A leader of compassion, a master of pragmatism

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The Independent Online

The death of a statesman often offers a sense of perspective denied us in the daily exchanges of politics. The death of James Callaghan is a vivid reminder of how much has changed since he left Downing Street, mournfully observing a "sea change" in the national mood in 1979.

The death of a statesman often offers a sense of perspective denied us in the daily exchanges of politics. The death of James Callaghan is a vivid reminder of how much has changed since he left Downing Street, mournfully observing a "sea change" in the national mood in 1979.

Since then, since the end of the last Labour government, we have witnessed the new Toryism of Margaret Thatcher followed by the New Labour era of Tony Blair. Both arguably answered more successfully to the spirit of their times, but then Sunny Jim did inherit a hopeless position from a cynical Harold Wilson. That he was ultimately unable to deliver Labour's fifth win in six elections owed as much to the impossible hand he was dealt as to, say, the postponing of the election from the autumn of 1978.

His career was beset with challenges that would have crushed a weaker figure. As Chancellor he presided over the devaluation of the pound. As Home Secretary he had no choice but to send the troops into Northern Ireland. As Foreign Secretary he fought the Cod War. And as Prime Minister, he faced an economic crisis with no parliamentary majority.

He emerges from the historical record with substantial credit, however. When he took over as Prime Minister in 1976 his administration represented a return to straighter politics after the intrigue, paranoia and spin of the Wilson period. He tried to get Scottish and Welsh devolution through Parliament, only to be sabotaged by an opportunist alliance of right and left. He did his best with a pay policy that was probably the only alternative to mass unemployment as a means of dealing with the country's chronic economic dysfunction. He and Denis Healey brought in an early, more moderate form of necessary monetarism. Had they been successful, it could be argued that much of the pain of the adjustment under Margaret Thatcher could have been avoided. And Callaghan might have succeeded had the trade unions, his own power base that brought him to No 10, not cut their own throats in the Winter of Discontent.

He was a product of 1945. With his record of wartime service, his commitment to Atlanticism, his pride in the trade unions, he was the very model of a British labour movement pragmatist.

He was motivated by the finest values of that tradition, of egalitarianism and national unity. He did not always see eye to eye with Tony Blair, but showed admirable discretion towards his successors generally. He seemed to accept that his party had moved on.

The most important battle that he fought as Prime Minister, to hold the line against the use of unemployment as an instrument of policy, marked him out as a most compassionate leader of the nation. For all the compromises that public life requires, he remained a man of dignity and stature, driven by a spirit of public service and hatred of poverty. Respect for his memory should extend way beyond the Labour Party.

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