The Home Secretaries (24): James Callaghan

james-callaghan-ccJames Callaghan, 1967-70

Labour, under Wilson

You can read about Callaghan’s earlier career and his time as chancellor, here, and his time as prime minister and after here.

Jim Callaghan arrived at the Home Office a wounded animal. The Home Office has damaged, or even killed off, many a career. It saved Callaghan’s.

Callaghan might well have been expected to be a more conservative home secretary than the liberal Jenkins. He had been parliamentary adviser to Police Federation for many years. His natural tone was very different from Jenkins. In 1968, following a series of deaths in London, he told the House that the murderers had been apprehended. At that point, they were suspects. Anti-war protests over Vietnam saw the police intervening as violence broke out. The 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act controlled immigration from the ‘new Commonwealth’. It not only directly targeted black and Asian immigration, it also broke specific undertakings Britain had given to Kenyan and Ugandan Asians.

In fact, Callaghan was more liberal than his language let on. If the originator of the Race Relations Bill was his predecessor, then Jenkins was the father of the Immigration Bill too. It was under Callaghan that the 1968 Race Relations Act, that outlawed racial discrimination and established the Race Relations Board, was passed. The death penalty was finally abolished in 1969. The Children and Young Persons Act, 1969, put the welfare of the child at the heart of the youth justice system (though his successor, the Conservative Reginald Maudling, did not fully implement its reforms).

Callaghan faced the most serious crisis that, up until this point, any home secretary had faced since the war. By 1969, serious violence returned to Northern Ireland: there were riots in Belfast and Londonderry. Law and order was under the auspices of the devolved government of the province, in Stormont, but the police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and their part-time auxiliary force, the B-Specials, were hardly a neutral force. Catholics protested for civil rights: there was systematic anti-Catholic discrimination from the police, in the workplace, in local government and in housing. In response, Protestant mobs, aided and abetted by the RUC and B-Specials, attacked Catholics. On August 14th and 15th, seven people were killed (including a nine-year-old boy) and more than 200 homes burned.

The government had already considered sending in troops. Now, they had to. Callaghan  recognised that if troops were not sent in, more Catholic lives would be lost. The RUC were disarmed, the B-Specials disbanded (though their replacement, the Ulster Defence Regiment, was similarly dominated by Protestants).  Money was provided for slum clearance, and serious pressure applied to the Stormont government to end discrimination against Catholics. Unfortunately, that required time, and sustained political pressure form Westminster. Callaghan could, and did, provide the pressure, but he ran out of time; his successor, Maudling, was not made of the same mettle.

In 1969, the secretary of state for employment, Barbara Castle, put forward a paper called In Place of Strife, which proposed an Industrial Relations Bill. For the first time, the state would regulate labour relations. The trade unions were committed to free collective bargaining, and opposed the idea. So did Callaghan. In the end, he made his opposition public at a meeting of Labour’s national executive. Castle’s supporters demanded his resignation. Wilson didn’t sack him, though he did remove him from the cabinet’s management committee, and let it be known that he had. However, In Place of Strife was killed off, and as Roy Hattersley tells us in his DNB entry on Callaghan, Castle was told ‘that bastard Callaghan has killed it’. Their relationship never recovered, but Callaghan had shown how far his position had been restored. In the end, it would help him win the leadership in 1976.

In the immediate term, in Hattersley’s view, it helped explain Labour’s surprise defeat in 1970. Despite that, Callaghan’s position as one of Labour’s big beasts was secure. Callaghan remains the only person to have held all four of the great offices of state, and one of only three to hold all three other than prime minister (and the only one of those three to get the top job). He is one of only four people since 1906 to have been home secretary and prime minister, one of seven to have been home secretary and to have led their party (Jenkins went on to lead another party). He was one of ten to have been home secretary and chancellor, and one of eight to hold the Home Office and Foreign Office. He and his predecessor, Roy Jenkins, are also part of a rare breed: home secretaries who made a political success of the job, and left a permanent and beneficial legacy into the bargain.

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