Barbara Castle: Labour's Fearless Fighter

By Rose, Paul B. | Contemporary Review, September 1993 | Go to article overview

Barbara Castle: Labour's Fearless Fighter

Rose, Paul B., Contemporary Review

No woman has ever led the Labour Party. Only Shirley Williams has fought for the leadership. In Barbara Castle's heyday a quarter of a century ago, the cautious and conservative Trade Union bosses would have hardly countenanced the idea. However, had there ever been a woman leader of the Labour Party it would undoubtedly have been Barbara Castle. She has now given us a superb account of her career in her autobiography, Fighting All the Way.

In a curious way she shares many of the qualities of Britain's first woman Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Both were single minded. Both could be dismissive of opinions which differed from theirs. Both are tough. combative, passionate about their politics, and highly professional. Both are almost obsessive about their image and looks, both physical and political and what are now Commonly termed conviction politicians.

They emerged from two totally different traditions, neither patrician nor plebeian but both quintessentially English. Barbara Castle was reared on the romantic socialism of William Morris and, Margaret Thatcher upon the solid Victorian virtues of a shop keeper and Alderman. Although Barbara Castle's background was more difficult, her father worked for the Inland Revenue and was able to scrape enough together to give his children the education they merited. He imparted his individuality and some idiosyncratic non-conformism to his small redheaded daughter who was later to thrill Labour Party conferences with her passionate oratory. Barbara Castle is a shrewd observer of politics as well as being a clever and a down to earth politician for whom politics is oxygen itself.

I recall as a young member of the Labour League of Youth how I adored Barbara Castle as another might adore a film star and to chair a meeting on a smoggy day in Manchester when she addressed us was almost as exciting as the day I was selected to speak along with Nye Bevan to 9,000 of the Labour faithful. That was only ever outdone by sharing a platform with the diffident Bobby Charlton, Nobby Stiles and the Bishop of Salford. Between 1966 and 1968 as a young M.P., I was Barbara Castle's Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Ministry of Transport.

Her tenacity saw huge changes in the approach to safety on the roads not least her courageous introduction of the breathalyser, seat belts and her emphasis on public transport. I also had a hard time working for her on the Front Bench from 1970 to 1972 when we fought day and night against the Conservative Industrial Relations Bill. In many ways Barbara Castle was the wrong choice for that role since she had been the Minister who introduced the controversial document In Place of Strife, which apart from a couple of penal clauses, was a far sighted document in which she challenged the power of the Unions without trying to emasculate them.

Barbara Castle had in fact seen how the block votes of a few rather philistine trade union leaders had in the past smothered the Left of the Labour Party although all that changed when Frank Cousins, Hugh Scanlon and others emerged as a new generation of trade union leaders more in tune with her and Harold Wilson's approach to politics.

What is quite astonishing about Barbara Castle is that in a sense her political career is coterminous with the great events that occurred in the Labour Party prior to, during and after the Second World War up until our entry into Europe and up to the present day.

One of the ironies for me is that it was the European issue which dictated my departure from the Front Bench while the fiercely anti-EEC Barbara Castle--or should she be termed Baroness Castle--was to be the senior Labour politician at Strasbourg. I had previously served on the Council of Europe having declined her very kind invitation to remain as a PPS when she was Minister of Employment. Her staying power and adaptability to new events and an almost indestructible faith and ability to bounce back after a set back is something that I both envy and admire in her and is the most essential quality for a successful politician. …

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