The Foreign Secretaries (21): James Callaghan

26cdd91166b9a0319d6d61c433351add32c4795dJames Callaghan, 1974-76

Labour, under Wilson

You can read about Callaghan’s earlier career at time as chancellor here, and about his time at the Home Office here, and his time as prime minister (Sunny Jim: James Callaghan, Minority Government and Crises).

When Labour lost office in 1970, Callaghan shadowed the home secretary. The real issue bedevilling Labour was Europe. Callaghan followed the party line: he voted against EEC membership. In 1972, Wilson moved him to shadow the foreign secretary. Thus, when Labour returned to power in 1974, Callaghan was given the Foreign Office and, with it, the poisoned chalice of the European issue.

If Europe threatened to tear the party apart, Callaghan was a sound choice. His public position, in 1971, had been stridently against EEC membership. Labour’s policy had evolved: it now proposed that the government would renegotiate the terms of EEC membership. If Callaghan had once been against EEC membership, his mind changed quickly. Nonetheless, Callaghan was never an enthusiast. EEC membership was ‘like getting up on a Monday morning’. For all that, he completed the somewhat facile renegotiation and supported a Yes vote in the 1975 Referendum (you can read about the renegotiation here and the referendum here).

There were the usual crises. The Turks invaded Cyprus (when Callaghan heard the news he famously hitched a lift on a milk float to get to the Foreign Office). He was compelled to visit the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin to secure the release of a British businessman. There was the Cod War with Iceland, which saw the demise of Britain’s fishing fleet. Democracy returned to Portugal and Callaghan persuaded the Americans to recognise the revolutionary government. He also pursued, without success, a solution to the Rhodesia issue

callaghan_pa238Harold’s Wilson resignation, in March 1976, came as a bolt from the blue, though Roy Hattersley reports (in his excellent DNB entry on Callaghan) that Callaghan was told the night before. He was the bookie’s favourite. Callaghan, Roy Jenkins, Michael Foot, Denis Healey, Tony Benn, and Tony Crosland stood: Callaghan came second in the first ballot, with 84 votes to Michael Foot’s 90. In the end, he beat Foot in a third ballot by 39 votes.

Jim Callaghan was one of nine men since 1906 to have been both foreign secretary and prime minister, and one of eleven to be both party leader and prime minister, and one of only three to go directly from the Foreign Office to number ten. He remains the only man to have held all four of the great offices of state. That, if nothing else, makes him a singular figure. The turbulent years to follow, and his retirement, will be covered next.

This is Michael Cockerell documentary on Callaghan in 1976 (from Panorama, what was the BBC’s flagship current affairs show):


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