10 Facts About James Callaghan | History Hit

10 Facts About James Callaghan

Harry Sherrin

22 Sep 2021
James Callaghan, former British Prime Minster, photographed at the White House, 1977.
Image Credit: Marion S. Trikosko / Public Domain

James Callaghan, also known as ‘Sunny Jim’ or ‘Big Jim’, served as British Prime Minister between 1976 and 1979. His time in office was characterised by economic recession, sectarian violence in Ireland and sweeping industrial strikes across Britain.

Callaghan’s public opinion suffered throughout these crises, and in 1979 a motion of no confidence was passed against his government. Margaret Thatcher succeeded him as Prime Minister.

In a 1999 interview, Callaghan himself speculated whether he’ll be remembered as “the worst Prime Minister since Walpole.”

Here are 10 facts about James Callaghan, Britain’s most recently ousted Prime Minister.

1. He grew up in poverty

Born on 27 March 1912, Callaghan grew up in a Christian household in Portsmouth, England. When his father, also named James, died of a heart attack aged 44, ‘Sunny Jim’ was just 9 years old. The death pushed the family into years of poverty.

But when the first Labour government came into power in 1924, they granted James’ mother a widow’s pension, which alleviated the family’s financial woes.

2. He joined the Inland Revenue aged 17

Aged 17, Callaghan took a position as a clerk for the Inland Revenue in Maidstone, Kent. While there, he helped to set up and expand a trade union for his profession, the Association of Officers of Taxes.

Callaghan ultimately resigned from his Civil Service duties with Inland Revenue, opting instead to accept a full-time trade union position with the Inland Revenue Staff Federation.

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3. He served in the Royal Navy during World War Two

After the outbreak of World War Two, Callaghan applied to join the Royal Navy. He was initially rejected because his trade union role was classed as a reserved occupation, which barred him from military service. He was eventually accepted into the Navy in 1942.

During his military career, Callaghan wrote Royal Navy service manuals, served on the aircraft carrier HMS Activity as part of Britain’s East Indies Fleet and saw action in the Indian Ocean aboard the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth.

By the close of World War Two, Callaghan had risen to the rank of Lieutenant.

4. Callaghan controversially devalued the pound in 1967

After years as an MP, Callaghan was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in October 1964. At that time, Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s Labour government faced a deficit of some £800 million.

While battling Britain’s economic woes as chancellor, Callaghan was initially reluctant to devalue the pound – a solution that would make British exports more competitive but also increase inflation rates and import costs.

Eventually, in November 1967, Callaghan devalued the pound by roughly 14%, a controversial move seen by some as detrimental to Britain’s global economic strength. His resignation as Chancellor soon followed.

5. Callaghan is the only 20th-century Prime Minister to have held all 4 ‘Great Offices of State’

After his tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Callaghan went on to serve as Britain’s Home Secretary, from 1967 to 1970, and then Foreign Secretary, from 1974 to 1976.

When Harold Wilson resigned as Prime Minister on 16 March 1976, Callaghan stepped up as Prime Minister and Labour Party leader.

As such, Callaghan is the only 20th century Prime Minister to have held all the ‘Great Offices of State’, the 4 major roles in British government: Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister.

James Callaghan, while serving as Foreign Secretary, with Max van der Stoel, Dutch Minister for Foreign Affairs, 1975.

6. Callaghan’s government implemented the Race Relations Act of 1976

As Prime Minister, Callaghan implemented a number of noteworthy acts and reforms.

The 1976 Race Relations Act, for example, made it illegal for employers, educators and businesses to discriminate on the grounds of race, skin colour or nationality.

Also, the Housing Act of 1977, also known as the Homeless Persons Act, made it the duty of local government to provide adequate housing for the homeless.

7. Callaghan’s ‘Ruskin Speech’ sparked ‘The Great Debate’ about public education

On 18 October 1976, Callaghan delivered a famed address at Oxford’s Ruskin College. It scrutinised the unaccountability of British public schools and teachers and considered the negative impact of isolating the education curriculum from government.

The ‘Ruskin Speech’, as it became known, went on to spark ‘The Great Debate’, a thorough investigation into the purpose and future of public education in Britain.

The speech is recognised as having planted a seed that sowed years of future educational reform.

8. His government ruled during the ‘Winter of Discontent’

From the mid to late 1970s, Britain’s economic situation worsened. Seeking to reduce inflation, Callaghan’s government introduced sweeping wage restrictions to the public sector. Mass strikes soon followed.

Throughout the winter of 1978 to 1979, Britain saw its biggest stoppage of labour since the 1926 General Strike. Without bin collections, refuse piled up on Britain’s streets and parks. Some 80,000 healthcare and education professionals marched on Parliament to demand change.

This period of mass industrial action and public sector turmoil became known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’.

9. He lost a motion of no confidence

Britain’s ‘Winter of Discontent’ proved devastating for Callaghan’s political career. Support for Callaghan waned in the wake of the strikes, and in March 1979 a motion of no confidence was called by opposition ministers.

The motion passed against Callaghan, commencing 18 years of Conservative Party rule. Margaret Thatcher was made Prime Minister during the May 1979 General Election.

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10. Callaghan said he might be remembered as Britain’s worst Prime Minister

In an October 1999 interview with The Oldie Magazine, Callaghan speculated that he might be remembered as one of Britain’s worst Prime Ministers.

He confessed, “I think we are all re-evaluated as time goes by and I should not be the slightest bit surprised if there is another evaluation after I die and people come to the conclusion that I was the worst prime minister since Walpole.”

Callaghan went on to become the longest living Prime Minister in history. He died on 26 March 2005, aged 92.

Harry Sherrin