Paul Barker: The working-class hero with a tragi-comic flaw

Callaghan is the only man to have held the four great offices of state, and failed in all of them
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The Independent Online

Speak nothing but codswallop about the dead. This was the watchword of those who rushed to praise Lord Callaghan. Among them was Tony Blair, who called him "one of the giants of the Labour movement". If he was, it helps explain why Blair invented New Labour in order to get away from such an inheritance.

Speak nothing but codswallop about the dead. This was the watchword of those who rushed to praise Lord Callaghan. Among them was Tony Blair, who called him "one of the giants of the Labour movement". If he was, it helps explain why Blair invented New Labour in order to get away from such an inheritance.

Callaghan is the only man who held the four great offices of state: Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and, finally, for a brief three years in 1976-79, Prime Minister. Before history gets overlaid in posthumous syrup, remember that he is also the only man to have failed in all four offices.

His term as Chancellor (1964-67) collapsed in ignominy after he made the wrong decision about devaluation, which eventually he was forced into. As Home Secretary (1967-70), he sent troops into Northern Ireland - which was a lot easier than getting them out, and probably led to greater terrorism. His time as Foreign Secretary (1974-76) is best typified by a scandalous act of nepotism: appointing his son-in-law, Peter Jay, ambassador to Washington.

Despite this, he was the man at the right spot in the political game of musical chairs. In 1976, early signs of Alzheimer's disease ended Harold Wilson's prime ministership. Callaghan took over, but then couldn't win a single general election. Even John Major, a comparably hopeless prime minister, managed to do this once. Callaghan's bumbling administration went down in flames after the Winter of Discontent - and the Thatcher years began.

There was nothing accidental about all this. He was a man who loved power but didn't know what to do with it. I was at one official event where he told us, in a worldly-wise voice : "All we can hope to do is manage decline." Margaret Thatcher held out more hope than that. Readers of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time will recognise Callaghan as a Widmerpool figure: a man who kept on rising, though with no obvious virtues except doggedness.

Callaghan rose from within the union movement: a rarity among Labour Party leaders. A working-class hero, in a way. But, like all heroes, he had a tragic, or in his case tragi-comic, flaw. He became the Wilson administrations' "keeper of the cloth cap" (a role his protégé, John Prescott, tries to fill). But he couldn't free himself from his background as a minor trade union official - just about the only non-Westminster job he'd ever held.

As Home Secretary, he sided with the union leaders against Wilson, and his Employment Secretary, Barbara Castle, in their attempt to reform union law. Callaghan triumphed. The outcome: years of trauma when Edward Heath came to office in 1970 as a direct result, and tried to do something very similar. As Prime Minister, Callaghan later confronted the same obstacle: union barons unable to control their own members. His past cosying-up went for nothing. In his beginning was his end.

Almost all Conservative prime ministers, till the 1960s, climbed to the top by a classic Establishment route. In his eye-opening recent book, The Guardsmen, Simon Ball charts this in relation to Harold Macmillan and three of his lifelong friends and rivals. All went to Eton, and all enlisted into the Brigade of Guards, at exactly the same time as each other. Only one made it to Number 10. In the end, Macmillan was brought down by the very thing that raised him up. He trusted "people like us". It emerged that they weren't as reliable, honest and loyal as he hoped.

For Callaghan, an alternative route beckoned: the Labour movement - that is, both the unions and the party - was his "Establishment". It raised him all the way up from respectable, chapel-going poverty. In the Cabinet room on his first day as Prime Minister, he claimed he felt "an almost religious experience". Goodbye to being a backroom fixer (the private truth behind the public smile). Now, he reckoned, he would be not only "a guide to lead the nation into the future", but also "a trustee for all that was best in our past". Such Thought for the Day pieties got him nowhere. His own folk, the unions, put the knife in.

In Callaghan's dismal career, though, there is a message for the future. It's about what happens when some dominant, long-serving prime minister hits the buffers. In the past half-century, all such leaders' successors have come to grief. In 1955, after Winston Churchill, came Anthony Eden, who took Britain into the Suez débâcle and swiftly resigned.

After Macmillan came the farcical interlude of Sir Alec Douglas-Home. After Wilson, Callaghan; and after Thatcher, Major. Some of these successors, like Eden and Callaghan, had long been seen as the heir apparent. Others, like Douglas-Home and Major, had become the departing leader's favourite son.

But all of them failed. What goes up must eventually come down, including any party's temporary hegemony. If Labour does win the 2005 election, and if Gordon Brown then inherits Number 10 after Blair's long reign, things may be stickier than anyone expects. You might call it the Callaghan Effect.

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