Michael Callaghan

Jim Callaghan Remembered

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

My father was in parliament, House of Commons then House of Lords, for 60 years. It is not easy to establish what really mattered in a career that long. During that time he held the four most important offices of state but he also held other more junior posts in government and was a senior figure in the Labour Party during many years of opposition. I believe we should think about his political life as being as much about his general attitude to events during that long period as being about important specific contributions. When a substantial figure is in play for that long in senior positions their attitudes to the many small and large events can shape the long run just as much as the development of important specific policy matters. Their comments, opinions and arguments will help to make the political weather as he used to say to me.

Thus I think that a lot of Jim’s influence on the direction of politics should be seen from the perspective of his contribution to the debates of the time as they arose. These contributions I suspect were strongly influenced in their turn by the 33 years he spent before he entered parliament. So, we were seeing the results during his time in parliament of an upbringing in considerable family financial hardship brought about by the death of his father when Jim was 9 years old; the results of a strong association with the Baptist Church – where as a young man he was a respected Sunday school teacher; the results of a great affection for the Royal Navy where his father was a professional seaman and in which he served himself during the war; a strong association with the Trade Union movement from the time when he was a member and later Assistant General Secretary of the IRSF, and an understanding of socialism through his reading on his own of Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, GDH Cole, Harold Laski and many others.

He writes about the strength of these early influences in his autobiography when he says that his socialist reading as a young man led him to resign from the Church but they persuaded him back telling him that his socialist ideals were compatible with the teaching of the Church, although he says that thereafter the trade union movement and the Labour Party had first call on his energies, but he goes on to say which I think shows the strength of these early influences “I never forgot the immense debt I owe to a Christian upbringing, (and then a very telling phrase) nor have I ever escaped its influence”. I think that those who knew him well would agree that the confines of the values of these early –life institutions were always with him.

I mention all this because these powerful influences provided the background against which he could test opinions and policies on a wide range of issues over 60 years and they were probably just as important to him as the specific and perhaps more technical arguments associated with the policy issues with which he was confronted. I think he felt most sure footed when he was making decisions which could be readily related to these basic tenets.

I suspect, therefore, that Jim’s experience is relevant to today’s politics, in a very obvious way in that, any party now looking to make a different political future will have to deal with the deeply embedded influence on the present generation of politicians and voters of the Thatcher years and the strongly prevailing belief in a market society -- whatever the reality may be telling them in terms of financial collapse and growing inequality. These years were their formative experience and were reflected in how they were brought up. Thatcher’s children is not just an easy sound bite, it has real political consequences.

© Michael Callaghan

Back to top