For what might seem obvious reasons, my mind is going back to one of the two minority governments I grew up with. Jim Callaghan had three turbulent years as prime minister. The government faced an economic and financial crisis (you can read about it in the entry on Denis Healey as chancellor, here). In the face of that crisis, Callaghan dallied at first, but then backed his chancellor all the way, famously telling the Labour Party Conference some blunt and unwelcome truths:
For too long… we postponed facing up to fundamental choices and fundamental changes in our economy and society… We used to think that you could spend your way out of recession… I tell you in all candour that option no longer exists, and that insofar as it ever did exist, it only worked… by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment… That is the history of the last twenty years.
Keynesianism was dead.
Callaghan was a man for unwelcome truths. In his Ruskin College speech in October 1976, Callaghan initiated what he called a great debate about the British education system. By the 1970s, most British secondary schools were comprehensives. Most schools were broadly progressive too. The problem was that, at the very best, educational standards had not improved. Between 1969 and 1977, Critical Quarterly published a long running series of articles on the state of the education system, which were broadly critical of what its authors saw as the worst excesses of progressive education and comprehensivisation. Many Labour people were bitterly critical of what came to be known as the Black Papers. In his speech, Callaghan’s implied criticisms of the education system echoed many of those made in the Black Papers. Callaghan set in train the movement for educational reform that would the drive to improve educational standards that has dominated debate ever since. (You can read the speech here).
Political difficulties bedevilled Callaghan. The first was the Labour Party itself, which remained bitterly divided. That division was made worse by the experience of the 1975 Europe Referendum. On becoming prime minister Callaghan sacked Barbara Castle, his old adversary over In Place of Strife, and over Europe. Roy Jenkins went to Brussels.
Neither act did much to assuage the bitter divide. Then there was the left. By 1976, Tony Benn was well on the way to completing his transformation from the moderate technocrat Anthony Wedgewood-Benn to the Bennite leftist radical of the late ‘seventies and beyond. The party in the country was increasingly under the sway of its far left. In 1977, Reg Prentice, having been deselected by his left wing constituency party in 1975, joined the Conservatives. Some of those on the left were more than content to see the government fall. Most remained on board, mostly thanks to Michael Foot.
Callaghan also had the trade unions. Callaghan had always been a trade union man. He had, after all, taken the lead role in killing off In Place of Strife. Now, he needed the unions to play ball. They did, accepting a system of pay restraint initiated by Jack Jones. Callaghan had sympathy for the Grunwick strikers, mostly Asian workmen who had been denied union recognition. He took a tough line against the Fire Brigades Union in 1976, but unhappily. Still, until 1978, the deal held.
Callaghan’s majority hadn’t. By the spring of 1977, Labour were a minority government. Even before then, with a tiny majority, the simple business of simply winning votes in the Commons had been grindingly difficult. In the Commons, MPs are paired: thus, when an MP is unavoidably absent for a division (a Commons vote), his or her pair do not vote. In the vote on the 1976 Aircraft and Shipping Bill, the Labour MP Tom Pendry voted when his pair was absent: Labour won the division by one vote. Famously, Michael Heseltine furiously brandished the Mace as the chamber collapsed into disorder. From then on, pairing ceased, making it far harder for both sides to win votes. From that moment, the Conservatives launched what amounted to a guerrilla campaign designed to make life as hard as possible for the government: many Commons sittings went on very late into or even all through the night, and all MPs, including ministers had to be present.
Thus, Callaghan’s approach to the Liberal leader, David Steel, made sense. The 13 Liberal MPs would give Labour a majority. For little more than a promise to consult them, Callaghan got a Lib-Lab pact, which secured his majority until September 1978.
By the autumn of 1978, everyone was expecting Callaghan to go to the country. The economy had recovered, and Labour were ahead in the polls. Callaghan’s personal approval ratings were at 60%, far ahead of Thatcher: his frank, yet cheery and avuncular manner was something people liked (he was nicknamed Sunny Jim). Addressing the TUC in September, Callaghan playing recited the old Marie Lloyd music hall song: ‘Can’t get away to marry you today’. He then added: ‘I have promised nobody that I shall be at the altar in October, nobody at all.’ Callaghan toyed with going to the country, and then he toyed with his colleagues, but decided not to go to the country in the October.
It remains one of the great what ifs of modern British political history. Had he gone, Callaghan might well have won. The Tories might have ditched an unpopular leader disliked by much of her own shadow cabinet. However, had he won Callaghan might have faced another four or five years of trying to govern with a tiny majority or, worse still, no majority at all. The grinding experience had governing in a crisis, whilst having no majority, had worn Callaghan down. Any new government was going to have to take some very tough decisions, and would need a majority.
Thus, he hesitated; now, he lost. Roy Hattersley tells us, in his excellent DNB entry on Callaghan, that the prime minister feared that it would all go wrong that winter. And it did. For three years, the trade unions had kept a lid on pay. Now, though, even the biggest trade union beast of the lot, the TGWU’s Jack Jones, could not control his member’s desire for wage rises that would reward them for the austerity of the past three years. For the next pay round, believing that the defeat of inflation was finally within reach, Callaghan had persuaded a reluctant Healey to go with a new pay norm of just 5%. This time the unions, and their members, weren’t playing ball. In September 1978, Ford settled a national strike by granting a 17% pay rise; in January 1979, a lorry drivers’ strike was averted by a rise 0f 20%. The public sector wanted their share too. In January, 1.5m public sector workers came out on strike. The infamous Winter of Discontent saw rubbish piling up in the streets and bodies piling up in the morgues.
When Callaghan told the press ‘I don’t think other people in the world would share the view that there is a crisis’, the Sun ran the headline ‘Crisis. What Crisis?’ Callaghan was cornered.
And they had no majority.
In the October 1974 election, the SNP had won eleven seats, and Plaid Cymru three. Labour did a deal with the nationalists. In return for referendums to introduce devolution in Scotland and Wales, the nationalists would support the government in the Commons. Unfortunately, devolution was opposed by some Labour MPs, including the young Neil Kinnock and the MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, who framed the famous West Lothian Question (Enoch Powell gave it the name, by the way):
For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate … at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
A first bill was talked out in 1977 after the government failed to win a guillotine motion (to cut short debate). However, a second was introduced in 1978. It came with a rider, inserted by Labour a Labour MP, George Cunningham: to win, devolution did not require a mere majority, but the support of at least 40% of the electorate. In Scotland, 51.6% voted Yes, but on a turnout of just 64% that amounted to just 33% of the Scottish electorate. The Liberals had already withdrawn their support in the autumn of 1978. Now, SNP intimated that they would vote against the government. Desperate attempts to persuade Gerry Fitt, of the Northern Irish nationalist SDLP. Fitt was fiercely critical of Labour’s Northern Ireland secretary, Roy Mason; as the price of his support, Fitt wanted Mason’s head. There was no deal to be done.
When, on the 28th March 1979. a vote of no confidence came, the Labour MP for Batley, Dr Alfred Broughton, was at home recovering from a heart attack. Broughton offered to come in: however, the whips believe it might kill him, and Callaghan declined the offer. The government lost by one vote.
And it lost the election. Famously, Callaghan told an aide:
You know there are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea change and it is for Mrs Thatcher.
The question now was one of succession. Callaghan decided to wait. As it was, Foot beat Healey. The lurch to the left saw Callaghan reject unilateral nuclear disarmament in a 1983 election speech.
He became father of the House, before going to the Lords in 1987. He took an interest in foreign affairs, and lived to see Labour’s return to power in 1997. He had always enjoyed life with his family, in his Sussex farmhouse, though his later years were blighted as his beloved wife, Audrey, succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease. He died just 11 days after she did.
Jim Callaghan remains an underestimated prime minister. His government successfully brought Britain back from the brink of economic crisis, got inflation down without creating the levels of unemployment Thatcher would. He had the political courage to recognise that the post-war Keynesian consensus was dead, and to say so. That, as a lifelong trade union man, be was brought down by a trade union movement bent on being the Turkeys that voted overwhelmingly for Christmas, is bitterly ironic. His decision not to go to the country in October 1978 was a mistake, but one taken at least in part in the national interest. As the only man to have held all four of the great offices of state, he was certainly capable of the dark arts. However, he more often than not, they were used in his country’s best interests.
You can read about Callaghan’s early life and his time as chancellor here; as home secretary here; as foreign secretary and his accession to number ten here. The entries on Denis Healey, his chancellor is here; on Roy Jenkins, here and Merlyn Rees here, as home secretaries: and Tony Crosland here, and David Owen here, as foreign secretaries.
Here is Andrew Marr’s BBC obituary:
And Michael Cockerell:
And a great documentary on the fall of the Callaghan government: