Leonard James Callaghan

Leonard James Callaghan (born 1912) was a Labor member of the British Parliament for over three decades and was prime minister from 1976 to 1979.

Leonard James Callaghan was born in Portsmouth, England, on March 12, 1912. His father, James Callaghan, was a chief petty officer in the Royal Navy. Upon his death in 1921 the family was plunged into poverty when instead of a pension only a small gratuity was forthcoming. A local Labor member of Parliament was instrumental in securing a weekly allowance of 26 shillings for Mrs. Callaghan and 10 shillings for the boy. As Callaghan said many years later, "after that we were staunch Labor for life."

His formal education ended at age 16. A year later he successfully passed a government test and began work as an income tax clerk. At 24 he became a full time trade union official with the Inland Revenue Staff Federation and became a specialist in the handling of arbitration cases. By 1938 he had risen to the position of assistant secretary in the union and was actively being considered as a prospective Labor Party candidate for Parliament.

Callaghan joined the Royal Navy in 1939 and served for the duration of World War II as a lieutenant in naval intelligence in the Far East. He was elected Labor member of Parliament (M.P.) for Cardiff south in the general election of 1945 and represented Cardiff south east uninterruptedly after 1950. He held two minor posts in the 1945-1951 Labor government: parliamentary secretary to the minister of transport (1947-1950) and parliamentary secretary to the admiralty (1950-1951).

The 1950s saw Callaghan's emergence as a national figure and spokesperson for Labor. He appeared frequently on radio and television and was active as a free-lance political journalist. He was also a lobbyist for the Police Federation, a national policemen's interest group. First elected to the executive of the parliamentary Labor Party in 1951, he won election to the party's national executive committee in 1957, was opposition spokesperson on colonial questions from 1956 to 1961, and was shadow chancellor of the exchequer, 1961-1964. He stood unsuccessfully for deputy leader in 1960 and for leader in 1963 following Hugh Gaitskell's death. During this period he gained a reputation as a bitter opponent of Aneurin Bevan and of supporters of unilateral disarmament in the Labor Party.

Labor won a narrow victory in the general election of 1964, and Callaghan accepted Harold Wilson's offer to become chancellor of the exchequer. From the outset he opposed devaluation as a measure to help correct the British economy's sluggish growth rate and chronic tendency toward balance of payment deficits. He imposed a severely deflationary budgetary package in the aftermath of the 1966 sterling crisis, warning that unless it were implemented he might join the devaluers.

As late as July 1967 he was still insisting that "devaluation is not the way out of Britain's difficulties." However, in November 1967 there was another massive run on the pound, and Callaghan informed Wilson that the drain on the reserves was intensifying. On November 18, 1967, a 14.3 percent devaluation of the pound—from $2.80 to $2.40—was announced.

With the government's economic policy in disarray and the opposition demanding his resignation, Callaghan agreed to step down as chancellor, but remained in the government as home secretary. He was responsible for the Immigration Act of 1968, a hastily contrived piece of legislation prompted by Conservative assertions that an influx of Kenyan Asians would soon inundate the country. Rushed through the Commons in a week, it placed entry controls on holders of United Kingdom passports who had "no substantial connection" with Britain by setting up a voucher system. He was also responsible for sending troops to Northern Ireland in August 1969. The Catholic community welcomed him as a protector, and he successfully pressured the Northern Ireland parliament to abolish the "B-Special" paramilitary auxiliaries to the police.

When Labor returned to office in 1974, Callaghan accepted the post of foreign secretary. The sudden and unexpected resignation of Harold Wilson in March 1976 necessitated an election among Labor MPs to choose a successor, and Callaghan was chosen on the third ballot, winning 176 votes to Michael Foot's 137.

Callaghan's minority premiership was marked by the exceptionally difficult nature of the issues confronting the government and by an unusual constitutional arrangement with the Liberals by which they exercised a pre-emptive veto on proposed government legislation. Unemployment stood at a post World War II high, and the pound was once again falling. The government negotiated a $3.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, raised interest rates to record levels, and made deep cuts in public spending. By 1978 inflation had fallen to single-figure levels and the balance of payments showed a small surplus.

Less successful was the government's industrial relations policy. A massive series of strikes in the winter of 1979 caused widespread disruption of public services and was settled on terms that far exceeded the government's stated pay guidelines. Finally, legislation providing for Scottish and Welsh elected assemblies with limited powers went down to defeat in referendums. Welsh voters rejected the measure outright by a 4 to 1 majority, while in Scotland it failed to gain a required affirmative vote by at least 40 percent of the electorate. On March 28, 1979, the government, having lost the support of the Liberals and nationalist MPs, was defeated in a dramatic vote, 311 to 310. In the ensuing general election Callaghan led the Labor Party to its worst electoral defeat since 1931, as the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher, attained a majority of 43 over all other parties. (This episode, dubbed "the winter of discontent," was the subject of a symposium at the Institute of Contemporary British History in the late 1980s.)

In September 1980 Callaghan resigned the party leadership. During the 1983 general election he vehemently attacked Labor's stand on defense and disarmament in a speech that received blanket coverage in the media, delighted the Conservatives, and infuriated Labor Party activists. He was one of only four MPs returned in 1983 who had been first elected in 1945. In 1983 he was elected Father of the House of Commons, a largely honorific title. In 1987 James Callaghan was honored as a life peer.


Further Reading on Leonard James Callaghan

There is no scholarly biography of Callaghan. Christopher Hitchens and Peter Kellner, Callaghan, the Road to Number Ten (1976) is polemical and hostile in tone. David Coates, Labour in Power? A Study of the Labour Government of 1974-1979 (1980), and Alan Sked and Chris Cook, Post-War Britain: A Political History (1984) are informative and reliable guides to his years as prime minister. Richard Crossman, The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister (1975) contains many useful references.

James Callaghan has also written an autobiography. Callaghan, James, Time and Chance, Collins, (1987) was a useful resource as was the A & E Biography website <http://www.biography.com> (July 28, 1997).