James Callaghan

1976 - 1979

Unlike Wilson and Heath, James Callaghan (1912-2005) was genuinely working class, the son of a Chief Petty Officer serving at the Battle of Jutland whose family were plunged into poverty by his father’s death when Callaghan was eight. Callaghan got the equivalent of “A” levels but joined the Inland Revenue instead of going to university. There he rose through the Inland Revenue Staff Federation before joining the Navy in 1943 and winning the Cardiff South constituency at the 1945 election.

After several junior ministerial posts in 1945-51, Callaghan deployed his networking skills among Labour MPs to secure a series of increasingly senior “shadow” posts. As Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1964-67 he was not a great success, but he did better as Home Secretary (1967-70), bringing in the first immigration controls in 1968, and as a Euro-skeptic Foreign Secretary (1974-76).

Succeeding Wilson as prime minister in an economic crisis and with a tiny Commons majority that quickly disappeared, Callaghan displayed people skills and calm competence, calling in the IMF to stop his colleagues’ wild over-spending. His only error was not to call an election in autumn 1978, which he would probably have won, but instead carry on through the winter, which turned into the “Winter of Discontent” with pervasive strikes and a failing incomes policy. Thus, when Callaghan was defeated in the Commons on March 28, 1979 his subsequent election loss to Margaret Thatcher was inevitable.

As an honest “safe pair of hands” with good people and communication skills, Callaghan deserves to be well off the bottom of this list, above his contemporaries Heath, Wilson and Macmillan, for example but below Home, around 40th.

© 2020 Martin Hutchinson