Jim Callaghan was the embodiment of British democratic socialism. He was, as Peter Hennessy memorably put it, "a man of 1945". To become an adult in 1945 meant to be brought up during the Depression, experiencing at first- or second-hand soul-destroying unemployment and often miserable poverty. It meant, for many, some kind of war-time service. It meant, too, the hopeful new dawn that followed victory, the inspiration of a new beginning in an old country.
These were Jim Callaghan's experiences, and the experiences of his generation. For many of his contem- poraries, democratic socialism spelled the difference between the world of their childhood and the world of their adulthood.
Jim took his first step out of privation by winning a place at Portsmouth Northern Secondary School, his school fees of a guinea a term being paid by the Ministry of Pensions. Although his widowed mother could not consider sending him on to university, grammar school enabled him to take the Oxford Senior Certificate, and after that to enter public service as a clerical civil servant. In doing so, he escaped the grinding unemployment of many other young men and women, for all that he was poorly paid and had to live in gloomy lodgings far from home.
The lack of a higher education haunted him all his life. A voracious reader, he longed to learn more about literature, history, science. He felt overshadowed by all the bright academics who clustered into post- war Labour politics, even by the Oxbridge graduates whose articulacy so often outdistanced their judgment and common sense. Callaghan could see that this was so, yet still felt a lesser man for never having been there.
Years later, he was to visit regularly a seminar of economists at Nuffield College set up to advise him as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. He never felt embarrassed to admit his paucity of theoretical economics, nor was he too proud to try to learn. On the day in 1976 that he was elected leader of the party, and hence Prime Minister, by his parliamentary colleagues, his response to the announcement of victory was to say, half under his breath: "And I haven't even got a degree!"
The rigours and routines of the Inland Revenue office where he worked were soon eased by Jim's enthusiasm for what was to become the second love of his life, the trade union movement.
Soon after starting work, he joined the Association of the Officers of Taxes, later to become the Inland Revenue Staff Federation (IRSF). His keenness and ability commended him to Douglas Houghton, the union's demanding and sometimes waspish organising secretary, whose own career was to parallel Callaghan's as he moved on to ministerial office.
In the union, the young Callaghan proved to be something of a firebrand, protesting against poor levels of pay and the absence of prospects of promotion for young clerks. But his protests were always within the organisation and not outside it. That was characteristic. Critic he might be, but his institutional loyalties were strong. They remained so, even in the most trying circumstances. The trade unions had given him what he wanted, to belong, to be part of a family. Even as Prime Minister, he could never quite believe they might betray him.
Fortunately there were to be other sources of happiness in his life. Chief among them was his wife, Audrey, whom he met in Maidstone, where she lived, when both he and she were teenagers. The pressures and preoccupations of politics are such that many MPs marginalise their partners, or take them for granted. Not so Jim Callaghan. His wife became more and more important to him, someone he depended upon, consulted, cherished.
Though he rarely talked in public about family values, he lived them. He admired and supported his wife's active involvement in child health issues, in particular her association with Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital. …