BOOK REVIEW / The PM we never got: 'Fighting all the Way' - Barbara Castle: Macmillan, 20 pounds

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IT IS only a few weeks since Peter Paterson's biography of George Brown was published. Not many months before that we had Ben Pimlott's superb Harold Wilson. Another life of Wilson, by Philip Ziegler, is due to appear soon. Meanwhile, having already unburdened herself of two large volumes of The Castle Diaries, Barbara Castle offers us a 626-page autobiography. The Labour governments of the Sixties continue to fascinate - more so, certainly, than the Heath administration that followed them. Can one imagine a publisher working up any enthusiasm for, say, a biography of Anthony Barber or the memoirs of Geoffrey Rippon?

After 14 years of Tory rule, this interest may partly be explained by a yearning for - or at least a curiosity about - the days when Labour seemed the natural party of government. But another reason is the number and quality of political scribblers who inhabited the higher reaches of the party at the time. The Wilson Cabinet included three talented and prolific diarists - Richard Crossman, Tony Benn and Barbara Castle - as well as the authors of two of the best political memoirs of modern times, Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey. Try reading Roy Jenkins's A Life at the Centre after a trudge through any of the recent autobiographies by Willie Whitelaw, David Young or Cecil Parkinson, and you will see why students of political history keep returning to the Sixties. The air is more bracing, and the prose shapelier.

Yet the political monuments of the time are anything but sexy. Few pulses will quicken at the thought of the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation (which, in one of her oddly frequent nominal lapses, Barbara Castle calls the Industrial Reconstruction Corporation), the National Plan, the Prices and Incomes Board and all the other paraphernalia of tripartite corporatism that enveloped Britain like a pea-souper during the Sixties and Seventies. As Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, Castle was in the thick of this fog; and in 1969 it almost choked her when, egged on by Harold Wilson, she introduced her White Paper In Place of Strife, proposing a 28-day cooling-off period before unofficial strikes.

In her diaries, Barbara Castle leavened the story with gossip and intrigue, particularly when writing of the 'utterly unscrupulous' role of Jim Callaghan, who, ever the opportunist, sought to establish himself as a leader-in-waiting by sabotaging her White Paper. Here, for instance, is how Castle the diarist recorded a Cabinet meeting in May 1969:

Suddenly Dick (Crossman) launched into a ferocious attack, obviously aimed at Jim. Some people, he said, believed they could get us off the hook by ditching Harold and finding another leader . . . 'If my colleagues want me to go, I will,' murmured Jim unctuously. Dick flashed back at him, 'Why don't you go? Get out]'

Compare and contrast, as they say, her brief stroll over the same ground in Fighting All the Way: Jim continued his rearguard action to undermine the Cabinet . . . When he heard of it, Harold threatened dire sanctions against Jim, but they failed to materialise.

And that's it. No mention of Dick Crossman's electrifying intervention, and surprisingly little rancour against the wily Callaghan, who sacked her from the Cabinet when he did eventually replace Wilson. 'There is nothing more tedious than stale resentment,' she explains. Personally, I wouldn't have minded a few teaspoonfuls of resentment, stale or otherwise. Without it, the autobiography of this fiery redhead is often uncharacteristically dull.

The liveliest chapters in the book are those on the young Barbara Betts's early life in Yorkshire. Inspired by a father with a passion for socialism, she wrote her first election address at the age of six: 'Dear citizuns, Vote for me and I will give you houses.' Frank Betts, her father, earned his living as a tax inspector but was also a published poet, praised by Gilbert Murray as 'full of life and power and sympathy and curious erudition penetrated by imaginative brooding'. It would not be a bad description of Mr Betts's daughter, who inherited not only his politics but also his old-fashioned versifying style. She bravely quotes some of her own work, including the fond

quatrain she read at the funeral of her husband, Ted Castle, in 1979:

High love and flaming passion will fall a prey to time,

For the body's joy must temper as the body leaves its prime;

And memory must weaken as we move to stranger strands -

But, oh, I shall remember the kindness of your hands.

I could have done with more of these intimate touches - and, indeed, with more about Ted. In The Castle Diaries he was a constant presence, soothing and encouraging (it was he who dreamt up the title In Place of Strife, mischievously echoing Nye Bevan's In Place of Fear); here, he is mostly invisible. Only on page 514, by which time we have reached 1979, does she get round to mentioning that he was made a life peer five years earlier.

The feisty Ted was obviously an ideal partner for Barbara. When a right-wing heckler at a public meeting yelled 'Traitor]', Ted leapt across several rows of seats, grabbing him by the collar and shouting: 'No one calls my wife a traitor]' Barbara Castle's own combativeness, to which the title of her book draws attention, is undeniable: but she has not been fighting all the way. On being selected as the prospective parliamentary candidate for Blackburn in 1944, she was told by the local agent: 'In Blackburn we don't like career women who use their maiden names. When you go out of here you will be Mrs Barbara Castle.' She obeyed without hesitation. Later, worried that she was losing the support of Catholic voters in Blackburn, she won it back 'by supporting government help for Catholic schools. It worked like magic but I knew I had sacrificed one of my principles since I did not approve of denominational schools.'

Still, these timid moments were pretty rare. In the Fifties she was an energetic internationalist, launching a one-woman campaign for Cypriot independence and exposing the brutality of the colonial police in Kenya; as a Member of the European Parliament 30 years later, she biffed away at the Common Agricultural Policy with undiminished vigour. Unlike Jim Callaghan - who, in her unimprovable assessment, 'just strung along with whatever he believed to be inescapable' - she was a creature of passion and determination.

In this she resembles the woman who became Britain's first female Prime Minister. 'She had,' Castle writes admiringly of Margaret Thatcher, 'that combination men fear most: a brain as good as most of theirs plus a mastery of the arts of femininity.' Barbara Castle had that, too, and much else. If only she, rather than the wretched James Callaghan, had succeeded Harold Wilson in 1976, the result of the 1979 election might have been quite different.

(Photograph omitted)