Callaghan, James


Jim Callaghan was Britain’s longest-lived Prime Minister, he died on the eve of his 93rd birthday on 26th March 2005. He was known by the nickname ‘sunny jim‘.

Callaghan grew up in Cardiff. His childhood was dominated by poverty after his father died when Callaghan was only nine. Before going into politics, Callaghan worked as a clerk in an Inland Revenue office and in 1936 he became a full-time trade union official. During the Second World War, Callaghan volunteered for the Royal Navy. At the end of the war he stood in the 1945 General Election and became the Labour MP for Cardiff South.

Having previously held junior positions in Clement Attlee’s government (1945-51), Callaghan became Harold Wilson‘s Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1964-1967. Callaghan would go on to become Home Secretary (1967-1970), Foreign Secretary (1974-1976) and, finally, Prime Minister (1976-79). To this day, Callaghan is the only person in British history to have ever held all four ‘great offices’ of the British state.

Upon leaving the Commons, Callaghan sat as Baron Callaghan in the House of Lords. After his death, Callaghan’s ashes were scattered in the flowerbed around the Peter Pan statue at Great Ormand Street Hospital in London.

James Callaghan was defeated by Margaret Thatcher in 1979. He resigned as Labour party leader and was succeeded by Michael Foot.

Cabinet Career

After the Labour Party‘s narrow victory at the 1964 General Election, Jim Callaghan became Chancellor of the Exchequer. Callaghan’s period at the Treasury was a difficult one and culminated in him being forced to oversee the devaluation of the pound by 14% in 1967. This was done to make British exports cheaper abroad, but Callaghan’s delay on the matter led to significant scrutiny. Callaghan offered his resignation but this was initially rejected by then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. However, Callaghan insisted he be moved from the Treasury and so Wilson made him Home Secretary.

As Home Secretary, Callaghan played a key role in the passing of the Race Relations Act 1968, which made it illegal to refuse housing, employment or public services because of an individual’s race. Presenting the Bill to Parliament, Callaghan said, ‘the House has rarely faced an issue of greater social significance for our country and our children’.

Callaghan left government following Labour’s defeat at the 1970 Election, but he returned as Foreign Secretary following the General Election of February 1974. As Foreign Secretary, Callaghan helped engineer the 1975 referendum ‘yes’ result which confirmed Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community (later the EU).

Following Harold Wilson‘s unexpected resignation in 1976, Callaghan, as his heir apparent, was elected Leader of the Labour Party, and hence Prime Minister. ‘Prime minister! And I never went to university!’ Callaghan is said to have exclaimed when he heard the result.

Callaghan outlined his plans for office in his 1976 speech at the Labour Party conference.

As prime minister Callaghan enjoyed strong personal relationships with German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and the Democrat President of the United States, Jimmy Carter.

Winter of Discontent Crisis

Economic difficulties and societal tension dominated Callaghan’s tenure as Prime Minister. Callaghan’s government responded to the issues of the ‘Winter of Discontent’ with pay restraint and general austerity measures. By the time Mr Callaghan became Prime Minister, the Labour government had already lost its narrow majority.

In 1977, with further by-election losses, Callaghan was forced into a deal with David Steel’s Liberal Party. The alliance was unstable and in 1979 he became the first Prime Minister since the Duke of Wellington to resign after losing a vote of confidence.

Callaghan’s subsequent electoral defeat in 1979 saw the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the beginning of the Labour Party‘s eighteen year spell in the political wilderness. Callaghan soon resigned as Labour Party leader.

Interesting Anecdotes

Callaghan was prime minister at a time of heightened tension with the Soviet Union. Speaking in 1988 to a BBC documentary, Jim Callaghan made his opinion on ordering a retaliatory nuclear attack known: ‘if we had got to that point, where it was, I felt, necessary to do it, then I would have done it. I’ve had terrible doubts, of course, about this. I say to you, if I had lived after having pressed that button, I could never, ever have forgiven myself’.

In his diary entry of 3 April 1997, Tony Benn recorded that Callaghan received a call from a Labour Party volunteer asking if he wanted to become more active in the Party. According to Benn, Callaghan said ‘Well I was a Labour Prime Minister – what more could I do?’.

In 1999, Callaghan told The Oldie Magazine, ‘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 British prime minister since Walpole’.

After leaving office, James Callaghan became Lord Callaghan. He retired to a farm he bought near Ringmer in East Sussex. The area became popular with other former leading labour figures of the time such as Denis Healey and George Brown, both of whom almost retired nearby.


Leonard James Callaghan met his future wife, Audrey Moulton, during his time working as a tax inspector in the early-1930s. They were married in July 1938. The couple had three children, one of whom, Margaret Jay, went on to become a British politician. Baroness Jay become a Labour Cabinet Minister herself, and Leader of the House of Lords in the Blair government.