Five and a half years ago, Jeremy Corbyn achieved the seemingly impossible. An amiable left-wing backbencher of some thirty years standing, his victory in the contest to succeed Ed Miliband was one of the most astounding political occurrences of the past fifty years. Yet four years later, his leadership ended in bitter defeat.
This insider’s account from the talented left-wing writer Owen Jones, one of the first people to champion Corbyn’s campaign in 2015, tells the story of this failure We will all have our own views of Jeremy Corbyn. However, this is a review of Owen Jones’ book not of Corbyn himself. And Jones is frank about Corbyn’s failings. He could be stubborn and badly organised. He totally mishandled the Brexit issue and the antisemitism row, two issues which totally derailed his leadership.
On the other hand, Jones does not mince words on how Corbyn was betrayed by those within his own party and how less surprisingly he was brutally misrepresented and maligned by Britain’s conservative media. Owen Jones’ book is a thoughtful, well-written, balanced, intelligent and accessible account of a revolution which failed.
This Land: The Story of a Movement, by Owen Jones. Published by Allen Lane (2020)
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.
Few great political leaders have been so frequently underestimated as Clement Richard Attlee. In his early years, he showed little sign of becoming anything special or indeed of developing a socialist outlook. As Jago explains, for a Victorian boy of Attlee’s background born in 1883, there was simply no means of becoming a socialist. The teenage Attlee once argued that the working classes could not be expected to appreciate museums and art galleries in a school debating society. Attlee would later be embarrassed by these views, although as a lifelong champion of both the monarchy and the public school system, a conservative strain to Attlee’s thinking always remained.
Attlee seemed set for a fairly unpromising legal career until a period of voluntary work which started before the First World War transformed his outlook and which in the 1920s launched him towards politics. He continued to be underestimated, however. The first ever Oxford graduate to become a Labour MP, his rise to the leadership in 1935 surprised many. Most assumed he would be a temporary stop gap leader. In fact, he would be the longest serving Labour leader there has ever been, lasting twenty years until 1955 (Ed Miliband will need to last until 2030 to do as well! )
Churchill underestimated him too describing him as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing” despite witnessing his competence working alongside him in the wartime coalition in which Attlee eventually became the first ever Deputy Prime Minister. Churchill invited him to the first half of the critical post-war Yalta Conference on the off chance that Attlee might win the 1945 election and thus need to attend the rest as Prime Minister. But this was a formality. Churchill didn’t expect him to win. Neither did Stalin or his foreign minister Molotov, who, apparently not quite grasping how democracy works, had expected Churchill to fix the result.
Labour’s spectacular 1945 General Election victory gave them their first ever majority. It was also a huge one: 146. Only Tony Blair in 1997 and 2001 has won bigger victories since. The new intake of Labour MPs included most of the key Labour figures of the next forty years: Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, George Brown, Denis Healey, Michael Foot with Tony Benn and James Callaghan soon to follow.
Attlee’s government did so well that every government since has been disappointing in comparison. Despite walking an economic tightrope throughout, Attlee ensured the return of full employment, a house building boom, the establishment of the post-Cold War foreign policy, independence for India, the nationalisation programme and the creation of the NHS and the welfare state.
Even now, nearly fifty years after his death in 1967, Attlee remains a somewhat underappreciated figure; his success often attributed more to his hugely talented cabinet (Cripps, Bevin, Bevan, Dalton and Morrison) than to the man himself. Jago’s excellent biography contains a couple of errors (a chapter entitled From Lord Haw Haw to Burgess and Maclean does not actually mention Lord Haw Haw aka William Joyce once) but is a masterly piece of work and goes some way to redressing the balance.
Thirty years after Margaret Thatcher shamelessly savaged Attlee’s cherished post-war legacy, it remains a shame that there is no one of Attlee’s stature around in Britain today.
In some quarters, he was seriously considered as a possible successor to Tony Blair in 2007. But he was barely forty then. The general consensus then was that he was too young and inexperienced for the top job.
However, now only six years later and having come within a whisker of the Labour leadership in 2010, he seems to be leaving British politics forever. He is standing down as MP for South Shields and leaving for a job with a leading charity in New York. As Michael Foot once said of another notable David (Owen): “He’s passed from rising hope to elder statesman without any intervening period whatsoever.” The problem is not, of course, the former Foreign Secretary’s age – he is a year younger than the Tories’ “rising hope” Boris Johnson – but the fact that he lost, however narrowly in 2010, and worse, lost to his brother.
The sibling rivalry element to the story complicates everything and probably explains why David Miliband’s chosen to leave the political scene now. There is no reason at all why a defeated candidate cannot seek the leadership again – Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Michael Foot all became leader on their second attempt – but this now seems unlikely to happen.
There is an element of mythmaking about the Miliband Saga, however. The Tory press will tell you, Labour made a historic mistake in September 2010 akin to their error in electing Michael Foot over Denis Healey in October 1980.
This is absurd. We are not now in a spring 1983 scenario. Labour has not split or plunged into the civil war which traditionally plagues it after being ejected from government. Ed Miliband is not obviously leading Labour to a crushing defeat as Foot was by this point in his ill fated leadership.
The truth is David Miliband is no Denis Healey nor is Ed Miliband, Michael Foot.
Ed Miliband vanquished fears that he might be in thrall to the trade unions in his 2010 acceptance speech. The “Red Ed” nickname did not last. He responded to the News International Scandal well. His “One Nation” speech last autumn won widespread plaudits from the public and media. And perhaps most importantly, thanks in no small measure to UKIP, Labour are likely to be in power (perhaps as the lead party in another Coalition) in a little over two years time.
Would they be doing better under David Miliband? Probably. The older brother comes across better on TV, a fact not insignificant in the media age. But let’s not get carried away. Like his friend Hillary Clinton in 2008, he fatally supported the Iraq War and acted as if the leadership was his almost by divine right in 2010. He also has mild image problems too and dithered fatally over whether to support Gordon Brown at the height of his leadership troubles in office.
Make no mistake: the same Tory press which heaps praise on David Miliband now would be lambasting him were he actually Opposition leader.
It is sad to see him go, yes. But he is not Denis Healey. Labour can win without him.