24 October 2023

The conservative case for Callaghan


To write a hagiography of James Callaghan for CapX is a little like extolling the virtues of Sir Alex Ferguson in the bar at Anfield. 

For many on the right, he is the ultimate manifestation of incompetent 1970s socialism, the Labour Prime Minister of three years who ushered in about 18 years of Conservative rule. However, a slow but steady stream of rehabilitative commentary is shedding light on the brighter sides of Callaghan’s tenure. James Callaghan: An Underrated Prime Minister?, compiled by Kevin Hickson and Jasper Miles in 2020, is well worth reading, and has become a Bible of sorts for latter-day Callaghan acolytes, among whose number I proudly count myself.

And yet, you won’t find any appeals to his socialist bona fides here; this plucky defence will be mounted from a position of firm conservatism. Despite his unearned reputation, James Callaghan was in fact an admirable politician, a broadly successful Prime Minister and, perhaps most surprisingly, a conservative. 

Born into a naval family in Portsmouth in 1912, nobody could have expected that Leonard James Callaghan would make his livelihood in politics. When young James was just nine, his father died unexpectedly, plunging his family into economic precarity; it was only the expansion of widows’ pensions by the MacDonald government of 1924 that saved them from penury. He gained the Senior Oxford Certification in 1929, but could not afford the fees. Instead, he started work as a civil servant and trade unionist, rising quickly in both fields.

In 1942 he enlisted, and despite the best efforts of a certain Portsmouth MP, he remains the only Prime Minister to have served in the Royal Navy.

But what of his achievements as a politician? After all, decency and social mobility do not a politician make – what did he actually get done?

First elected in the Labour landslide of 1945, Callaghan became a well-liked figure on the Labour backbenches, before being elevated to the Treasury in 1964. After three years in the post, spent navigating extremely challenging global economic conditions, he was moved to the Home Office after refusing to devalue the pound, fearing the impact that this would have on inward investment.

As Home Secretary, he introduced the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, one of the first attempts to give the British government control over immigration. Commonwealth immigrants without ‘substantial connection’ to the country could be rejected under the 1968 Act, whereas previously they had enjoyed an absolute right to settle. In 1969, he deployed troops to Northern Ireland. 

He also resisted attempts to liberalise restrictions on certain drugs in the wake of the Wootton Report. Despite repeated efforts by middle-class, university-educated cabinet colleagues to push for liberalisation, Callaghan held firm, tabling the Misuse of Drugs Bill in 1970. He was resolute in calling for a ‘halt in the alarming tide of so-called permissiveness’, though future governments of both parties would render these efforts moot.

Throughout his career, he was also a principled Eurosceptic. In the general election campaign of 1970, he did much to ensure that Labour opposed Edward Heath’s plans to enter the European Common Market – when it became clear that Heath would drag the country into Europe anyway, he spent his time as Foreign Secretary (1974-1976) renegotiating Britain’s terms of entry in order to ensure a better deal for British industry.

It should also be mentioned that Callaghan is still the only British politician to have held all four great offices of state – Chancellor, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, and Prime Minister. 

And now to his premiership.

Despite losing his Parliamentary majority within a year of becoming PM, he maintained power through case-by-case negotiation in the interest of national stability. Notwithstanding this challenging parliamentary arithmetic, his government proved remarkably productive. 

When Callaghan took power in April 1976, year-on-year inflation stood at 18.9% – when he left Downing Street in May 1979, it had almost halved to 10.3%. Even the inflation-conquering Iron Lady couldn’t manage such a steep reduction. He also took difficult decisions on public sector cuts, bringing NHS spending down from 4.5% of GDP in 1975 to 4% in 1979. 

The institutional conservatism that defined his earlier career didn’t disappear during his premiership either. As Prime Minister, he would tell his European counterparts that he ‘[did not] believe that the Community can develop into a federation’, while successfully resisting pressure to fully integrate the pound into key features of the European Monetary System, including the Exchange Rate Mechanism which would go on to cause trouble for John Major’s government. At the same time, he worked closely with the Queen – with whom he had an excellent personal relationship – to deliver a truly pan-Commonwealth Silver Jubilee. 

He was also strong on defence. In 1977, Callaghan authorised the deployment of a Royal Navy taskforce to the Falkland Islands, preventing an Argentine invasion of the territory. In 1979, he set in motion the upgrading of Britain’s nuclear deterrent to Trident, and opened talks with the Americans on procuring cruise missiles. As a backbencher, he would go on to criticise Labour plans to cut back defence spending in 1983.

Even his fondness for trade unions was grounded in conservative instincts. He regarded trade unions as a positive manifestation of urban working-class culture, as integral to the nation’s institutional ecosystem as the Crown or the Common Law. If he had one fault, it was naively believing that the trade unions shared his patriotic belief in a common national effort. 

Upon his famous defeat in 1979, the former Prime Minister saw it as his duty to continue contributing to national political life. ‘Sunny Jim’ would continue to represent his Cardiff constituency until 1987, dispensing his wisdom from the backbenches, before being kicked upstairs to the House of Lords, where he would remain until his death in 2005. As a peer, he successfully lobbied to perpetually extend Great Ormond Street’s copyright over Peter Pan, ensuring a steady flow of royalties to the children’s hospital which continues to this day.

That Callaghan is remembered as a failed Prime Minister – and even more offensively, a failed politician – is revisionism, pure and simple. At the tail end of an extremely successful ministerial career, he took the reins of a struggling country and made steady progress on correcting course and generating stability. In the midst of imperial divestment, realignment with Europe, global economic slowdown, and deindustrialisation across the West, Callaghan did as well as – perhaps better than – any Conservative Prime Minister could have done. 

With the benefit of hindsight, we should remember James Callaghan as a poster boy of mid-century social mobility, who represented the dying embers of conservative Labour politics. His brand of politics, which prized law-and-order, constitutional conservatism, and industrial strategy, would feel at home in the growing interventionist wing of the Tory Party. That he was not a Conservative appears largely to have been a feature of his working-class roots. 

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Sam Bidwell is Senior Parliamentary Researcher for Bim Afolami MP

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.