Interview: Lord Callaghan

By Richards, Steve | New Statesman (1996), December 20, 1996 | Go to article overview

Interview: Lord Callaghan


Richards, Steve, New Statesman (1996)


"It is our heritage that we keep the link between the unions and the party," says Labour's last Prime Minister. Only if you believe that, can you understand the party

At the age of 84, Lord Callaghan surveys the political scene from a unique perspective. He is the sole surviving former Labour Prime Minister, and the only politician from any party who has held all the great offices of state. He was Chancellor, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary before becoming Prime Minister in 1976. And yet, with Labour on the verge of government for the first time since he left Downing Street more than 17 years ago, Callaghan keeps a low profile. Until now, he has not given a full-length interview since Blair became leader.

On my arrival at his office in the House of Lords, he warns that he is not as fluent as he once was, but then proceeds to be highly articulate on issues ranging from the recent changes to the Labour Party, its links with the trade unions, and the prospects for a Blair government. His long silence should not be mistaken for an elder statesman's indifference to contemporary events. Rather, it is to do with the fear of playing the "back-seat driver", offering advice or throwing hand grenades in from the sidelines in the manner of the Conservatives' two living former Prime Ministers.

Callaghan's political personality is unchanged. At first, it is almost unnerving to hear a voice and style so closely associated with the sixties and seventies discussing the nineties. He still combines avuncularity with occasional signs of grumpiness, and a conservative reverence for those institutions that have an egalitarian purpose. He remains a formidable politician. In her memoirs, Margaret Thatcher revealed that he was the only MP on the opposition benches who worried her when he rose to speak. Today he conveys a wariness about aspects of new Labour, without appearing disloyal.

Callaghan always had sharp political antennae. During the 1979 election he confided to his senior adviser, Bernard Donoughue, that he thought the political tide had turned and there was nothing he or anyone else in the Labour Party could do about it. A few days later he was out of power and the party has been in opposition ever since. In his analysis of the "tide" 17 years later, he is brutally candid about his and his generation s failure to adapt.

"A new generation was growing up and had reached the stage where their ideas were becoming popular - and we failed to adjust to that. To understand the reason, one has to go right back to the war and before. In the thirties, what we now call the market economy failed. There was the great Depression with millions unemployed. As soon as the war came, that disappeared. We had a centralised economy which provided work for everyone. So when my generation of young people came into the public eye we said there was no going back to the twenties and thirties, and we said: 'Look what happened during the war - a centralised economy has shown that we can plan for success.'

"But by the 1970s a new generation had grown up that did not have our wartime experience and didn't think it was relevant. So I think we failed to recognise the new expectations of the younger generation. The think-tanks of the right, with their new people - we simply failed to pay any attention to them."

The tide moved in a Thatcherite direction for a long time. Indeed, it can be argued that it is still moving relentlessly on. But Callaghan does not agree. "It's full tide now and it's beginning to go out. I think the market economy has shown up so much harshness, so much shortcoming in the matter of public provision, that the tide is in retreat. And I think what Tony Blair is attempting to do is to synthesise what is happening in the market economy with a growing feeling that this is not enough, that there has to be a social perspective in health and education and that we must stand against exploitation, privilege and injustice. …

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