With his premiership sandwiched in between those of Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher, James Callaghan’s tenure as Prime Minister is often overlooked. Yet whatever your political viewpoint, the Labour politician who led Britain between 1976 and 1979 deserves to be remembered for a number of reasons.
For starters, he was one of the country’s few leaders to come from a genuinely poor background. Growing up in Portsmouth in a pre-Welfare State era, his father died when James was nine, leaving the family to depend on charity to survive.
Unable to afford a university education, James – who was christened Leonard, but became known by his middle name – became an Inland Revenue clerk when he left school aged 16. He rose through the ranks of the civil service and – deployed to work at the Admiralty after being discharged from the Navy with tuberculosis during the war - became an MP in 1945.
He was the only person to have held all four of the great offices of state – that is, Chancellor, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister.
As the country’s leader he was noted for his collaborative approach to governing. But in the late 1970s, he postponed the General Election, just before a period of public sector strikes which led to power cuts, rubbish uncollected and even gravediggers downing tools. It was dubbed The Winter of Discontent. At the General Election in the spring, Conservative Margaret Thatcher sailed in to Number 10.
Callaghan resigned as Labour’s leader and soon became a life peer in the House of Lords.
He died one day short of his 93rd birthday and was praised for his commitment to help those in need throughout his political career, as well as for the wit and warmth that endeared him to so many, on a personal level.