How many people remember that James Callaghan achieved a distinction so far denied to every other senior figure in the long history of British politics? I was reminded of his career, and the unique impact he made on the UK system of government, reading Tom Chidwick's
recent account of how different Prime Ministers coped with the shock of leaving Downing Street.
We met for the first time on a rainy day in Dunoon, sometime between 18 June 1970 and 28 February 1974. Thursdays, both. What happened then wouldn't happen now. The chances of anyone finding someone who, just recently, had been Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary, huddled in the doorway of a small shop in Dunoon – rain or no rain – are slim.
Callaghan's life and career had been going through a bad patch, starting with Labour's defeat in the 1970 General Election. Since then, there had been worries about his health and rumours he might quit UK politics to become head of the International Monetary Fund. He was in Dunoon to attend the annual conference of the Scottish Labour Party, being held in the Queen's Hall. I was there with an outside broadcast unit to cover the event for Scottish Television. His response to my request for an interview was immediate, and friendly. When would I like to do it? How about now? No problem!
Spin the recording machine forward a few years and life at the top of British politics had changed, dramatically. A photograph of Edward Heath adorned the Downing Street stairs, last resting place of all former Prime Ministers. His chances of returning to the one job he coveted ended when he lost not once, but twice, to Harold Wilson in 1974. Two years later, Prime Minister for the fourth time, Wilson sent shock waves across the world with his sudden resignation. The right to decide who would follow him into Downing Street, as leader of the Labour Party, belonged solely to Labour MPs.
Considering the party's recent dire history, younger members might be astonished at the high level of talent available then. Tony Benn, James Callaghan, Anthony Crosland, Michael Foot, Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins all presented themselves for the first ballot, which Foot won by a margin of six votes from Callaghan. Crosland, having finished bottom, was eliminated; Jenkins and Benn withdrew. A second ballot involving Foot, Callaghan and Healey was won by Callaghan, eight ahead of Foot. In the straight fight between Callaghan and Foot that followed, Healey's support switched almost entirely to Callaghan. Result: James Callaghan 176 votes; Michael Foot 137 votes.
His record as Prime Minister was mixed and he is probably best known for the part he played in delivering the disastrous Winter of Discontent. In Scotland, he should be remembered as the man who allowed the 1979 referendum on devolution. I have always wondered why he didn't do more to convince the Scots-born Labour MP, George Cunningham, that the 40% rule was a bad idea. Or, at the very least, grossly unfair. Callaghan was a politician well-known for his powers of persuasion, smooth or rough, as required. Cunningham was a junior MP in the Prime Minister's own party. Did he even try?
According to one obituary Callaghan could be 'tetchy and even bruising. A bit of a bully'. The man I met in Dunoon all those years ago was the Sunny Jim of popular legend. Years later, when he was Prime Minister, I witnessed another side of him. Twice. Then he was Steely Jim, unwilling to accept anyone else's views gladly. In the end, of course, it was a degree of rough justice that brought him down: a vote of no confidence, introduced by Margaret Thatcher, supported by the Liberals and the SNP, which Callaghan lost by a single vote.
Was he sorry to see his time in Downing Street cut short following his defeat by Margaret Thatcher in the 1979 General Election? You betcha! Being Prime Minister suited him. Unusually, in the modern era, with his vast experience and wit, and little hope of advancement, he proved a stylish and cunning leader of the opposition. What did surprise, perhaps, was his decision to continue in the role for a further 18 months before giving way to Michael Foot. Thereafter, he stayed on as a backbencher for another parliament, during which time he added yet another distinction to a long list assembled during his career, Father of the House, before retiring to the House of Lords, and his farm in Sussex, as Baron Callaghan of Cardiff.
final note worth mentioning is that James Callaghan is the only man in history to occupy the four great offices of state: Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister. Not bad, as he himself was fond of saying, his eyes glistening with pride, for a grammar school lad who left school in Portsmouth early, began his working life as an Inland Revenue clerk, and never enjoyed the benefits of a university education.