Jim Callaghan was born in Portsmouth in 1912. His father was a naval Chief Petty Officer and his mother a housewife. Following the premature death of his father, Jim and his mother experienced real poverty. His journey of self improvement began by winning a place at the Portsmouth Northern Secondary School, the Ministry of Pensions paid his school fees of a guinea a term. His mother was unable to consider university for him because of the cost. Thanks to his Oxford Senior Certificate he secured work as a civil servant at the Inland Revenue. This took him away from home and the high youth unemployment of the time.
At work he took an early interest in the Inland Revenue’s Staff Federation, becoming an official. He strove for better conditions and greater opportunity for young clerks earning himself a reputation as a firebrand.
In 1938 he married his teenage sweetheart Audrey. They had a son and two daughters, one of whom – Margaret later became Labour Leader of the House of Lords. Their marriage lasted for 67 years until her death just 11 days before his.
In 1945, at the age of 33, Jim was elected to represent Cardiff South. He was part of the Labour landslide that took Clement Attlee to Downing St. His own early experience of poverty gave him an instant identification with his poor working class constituents. His easy and approachable manner helped build his reputation locally and despite his steady rise up the ladder of national politics he remained accessible to all, serving the constituency for 42 years.
He made steady progress becoming a junior Transport Minister and then serving at the Admiralty under Atlee. He was elected to the Shadow Cabinet every year from 1951 and was also elected to the NEC.
When Labour returned to government in 1964, Harold Wilson made Jim Chancellor of the Exchequer. These were difficult economic times. He inherited an economic crisis with huge borrowing, a balance of payments deficit and massive pressures on sterling. He went to the Treasury with plans to reform and modernise but instead he faced the prospect of cutting services, reducing borrowing and raising taxes. He juggled with the problem for over three years before the decision in 1967 to devalue sterling, a day which he always referred to as the worst day of his life.
After devaluation he returned to the Home Office as Home Secretary where, in his first ministerial post, his grasp of the ‘little things’ prompted him to bring in Catseyes and Zebra Crossings, both of which were responsible for saving many lives. As Home Secretary he introduced the Race Relations Act.
Northern Ireland was then the responsibility of the Home Office. At the onset of the troubles he worked tirelessly to build the trust of the Catholic minority and dismantled the hated ‘B Specials’. He sent British troops to restore order – without alienating the Unionists who retained a sneaking respect for him.
Labour’s unexpected defeat in 1970 returned Jim to the opposition front bench but in 1974 with Harold Wilson once again Prime Minister, Jim was appointed Foreign Secretary. His efforts on renegotiating Britain’s terms of EU membership enabled the government to win the Yes vote in the subsequent referendum.
Harold Wilson’s sudden resignation delivered the Leadership to Jim even though at 64 he was the oldest candidate. His tough action in dismissing Barbara Castle, his old adversary from ‘In Place of Strife’, revealed a ruthless side to his style of government.
Renewed economic problems dominated the final period of his premiership. Keeping his Cabinet together and dealing with the IMF negotiations tested his political skills to the limit. Nicknamed ‘Sunny Jim’ because of his avuncular manner he became an early victim of ‘spin’ – reported as saying ‘Crisis, what crisis’ during the ‘Winter of Discontent’. A phrase he never used.
By-election defeats ended his fragile majority and not even a pact with the Liberals could save him when the SNP joined the Tories in a vote of no confidence. The May 1979 election campaign was dominated by memories of the industrial unrest and resulted in 18 years of Tory rule. He possibly understood the nature of the electoral shift better than most and summed it up as follow, “Perhaps every thirty years or so…..there is a sea change in politics….a shift in what the public wants and approves of.” As we all know that sea change led to 18 years of Tory rule.
He retired from the Commons in 1987 and took his place in the House of Lords.
He died on 26 March 2005 a day before his 93 birthday, 11 days after the death of his beloved Audrey. Britain’s longest-living Prime Minister and unique in holding the four great offices of state – Chancellor, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister. Jim Callaghan was a thoroughly decent, hardworking man who always held close to his Labour values.