Barbara Castle 1910-2002

Barbara Castle, Labour Member of Parliament for Blackburn 1945-79, Member of the European Parliament 1979-89 and Member of the House of Lords since 1990, died 3 May 2002, aged 91.

She was, without doubt, the most formidable female politician of her generation, sometimes spoken of as the possible first woman Prime Minister. In some ways, inadvertently of course, she paved the way, blazed the trail more like, that led to Margaret Thatcher’s arrival in Downing Street. Despite the differences in political colour their politics were not dissimilar; both were conviction politicians, both exploited their femininity to the full, and both their destinies were linked closely to the trades unions.

Barbara Betts was born in Chesterfield in 1910. Her father, Frank Betts, was an income tax inspector who was frequently obliged by the Revenue to move his family around Yorkshire. Eventually they settled for a while in Bradford. Barbara attended Bradford Girls Grammar School and won a scholarship to St Hugh’s College, Oxford. Frank Betts, in his spare time, was an enthusiastic propagandist for the ILP and the editor of the vigorously left-wing journal the Bradford Pioneer. With this background it was not surprising that Barbara should quickly become a leading member of the Oxford University Labour Club, and an activist in the Socialist League. She was always clear that her future lay in politics or journalism.

Through the Socialist League she met William Mellor, editor of the Daily Herald, and later of Tribune, one of the lasting legacies of the Socialist League and largely funded in the beginning by Stafford Cripps and George Strauss. Another near contemporary at Oxford was Michael Foot, originally a Liberal, but encouraged in his conversion to socialism by Barbara. The two of them contributed a regular column on the trade unions to Tribune, with Michael going on to edit the paper himself some years after Mellor’s untimely death in 1942. Shortly after that, at the Party Conference in 1943, she met Ted Castle, night editor of the Daily Mirror, whom she married, and who remained the rock on which she relied for the rest of their life together.

In 1945 Barbara was elected for Blackburn, one of the two members for the town’s then dual seat. It is worth noting that she only got on the shortlist because the women members of the local party rebelled against the original all-male shortlist and threatened to withdraw their services to the Party unless a woman – this woman – was included. It worked. Blackburn Labour Party of those days was home from home to a fiery, powerful, flamboyant and wilful candidate, even if she was from Yorkshire. The memory of Phillip Snowden, MP for Blackburn, Labour Chancellor and member of the National Government, was still reviled in socialist circles in Blackburn at the end of the war.

In the Commons, Stafford Cripps appointed her as his PPS at the Board of Trade, and his successor in the post, Harold Wilson, inherited her, so to speak, thus beginning an association which lasted the next thirty years, until his resignation as Prime Minister in 1976, and Barbara’s immediate exit from the Government.

In 1979 she left Westminster for a new career in the European Parliament, as MEP for North Manchester. She was immediately elected Leader of the British Labour Group, and a Vice Chair of the Socialist Group. For the next ten years she cut a dash on this fresh stage and it gave her a new lease of life. After two terms in Europe she retired, aged 79, and began the third phase of her long and adventurous Parliamentary career, as a member of the House of Lords, as Baroness Castle of Blackburn.

This morning, as we salute her memory, is not the moment to speak in detail about Barbara’s remarkable achievements in her 34 years in the Commons. There will be a memorial meeting organised in due course, a fitting place for her many supporters, admirers and proteges together perhaps with some of those she tormented, to pay proper and fitting tribute. To try to do so now would take half the morning. There needs to be a proper recognition of the
enormous contribution she made to the Party as a member of the National Executive Committee (1950 to 1979) and of her achievements in Government: as Minister for Overseas Development 1964-65; Minister of Transport 1965-68; Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity 1968-70 and Secretary of State for Social Services 1974-76. Among these are the introduction of the breathalyser, the introduction of seat belts, the introduction of equal pay, the state earnings pension scheme, equal pension rights for women, the statutory right to belong to a trade union, and many other things, some of which, like the National Bus Company and the National Freight Corporation have not stood the test of time. Then there is a vigorous discussion which can still be had about the if onlys of “In Place of Strife” and the doomed attempt in the late 1960s to address the structure of Industrial Relations. Would she have paved the way less firmly for Margaret Thatcher if this initiative had succeeded is a real question for historians. For now, some think so, some don’t. But whatever view is taken, the stand taken by Barbara Castle in those momentous times can scarcely ever be regarded as less than brave. Once convinced of a case she was a formidable advocate and a formidable opponent. If she had a weakness it was that she did not easily back down. Her spirit was indomitable, her fundamental beliefs never changed. In the last years of her life that spirit drove her on, in the cause of pensioners, to challenge new orthodoxies. She may have been right, she may not, but her unquenchable fighting spirit still inspired Party Conferences more than fifty years on from the first time she took Conference by storm. In 1943 her Conference speech on the Beveridge Social Reforms electrified Conference, and put her on the front page of the Daily Mirror as the “Voice of Youth”. At the Party’s Centenary Conference in 2000, the “voice of the pensioners” received a standing ovation not only at the end of her speech, but one at the beginning, just for taking the microphone. She had been planning another pamphlet as recently as a few weeks ago, another blast from the unquenchable fire. She was a heroine. She is an icon. She will be lamented.

Alan Howarth, PLP