Book review: James Callaghan – An Underrated Prime Minister?

James Callaghan is a prime minister who tends to be overlooked by history.

The new series of The Crown doesn’t even mention him at all. skipping straight from Jason Watkins’ Harold Wilson straight to Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher. Peter Morgan’s earlier play, The Audience, which inspired The Crown made a joke of how easy it was to forget him, featuring a scene in which both Helen Mirren’s elderly Queen and her youngest prime minister, David Cameron both repeatedly missed him out when attempting to remember everyone who had been in Downing Street during her long reign.

Callaghan, an ardent royalist and prime minister for three years between 1976 and 1979, would have been sad to see himself remembered like this. Or rather, not remembered.


It’s not just Peter Morgan though. I myself was born under Callaghan’s premiership but understandably have no memory of it: I was not yet two-and-a-half when he left office. But as a teenager, I’d notice blank looks whenever I brought up Callaghan during political discussions with my school friends. The same people had all heard of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath was still a public figure. But quite a few had never heard of Callaghan at all.

There are quite a few interesting facts about Callaghan. Although not amazingly tall (6ft 1), he was, in fact, the tallest PM we ever had. He was one of only eight British prime ministers not to go to university (a list which includes Disraeli, Lloyd George and Churchill). He was married longer than any other prime minister, his wife Audrey, who he married in 1939, died in March 2005. Callaghan himself, died just 11 days later, one day before his 93rd birthday. He was also the longest-lived prime minister ever, surpassing Harold Macmillan’s record, by just 39 days.

‘Sunny Jim’ was also the only person to have held all of the great offices of state. He was Chancellor (1964-67), Home Secretary (1967-70), Foreign Secretary (1974-76) and Prime Minister (1976-79). Some people hold just one of these positions (e.g. Wilson, Heath, Thatcher, Blair, Cameron – all just PM), some two (Eden – Foreign Sec and PM, Brown – Chancellor and PM, Jack Straw – Foreign Sec and Home Sec, May – Home Sec and PM, Johnson – Foreign Sec and PM) and others three (Churchill – all except Foreign Sec, Rab Butler – all except PM, Macmillan – all except Home Sec, Major – all except Home Sec). But only Callaghan has held all four.


This book of essays is about Callaghan’s record as Prime Minister. Generally, his tenure tends not to be remembered fondly, largely because it ended badly. In late 1978, with Labour ahead in the polls, he held back from calling a General Election. His caution was actually quite understandable in the circumstances, but his decision was to prove disastrous. The next few months would witness a total breakdown in relations between the unions and the government culminating in the catastrophic ‘Winter of Discontent.’ From that point on, a Conservative election win for Margaret Thatcher was inevitable. Callaghan’s image was further harmed by TV images of him appearing complacent and out of touch when interviewed during the strikes after returning with a tan after attending a summit in the Caribbean. The appearance inspired the famous Sun headline, ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ Callaghan never used those exact words but they certainly conveyed the essence of his reaction (he did say, “I don’t accept that there is mounting chaos”). In the end, the government fell as a result of a government defeat in the Commons, not due to an election called at a time of Callaghan’s own choosing. Mrs Thatcher and the Tories won with a majority of more than forty. Memories of the Winter of Discontent would poison Labour’s electoral prospects throughout their eighteen subsequent years in opposition.

Against some pretty stiff competition, Callaghan’s election postponement must rank high on any list of the greatest missed political opportunities of all time.

Putting these disasters to one side, however (if that’s possible), Callaghan’s premiership was up until late 1978, pretty successful. He inherited a dire economic situation from Harold Wilson and was thrown into the IMF Crisis of 1976 almost immediately afterwards. But he and his Chancellor, Denis Healey thereafter handled the economy pretty well. The economy was recovering and unemployment was falling when Labour left office.

In an incredibly fractious situation, he also did very well to manage rising tensions within his own party and cabinet. Despite clashes between Right and Left and the sometimes mischievous activities of Tony Benn, there were, almost uniquely, no major cabinet resignations during his premiership.

Finally, Callaghan was consistently popular and always preferred by most to his sometimes shrill younger opponent, Margaret Thatcher. It is little wonder he came so close to re-election in the autumn of 1978.

James Callaghan – An Underrated Prime Minister? Edited by: Kevin Hickson and Jasper Miles. Published by: Biteback.

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