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.

The Crown. Series 4, Episode 1: Gold Stick

We pick up pretty much exactly where we left off.

It’s 1977 and the Queen is celebrating her Silver Jubilee. She is now around fifty (slightly older than Olivia Colman who plays her) and there is a sense the focus of the action is now shifting slightly away from her, Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) and her drunken, unhappy, newly divorced sister, Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) to the next generation: Charles (Josh O’Connor) and his youthful romantic entanglements and to Princess Anne (Erin Doherty) who is now married and enjoying success in her show-jumping career. The Queen’s two other children, Prince Edward and the now disgraced Prince Andrew, both teenagers at this point, have not really featured yet.

In the meantime, there’s a new face in Downing Street. Despite being an enthusiastic monarchist during his three-year spell as premier, poor old Jim Callaghan, doesn’t even get a look-in here. As with Alec Douglas-Home (who admittedly only lasted twelve months), “Sunny Jim” gets missed out of The Crown’s narrative completely. Instead, we jump straight to the May 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman PM and the only one of the Queen’s 14 First Ministers to date, to be roughly the same age as the monarch herself was at the time.

There have been a number of great dramatic portrayals of Margaret Thatcher over the years ranging from Lindsay Duncan, Patricia Hodge, Haydn Gwynne and Meryl Streep. In Peter Morgan’s 2006 film, The Queen, Sylvia Sims, who had once starred in 1991’s TV drama, Thatcher: The Final Days played The Queen Mother. Fittingly, when Meryl Streep starred in The Iron Lady, her daughter, Carol was played by Olivia Colman, who, is, of course, now The Queen in The Crown.

Margaret Thatcher is certainly not an easy role to play, partly because years of elocution lessons topped off with Saatchi and Saatchi-inspired voice exercises combined to ensure that she literally spoke like no one else who has ever lived on the planet Earth. Gillian Anderson does very well, capturing amongst other things Thatcher’s total lack of any sense of humour whatsoever. Like Thatcher herself though, it seems likely her performance will divide audiences. Philip and Margaret’s husband Denis (Stephen Boxer), meanwhile, react in similarly old school fashion to the news that Britain is now being ruled by “two menopausal women”. The Queen, in time, (like many others) found the famously headstrong, combative and stubborn woman premier difficult to like. In this first episode, however, set in 1979, the monarch seems very receptive to her.

At one point, we see the new Prime Minister doing the ironing. She is the Iron Lady.

Elsewhere, following Lord Mountbatten’s (Charles Dance) generally bad advice to “sow his wild oats.” Prince Charles is still carrying on with his now married, old flame, Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell, not actually in this episode) while simultaneously dating one Lady Sarah Spencer (Isobel Eadie). It is during one visit to the Spencer household, having been briefly left alone with plenty of plants to talk to, that the thirty-ish Prince first encounters Sarah’s bewitching teenaged sister, Diana (Emma Corrin). More on her later…

This episode also deals with the assassination of Lord Mountbatten and three others by an explosion caused by a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA in August 1979. The explosion is cleverly spliced between footage of the other Royals seemingly simultaneously hunting, shooting and fishing during their own separate summer holidays.

Anderson’s Thatcher (who had lost her own friend and colleague Airey Neave to a terrorist bombing only a few months earlier, although this isn’t referred to) promises vengeance to the Queen. Speaking during a private phone conversation, Anderson’s Thatcher adopts a vicious, vindictive tone, which one suspects, wasn’t what the grief-stricken monarch really needed to hear at the time.

General Election memories 1: 1979

Politics - First Female Prime Minister - Downing Street - 1979

Peterborough.   May 3rd 1979.

I’ll let you into a secret. I don’t actually remember the 1979 General Election at all. I was born in December 1976 so was not even two and a half years old n May 1979. I’m not sure I even knew an election was going on, let alone one of the four most pivotal General Elections of the 20th century. Had you asked me, I doubt I’d have had any clear views on either the merits of monetarism, the impact of the Winter of Discontent or even on who should succeed James Callaghan as leader of the Labour Party.

I was basically an idiot.

Instead, I wasted my time with such trifles as learning to talk (something I’ve still not entirely mastered), filling time between episodes of Jamie and the Magic Torch and throwing tantrums. I lived in Peterborough with my parents (who were both then about the same age that I am now), an older brother who was just entering his teens and a sister who was nearly ten.

I’m not convinced I would have enjoyed the election much anyway. I have grown up to be a Labour supporter and 1979 was to prove a bad year for Labour. Labour had been heading for victory only a few months before with Prime Minister Jim Callaghan always more popular than his opponent, the eventual victor, Margaret Thatcher. This fact suggests to me in itself that Labour’s stint in office was not the unmitigated disaster some have subsequently claimed it was. But the series of crippling strikes dubbed “the Winter of Discontent” wrecked Labour’s chances. The Tories fought a slick campaign. Thatcher held a calf in public at one point. Tory posters depicted long unemployment queues (in fact portrayed by Young Conservatives) proclaimed “Labour isn’t working”. Some might think this a bit of a cheek in retrospect. Unemployment was at 1.3 million and falling in May 1979. By 1980, under Thatcher, it had hit two million, a new post-war high. By 1982, it was at three million. By 1986, 3.4 million!

labour-isnt-working

At any rate, Labour lost. Peterborough’s Labour MP Michael Ward fell to Tory Dr Brian Mawhinney. An unknown named John Major would win his neighbouring seat of Huntington for the Tories. Mawhinney later revealed had been inspired to stand by a divine voice speaking to him on a visit to Peterborough Cathedral. At any rate, although no one knew it then, he and the Tories would hold power until 1997 (when Mawhinney cannily switched seats), then a tremendously futuristic science fiction year by which I, then a toddler, would be old enough to vote myself. Michael Ward died in 2009, but his daughter Alison Seabeck is an MP and Shadow Minister today. Her husband Nick Raynsford is also a Labour MP.

The Tories won a majority of 43. Labour got a bigger share of the vote than David Cameron’s Tories did in 2010. Callaghan lost despite being personally more popular than his opponent, Mrs. Thatcher. But please note: the least popular of the two main party leaders has never won a General Election in the years since. 1979 was unusual.

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Britain thus had its first woman Prime Minister albeit one who didn’t agree with Women’s Lib and didn’t even seem to like any other women very much. The Sun went Tory for the first time ever in 1979 and many followed its election day headline’s suggestion to “Give the girl a chance!”

I was blissfully unaware of all this, too afraid of fictional witches as portrayed in storybooks and on TV to worry about real life ones.

“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is despair, may we bring hope,” the new Prime Minister said on arriving in Downing Street, claiming to be quoting Francis of Assisi.

In fact, St. Francis never said any such thing and we would soon learn that as an introduction to the Thatcher era, these words would prove staggeringly inappropriate.

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