Magazine article The Spectator

A Rising Reputation

Magazine article The Spectator

A Rising Reputation

Article excerpt

CALLAGHAN: A LIFE by Kenneth 0. Morgan OUP, 25, pp. 800

This is Dr Morgan's 25th book. His very industry puts most historians to shame. He has become the laureate of Labour's golden age, which lasted from the party's entry into the 1940 coalition to, at the latest, Margaret Thatcher's victory in 1979. For myself I should fix the end before then, with Harold Wilson's 1966 measures, which brought about the collapse of the beliefs of several generations whose influences had extended from Bernard Shaw to Anthony Crosland. However the period may be measured, James Callaghan belonged to it.

From 1945 to 1987 Callaghan represented a Cardiff seat. Though a surprising number of otherwise well-informed people took him to be Cardiff-Irish - a distinct group who have supplied numerous members of the great local rugby club - he was a Portsmouth man, not Welsh at all. Like Kingsley Amis, however, he was one of the few Englishmen connected with Wales who took to the natives or, at any rate, those living in the south. Dr Morgan is as patriotic a Welshman as only someone brought up and educated in England can hope to be. He was Callaghan's ideal biographer. He has not let down his subject, his publishers or his readers. With the few qualifications that I make later on, it is hard to see how the book could have been better done, though it should clearly have appeared in two volumes, as it would if publishers did not have such silly prejudices about what readers want.

Dr Morgan tells me several things I did not know before, both about Callaghan and about other matters. I did not know that it was Arthur Henderson who coined the phrase This Great Movement of Ours, much employed at party conferences until quite recently. Nor did I know that Callaghan was a quarter Jewish (his paternal grandmother was a Bernstein from Sheffield), that one of his favourite television programmes was The Muppets and that he had briefly played as a second-row forward for Streatham, which if things had worked out differently might well have become a first-class club.

But the general outlines of his life are well-known. It is possible to call him either working- or lower-middle class. As his father was a petty officer and a coastguard, and he himself started work as a clerk, Dr Morgan at one point places him in the latter category. It does not matter. Allocating people to classes is an English rather than a Welsh pastime. The Welsh ask: what part of the world exactly does he come from? The facts are undisputed. Except for Ramsay MacDonald and, less certainly, John Major, he was the only prime minister to have experienced grinding poverty. By comparison Lloyd George, Wilson, Heath and Mrs Thatcher were children of privilege, even affluence, for riches are relative. The reason was the same as it had been for MacDonald: the absence of a father, for Callaghan's father died when he was five. Afterwards life was a struggle.

Callaghan escaped through the Inland Revenue, working for them in Maidstone, and also through the Baptist chapel. For him the chapel was a means of what was to be called upward social mobility. Through the chapel he met his pretty and publicspirited wife Audrey; was entertained by her prosperous family; joined a tennis club. The Inland Revenue Staff Federation was the vehicle for his rise in politics. Later on, service in the navy showed him the world. He was even asked to write a short official textbook on Japan for naval personnel, a task he duly accomplished with, Dr Morgan tells us, thoroughness and skill.

Of postwar prime ministers, only Callaghan and Attlee have lived to see their reputations increase between departure from Downing Street and old age. Callaghan is certainly top of the short-term incumbents, the others being Eden, Home and Heath. His reputation is certainly higher than Major's, who was in the job for nearly seven years; possibly even than Wilson's, who had eight in all. Part of the reason may be that he has behaved impeccably afterwards. …

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