Margaret Jay

Jim Callaghan Remembered

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

From the perspective of my current position as Chair of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution one of the most striking features of the Callaghan Government was the way it operated Cabinet Government in the proper Constitutional sense. It was an object lesson in how to govern within the conventions of the UK system.

David Owen and Bernard Donoughue spoke about the way Jim personally used the Cabinet but I think it is worth placing this in a wider context. Those of us taught the principles of British Parliamentary Democracy, including the selection of Ministers from the Parliamentary majority, and the role of the Prime Minister as primus inter pares among them, also learned that the Cabinet was the ultimate executive, decision make body.

In recent years this has been sometimes superseded, in practice, by what have been described as “Primeminsterial Presidencies”, where authority is much more heavily vested in individual Prime Ministers. Modern Prime Ministers have often relied heavily on individual, special advisors to develop policy. Cabinet meetings can then become a place where Ministers are briefed on decisions already taken rather than participating directly in creating them. This was certainly true in the brief years that I was a Cabinet Minister between 1998-2001.

Thirty years earlier Jim Callaghan’s Government was a high water mark of the conventional system. The Cabinet received policy papers from individual members, often produced by formal Cabinet Committees, which were then debated and decided upon. The most well known examples of this process in the Callaghan years were the lengthy Cabinet deliberations on cutting public expenditure and the negotiations with the IMF in 1976. Seven Cabinets were held between the 6th and 21st July and later in the year there were daylong meetings to try and hammer out a united position on the IMF proposals. However unpalatable some of the final agreements were to several ministers there was general praise for Jim Callaghan’s chairmanship and for the consensual way he handled the sharp disagreements in the Cabinet. The collective decision and collective responsibility of the ministers was clearly demonstrated.

Interestingly, after several recent administrations where Prime Ministers, with large Commons majorities and less collegiate personal styles, have acted differently, we are now, during the Coalition, seeing some revival of traditional Cabinet Government. This is probably because there are political divisions between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats which both the Conservative Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister believe are best resolved around the Cabinet table.

Personally I hope this revival will be maintained in the future, whatever the colour or colours of the next Administration. The Callaghan Government was right to emphasise the central importance of Cabinet Government in practice following the constitution theory. Jim Callaghan may have been partly driven by the necessity of achieving agreement in a fractured Cabinet but subsequent dilution of the traditional system has certainly threatened important pillars of the UK unwritten constitution.

©Margaret Jay

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