Eminent, but not quite great

March 20, 1998

Biographies of major figures sell and they tend to be kindly reviewed - the ascent to the top usually makes a good, name-dropping story. Jim Callaghan is by any standards a major figure, and his biographer is a major historian. This readable 800-page monster of a book will be widely read and contemporary historians will mine it avidly for its new facts and its perceptive judgments.

Kenneth Morgan has produced a sympathetic, though not wholly hagiographic work. It tells the story of the patriotic sailor's son moving upwards from humble origins in Portsmouth and Plymouth to Inland Revenue clerk and then to young trade union official. A spell in the wartime navy ended with an early entry into Parliament and then, after a flirtation with "keep left", junior ministerial office. As the old guard died away, during the Tory years of 1951-64, Callaghan rose naturally to the top.

In due course, he became the only man in British history to occupy all of the top four ministerial offices - chancellor of the exchequer, home secretary, foreign secretary and prime minister. This robust, self-educated good-fellow earned widespread respect but no disciples on his road to the summit or during his long retirement.

Buffeted by circumstance, and by George Brown, in 1964-67, his chancellorship won few plaudits. But he proved a humane home secretary in 1967-70 and an effective foreign secretary in 1974-6. Although, when he became prime minister at the age of 64, his government lacked a Commons majority, he survived for three years and steered the country through the International Monetary Fund crisis. Had he chanced an election in September 1978, he might have had still longer in office and saved Labour from its disasters in the early 1980s.

But that is just one of the "if onlys" of a long career. If Callaghan had not stood for the Labour leadership in 1963, Brown might well have beaten Harold Wilson. If Callaghan had been a more self-confident chancellor, an earlier or a different devaluation might have made the 1960s happier for Labour. If Callaghan had not battled so firmly against Barbara Castle's In Place of Strife, industrial relations and the Wilson record might have looked very different. If Callaghan had not stayed on as leader from 1979 to 1981, Dennis Healey not Michael Foot might have succeeded him and averted the Social Democrat breakaway.

It does not seem that Sunny Jim is much troubled by such regrets. He is a happy family man and a farmer, tough enough to have survived the rough and solitary life that is imposed by politics at the top; he can feel content with his substantial achievements.

He was one of Britain's less exciting prime ministers, but he is looked back on with kindness as an honourable, competent man, rather more of a leader than Home or John Major, considerably less of a fixer than Wilson, but lacking the panache of Macmillan or the drive of Thatcher or Tony Blair.

The biographer of a prime minister is challenged to show how his hero got to the top, how he operated there and then to set him in his place in the historical pantheon. Callaghan rose by being unquestionably a Labour man, at the pragmatic centre of the party, good at mastering a brief, sure-footed in Parliament, firm without being pushy, a safe pair of hands. Over much of this century, the upper reaches of the Labour Party have been a rough place; to survive there for 40 years implies some extraordinary characteristics in an outwardly ordinary man.

Once in senior office, Callaghan listened to his civil servants. He usually accepted their advice but he remained his own man, never to be taken for granted. His advisers and his officials still testify to his judgement and good sense, his feel for the reaction of ordinary people. His mishandling of the economy in 1964-67 and of "the winter of discontent" in 1978-9 stand as reproaches - but against them come his many contributions; they range from cat's eyes in roads to decimal currency, from the ending of hanging to the handling of race relations and of South African cricket tours, from the 1975 reconciliation of Labour to Europe to the fight-back against the inflation of 1976. He comes well out of his part in the sorry Northern Ireland story; he understood, through all the ups and downs, that Britain must preserve what it could of the special relationship with the United States; he was always clear that unilateralism and anti-Europeanism were dead ends. He combined radical instincts with the upright conservatism of his Baptist origins. With an Irish name and a Welsh constituency, he was immensely English. Regretting his lack of formal education, he knew how to communicate with and to learn from the learned without being intimidated by them. He was fun to have as a fellow of Nuffield College.

In 1960, Hugh Dalton recorded being struck by the question about the up-and-coming Callaghan: "But has he a resignation in him?" He proved to have two. In 1967 he resigned honourably from the Treasury over devaluation, though Wilson persuaded him to stay on as home secretary. In 1969, he wrote a letter of resignation over the trade union row (Morgan justifies his opposition to Wilson and Castle and his ultimate decision to stay and fight). He was never a time-server or wanting in courage.

Like most biographers Morgan respects the sequence of time, offering an "and then, and then" story. But he does stand back with a separate chapter on the domestic Callaghan and with assessments of his performance at each stage in his career, and he ends with a magisterial assessment.

Untheoretical, commonsensical, shrewd, Jim Callaghan bestrides the century from the 1930s to the 1990s, a solid, limited, admirable Labour man, a good man, an eminent man, but not quite a great man. Morgan's book does him kindly, perceptive justice.

David Butler is rector, Exeter College, Oxford

Callaghan: A Life

Author - Kenneth Morgan
ISBN - 0 19 820216 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 800

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