Kenneth O Morgan: James Callaghan ... A Great PM Who, 100 Years On, Still Stands Tall

Roundup: Talking About History

Kenneth O Morgan's books include Callaghan: a Life (1997), Michael Foot: a Life (2007) and Ages of Reform (2011). He is a member of the Labour party and has been a life peer since 2000.

Jim Callaghan, born 100 years ago this week, is our most underestimated prime minister. He has been stereotyped as the very model of Old Labour, the embodiment of the historic alliance with the unions. People still remember 1978, when he sang an old music-hall song to the TUC, There Was I Waiting at the Church (wrongly attributed to Marie Lloyd), to the TUC. Peter Mandelson saw Callaghan as embodying everything that New Labour rejected.
In fact, his was an astonishing career. He is the only person ever to have held all four top positions in government. His life was full of surprises, high drama and bold decisions, notably on the unions and Northern Ireland. He saw himself not as Old but as "original" Labour. As such, his achievements survive.
More than most politicians, he was moulded by his background. His early years were dominated by three factors – poverty, from the deprivation his family suffered in Portsmouth when his father died when Jim was only nine; puritanism, from the unpermissive morality of the Baptist church; and patriotism, from the naval glories of Portsmouth: his father served on the royal yacht under Edward VII. Crucially, he was our only trade unionist prime minister, rising up in the Inland Revenue's white-collar union. He always retained an instinctive devotion to union practices and the bargaining style. He deplored the way middle-class Labour leaders such as Hugh Gaitskell and Tony Blair failed to appreciate the unions' traditions...

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