Magazine article The Spectator

The Insecurity of Battling Barbara

Magazine article The Spectator

The Insecurity of Battling Barbara

Article excerpt

The insecurity of battling Barbara

RED QUEEN: THE AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY OF BARBARA CASTLE by Anne Perkins Macmillan, L20, pp. 499 ISBN 0333905113

There is one remarkable impression that recurs on every page of the life story of Barbara Castle and that is what an extraordinarily political person she was. It should come as no surprise, of course, about a woman who played a prominent part in British politics for over half a century. It is not easy for anyone, man or woman, to attain political office without an abnormal degree of commitment and determination and we already knew that Barbara Castle had plenty of both from the copious existing bibliography of the period.

But what is unusual about her and emerges for the first time here is the extent to which political considerations informed every moment of her long life. She was not a political intellectual, at least not in comparison with some of her friends. She was far more of an activist seeking always to be in the thick of everything, but she thought and wrote about politics as well, from early childhood.

It mattered more than anything. It was her life. It was a way of life. There is a striking photograph in the book of a young Mrs Castle on a camping holiday she took in the late 1940s. It was a politically correct socialist enterprise of the time, of which she observed, 'Robert Owen [the Victorian syndicalist] would have approved of this holiday for, if it is to succeed, everyone must contribute his share to the little community.'

Anne Perkins has had access to all of Barbara Castle's papers, including the unpublished parts of her diaries, and the book she has written is much more revealing of the woman than anything she herself chose to publish during her lifetime. She used her published diaries to make political mischief, but it is the material she left out which is informative about the real Barbara Castle. There are no particularly startling revelations either from her years in government or of her personal life, but it is interesting and perceptive about both her friends and enemies. It lends a perspective to the period that is missing from the contemporary diaries - hers and the others of the time, notably those of Tony Benn and Richard Crossman. …

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