Andrew Smith

Tribute to Jim Callaghan

[An audio recording of this conference talk is available via the University of Oxford podcast page.]

I am honoured to be here this afternoon and very pleased as Member of Parliament for Oxford East on behalf of our community and the Labour Party to pay tribute to the life and work of Jim Callaghan.

Unlike the other speakers I didn’t know Jim Callaghan personally, though he was the sort of leader where you always felt as though you did. Back in the late 70s I was a footsoldier in the fractious and bedraggled Labour Party of the day, working to get Evan Luard re-elected as Oxford’s MP.

I did meet Jim when he came here  in the 1979 general election campaign. The vogue for politicians doing walkabouts had just started. At the same time, nascent media management already dictated that hostile demonstrations were avoided. So he was taken on an impromptu and pretty pointless walk round Oxford’s Westgate. I remember that as he entered the centre, the glass doors at the side entrance were cracked in the huge media and security mele. There, in the middle of the heaving crowd was this very calm figure, with a friendly smile for any members of the public who could get near.

With Jim Callaghan, you could feel the natural humanity, dignity and avuncular toughness which made him what he was.

He had that authenticity which is a product not of thinking theoretically, but of living the reality, having come up the hard way – his character shaped by trade unionism, the poverty he had know in his youth, non-conformist Baptist values and the Royal Navy.

His whole demeanour spoke of his solid understanding of the everyday hopes and fears which shape most people’s lives. His politics was moderate Labour at its best. A product of the Labour movement at its best, it’s no surprise that when Labour was re-cast as New Labour, his response was that he was Original Labour.

It is a huge testament to his character, and to his formidable political skill, that he is the only politician to have held all great offices of state as well as being Prime Minister. I know from talking with Ministers and MPs from his time as Prime Minister that he commanded enormous respect and loyalty from those who worked with him.

Here in Oxford he is of course especially remembered for his Ruskin speech, where he invaded the education secret garden to commend standards and opportunity for all as something for which in Tawney’s words the wise state should strive, for all our children. It was particularly resonant from someone who was self educated, with the help of WEA classes and Harold Laski’s lectures. It is one of those speeches – and there aren’t many of them – which reverberate down the decades with lasting relevance.

As Prime Minister he grappled with impossibly difficult economic and industrial circumstances, and it is a tribute to him that he retained such considerable personal public support even while Labour was losing the 1979 General Election. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but if Labour had pulled together behind him more effectively, we might have been spared the excesses of Thatcherism.

© Andrew Smith

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