First entered Parliament: 5 July 1945
Age he became PM: 64 years, 9 days
Maiden Speech: 20 August 1945 during the Debate on the Address about the situation in the Pacific following the Japanese surrender
Total time as PM: Three years, 29 days
Died: 26 March 2005 in East Sussex
Facts and figures
Nicknames: “Big Jim” and “Sunny Jim”
Education: Portsmouth Northern Secondary School
Family: James Callaghan was the only son and younger of 2 children. He married Audrey Elizabeth Moulton, and had one son and two daughters
Interests: Rugby, tennis, agriculture
The son of a naval chief petty officer who died when his son was just nine years old, James Callaghan left school at 14. He worked as a tax officer and was later employed by the TUC.
After serving in World War Two he was elected as a Labour MP for Cardiff South in the post-war Labour landslide, and later represented Cardiff South East. He rose steadily through the party in Opposition, and stood for the leadership after Gaitskell’s death in 1963, losing with respectable minority support.
As Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1964, Callaghan’s decision not to devalue the pound proved disastrous. After devaluation the discredited Callaghan resigned as Chancellor, to become Home Secretary, where he salvaged his reputation.
During this time he sent troops to Northern Ireland in 1969 to cope with worsening violence. As a staunch defender of trade unions, he opposed efforts to reform them, earning the title ‘keeper of the cloth cap’.
In Opposition Callaghan became Shadow Foreign Secretary, and in government after 1974 it was his job to renegotiate the terms of Britains EC membership. When Harold Wilson resigned unexpectedly, Callaghan was not the favourite to win the leadership, being the oldest candidate at 64. However, he was the least divisive candidate, and won the vote.
Big, relaxed and handsome
As PM Callaghan – described as ‘big, relaxed and handsome’ – presided over a sterling crisis, which led to negotiations with the IMF for a rescue package, but he did keep his Cabinet team together during the controversy over the conditions set.
Spending cuts and pay restraint were demanded, but the left wing Labour conference nevertheless voted for more spending.
Things were made more difficult still when Labour’s small majority disappeared in 1977, making Labour dependent on the support of the Liberals. However, Callaghan persevered in office even when this pact broke down.
During the ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1978, industrial action over pay policy severely damaged the governments authority.
The government lost a confidence motion on 28 March 1979 by just one vote a classic piece of high-tension political theatre.
Callaghan was obliged to hold a general election, which was won by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party. As Labour’s left wing gained strength in the early 1980s, Callaghan’s influence waned, and he resigned as leader after 18 months.
He retired from the House of Commons in 1987 and was active in the House of Lords as a life peer.
Shortly before his death he attended a reception in Downing Street with the Queen and the other surviving PMs. He joked with reporters outside that it was good to be back.
Lord Callaghan passed away at home in East Sussex on 26 March 2005, one day short of his 93rd birthday. He was the longest living former British PM in history.
“A lie can be half-way around the world before truth has got its boots on”
Did you know?
He is believed to have been the tallest prime minister in British history at 6ft 1in (185cm).
Extract from Callaghan’s ‘Ruskin speech’ on the future of state education October 1976
“There has been a massive injection of resources into education, mainly to meet increased numbers and partly to raise standards. But in present circumstances there can be little expectation of further increased resources being made available, at any rate for the time being. I fear that those whose only answer to these problems is to call for more money will be disappointed. But that surely cannot be the end of the matter. There is a challenge to us all in these days and a challenge in education is to examine its priorities and to secure as high efficiency as possible by the skilful use of existing resources.”
Audrey Moulton was politically active with a lifelong interest in children’s welfare. She was the first PM spouse to have an independent career and she was a powerful figure in her own right before she entered Number 10.
The couple, like many before and since, found the flat above the house to be a small and Audrey wished that the house would ‘catch up with modern technology’. Nevertheless she enjoyed the décor and the view over St James Park.
Her political understanding, humour and strength of personality helped her husband through a turbulent time in British politics. After Callaghan’s defeat at the 1979 election the couple, who had three children, travelled extensively and continued to carry out tireless work for charity.
Audrey suffered from Alzheimer’s in her later years and Jim devoted himself to her care, saying “for sixty years she gave up everything for me and now I’m going to give up everything for her.”