James Callaghan: of the labour movement, against the labour movement

Submitted by AWL on 30 March, 2005 - 11:02

Notoriety clung for decades to the Tory politician Enoch Powell for his 1968 speech predicting that “rivers of blood” would flow if black and Asian immigration was allowed to continue. That was a foul speech by a foul man.

It was the time when Kenya’s Asian population was being expelled on mass. They had been given British passports when the country became independent five years earlier. They were entitled to come to Britain. But they weren’t allowed to.

Powell made the vile and memorable speech. But it was the Labour Home Secretary James Callaghan, who has just died a day short of his 93rd birthday, who did the spectacularly foul deed. He bowed to the racist outcry and cancelled the British passports of the people being expelled from Kenya!

Four years later, when the Asians of Uganda, who also held British passports, were expelled, Edward Heath’s Tory government defied the racist hullabaloo and let them in.

Callaghan went on to be Prime Minister from 1976 to 79. He lost the General Election to Margaret Thatcher’s radicalised Tories. He was, someone has written, the last “Old Labour” Prime Minister.

His life and career might have been designed to epitomise the old Labour Party. Born in 1912 he left school at 17 and became a clerk in the Inland Revenue. He became a union activist, and later, an elected official and joined the Labour Party in 1931. After war service in the navy he became an MP in the Labour landslide of 1945. He remained in the House of Commons, general election after general election for 40 years, until he retired in 1987 and went to the House of Lords. His daughter, Margaret, ex-wife of the British Ambassador to Washington, would later join him there.

James Callaghan was Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary, as well as Prime Minister.

The Callaghan-led Labour government introduced mild and timid versions of what Thatcher would do boldly, recklessly and with demonic energy. Under Prime Minister Callaghan Labour accepted an IMF diktat to implement cuts in 1976. Under Callaghan unemployment reached a million, the highest since 1940. His government provoked a strike wave, the so-named “Winter of Discontent” in 1978–9. A time-serving Old Labour career politician, James Callaghan is not someone socialists have reason to remember fondly.

And yet Callaghan’s career also shows up the difference between old Labour at its worst and New Labour. Even the right wing of the old Labourites sincerely believed, however timidly and waveringly, that their job was to improve the lot of the working class.

They talked about the “national interest” but they also believed in the labour movement and, in their own way, they were, much of the time, loyal to it.

Callaghan was never a leftist even in Labour Party terms, but when in 1969 the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson and the Minister of Labour, Barbara Castle, both of them one-time left-wing Labourites, tried to curb and cut down trade union rights, Callaghan, reflecting the widespread opposition in the labour movement, led the opposition to it in the Cabinet. A combination of mass demonstrations and opposition within the Cabinet and within the Parliamentary Labour Party forced Wilson and Castle to abandon the proposed legislation.

But Callaghan also embodied the contradiction that broke the back of Old Labour in government. They felt the pressure of the labour movement. They tried to run capitalism while moderating its consequences a little. In a crisis they always stood with capitalism but they were torn in different directions.

Most important, they rested on a living political labour movement, the old Labour Party. When enough rank and file Labour Party members felt betrayed and outraged by Labour governments, the party could move into opposition to the government.

For example, by the end of Callaghan’s premiership most of the Labour Party in the country was in loud opposition to him, as were the trade unionists who went on strike in the “Winter of Discontent”. By contrast, the Blair Labour people have no sense of a distinct Labour identity. They feel a contemptuous antagonism, rather than basic loyalty, to the labour movement. Openly and unashamedly they run capitalism according to its own brutal needs and laws.

Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, who paved the way for Blairism, defined the beginning of the new departure succinctly when he told his colleagues at Westminster that they should do all their “betraying” before Labour formed a government — so that there could be no recrimination from the rank and file of the Labour Party.

They also took the precaution of abolishing or sanding up the old democratic structures of the Labour Party. They went a long way to abolishing the Labour Party that had made things tough for Prime Minister Callaghan.

Gordon Brown inaugurating his economic rule as Chancellor by giving control of money matters to the Bank of England sums it up. So does New Labour’s maintenance of the Tory anti-union laws.

To Tony Blair, profit is a holy, not a profane, word. Unlike the Callaghans, he makes no bones about it.

The Blairites feel themselves to be what they really are — enemies of the labour movement and the working class.

By Frank Higgins

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