Useful Notes / James Callaghan

Reporter: What is your general approach, in view of the mounting chaos in the country at the moment?
Callaghan: Well, that's a judgment that you are making. I promise you that if you look at it from outside, and perhaps you're taking rather a parochial view at the moment, I don't think that other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.
— 1979 interview

Crisis? What Crisis?
— How The Sun ran it.

Leonard James Callaghan, Baron Callaghan of Cardiff KG PC (27 March 1912 26 March 2005) was a British politician who served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1976 to 1979. He had many nicknames including Jim Callaghan, Sunny Jim, Gentleman Jim or Big Jim. He is the only man to have ever served in all of the Four Great Offices of State and been Father of the House.

First he was Chancellor of the Exchequer during a turbulent period in the British economy in which he had to wrestle with a balance of payments deficit and speculative attacks on the pound sterling. In 1967 the government was forced to devalue the pound, despite him saying that it would not. As such he offered to resign, but was instead made to swap jobs with Home Secretary Roy Jenkins.

As Home Secretary he sent the Army to support the police in Northern Ireland, after a request from the Northern Ireland Government.

In 1969, he led a cabinet revolt against a proposed reform of trade union law, forcing the government to scrap it. Had this reform been put into place, the strikes which took down his government would have been illegal.

The Labour Party lost the 1970 election but he became Foreign Secretary when they won again in 1974. In this job he renegotiated the terms of the United Kingdom's membership of the European Economic Community (the "Common Market"), and supporting a 'Yes' vote in the 1975 referendum for the UK to remain in the EEC.

Then Harold Wilson resigned in 1976 he was made the new leader of the Labour party and thus Prime Minister.

It was already a minority government and lost seats by-election by by-election causing James Callaghan to deal with the Liberals and all kinds of little parties to get the support he needed to keep in control. Yet by the autumn of 1978, opinion polls showed Labour in the lead. In what is now considered a bad idea, Callaghan refused to call an election that could have given his party a majority, and announced that fact by singing an old music hall song to ridicule the opposition.

Labour's policy since Wilson returned to office in 1974 had been to deal with economic difficulties by limiting pay rises in the public sector, which seemed to work: inflation had been falling and economic growth had resumed in 1978, accounting for Labour's popularity, and Callaghan gambled that by delaying the election, another year of the policy would be enough to gain a Labour majority. But Callaghan's gamble blew up in his face spectacularly: the unions rejected the extension of the income policy and went on strike, causing the infamous "Winter of Discontent" in 1978/79.

When a referendum on Scottish devolution failed a motion of no confidence was passed (by one vote), an election was called and Margaret Thatcher started her 11 year reign.

Callaghan stayed in the Commons until 1987, then was elevated to the Lords. He died in 2005.

In his youth, he had been in the Royal Navy, fighting in the Pacific front of World War II. While injured and laid up in a hospital ship, he wrote a guide to the naval strengths of the Allies and Japanese. He ultimately became Prime Minister largely not because he was liked but because he was the least hated prominent figure thanks to the left vs. right conflict in the party at the time. However, the way he fought his way back up after his career seemed to be in ruins after the pound devaluation to achieve the premiership a decade later is certainly worthy of respect. He also had one of the closest friendly relationships with an American President (Jimmy Carter) of any Prime Minister, much more so than the often-cited Margaret Thatcher-Ronald Reagan relationship.