Kenneth Morgan

Jim Callaghan and His Papers

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

I was responsible for Lord Callaghan’s papers being deposited in the Bodleian, so I thought it would be appropriate to talk about what the papers reveal about his unique career. The papers consist broadly of three groups of material. There were the 38 boxes of papers originally deposited in Jim’s home in Sussex. There were a further 17 boxes originally kept in the London School of Economics library. I recall Jim asking me to go and see the librarian to explain why they should be taken away from the LSE and relocated in the Bodleian – a formidable assignment rather like telling Mrs. Thatcher she would have to resign! However, I must say that the librarian responded very properly and the transfer took place in the late 1990s. Finally there were rough MS notes which Jim used for his autobiography Time and Chance in 1987. They include many fascinating items including the secret moves in 1977 which prevented a war with Argentina over the Falklands, and Harold Wilson advising Jim as his successor as prime minister that No. 10 was being bugged by MI5, the bug being located behind a portrait of Mr. Gladstone. (Nothing was found and Mr. Gladstone’s magisterial presence remained undisturbed.) Together, these various materials make up a highly significant and valuable archive on an important figure in British public life in the forty years that followed the second world war.

I want to note briefly some of the more significant aspects of Jim’s career on which the papers are especially revealing. First, clearly, is his close relationship with the trade union movement, as our only trade unionist prime minister. As a young man in the early 1930s he became active in the Inland Revenue Staff Federation, which he joined via the Association of Officers of Taxes, as a young tax collector himself. Here he soon out turned to be bit of a rebel and, with Stan Raymond, led the New Entrants group to press for internal reforms, including more recognition for non-graduate tax officers like Jim himself. He had a long and complicated relationship with the general secretary of the IRSF, Douglas Houghton, whose assistant secretary he became in 1936, and saw young Jim (Len in those days) as his natural successor. Houghton was disappointed when Callaghan became an MP in 1945 but later worked closely with him when chairman of the parliamentary Labour party in the mid-1960s. I recall myself interviewing Lord Houghton in 1989 and these earlier events were still fresh in his mind at the age of 91. Jim was always critical of Labour politicians who failed to understand the trade union mind – thus he criticised High Gaitskell for not appreciating the importance of the union rule book. Callaghan’s style was always a bargaining one, as his civil advisers noted, a consequence of his union experience. There has been much debate about whether Callaghan recanted his earlier opposition to Barbara Castle’s ‘In Place of Strife’ and the Industrial Relations Bill of 1969, when he himself experienced massive union difficulties as prime minister in the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1978–9. He seems to have told Geoffrey Goodman that he regretted his earlier view, but to have told me the reverse. Both Geoffrey’s recollections and my own are, I am sure, accurate. My own feeling is that, deep down, he felt that industrial relations should reflect free collective bargaining and that it was politically and morally wrong to bring in the force of law, civil or criminal. He was privately to New Labour for marginalising the unions as part of the historic Labour Alliance, and for not reversing some of the anti-union legislation of the Thatcher government.

Secondly, the papers show him to be an independent-minded junior minister under Attlee in 1947–51, a bold course of action for an ambitious young man anxious for promotion. Remarkably he led a leftish rebellion of backbench MPs, the biggest during the Attlee government, to resist a decision to raise the period of National Service from twelve to eighteenth months. It was a major setback for the government’s defence policy, and it was remarkably tolerant of Attlee to overlook it and promote Callaghan to become junior minister at Transport later in 1947. He also challenged the mighty figure of Ernest Bevin, titan of the trade unions, over the dock labour scheme, and Herbert Morrison on the 1948 Criminal Justice Bill when he insisted, along with Geoffrey de Freitas and others, on voting for the abolition of capital punishment, an issue on which he always felt strongly. He was a rising star, but a prickly one: he never felt much warmth for Attlee himself, who appeared reluctant to promote him adequately. In 1954, as a leading spokesman in opposition, he joined Hugh Dalton in opposing German Rearmament. Jim was ambitious, certainly, but never yes-man or a push-over.

Thirdly, the papers shed important light on his crucial period as shadow Colonial Secretary from 1957 to 1962. It was a dramatic period in the ending of empire, and therefore a great opportunity for Callaghan to demonstrate his qualities at the highest level of political contention. He helped to give Labour a coherent colonial policy for the first time, on both constitutional and economic issues, instead of the standard anti-imperialism which had governed the party’s responses in earlier years. Africa particularly, more so than Asia or the Caribbean perhaps, became an abiding point of reference for him, and he established important and enduring friendships with rising nationalist leaders like Joshua Nkomo in Kenya, Julius Nyerere in Tanganyika, Kenneth Kaunda in Northern Rhodesia, and Tom Mboya also in Kenya (sadly to be assassinated at a young age). Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore (whom I interviewed there in 1993) and Michael Manley and Grantley Adams, of Jamaica and Barbados respectively, might also be mentioned as important early contacts. Callaghan was a central, sometimes dominant, figure in the great debates about decolonization, especially over the Central African Federation in 1959 – 61, and his interest remained a strong one. Unlike the Tory Colonial Secretary, Lennox-Boyd, he was moving with the grain of history. When he became prime minister, both President Carter of the US and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany looked to Callaghan as a fount of insight and information into African and Asian problems. It was a key phase in the career of one hitherto largely associated with domestic issues like transport and fuel and power.

Fourth, the papers shed much light on his troubled time as Chancellor of the Exchequer between 1964 and 1967, a period dominated by balance of payments difficulties and consequent worries over the value of sterling. Within the government, there was from the start potential conflict with the newly-formed Department of Economic Affairs, inevitably a rival department in running the economy. It would have led to problems even had the DEA been directed by a plaster saint rather than the combustible figure of George Brown. The ‘concordat’ drawn up to guide relations between the two department offered the formula that the DEA would decide on the long-term but that this did not exclude the short-term, and the Treasury the short-term which did not exclude the long-term. In rugby terms, here was a ‘hospital pass’ if ever there was one.  More profoundly, there was the long-running debate over the possible devaluation of the pound ever since Harold Wilson and Callaghan agreed with the governor of the Bank of England not to devalue when they took office in October 1964. This has been much criticised ever since though it should be borne in mind that, while there were powerful voices for devaluation in 1964 such as Donald MacDougall and Nicky Kaldor, many crucial economic policy-makers, including William Armstrong  and Alec Cairncross agreed with the original decision. The Cabinet body dealing with this issue was known to civil servants the FU Committee, FU claimed to stand for ‘Forever Unmentionable’ though perhaps other possible answers might come to mind. Callaghan, down to late 1967, hoped to avoid devaluation and to get by through borrowing and assistance from the US Treasury. He has, quite wrongly, been accused of lying about his decision in the Commons. The papers show the reverse, that in fact, he reached the decision to devalue very late indeed, in fact on the night of 13 November, five days only before the decision was announced. The devaluation of the pound, a badge of shame for a national virility symbol, was deeply depressing for Callaghan, especially since devaluation had resulted from a previous Labour government in 1931 and had occurred under another in 1949. In fact, though, for all the trauma of the pound being devalued to only $2.40 against the dollar, Callaghan’s reputation and position in the party remained strong, he had just become party treasurer, and he soon bounced back at the Home Office, By contrast it was the reputation of the prime minister, Harold Wilson, which suffered gravely after his claim in a television broadcast, disastrous if technically accurate, that ‘the pound in your pocket has not been devalued’.

On a fifth topic, so vital for Callaghan’s ascent to the premiership, the political-religious strife in Northern Ireland in 1969-70, the papers, by contrast have little to say. It is the dog that does not bark. Northern Ireland had played only a marginal part in Home Office policy since the partition of 1922, and the silence of the Callaghan papers here reflects the fact.

Sixth, there is much important material on foreign affairs, when Callaghan was Foreign Secretary in 1974–6, both of the transatlantic alliance and on relations with Europe. Towards the US, Callaghan was always an Atlanticist and built up a strong relationship both with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Gerald Ford. However, while Kissinger was reticent on such matters when I interviewed him, it is clear that Callaghan stood up to him on, for example, the revolution in Portugal (which Callaghan correctly saw as a Social Democratic one) and the independence of Belize (which Kissinger sought to merge with Guatemala). Cyprus was far more difficult. He also worked closely, and in general harmony, with President Carter who owed him a great deal for his advice, as telex transcripts in the papers show, in the momentous Camp David agreement worked out between President Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Begin of Israel in 1978, with the assistance of King Hussein of Jordan. Sadat and Begin got the (temporary) acclaim but Callaghan was not the least of the peacemakers. But the foreign leader with whom Callaghan formed the most intimate relationship, without question, was his fellow Social Democrat and ex-sailor Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany as the latter confirmed when I interviewed him at length. Callaghan knew that relations between Carter and Schmidt were anything but cordial, so on foreign, defence and economic issues he had to work to get them to collaborate. He did so with much success and could claim to have become a real bridge between America and Europe, more effectively than Tony Blair who also claimed to play this role. Callaghan liked to quote an old Welsh proverb, fo byd ben byd bont – he who would lead must be a bridge. Callaghan, neutral on Europe during the 1967 British application to join the Common Market, almost a Eurosceptic in opposition in 1971, became far more positive towards Europe after his apparently successful renegotiation of the terms of British entry in 1975. He worked closely with Schmidt and President Valery Giscard d’Estaing of France to make European unity more effective, and evidently thought seriously in 1978 about whether Britain might join the European Monetary System. Over foreign affairs generally, as his papers vividly show, he was respected and trusted (as Wilson had not been) by foreign leaders on a variety of issues. As noted above, he skilfully avoided fighting over the Falklands in 1977 whereas under Thatcher maladroit policy resulted in a fierce if brief war.     

Seventh, the papers show the character of Callaghan’s premiership of 1976–9. It was quite distinct from Wilson’s premiership, not a footnote to it. Callaghan inspired a sense of trust and honesty. There were no leaks from an inbred group of cronies; Callaghan’s press officer, Tom McCaffrey, was never associated with the controversial ‘spin’ that marred the Blair years. Callaghan built up a strong, non-competitive relationship with his key colleagues, his Chancellor Denis Healey, and his deputy, Michael Foot, a veteran left-winger with whom Callaghan had had many rows in previous years. He had a particular ‘trusty’ in Merlyn Rees at the Home Office. Callaghan’s premiership, for perhaps the last time in British history, was run on a remarkably collegial basis in which collective responsibility was an identifiable principle. Never was this better demonstrated than early on, when the Cabinet laboriously reached collective agreement about the terms of the IMF loan and did so without a split and without the sense of fundamental betrayal which had been left by the MacDonald government’s discussions over social service cuts in 1931.It gave Callaghan added prestige and authority as prime minister. His period in power between January 1977 and October 1978, when the economy became stronger and the minority Labour government was bolstered by a pact with the tiny Liberal Party, was perhaps the climax of his career. He devised a unique structure of government, with his Political Office under Tom McNally, a powerful Policy Unit under Bernard Donoughue, and the Central Policy Review Staff under Kenneth Berrill, a revolution in government as surely as that launched by Thomas Cromwell in the 1530s under Henry VIII. One remarkable innovation was the Economic Seminar, a private body of gifted economists including also Donoughue, a key committee answerable directly to the Prime Minister himself. Though later criticised by Gavyn Davies, it was a body which did not challenge the official civil service but gave Callaghan an alternative source of economic advice to that of the Treasury which he recalled and distrusted, with some reason. He was also anxious to be an innovating prime minister – he had criticised Attlee for his passivity while at No. 10. So he took important initiatives himself, in foreign policy as has been seen, on law and order (as the Police Federation spokesman of yore), and especially in the famous Ruskin College speech on education of October 1976 when he tried, in vain as events turned out, to launch a national debate on educational standards and purposes. He found Shirley Williams, Secretary of State for Education, to be unduly passive in this area. On some issues he chose to keep his distance, notably devolution for Scotland and (especially) Wales, on which the MP for anglicized Cardiff South-East was never keen. He built up his stature in No 10 to an unusual degree, raised his reputation as premier, and ran well ahead of Mrs. Thatcher in public reputation right through the general election of 1979. Jim commanded far more support than his party in the public mind.

Eighth, Callaghan’s decline and fall during the "Winter of Discontent" in 1978–9 is also randomly depicted. After his own standing had risen to new heights in 1978, perhaps hubris set in as key errors were made. He failed to call an election in October 1978 after expectations had been allowed to build up, a major error in the view of many commentators, though not of mine since the psephological data seemed to indicate another hung parliament dependent on fringe parties. Then this old union man mishandled the unions by announcing a 5 per cent pay norm without warning, and also perhaps by being insufficiently sensitive to the low-paid in the public sector. Mass strikes by such workers, council dustmen, hospital workers, school care-takers, even grave-diggers, followed in large numbers. The country was said for a time to be ‘as ungovernable as Chile’. It was compounded by his maladroit return from Guadeloupe in January 1979 when he was wrongly claimed to have said ‘crisis, what crisis?’. The newsreel of the time shows him to have been nettled by a young female newspaper reporter at his post-Guadeloupe press conference. After that, a kind of Durkheim-like anomie descended on central government. Callaghan later reflected sadly ‘I let the country down’. The Valentine’s Day compact with the unions commanded little credibility and defeat in the Commons and then in the general election predictably followed.

Ninth and finally, the papers, especially those once kept at the LSE, do illustrate his later activities after retirement from party leadership. We learn of some important constituency matters, notably excluded from Jim’s memoirs, including the threat from Militant activists and of CND in his Cardiff South constituency against which the veteran sitting member had to battle hard, along with Jack Brooks and other stalwarts. Beyond that, Jim emerges as a model ex-prime minister, neither a conspirator against his successors nor a back-seat driver. Rather than focus on money-making through over-paid speaking engagements, ‘faith’ conglomerates and dubious corporate activities, he concentrated on the serious discussion of world issues, financial and strategic notably through the Inter-action group which often met at Vail, Colorado, which he attended with such veteran old colleagues as Helmut Schmidt, Gerald Ford, Giscard d’Estaing, sometimes Trudeau of Canada and Malcolm Fraser of Australia. He also worked to set up scholarships to British universities for students from smaller Commonwealth countries. It was a more constructive retirement than Wilson’s or Major’s, less self-centred than Thatcher’s, more articulate than Brown’s, less rapacious than Blair’s. The final chapter in Jim’s story was one of the best.

Jim Callaghan’s was a very remarkable career. That he should rise to No. 10 Downing Street from family poverty in the backstreets of Portsmouth was astonishing and unique. In Callaghan’s memorial service, Denis Healey observed (in the presence of Thatcher and Blair!) that he had been ‘our best prime minister since Attlee. He had said this privately in Jim’s last private engagement, the lunch party at his farm in February 2005 when the present writer and a few others gathered to celebrate Jim’s becoming the longest-living prime minister. His premiership was far more than just an interlude between Wilson and Thatcher, than it is seen, for instance, in Hugo Young’s This Blessed Plot. It had a tone and a pattern of its own. As the papers show, Jim was a pragmatic politician, least at home in the Treasury where he always seemed to be slightly over-awed, more comfortable in the Home Office, where he took firm, confident decisions on such issues as student protest, ‘permissiveness’ and above all Northern Ireland as a dominant executive leader. More generally, he progressed from being seen as a narrow partisan (noted for fixing the constituency boundaries to Labour’s advantage in 1969) to being seen as a consensual national figure with a genuine cross-party reputation. But always he was sensitive to Labour values and traditions. Tony Blair’s observing (quite bizarrely to a body called the British Venture Capitalist Association in July 1999) that he still bore ‘the scars on my back’ inflicted by the public sector unions’ resistance to change would be inconceivable for Jim Callaghan, the union man par excellence. He was secure in his values and ideology, resulting from the hardship of his childhood in a single-parent family in working-class Portsmouth, and always insisted to the present writer that he was indeed a socialist and proud to be so. He also had a strong cultural background, based on a little-known interest in history, especially naval history and the history of the Labour movement (perhaps more so than Michael Foot whose interests focussed more in pre-industrial radicals). In fundamental respects he was a patriot. This gave Jim Callaghan substance and, to use Denis Healey’s famous term, hinterland. A political opponent, Nigel Lawson, once described him to me ‘a big man’. His important private papers in the Bodleian in Oxford help to explain that. They offer vital clues to understanding his great qualities as a statesman and as a human being.


[Kenneth O. Morgan, Professor Lord Morgan of Aberdyfi FBA, is the author of the official biography, Callaghan: a Life (Oxford University Press, 1997).]

*This paper is based on a talk I gave to a conference at the Bodleian on 7 March 2013 to mark Lord Callaghan’s centenary.

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