Crisis? What Crisis?

from Chapter 11: THE CALLAGHAN YEARS
'Falling apart at the seams'

A Labour prime minister steps down mid-term and is replaced by an unelected ex-chancellor of the exchequer...

...Son of a Catholic named James Garoghan, who had changed his surname to adjust to British society, James Callaghan left school at sixteen to become a clerk and then a union official, later serving in the Royal Navy during the war. He was elected as a Cardiff MP in 1945, and became a junior member of the Attlee government, with an appointment as parliamentary secretary to the ministry of transport; it was in this capacity that he made what have turned out to be his most durable contributions to the everyday life of Britain: the introduction of cats-eyes and of zebra crossings to the country’s roads.

He was far from a conspicuous success in any of his subsequent political posts, but he proved himself an articulate spokesman for an innately conservative section of the working class, an attribute that became of ever greater significance as the 1960s cabinet lost one by one its trade union representatives (Frank Cousins, Douglas Houghton, George Brown, Ray Gunter).

A lone working-class voice in a room full of intellectuals, he was unrepentantly isolated on most of the fashionable issues of the day; as far back as 1961 he had shuddered at television’s depiction of ‘the morals of the farmyard and the violence of the jungle’, pre-dating even Mary Whitehouse’s outrage.

Also in doubt was his attitude towards questions of race and immigration. ‘If you ever want to engage Jim’s interest,’ commented one of his friends, ‘talk about the problems of the poor – he’s far more interested in them than he is, say, in black people.’ When confronted by Benn over the position of the Kenyan Asians in 1970, he had summed up his position as being simply: ‘We don’t want any more blacks in Britain.’ And when, as prime minister, he removed Jim Lyons from the Home Office, Lyons, who had campaigned for anti-racist causes, claimed that ‘I have paid the price of trying to get justice for the blacks in this country. Jim has never had much time for those who espoused that cause.’

By the time of his election as leader, however, Callaghan had, by virtue of his longevity, experience and shrewd positioning, assumed a role as, in Bernard Donoughue’s words, ‘very much the conservative elder statesman’. Or, as Benn saw him, he was ‘the party fixer with the block vote and the praetorian guard of the trade unions behind him’.

He was an unexpectedly tall man, whose slight stoop and kindly face gave him an avuncular appeal; he looked as though he were likely at any moment to press 50p in your hand and tell you to buy some sweets, but not to tell your mum. (Ted Heath, of course, had been another kind of uncle altogether, the one who meant well but got it slightly wrong, putting a 50p postal order in your birthday card.)

Revelling in the popular nicknames of Sunny Jim and Farmer Jim, he made conscious play of his age, continually referring to his colleagues as young men with great futures in front of them, to their great irritation: ‘The truth is that, at fifty-two, I was not so young!’ fumed Eric Heffer of one such patronizing reference, while Benn, on another occasion, tried to point out the same truth to him: ‘I’m not a young man. I’m fifty-one. I’ve been here twenty-six years.’

However annoying such a habit was to its victims, it reflected an impression of solid seniority that played well with the public; after what was seen as the evasive, manipulative style of Wilson, the genial and seemingly unflappable Callaghan seemed a more straightforward, dependable man of the people. ‘A socialist government must lead,’ he wrote reassuringly in his memoirs, ‘but if those marching in the vanguard are so far ahead of their followers that they are out of sight, then the general body of the army will lose touch and stray off in different directions...’

published by Aurum Press
© Alwyn W Turner 2008

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