced here is my effort on Sunny Jim's behalf.
Despite the fact that the 20th century was dominated by Conservative victories at the ballot box, there is an embarrassment of riches for those seeking to make the case for their choice for Labour’s greatest leader. Arguments for Attlee, Gaitskell and, of course, the electorally unmatched Blair, have already been made – and each is persuasive. All leaders are products of the times in which they led; and in that respect, trying to compare their relative successes is like comparing apples and oranges.
As we know, politics is the art of the possible – and so each of our leaders, strive as they did to shape their own time at the helm, was also defined by events. The test lies in how they put Labour values into practice when confronted with crises foreign and domestic. Just as Gordon Brown was confronted with the financial crisis, Clement Attlee by the end of Lend-Lease and Tony Blair by global terrorism, Jim Callaghan – Labour’s prime minister from April 1976 to May 1979 – faced his own challenges and did the party proud.
David Talbot, in his article on Hugh Gaitskell, said somewhat dismissively that ‘nobody, rightly, tries to make a case for James Callaghan’ as part of the ‘pantheon’ of Labour’s great leaders. It’s a mistake to cast Callaghan aside quite so readily. After all, you don’t hold each of the four great offices of state – prime minister, chancellor, foreign secretary and home secretary – for nothing. Even before he reached the highest echelons of the party, he was making a difference as a junior minister in the Attlee administration including, famously, introducing zebra crossings and cat’s eyes to Britain’s roads. He was a delegate to the Council of Europe (where he argued against plans for a European army, just as Nato was founded and became the cornerstone of collective security) and an opponent of unilateral nuclear disarmament, chiming with Gaitskell’s Atlanticism while at the same time showing the more progressive attitude towards Europe that would lead him, as foreign secretary, to lead the ‘Yes’ campaign for entry into the common market in 1975.
From his fight to stabilise the economy as chancellor to that Europe referendum, Callaghan was no stranger to furious controversy. His time as home secretary, overshadowed as it was by the deployment of troops to Northern Ireland, nevertheless was marked by one of Labour’s proudest moments in government: the passing of the Race Relations Act, making it illegal to refuse employment, education or housing on the basis of ethnic background. It was his popularity in the movement – and doubtless, his stout defence of the trade union link (which members from all parts of the party should seek to emulate today) – which led to his winning the ballot of Labour MPs to succeed Harold Wilson in 1976.
From the moment he took office, Callaghan was assailed from all sides. He led a minority Labour government at a time of immense economic and industrial strife. But his is a bright star in the party firmament. His Education Act required local authorities to submit proposals for comprehensives; his Housing Act extended councils’ responsibility to provide accommodation for the homeless. He made the police more accountable by creating a new method for the public to register complaints, and reformed the courts so that they had to explain themselves when refusing bail. If our business is to place power in the hands of the many, not the few, Callaghan can fairly lay claim to having set about the task with gusto – all while having to manage that most exasperating of situations: a parliamentary coalition, however informal, with the Liberals.
The end of Callaghan’s government was marked by, for me, one of the most remarkable parliamentary debates of modern times – bookended by incredible dispatch box performances by Michael Foot and Callaghan himself. Ridiculing the opposition parties’ performance in the run-up to the debate, which was itself a consequence of the failure of the referendum on Scottish devolution, he said to laughter of Margaret Thatcher:
We can truly say that once she discovered what the Liberals and the SNP would do, she found the courage of their convictions. The Conservative party, which opposes devolution, will march through the lobby with the SNP, which wants independence, and with the Liberals … What a massive display of unsullied principle!
The more things change …
Despite the fact that the Tories had a 14 per cent lead in the polls and that therefore for the SNP it was indeed, as Callaghan said, ‘the first time in recorded history that turkeys have been known to vote for an early Christmas’, the vote was lost and the government fell. Roy Hattersley wrote that that debate represented ‘the last rites of “Old Labour” – the party of nationalisation, redistribution and trade union power’. But that is to divide too neatly the recent history of our party into opposing camps – something that I’ve always found it necessary to resist. I don’t consider that when we returned to power after those 18 long years, we were making a total break with our past, any more than Jim’s government represented a departure from the values of Harold Wilson or Clement Attlee. Rather, the Callaghan administration continued to apply, as best it could, those traditional values in the modern setting in which it found itself – just as the Blair and Brown governments did.
When Jim Callaghan died in 2005, Tony Blair said that
one could not separate his achievements as a politician from his qualities as a man … It was the Labour party’s values of social justice, solidarity and opportunity for all that brought him into the party and he worked tirelessly throughout the whole of his life to put them into action.
His successor as MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, Alun Michael, reflected that
for Jim, the people of Cardiff South and Penarth came first. As foreign secretary or as prime minister, he always asked the question, ‘What are people saying in Splott, Llanrumney, Penarth and Grangetown?’ … Jim never forgot his people in his constituency and they loved him for it.
Callaghan himself wrote in his memoirs:
In the Labour party, it is now the task of a new generation … to reconcile individual freedom with the general welfare, to settle the limits of the state’s reach, to grapple with and overcome racial discrimination and to assist the great mass of poor people who make up the world’s population to free themselves from poverty and ignorance.
At a time of Conservative-led rule, economic austerity, social tension at home and upheaval abroad, the words of this fine leader of our party are just as resonant today.
[Original article here.]