The Chap on Duty

James Callaghan (1912-2005)

The past may be, as L. P. Hartley wrote, another country, but it's rarely as foreign as Britain in the 1970s. Viewed from the United Kingdom of 2005, the day before yesterday is a banana republic without the weather. Inflation was up over 25 percent, marginal tax rates were up over 90 percent, and the only thing heading in the other direction was the pound, which nosedived so suddenly in 1976 that the chancellor of the exchequer, en route to an International Monetary Fund meeting, was summoned back from the departure lounge at Heathrow to try to talk his currency back up to sub-basement level. Her Majesty's government had itself applied for a $4 billion loan from the IMF. Were the Britain of thirty years ago to re-emerge Brigadoon-like from the mists, it would be one of those basket cases that Bono hectors Bush about debt forgiveness for.

Such great Britons as the era could muster—Roger Moore, Michael Caine—had decamped to Switzerland and Beverly Hills. As if to underline the national decline, every flailing industry flew the moth-eaten flag: British Steel, British Coal, British Leyland. They were all owned by the state—even the last, which was the national automobile manufacturer. The government had taken all the famous British car marques—Austin, Morris, Rover, Jaguar, Triumph—and merged them into one. That's right: the government made your car. Or, rather, a man called Red Robbo did, when he was in the mood, which wasn't terribly often. He was the local union man at the Leyland plant in Birmingham, though he seemed to spend more time outside the gate, picketing. In Britain union leaders were household names, mainly because they were responsible for everything your household lacked. In the seventies if you opened The Times (when the print unions weren't on strike) or watched the BBC news (when the miners weren't on strike and the government hadn't ordered the TV to close down mid-evening to conserve electricity), it was a parade of eminences from strange, unlovely acronyms such as ASLEF and SOGAT and NATSOPA and NACODS being received by the prime minister as if they were heads of state, which in a sense they were. Britain's system of government in the seventies was summed up in the phrase "beer and sandwiches at Number Ten"—which meant the union leaders showing up at Downing Street to discuss what it would take to persuade them not to go on strike, and being plied with the aforementioned refreshments by a prime minister reduced to the proprietor of a seedy pub, with the cabinet as his barmaids. The beer and sandwiches went only so far, and would usually be followed a day or two later by chaotic scenes on the evening news of big, burly blokes striking for their right to continue enjoying the soft, pampering workweek of the more effete Ottoman sultans.

The man who presided over the death throes of this ramshackle realm was James Callaghan, prime minister from 1976 to 1979, and an instructive study for all those obituarists of President Ronald Reagan who were so anxious last June to attribute his success to a genial disposition, sense of humor, charming smile, tilt of the head, etc. If you want to know what Reaganesque affability without political will or philosophy boils down to, look at Callaghan. He was famously avuncular; he was known as Sunny Jim. But by the time he and his Labour government left office, the sunniness had decayed into torpid complacency. His most famous words were "Crisis? What crisis?"—which he never actually said, but were put in his mouth by an enterprising headline writer from Rupert Murdoch's The Sun. And they fit so well that they stuck.

The non-crisis of the regime began in an attempt to control the endless ping-pong of runaway inflation and runaway pay increases to keep up with it. The government proposed a five percent limit on raises, with penalties for companies that flouted the limit. This sounded a bit low to the Labour Party's union allies, and the car workers decided that the very proposal was worth striking over. When Ford's UK subsidiary settled with a 15 percent increase, Callaghan attempted to impose penalties on the company; but Parliament declined to support him, and the unions set out to teach him a lesson. The municipal manual workers demanded a 40 percent wage increase and then struck. The truck drivers went on strike for a more modest 30 percent. The garbage collectors followed, and in parts of the country the gravediggers.

In January of 1979 the prime minister left for a summit in Guadeloupe, and on the news bulletins scenes from the coldest British winter in sixteen years, with the streets full of trash and the dead unburied, alternated with footage from the Caribbean of a relaxed Callaghan in open-necked shirt, working on his tan with the other colossi of the age—Jimmy Carter, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, and Helmut Schmidt. To his shivering citizenry, Sunny Jim was spending too much time sunning himself. When he landed at Heathrow, he was besieged by the press and grumbled back, "I don't think that other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos"—which The Sun's man so lethally distilled. Callaghan had a point: the "mounting chaos" of the so-called Winter of Discontent was, in truth, only a slightly more extreme version of business as usual.

Four months later the Labour government fell, the country turned to Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party, and Jim Callaghan faded into history as a unique footnote—the only politician to hold all four of the kingdom's great offices of state: prime minister, chancellor of the exchequer, home secretary, and foreign secretary.

Leonard James Callaghan was born in 1912 in Portsmouth, and raised in poverty. When he was nine, his father died. His mother struggled until the Labour government of 1924 belatedly gave her a widow's pension of ten shillings a week, helping to cement her son's political loyalties. At seventeen he was taken on as a clerk by the Inland Revenue for a pound a week; but dissatisfied with conditions, he joined the union, and worked his way up to national assistant secretary.

He was never exactly a socialist firebrand—not compared with the fellows who brought him down decades later—but he was capable of righteous working-class indignation. When the Conservatives denounced big government as a denial of individual freedom, Prime Minister Callaghan snapped back, "I was brought up after my father died in a family which lived in two furnished rooms. That was a denial of freedom." Away from the public eye, among his party's swollen ranks of alleged "thinkers," Sunny Jim could be rather chippy about the furnished rooms and leaving school at sixteen.

He had nothing to be ashamed of: time has proved most of the thinkers hopelessly wrong on everything. But Jim Callaghan's safe-pair-of-hands, steady-as-she-goes, don't-frighten-the-horses approach doesn't have much to show for itself either. He once confided to a friend of mine that he thought Britain's decline was irreversible and that the government's job was to manage it as gracefully as possible. He wasn't alone in this: an entire generation of British politicians, on both sides of the aisle, felt much the same way. So Callaghan rose onward and upward, "managing" problems rather than solving them. As home secretary in 1969, he sent troops to quell the civil unrest in Northern Ireland, and pessimistic colleagues fretted that they might be there for six months. They have stayed there three decades, not to defeat the IRA but to manage an eternal stalemate. As foreign and commonwealth secretary in 1974, he chose not to send troops to Cyprus after the Turks invaded—actually, he didn't even need to send them: there are British military bases on the island. So even though Britain was a guarantor of Cypriot sovereignty, he opted to "manage" the problem ineffectually—and the island is divided to this day, with the inevitable UN peacekeepers. In the spring of 1979 the electors decided the ship was so full of leaks that the old steady-hand-at-the-tiller routine was no longer enough; graceful decline was one thing, but Britain in the seventies was becoming ungovernable.

Eleven years later, shortly after the Fall of Thatcher, I was in a pub enjoying a beer with her daughter, Carol, when a punk poet, Seething Wells, decided to have a go at her. After reciting a lengthy catalogue of the Iron Lady's crimes against humanity, Seething leaned toward Carol and, stabbing his finger into her face, summed it all up: "Basically, your mum just totally smashed the working classes."

It has to be said that this indictment loses a lot of its force from the replacement of "Thatcher" (or "Vatcha," as the tribunes of the masses used to snarl it) with "your mum." But Seething wasn't wrong. Basically, Carol's mum did just totally smash the working classes. Today if one hears that term in Britain, it's usually from a polytechnic Marxist or a socialist rock star. But twenty-five years ago there was a real "working class," even if it seemed less and less interested in working. Jim Callaghan was a product of that authentic working class, and so was his party. He was the last "old Labour" prime minister, and when he fell, his comrades lurched left and into the wilderness for two decades. By the time they re-emerged, he was far more of an anachronistic relic of a class-bound society than the queen. His successor, Tony Blair, is a quintessential post-Thatcher politician: the country is in the longest period of economic growth since records began, in 1701. No one now thinks that the government should run airlines and car plants and that workers should live their entire lives in state housing—though what seems obvious to all in 2005 required extraordinary political will by a handful a quarter century ago.

Jim Callaghan was not bitter in defeat; he tended his farm and a beloved wife, who died eleven days before him, and understood that he was merely the chap on duty when the big geopolitical tide of history swept in and washed everything away. Another year or two and Washington might have been asking "Who lost Britain?"—that is, if America's less sunny Jim, President Carter, hadn't been peddling his own version of Callaghanite "malaise." The past is another country, but the seventies is another planet.