by Matthew Neely, Archivist, Bodleian Libraries
‘There’s no escaping it: I am a political animal through and through.’
Barbara Castle (1910-2002) ranks as one of the most important British female politicians of the twentieth century. Brought up in a family of dedicated Labour Party supporters with strong socialist principles, politics was a central part of her life from an early age. After the completion of her studies at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, she returned to the family home in Bradford in 1932 and immediately became active in the local political scene. In 1937 she was elected to the St Pancras Borough Council. She served on the Metropolitan Water Board, 1940-1943. In 1943 she met the journalist Ted Castle (1907-1979) who placed a report of her speech to the Labour conference on the front page of The Daily Mirror. They married in 1944.
In 1944 Castle was adopted as one of the Labour candidates for the Blackburn Parliamentary seats. She entered the House of Commons in 1945 as Labour swept to victory in the General Election. Castle held her Blackburn seat until 1979. She was an active campaigner against apartheid in South Africa and was a passionate advocate of independence for British colonies. Castle was a prominent ‘Bevanite’: a group of left wing Labour MPs who formed around Nye Bevan in opposition to Hugh Gaitskell’s leadership of the party.
In October 1964 Labour, now led by Harold Wilson, triumphed in the General Election. Castle finally entered the cabinet as Minister for Overseas Development, a new department created by Wilson. Castle served in all of Harold Wilson’s three Labour administrations. In 1965, despite not being able to drive, Castle was appointed Minister for Transport. She was responsible for legalising the 70 mph speed limit; introducing the breathalyser to combat drink driving; and making it compulsory for all new cars to be fitted with seat-belts. Considered one of the rising stars of the government, Castle was promoted by Wilson to First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity in April 1968. Her efforts to reform the Trades Unions, however, were to prove highly controversial. Castle’s reform proposals, outlined in her white paper ‘In Place of Strife’, split both the cabinet and the Labour Party. In the face of strong opposition, Wilson and Castle were forced to abandon the reforms. A marked success of her time at Employment, though, was the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1970. Castle left Employment upon Labour’s defeat in the June 1970 General Election.
In 1974 Wilson and Labour returned to power. Castle entered the cabinet as Secretary of State for Health and Social Security. Her final term in office was to again prove a difficult and controversial one marked by strikes and disputes over doctors’ pay and her introduction of legislation to separate private practice from NHS hospitals. In April 1976 Wilson retired as Prime Minister and was replaced by James Callaghan, who had led the opposition to Castle’s ‘In Place Strife’ from within the cabinet. Callaghan sacked Castle.
At the 1979 General Election Castle retired as an MP. Labour was defeated by the Conservatives as Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first female Prime Minister. Barbara Castle, who some had once tipped to achieve that accolade, recorded her thoughts in her diary: ‘What does it all add up to politically? Firstly I am delighted that we havent got a “hung” Parliament with Labour cabined and confined in another four years of consensus politics. Secondly women themselves have got a great boost from Margaret’s victory. We would have suffered a terrible set-back if she had lost. Thirdly the unions have been made to face a choice: either they can have sectional power or political’ (MS. Castle 20, fol. 185v).
Her retirement as an MP did not signal the end of her career. Politics remained the driving force of her life. Despite having opposed British entry into the European Economic Community, Castle successfully stood as an MEP for the first directly elected European Parliament. Reflecting on the campaign she wrote in her diary that ‘there’s no escaping it: I am a political animal through and through’ (MS. Castle 20, fol. 187r). She retired from the European Parliament in 1989. In 1990 she returned to Westminster, entering the House of Lords as Baroness Castle of Blackburn. She was politically active until the end of her life, most notably championing the cause of pensioners in opposition to the welfare reforms of New Labour. She died on 3 May 2002.
The catalogue of Barbara Castle’s papers at the Bodleian Library is available online (http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/wmss/online/modern/castle/castle.html).