Christopher Hitchens and Peter Kellner’s book on James Callaghan….
In Callaghan-The Road to Number Ten by Peter Kellner and Christopher Hitchens (published 1976) we have the fascinating story of the Labour leader’s rise to power within both his own party and as British Prime Minister in the early years of his succession from Harold Wilson and before the disastrous collapse of his stewardship which propelled Margaret Thatcher to power in 1979.
I must confess to buying this primarily as a fan of Hitchens but the subject matter and era has long been of interest to me. Thatcher has long been both vilified and loved in Britain depending on one’s personal circumstance and/or political leaning, she invoked moments of great patriotism as well as division and seldom in British political history has the gap between the left and the right been wider. Whatever our political bias, few could sensibly argue the need for a drastic change in direction from the dire situation the country found itself in by the end of Callaghan’s tenure. The famous but deeply embarrassing winter of discontent of 1978-79 was a humiliating blot on the nation’s standing on the world stage which lead to Thatcher becoming the first female Prime Minister in British history as well as the first female leader of the Conservative Party, both remarkable achievements in a male dominated 1970s and a fact few of her detractors are prepared to acknowledge.
The demise of the Callaghan government is well documented but what of his succession to the Labour leadership? Hitchens was a well known supporter of the Left throughout the late sixties and seventies in particular but neither author panders to their political allegiances. This is a convincing account of a man both in opposition and government and the question of his suitability to run the country. That a follow-up volume in 1980 wasn’t forthcoming is, in my opinion, a great shame.
The authors set the scene with Wilson’s decision to step down. Despite Callaghan, who was then Foreign Secretary being told on two occasions about the possibility of Wilson resigning, it still came as a shock. A leadership contest ensued and Callaghan entered the fray with Michael Foot, Denis Healey, Tony Benn, Roy Jenkins and Anthony Crossland. The authors argue that Callaghan became leader not through understanding the key political issues of the day better than his opponents but rather he better understood the Labour Party and its position on the political map: “Callaghan eventually became party leader because of this: he was not so much the candidate most Labour MPs DID want, as the one the fewest of them did NOT want”
The authors tell us that despite Callaghan’s poor record in office compared to the other prospective candidates his popularity with the Labour voters and not the activists (who were largely behind Benn or Foot) along with the friendships he had made amongst MPs and Union leaders gave him the edge. Reading this it isn’t difficult to draw parallels with the Labour leadership contest in 2020 and the words of Bob Worcester in the Sunday Times in 1976 are worth considering in today’s race: “Callaghan is the man acceptable to all sides. With cracks in the party so evident, he seems to be the one paper-hanger who can paste it all together” Fast forward to the authors quoting a friend of Callaghan’s later in the book: “He is the sort of man to weather Britain’s economic crisis, and keep the helm steady”…quite what his friend would make of those words three years later one can only wonder.
The authors remain cautiously optimistic throughout the book, the jury, in their eyes remains very much out and open to deliberation. In hindsight what would the other candidates have done differently? Foot would follow Callaghan as leader and be swept aside by Thatcher and a public with no appetite for a socialist government so far to the left whilst Healy’s part in the Callaghan government as Chancellor went some way in demonstrating, perhaps, why he came fifth out of the six candidates in the leadership election.
Followers of the late Hitchens will no doubt be aware of his intense dislike of Henry Kissinger, he would go on to write a book detailing what he believed were acts of war crimes and consistently called for his arrest and trial for such. So it was interesting to see so far back in 1976 how both he and Kellner would tackle the issue of Kissinger and his relationship with Callaghan. What we can deduce from the authors is that whilst Callaghan believed he had a close and trusting working relationship with Kissinger the latter would demonstrate anything but and whilst in the early days of his role as Foreign Secretary his relationship with such a global figure helped his own political standing it would go on to impact negatively on his premiership.
But Kissinger was adept at playing politics and Callaghan, who had played similar games over the years with colleagues and the public would receive an unwelcome dose of karma. His desertion of the left-wing of the Labour Party with whom he had enamoured himself with in the 1940s did not go unnoticed as did his covert drive to build a core support for his own gains a decade later.
I have enjoyed this insight into a politician and leader I had rather lazily concluded as something of little more than a non-descript disaster in British political history. Hitchens and Kellner gave the voters an insight into what drove Callaghan to the top of his party and what they could come to expect. What they didn’t predict or could possibly imagine was the state of the country by the time he made his exit.