Lord Callaghan was born in 1912 in Portsmouth, where he spent his early years. He entered the Civil Service as a tax officer in 1929 and served in the Royal Navy during the war.
He joined the Labour Party in 1931 and entered Parliament as MP for South Cardiff in 1945. In 1964 he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in Harold Wilson’s government. He was Home Secretary (1967-70) and Foreign Secretary (1974-6) and in April 1976 he was elected Prime Minister on Harold Wilson’s resignation. He resigned as Leader of the Opposition in 1980 and was made a life peer in 1987, the year in which he published his autobiography, Time and Chance.
He died in 2005, one day before his ninety-third birthday, having been the longest-lived British prime minister to date.
I interviewed him in June 1999 and found him easy to talk to, and a man without any false pretensions. I ended up liking him without even trying.
Here is the full text of our encounter.
Your extraordinary political career, your rise from humble beginnings to hold the highest office in the land, the only person in fact to have held all four great offices of state – all this is well known and documented. But I’m curious about Callaghan the man – as opposed to the politician. Would you agree that they are not the same person?
Yes. With close family I don’t convey the same impression as I seem to convey publicly, though I suppose the principles and standards by which one lives as a private person should also inspire what one does publicly. I can’t say I always live up to that, though I try. The world of politics is rather rougher than the world of the family or close friends, but I think principles and standards emerge automatically when you do something. It is very difficult to disguise them or run away from them.
Would you say that you are gentler in private life than in your political life?
In my early career that was certainly true. In later life, I am so gentle that people often fall asleep when they listen to me.
Would you say that life for you has been defined in terms of politics, or do you regard politics as something apart?
It has been defined in terms of politics. I wanted to live in a way that one would achieve certain aims. Politics is a very demanding mistress but if you are going to be in a position to influence events and do particular things you must give your life to it. We all came back from the war determined that Britain would not be the same place it had been in the 1930s or the 1920s; we wanted to change Britain, and we devoted ourselves to that.
When you became Prime Minister the Sun newspaper delved into your background and discovered that your father had changed his name and date of birth to avoid being traced when he ran away to sea…
Yes, I have since been in touch with family members on my father’s side. I discovered that he had a cousin living in Australia, my father’s brother’s daughter, and she was able to tell me some very interesting stories. My father, who was by way of being a bit of a joker, used to tell my mother never to look up his family because they were either in jail or had been deported to Australia. He seems to have been right to some extent.
Your father, a Catholic of Irish descent, left the church in order to marry your mother, a Protestant, and you and your sister were brought up as Baptists. The Sun also turned up a Jewish grandmother, highly unusual in an Irish Catholic family. What effect did this religious mix have on you? Did it make you more or less sympathetic to different religious groups?
More sympathetic, not so much for religious reasons but because I found the different groups to be attractive people with attractive faiths. I’ve always admired the Jews who came here greatly to our benefit when Hitler pushed a lot of them out of Germany. In 1938, when my wife and I had been married for only six weeks, there was an appeal to take in refugees from Germany and we were lucky enough to have an editor stay with us. Our families were rather concerned that so quickly in our married life we had somebody in our house, but he was a splendid man and I learned a great deal from him. As for Catholics, I have always admired – perhaps envied is a better word – their certainty, which I must say I don’t share myself. And when one comes across a man like Cardinal Hume, one has to respect a faith that produces such a man.
Your biographer Kenneth Morgan describes how as a Home Secretary you succeeded in showing understanding of both sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland. He notes that you referred movingly in the House to your own religious background, saying, ‘I remember how my own parents regarded the Catholics.’ How exactly did they regard the Catholics?
I’m afraid we were terribly bigoted. My mother felt very strongly that it was wicked to be a Catholic, and she expressed it in no uncertain terms.
Your biographer also quotes the view of many observers at the time that if you had remained at the Home Office after 1970, instead of being replaced by Reginald Maulding, your combination of fairness and decisiveness might have led a way out of the conflict. Given the evidence during the last twenty-five years of hatred on both sides, is it still possible to believe that?
I admired Reggie Maulding and he was in many ways a friend, but I thought when he went to the Home Office that he was too laid back for Northern Ireland. It needed constant intervention, and I had a man there whose job was to make sure that the channels never got silted up. In terms of the larger question, no, I don’t think I would have been prevented the developments in Northern Ireland; I might have delayed them, but as the IRA gained strength that settled the issue. Peace might just have been a possibility when O’Neill was the Prime Minister in the 1950s. He had a breadth of outlook which was far wider than a number of Irish politicians on both sides, both Protestant and Catholic, who are terribly introverted, or at least have been in the past.
Doesn’t it look as if even the present peace plan has failed?
I think we’d better wait and see. I’ve never condemned any move that has been made, although I did feel at one stage that every time a British government produced a solution one or other side would attack it. At least we have now got all groups supposed to be working towards the peace settlement, and I wouldn’t want to destroy any feelings of hope and optimism that might exist. But it is the most difficult problem for this country, as well as for Ireland itself.
Your father died aged only forty-four when you were nine years old, and you felt his loss deeply. How do you think this affected you as you grew up?
Only in later years have I come to realize that it affected me deeply. Children are extremely resilient and they bounce back, which I did, but I’m sure it did have an effect on me at the time in terms of my behaviour at school, for example. I wasn’t conscious of it since one didn’t examine oneself then the way that we all seem to do now. What I think I missed was the solace, the comfort and the example that a father would have given me when I was young.
Under the first Labour government there was no pension for your mother. It is almost impossible to imagine how she and others managed to feed and clothe children in these circumstances. Do you remember life as very hard?
I didn’t think of it as very hard at the time. When I remember what I had to do, then it can seem rather hard in retrospect. For example, we lived a lot on the charity of the chapel, and when I came home from school on certain days I was told to call in on the fish auctioneer who was one of the chapel deacons. He would wrap up in a newspaper one or two fish that he’d subtracted from his sale, and we would have that. Otherwise our midday meal tended to be bread and dripping and a cup of cocoa made with water, which has put me off it ever since. But by comparision with some others life wasn’t hard. I have recently written a foreword for Roy Mason’s autobiography. As a young boy of fourteen, he went down the pit, and in a seam two feet high, three foot six inches wide, he would lie on his side shovelling coal. My life doesn’t compare with that kind of hardship and I cannot disguise my admiration for him.
According to your biographer your upbringing in Baptist fundamentalism has left you with ‘a Calvinistic sense of guilt, inadequacy, inner torment, and almost a neurotic sense of tragedy’. Considering what you have achieved, we should perhaps all wish for such burdens to bear…
[laughter] Well, certainly there is an everlasting sense of guilt, but I’m not sure about the tragedy. My father was evidently an eternal optimist and I think I probably inherited that side of his character. But I do have a feeling that I have not done what I should have done; I’ve never been able to escape that, even today at the age of eighty-seven. Ridiculous, but there you are.
Did you perhaps feel that it was difficult to live up to your father who had packed such a lot into his short life – running away to join the navy, rapid promotion, a dangerous expedition in Nigeria, serving on the royal yacht, and so on … wouldn’t any boy feel that was a hard act to follow?
I wasn’t conscious of that until more recently. Today everyone is looking at their navels and I suppose I have fallen into the habit too. But during my active life I wasn’t very introspective, and I don’t think I ever consciously felt that I had to live up to my father.
Were you conscious of having a special relationship with your mother, as the youngest child and only son of a dead father?
No, I wasn’t. It seemed quite normal. I obviously had affection for her and I know she had a deep love for me, and a great pride in me. Whether I reciprocated as fully as I might have done, I wonder sometimes. When your mother finishes up in a rest home you do inevitably feel you might have done better by her. She would never have said so, however. She was an extremely independent, strong-minded woman.
You became a Sunday-school teacher, and it was there that you met your wife Audrey when she was sixteen. Audrey was your first love, but was she also your only love, or did you go out with other girls before you settled down?
[laughter] Not formally, no. I gather there’s an old lady in Portsmouth – she may have died by now – who used to claim we went out together, but I don’t remember it.
You were obviously both religious young people … did you give your children an upbringing similar to your own, or had you both changed your views by then?
My wife really had charge of that side of things, and she had never been as strict or disciplined as I had had to be in Baptist tradition. So the three children had a much freer upbringing than I did. I’m glad to say they are all very good characters and I’m proud of all of them.
At some point in you political rise to fame you became ‘Sunny Jim’ to the tabloid newspapers and were accepted as such by the rest of us, yet Kenneth Morgan sees this as ‘one of the less appropriate soubriquets for this sometimes difficult and bad-tempered man’. How do you respond to that?
I must have given him some rough treatment when he used to come and see me [laughter]. I suppose I didn’t live up to my name. Of course I’ve got a bad temper, though it is better now than when I was in active life. I couldn’t suffer fools if they were people I worked with. If on the other had it was one of my constituents who was in real trouble and didn’t know how to handle things, then of course I wouldn’t begin to feel that way. But with my colleagues I would sometimes get very bad-tempered.
Morgan goes on to tell us that you are thought by some to be a bully and that Roy Jenkins has described you as ‘an aggressive pike, eating up the minnows’. Do you recognize yourself in any of this?
I only bully people who are my equals; I wouldn’t ever bully someone weaker.
You are seen as reassuringly traditional in your views – a monarchist, a patriotic Englishman, slow to see the need for devolution or a Bill of Rights, a conservative with a small c, a man who found himself more in sympathy with some American Republicans than Democrats. Have you found it difficult to accept the idea of change in general?
Well, I can accept some of that. I do need the case for change to be proved. On the other hand, when I entered Parliament had no difficulty about the change that was necessary in our institutions; nor do I have any doubt about it now, but it’s different when change is made for change’s sake. I therefore tend to want to see the evidence before I go along with the idea of change. I’m very good at analysis, but not so good at imaginative leaps; that is my weakness, but then I always said I would employ others to do that. My strength is understanding people, knowing what they are likely to react to, winning their understanding, their sympathy, their agreement, and being able to get to the nub of a problem very quickly. My weakness is not being able to find solutions very easily.
Were you ever driven to despair by the antics of the far left in the Labour Party, and were you at any time tempted to leave the party?
I despaired very much of the far left, but I did not despair of the Labour Party. I am one who believes that fashions and attitudes swing like a pendulum; they go from one extreme to another without really settling in the middle. Occasionally they will settle temporarily in the middle, and if you happen to be there at the time then you’re very lucky. Did I ever think of leaving the Labour Party? Never. Would I leave my family, would I leave the party that gave my mother a pension, the party that gave me the opportunity of going to secondary school, the opportunity of being a Member of Parliament?
And then to be Prime Minister…
Well, it was actually more important to be a Member of Parliament. When you are young like that, it is the acme of your being to represent people. It was a wonderful thing and I shall never forget it; 1945 was an annus mirabilis as far as I was concerned.
Morgan alleges that your old-fashioned beliefs about the role of women may have affected your relations with Barbara Castle, and that your hostility to her plan ‘In Place of Strife’ may have led indirectly to eighteen years of Tory rule and Mrs Thatcher’s destruction of the unions. Is there any truth in that?
No, I don’t think for one moment that I have been anti-woman. I would like to be careful about what I say about Barbara, because frankly I am now too old to persist in long-standing quarrels and disputes, so I will confine myself to explaining a little of my objection to what Barbara was doing, rather than to Barbara herself. I was also a little piqued at the time since I had been handling the development of industrial relations on the party’s line, and then somehow Barbara took hold of it with Harold’s encouragement and went away for a quiet weekend with a few people and came up with an answer which was in my view totally superficial. It was intended to deal with unofficial strikes – though it would have done nothing of the sort – and I believed that the argument that was used was shoddy. I don’t like shoddy arguments, hence my opposition to what was done. Of course, I suppose I must carry some responsibility for Mrs Thatcher’s treatment of the unions, but they carry a lot of responsibility themselves in terms of weak leadership and irresponsible wage claims for thirty-five per cent at a time when I was offering five per cent. Wouldn’t they love to have five per cent now! But I should have been quicker on my feet. When I became Prime Minister I was twenty years older than Tony Blair is now, and I think I was getting a little tired.
You left the Baptist church, but did you retain your Christian faith?
I didn’t formally leave the Baptist church, I just stopped going. Am I a Christian? That’s a difficult question, a very difficult question. I suppose I am, and I suppose I shall be buried as such, but I find some of the tenets of Christianity hard to accept.
Tony Blair is a committed Christian and makes no secret of it. Do you regard this as a strength or a weakness in a Prime Minister?
Whichever way I answer that I’m going to get caught. I don’t wish to make a criticism of Tony Blair so I think I am going to bow out of that question.
Well, some people accuse Tony Blair of parading his Christianity and also of being hypocritical in terms of defending the bombing of Yugoslavia, for example, while talking of morals and justice … do you have any views on that?
I don’t wish to discuss Tony Blair.
All right. Perhaps you can say what you yourself felt about the bombing of Yugoslavia. Would you have taken the same stance?
I didn’t have a moral objection. I had a political objection to it, not to the bombing as such but to the policy that was being followed, and I conveyed my views privately to George Robertson, the Secretary for Defence. The government was faced with a very different situation, and this is one reason why I wouldn’t utter public criticism, because I think the government is entitled to support in those circumstances. Even if you express privately your own views you should not undermine what it is doing. But I think I would have to say that we are only at the start of this problem. You can relieve the humanitarian distress, but you cannot, I think, resolve it by force.
Anthony Howard has suggested that you have been treated with distain by some sections of New Labour … is there any truth in that?
I think it is the fate of most people who have led the party to be reviled by their successors. It doesn’t concern me really. New Labour had to distance themselves from the Labour government of 1974-9 in order to win an election, but that doesn’t leave me with any sense of grievance.
In 1967 with your three children all married and starting families of their own, you and Audrey bought a farm in Sussex. Private Eye immediately accused you of suddenly becoming wealthy because of your association with rich businessman Charles Forte and Julian Hodge. Although the charges were unfounded, they must have been very damaging. How far did they hurt you and your wife in your personal lives?
I didn’t take much notice. I can tell you the simple arithmetic of the situation. We has a house in Blackheath which I sold for fourteen thousand pounds, with a mortgage of course. I transferred the mortgage and added on to it by buying the farm for twenty-two thousand pounds – hardly a big deal. [laughter] One thing that did hurt me was in my connection with Julian Hodge, and that was a budget issue. A motorcycle manufacturer in Lancaster had written to me with a story about the impact of some duty that we had on motorcycles, saying it was killing his industry. I thought he had a case and that this duty, whatever it was, could go. Then about a fortnight before the budget Douglas Jay came to me from the Board of Trade and said that if we were doing it for motorcycles we should also do it for three-wheeler cars since they were always classified together. Of course it had never crossed my mind that Julian Hodge owned the Reliant motor company in the Midlands. The press built a huge story on the basis that I had relieved the three-wheeler motor-car industry because of my close links with Julian Hodge. There wasn’t a word of truth in it. I was younger and more sensitive in those days, and I really got angry. When I had been Chancellor for only a few weeks, a short letter appeared in The Times which read: Dear sir, Since the war there have only been two kinds of Chancellors of the Exchequer, those who left in disgrace and those who got out in time. Yours faithfully… [laughter]
From everything I have read, you are the rarest of beings – an honest man, in both your private and public lives. Do you, however, believe that the private lives of politicians should remain private?
I wish I were as honest in thought as your question implies. I fear that I am dishonest in thought on some occasions, and I don’t live up to the standards that I like to espouse. But yes, I think politicians’ private lives should on the whole remain private. I read the other day that three journalists are now investigating Alastair Campbell’s private life, which I think is monstrous. What has his private life got to do with the public interest, or the way he is doing his work? I have nothing but contempt for so much of the press nowadays.
As Prime Minister you took over from a largely discredited Wilson…
This sounds like a very loaded question…
No, his being largely discredited is surely a matter of historical fact. In any case, you yourself said early on that you wanted ‘to redeem the tawdriness of the Wilson regime’ – these are your own words. Did you regard this as a huge challenge or opportunity?
I think all I want to say about it is that I had my own methods of conducting government and Harold had his. Harold had a great many advantages and virtues but we each of us conducted our governments in our own ways. I have no criticism at all to utter.
Let me ask you this then. Do you think historians in the future will be kinder to Harold Wilson?
I said that myself at the cabinet meeting when he retired. Remember that there were occasions, especially over Europe, when Harold Wilson sacrificed his own feelings for the sake of his party. He and I were of one mind about the party; in that sense we were both Disraelians, and the party mattered. We were both determined that we could never go through 1931 again, or anything that gave rise to a split in the party, and Harold at times went through great difficulties which arose from the very creditable view that he shouldn’t split the Labour Party. Harold was a kindly man who was surrounded by people who weren’t as good as he was. He had ideals, especially about race and about the Third World. He was also a man who liked to please, and perhaps that led him to decisions that he would not wholly have wanted to take.
Your worst time as Prime Minister, and perhaps as a man, came in ‘the winter of discontent’ when all the essential services we brought to a halt by the power of the trade unions. In Kenneth Morgan’s words, you were ‘becalmed in a kind of depression, almost ennui’. Do you agree with that analysis?
Yes. It was the only time in my life when I didn’t enjoy being in politics. I loved being Prime Minister, I had a whale of a time, but I did not enjoy that last winter. It’s fair to say that I became becalmed; I couldn’t see my way out of it or find a solution, I don’t know why. I was also tired, no doubt about that, and I wasn’t nimble enough on my feet.
You said afterwards, ‘I felt I let the country down.’ Can you elaborate on that?
It was my fault in the sense that I was the leader of the country, I was the Prime Minister, and we had got ourselves in a position that was really disgraceful. It was probably a combination of weak leadership among the trade unions and insensitivity on my part, but I must carry the can. I very much regret it. Even at my present age, if I were to go back and be Prime Minister now I would certainly take more initiatives than I did then.
Was your dismay perhaps also to do with the fact that you had worked for and defended the unions all your life?
Yes, I’m sure that was an inhibiting factor. I cared about trade unionism as an ideal. People would laugh at this now, but to me the way in which men and women had banded themselves together when they were oppressed was a wonderful thing. I always felt deeply about social injustice and about the weak being trodden underfoot. I thought it was a very great movement, and I believed they would reform themselves. After that experience I came to the conclusion that they can’t reform themselves; they have to have some external parameters within which they are required to live. The modern trade union leaders do so, but they are a different group of people from those we had then. There were some good leaders in the 1970s, but also some very bad ones.
One wouldn’t like to admit it perhaps, but don’t you think it was Mrs Thatcher who changed the unions?
I’m not so sure about that. She was a factor, yes, but I don’t think she was the mainspring of change. It was a combination of the trade unions themselves recognizing their own excess and a new generation of young managers coming up who thought of men and women at work, not as units of labour or resources, but as their most precious asset. That as much as anything contributed to the legal framework which was instituted.
You expected to be accused of nepotism when you appointed Peter Jay, your then son-in-law, as ambassador to Washington, and indeed you were criticized. But you made the appointment on David Owen’s recommendation that Jay was the best possible choice, and also because you knew his career had suffered a setback through being related to you. Have you ever, at any time or for any reason, regretted making that appointment?
No, never. I knew from the start that I would be attacked for it, and when David Owen first came to me I sent him away, I said, no I can’t do this, you’ve no idea what people will say, and so on. For weeks he tries to find somebody else – at least I hope he did – but he came back and said that Peter was the man he wanted. So I said, ‘Well you’re the Foreign Secretary, if he’s the man you want, you’d better have him.’ I don’t regret it. Frankly, it was a small incident in my political life.
Your biographer tends to dwell on your feelings of inadequacy caused by the lack of a university education. What difference would that have made, do you think? Do you honestly think you could have achieved more with an Oxbridge degree?
I suppose you can’t do more than be Prime Minister can you? [laughter] No, what I regret is not lack of achievements, but the fact that I don’t have a trained mind. I recognized that my contemporaries – people like Tony Crosland and Healey and Jenkins – had experiences open to them that were closed to me. They were discussing social, moral and political questions when they were eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old; they were reading accordingly, enlarging their minds, discussing large questions, and they were able to do this effortlessly because university had trained them to do so. I had the advantage of living life in the sense that I was in the navy and so on, and that probably made up for university in practical terms, but I did envy many of my contemporaries. With me it was a laborious process of catching up, and frankly I am still catching up, still learning new things, still finding new truths.
You have lived to see your reputation, if anything, enhanced in retirement, which has not always been the case with former Prime Ministers. Do you attribute this to good luck or to good judgement on your part?
If I were to say good judgement, you would say, what a vain character he is, and if I were to say good luck, you would say, well, that man’s got no judgement. I think we are all evaluated as time goes by and I should not be the slightest bit surprised – though I shan’t be here to see it – if there is another evaluation after I die and people come to the conclusion that I was the worst Prime Minister since Walpole.
How would you most like to be remembered?
In the simplest way. As somebody who, despite his faults and his mistakes, really cared about ensuring justice, a measure of equality and compassion in what he tried to do. I am not a great man, but I would like to think people felt that I cared and I tried.