'Sunny Jim' hailed as giant of the Labour movement

 

BRITAIN: Prince Charles, Tony Blair and Baroness Thatcher led the tributes yesterday to Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, Britain's longest surviving former prime minister, who died on Saturday on the eve of his 93rd birthday, writes Frank Millar, London Editor

As Queen Elizabeth sent her condolences to his family, the Prince of Wales described the man, who uniquely held all of the great offices of state, as "remarkable". The prime minister hailed him "a giant" of the Labour movement, while Lady Thatcher praised a "formidable opponent" who was always moved by deep patriotism.

Callaghan's death came just eight days after the funeral of his beloved wife, Audrey, and two days before the 26th anniversary of the no-confidence vote in the House of Commons that paved the way for Margaret Thatcher's first election victory and 18 years of Conservative rule.

It was as home secretary that Jim Callaghan effected the Wilson government's decision to send British troops to Northern Ireland in 1969. This move was subsequently seen as the precursor to the suspension of the Stormont parliament and the imposition of direct rule by the successor government of Edward Heath in 1972.

Although the home secretary was warmly welcomed at the time by nationalists on his visits to Belfast and Derry, ironically it was the abstentions of the then SDLP MP Gerry (now Lord) Fitt and the Independent MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone Frank Maguire that would help bring his own government to an end 10 years later.

Jim Callaghan succeeded Harold Wilson as prime minister following the latter's surprise resignation in 1976. However, he was undone by the International Monetary Fund crisis of the same year, and the trade union aggression and industrial strife of the 1978-79 "winter of discontent". Thatcher said: "In other circumstances he would have been a successful prime minister."

Arguably Britain's most authentic prime minister of "working-class" origin, "Sunny Jim" Callaghan was also unique among politicians in that he held all four of the great offices of state: prime minister, foreign secretary, chancellor and home secretary. Thatcher described him as a "formidable opponent" and "superb party manager", and said despite their differences "I always respected him because I knew he was moved by deep patriotism".

That sentiment was echoed by his former adviser Lord (Tom) McNally, now leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords. "My abiding memory is of his patriotism and his determination to put the interests of the country first," he said of the last British prime minister to have served his country in war.

"His love of country, his family and his party were the ingredients which made him one of the outstanding figures of the 20th century." Fellow Liberal Democrat peer Baroness (Shirley) Williams, who served as Mr Callaghan's education secretary, dubbed him "a people's prime minister".

Veteran left-winger Tony Benn joined her in drawing unfavourable comparison with Mr Blair's style of government when he praised Callaghan's strong commitment to truly "collective" cabinet government.

Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock also paid tribute to Callaghan's "immensely strong sense of justice", while Labour chairman Ian McCartney mourned the passing of one of the last remaining links to the "inspiring Labour government" of 1945.

However. there were also candid assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of this "politicians' politician" known as "a political fixer" who enjoyed the "smoke-filled rooms" banished in the era of New Labour. Lord Healey, another former Labour chancellor, said: "He was very much better as a prime minister than in any of the other cabinet jobs he had before that."

Williams suggested that Callaghan's "blind spot" had led him wrongly to oppose Barbara Castle's "In Place of Strife" attempt to reform the trade unions in 1969. Of the "winter of discontent", which preceded his electoral defeat, Williams told the BBC's World this Weekend programme: "I think Jim could not believe that his own people, as he would have seen them, could do the things that were done during that time," adding "and, of course, Old Labour died on that pyre."

Benn was among those still debating yesterday whether Callaghan's government might have survived even narrowly had he called the election in the autumn of 1978, following the collapse of the "Lib-Lab" pact that sustained Labour as its Commons majority disappeared. However, Callaghan himself apparently had detected a "sea change" in the attitude of the British people even before the wave of winter strikes which saw the rubbish go uncollected and the dead unburied.

Historians are also divided over whether Wilson and Callaghan made a mistake in failing to combine their decision to send troops to the North with that eventually taken by Edward Heath to abolish Stormont.

In an obituary published in yesterday's Sunday Times, penned before his own death, Callaghan's old colleague and later adversary Roy Jenkins wrote: "In the summer of 1969 he came into his own [ as home secretary] when he put the troops into Northern Ireland and gave a virtuoso calming performance on the streets of Belfast."

Jenkins went on: "It was vintage Callaghan; brilliant execution, but how much thought was given to the strategic question of how the troops were to be got out again?"

However, a different question still exercises some students and commentators closer to the subject - namely whether the earlier imposition of direct rule might have denied the IRA the opportunity to take root and launch a campaign against the Stormont parliament with the troops depicted as an occupying force in support of an "Orange State".

John (now Sir John) Chilcott, who later rose to head the Northern Ireland Office, was then a young official in the Home Office. He has confirmed that at the beginning of 1969 Callaghan, as home secretary, asked for papers to be prepared covering every possible contingency arising from a challenge to the authority of the civil power in Northern Ireland - the RUC. In his book How the Troubles Came to Northern Ireland, Peter Rose quotes Chilcott: "One saw a spectrum including troops in support of the civil power and including direct rule, but not immediately." And it was in part at least the form direct rule began to take in the later stages of the Labour government under Callaghan that provoked those two critical abstentions in that historic confidence vote in 1979.

While Harold Wilson had entertained possible radical solutions to the Northern Ireland problem, the upsurge of loyalist as well as republican violence - and the reality that Dublin feared the implications of a possible British withdrawal - saw the development of a security-driven policy headed by secretary of state, Roy Mason, who eschewed the search for "political solutions" and considered direct rule a good deal for both sides.

Fitt has confirmed it was antipathy to Mason that led him to deny Callaghan in the end, although that was also fuelled by distrust of Callaghan and Michael Foot's dealings with then Ulster Unionist leader Jim Molyneaux and his colleague, the late Enoch Powell. As Mason persuaded republicans that their earlier assessments were wrong, and that Britain was not actually engaged in withdrawal from the North, so agreement to increase the North's representation at Westminster in return for their support (or abstentions even) in key votes for a time persuaded unionists they were on their way to securing "integration" within the UK. On the great issues at the core of the conflict, however, the evidence suggests that Callaghan was of no particular fixed abode, and understood rather better than some its complexities.

Nor is there anything to suggest he ever contemplated departing from the classical British position that constitutional change would require the consent and agreement of the people of Northern Ireland. In his book A House Divided, he said: "So at the end of the day, I would like to see Ireland come together again. If and when it does, it will be a signal to the world that the people themselves have freely entered into a new compact."