Not, perhaps, a great premier, but certainly a dignified one

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The Independent Online

It was, in a way, appropriate that James Callaghan should have died only days after his beloved wife, Audrey. It was, as he would have said, in one of his favourite phrases, "all for the best". He had met her at the tennis club when he was a young Inland Revenue officer in south London and they had both taught at the Baptist Sunday school: she represented the aspirational side of Jim. She was comfortably off. He was one of only two of our Prime Ministers - the other was Ramsay MacDonald - who had known cruel poverty in their childhood.

It was, in a way, appropriate that James Callaghan should have died only days after his beloved wife, Audrey. It was, as he would have said, in one of his favourite phrases, "all for the best". He had met her at the tennis club when he was a young Inland Revenue officer in south London and they had both taught at the Baptist Sunday school: she represented the aspirational side of Jim. She was comfortably off. He was one of only two of our Prime Ministers - the other was Ramsay MacDonald - who had known cruel poverty in their childhood.

His roots were in Brixham, Devon, and Portsmouth. His father, a customs officer, had died young and his mother had brought up a family in straitened circumstances. His father had been in the Navy, in which Jim also served in the Second World War. Before then, and for a time after the war (doubling with his initial period as MP for Cardiff South), he had been assistant secretary of the Inland Revenue Staff Federation.

He rose in the Labour Party through the white-collar unions but he made a quick impression as an MP. The Labour savant Harold Laski once described him as one of the two most intelligent members of the 1945 intake (the other was Ian Mikardo).

His lack of a university education, however, always grated with him. On the one hand, he possessed an admiration for Labour intellectuals such as Anthony Crosland, whom he (perhaps unwisely) promoted to the Foreign Office after becoming Prime Minister in 1976.

On the other hand, he detected patronage where none was intended. Roy Jenkins suffered from this when Jim, at last holding supreme office, refused to make him Foreign Secretary and told him that his future lay in Brussels instead. There may also have been an element of pique. Jenkins had won golden opinions from the broadsheet papers for his stint as Home Secretary; while Jim's subsequent period in the same job was seen as adequate, at best. Jim's spell as Chancellor had ended with the 1967 devaluation; whereas Jenkins's term immediately afterwards was greeted with approval all round. So it was not perhaps surprising if Jim felt, not exactly jealous of Jenkins, but rather that his sterling qualities had gone largely unappreciated.

And yet they were appreciated in the end. It was, after all, Jim, not Jenkins, who became Prime Minister when Harold Wilson unexpectedly resigned in 1976. Before then he had gone through 12 years of ups and downs. Wilson had deliberately created a state of tension between Jim at the Treasury and George Brown at the newly established Department of Economic Affairs, not merely to safeguard his own position, but to diminish the power of the Treasury. Jim - or, rather, the Treasury - won that contest, but the victory availed him nothing. After devaluation he offered to resign and wanted to resign.

But Wilson had the bright idea of making a straight swap between Jenkins at the Home Office and Jim at the Treasury, to which Jim agreed. In 1969 - responding to an appeal for protection from the Catholic population of Belfast - he put troops into Northern Ireland. They are still there. His political life at this time was dominated not only by Ireland but by the proposals for trade union reform which had been inaugurated by Barbara Castle and supported by Wilson in 1968 and embodied in the White Paper In Place of Strife.

Jim opposed the proposals because they seemed to him to strike at the basis of the Labour Party as he knew it. He also undoubtedly saw some advantage in placing himself at the head of the trade unions in Parliament, as "keeper of the cloth cap", even though his own experience had been with a more genteel kind of organisation.

Wilson had already formed an inner cabinet going by the name of the Parliamentary Committee. He responded to this piece of insubordination by giving Jim the sack from the Parliamentary Committee. In the end Jim won, Wilson lost and Castle's proposals were withdrawn. But before the 1970 election few would have given him much chance of becoming leader of the party, still less Prime Minister.

What happened was that Labour unexpectedly lost the 1970 election, Europe became an issue - with Jim well able to reflect the party's ambivalence on the subject - and there was a personal rapprochement with Wilson. In 1974-76 he was an impressive Foreign Secretary. He became the first Prime Minister in British history to be elected by his party to succeed a departing Prime Minister. His chief rival was not Jenkins or Crosland but Michael Foot. It was by no means a walkover. In the third ballot he defeated Foot by 176 votes to 137.

He lost his parliamentary majority almost at once through by-elections and stayed in office partly through the Lib-Lab pact. The consensus was that, even if he was not a great Prime Minister, he was certainly a very dignified holder of the office. In 1978 the question was whether to go to the country or stay for another year. Most observers still think that, if he had held the election in October 1978, he would have won, just. His close friends advised him to delay. The Cabinet, which, unusually, he consulted, was divided. He made jokes about the election that was not going to happen to the TUC in Brighton and annoyed the brothers thereby.

But they were not directly responsible for the disasters of the succeeding winter. The trade unions did not turn on the Government because Jim had made jokes at their leaders' expense about the election date but because he had stuck to a 5 per cent limit on wage increases. Yet, except in a general sense, he was not brought down by them. The 1974-79 Labour government fell because the Scottish people failed to support devolution in sufficient numbers, the Government was paralysed and lost the vote of censure.

Foot offered to try to reverse this defeat or to delay its effect until the autumn. Jim was having none of it. There was a time, he said, in the history of every party when the voters had had enough of it, and for Labour that time had clearly arrived.

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