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.

Book review: Seasons In The Sun – The Battle for Britain 1974-1979

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Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979.

Dominic Sandbrook.

Penguin, 2011.

£10.99.

There is probably a great play to be written about the filming of the first Star Wars film.

Admittedly, there would probably be legal issues, perhaps insurmountable ones. But imagine! The tensions between the rising young American stars: ex-carpenter Harrison Ford and the highly intelligent but vulnerable Carrie Fisher. And the older, distinguished English co-star Sir Alec Guinness, a man with an Oscar and years of experience but little understanding of the script.

This might sound like an odd place to begin a review of a book about Britain in the late Seventies. But this is exactly where the book itself begins. The film was after all, mostly filmed in Britain with much of the cast drawn from the likes of those previously best known for appearances on Poldark or later to appear in Brookside. A key point is that Guinness had managed to secure a generous two percent of the entire profits for a film that was to become one of the most commercially successful of all time. Another is that under the tax regime of the time, Inland Revenue trucks were soon pulling up to claim 83 pence out of every pound Guinness had made.

This was, of course, not a happy spell in British modern history. Sandbrook suggests the 1974-76 Wilson Government was the worst in British history. “Wilson was one of the cleverest and kindest men ever to occupy Number 10 but also one of the weakest,” he writes. In fairness, he inherited a mess (the Three-Day-Week and an economic crisis from Heath) and left the situation little better. This is odd because the government which included Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Anthony Crosland amongst its members was far from extreme (for the most part) and certainly not lacking in talent. Probably the main problem was Wilson himself, who had not expected to return to power in 1974 and thanks to alcoholism and probable early Alzheimer’s, was a shadow of his sharp-witted, wily mid-1960s self. Jim Callaghan, at any rate, though close to being a watered down Thatcherite himself, did better. At least until the Winter of Discontent.

It was a strange time in many ways. There was intense paranoia on all sides as if the neuroses of Wilson and US President Richard Nixon had infected the general population. The right-wing host of TV’s Opportunity Knocks, Hughie Green appealed live on air: “For God’s sake Britain, wake up!” in 1975. Many worried about a coup from the Left  perhaps led by Tony Benn while others began preparing for a coup from the Right, perhaps led by Lord Mountbatten. Right-wing journalist Peregrine Worsthorne hoped the United States would come to the aid of a socialist Britain just as they had “helped” Allende’s Chile by replacing him with the murderous General Pinochet in 1973. This scenario later inspired Chris Mullin’s 1982 thriller A Very British Coup in which a democratically elected Labour Prime Minister is overthrown by a combination of the CIA, British security services and the Establishment.

This is the fourth of Dominic Sandbrook’s superb series of four books which thus far have chronicled Britain’s progress (or decline) from the era of Suez to the coming of Thatcher (the others are Never Had It So Good, White Heat and State of Emergency). As before, Sandbrook does a superb job of describing not just the political and economic scene but the minutiae of seemingly almost every aspect of British life, for example, the details of the Sex Pistols’ notorious TV appearance with Bill Grundy. “Who knows what Grundy thought he was s doing?” Sandbrook rightly asks after Grundy goaded his guests into swearing on live TV and thus ensuring his own downfall.

Mike Yarwood. Malcolm Bradbury. Butterflies. The Good Life. Quadrophenia. John Stonehouse. Lord Lucan. The Bee Gees. All are here. It is a fascinating read. Along with Alwyn W. Turner and David Kynaston, Dominic Sandbrook remains at the forefront among chroniclers of our nation’s recent history.

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