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James Callaghan, British Prime Minister 1976-1979, dies aged 92

Andy McSmith,Severin Carrell
Sunday 27 March 2005 02:00 BST

Jim Callaghan, the only man to rise through the trade union movement to head a Labour government, died at his Sussex home yesterday, 11 days after the death of his wife Audrey. He would have been 93 today.

Jim Callaghan, the only man to rise through the trade union movement to head a Labour government, died at his Sussex home yesterday, 11 days after the death of his wife Audrey. He would have been 93 today.

A brief statement from the Callaghan family last night said: "He was the unique holder of the four major offices of State: Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary; and the longest-living Prime Minister in the history of the country."

As the political world paid tribute to Callaghan last night, Tony Blair hailed him as one of the "giants of the Labour movement".

Mr Blair said: "He worked tirelessly to put into action the values of social justice, solidarity and opportunity for all which brought him into politics and the Labour Party.

Mr Blair added: "He was a patriot, a loyal servant of party and country and a devoted husband and father. His love for Audrey was very special. Jim Callaghan will be remembered with affection and respect."

The son of a naval Chief Petty Officer, "Sunny Jim" Callaghan sometimes appeared nonplussed by his own rise to high office, though others attributed it to a streak of ruthlessness.

While serving as Home Secretary, in the late 1960s, he took to the streets in opposition to the trade union reforms proposed by his Cabinet colleague Barbara Castle, earning himself the nickname "keeper of the cloth cap". He sacked Castle when he took over as Prime Minister, after Harold Wilson's sudden resignation in 1976.

His profound loyalty to the union movement was rooted in the 11 years he spent before the war as an official of the Inland Revenue Staff Federation. He went to work for the Inland Revenue after leaving school at 16, and married Audrey Moulton in 1938.

His apparently relaxed approach to the problems besetting his government led to his being famously misquoted in a headline that ran "Crisis? What crisis?"

Neil Kinnock, who declined to serve in Callaghan's government, mocked him at one Labour Party conference by singing a version of an old Paul Robeson hit, changing the lyrics to: "Ol' Man Callaghan, that Ol' Man Callaghan, he must know something, but don't say nothing ..."

Callaghan was a Labour MP for 42 years, including more than 30 years on the front bench. As Home Secretary, in 1967-70, he took the fateful decision to send British troops into Northern Ireland as peacekeepers.

A spokeswoman for Buckingham Palace said the Queen was "sending a private message of sympathy to the family." The Prince of Wales said he was saddened to hear of his death. "Lord Callaghan was a remarkable man who showed great kindness to me when he was Prime Minister," he said.

Lord Healey, who served as Chancellor under Callaghan from 1976 to 1979, remembered the former Labour leader as "a very good friend and colleague from the war on. He was a brilliant Prime Minister. He had a very extraordinary skill for picking on the issues that mattered."

"I'm very sad about it," said Lord Healey, who last saw him at Audrey's funeral, and added: "In a sense, he wouldn't have been sorry to have gone so soon after her death."

Lord Hattersley, another cabinet colleague from the late 1970s, added: "It was not a major surprise - I knew what a blow the death of his wife was," he said. "He was a decent, kindly man who helped me and my generation of politicians immensely."

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, said: "Jim Callaghan will be mourned throughout the world. In all the positions he held with distinction, his commitment was to help those most in need. Like many MPs younger than him, I was always grateful for his generous advice and support. My thoughts are with his family. The Labour Party and the country will be poorer without him."

Tony Benn, who had known Callaghan since Labour's first post-war government under Clement Attlee and served as Energy Secretary in his Cabinet, said: "I had disagreements with him but I was very, very fond of him ... I'm really, really sad that he has died."

Lord Owen, Foreign Secretary under Callaghan before going on to co-found the Social Democratic Party, paid tribute to his statesman-like qualities. "He was very cool, calm, he had a an extremely good relationship with President Carter, and I think he was a person who other heads of state, other heads of government, would listen to. He had a very good way of quietly getting on with them, giving them quiet views and they would know they could respect him, could trust him."

Alun Michael, the environment minister who took over the Cardiff South & Penarth constituency from Callaghan, said the former party leader had kept in regular contact with his old constituency.

"His leadership as Prime Minister in an enormously difficult time for the party, and the tremendous contribution he made nationally and internationally, has always been underestimated.

"He was a great statesman, a great leader and a great parliamentarian. I and many others in the local party will miss his warmth and his wisdom."

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