Downing Street Diary: With James Callaghan in No.10 Bernard Donoughue

Cape, pp.562, 30

Bernard Donoughue has produced several valuable books, one of them a biography of Herbert Morrison (written with George Jones) and another an account of No. 10 under the Labour governments of the 1970s, which contains the often quoted, though rarely acknowledged, observation of James Callaghan just before the 1970 election, to the effect that there was a tide in politics which prime ministers were powerless to resist. Lord Donoughue’s Downing Street diaries came later.

The first volume, on his days as a ‘special adviser’ to Harold Wilson, was dominated not so much by Wilson as by Marcia Williams, Lady Falkender. Indeed, ‘Marcia’s Tantrums’ would have served as a catchier subtitle than ‘With Harold Wilson in No. 10’. After a while, however, we grew tired of the endless stamped feet and slammed doors. With Callaghan, something like normal service is resumed.

But even Jim was not entirely conventional. He did not live in No. 10 but retained his flat in Kennington. When his wife, Audrey, was away, he made his own breakfast. Even so, he was devoted to her. The reason for this arrangement was that he did not get on with his sister. He could say that, in Kennington, he did not have the room to entertain her, whereas at No. 10 he had. The non-appearance of Callaghan’s mysterious sister, who never turns up, is straight out of one of Harold Pinter’s plays.

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There are a few other small surprises too. For instance, Donoughue tells us that Callaghan did not like the police, largely because of his experience as home secretary — and even though for many years previously he had been parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation. The police, he said, were ‘often incompetent and corrupt’. This tendency to be easily irritated and even to be a bit of a bully, was perhaps well known, at least among politicians and journalists. But both groups contrived, in their various ways, to maintain the impression that he was avuncular ‘Sunny Jim’, though for much of the time he was not sunny at all, quite the reverse in fact, with good reason.

Still, Donoughue records several instances of his kindness to his advisers and to the rest of the staff. He is particularly accomplished, with a cheery word for everyone, when presiding over seasonal festivities or office parties. So the impression provided for public consumption might not have been very far off the mark after all. And for much of the time, in 1976-78, it worked. Opinion polls put Labour ahead of the Conservatives, and Callaghan ahead of his party and of Margaret Thatcher.

Certainly he made her sound shrill and look inadequate at Prime Minister’s Questions, then a twice-weekly event of a quarter of an hour rather than the single half hour which Tony Blair introduced when he became prime minister. ‘There, there, little lady’, Callaghan would say, or words to this effect. ‘Some of us have a bit of experience of these important matters.’ The view of the political classes was that Mrs Thatcher, hard though she tried, was not quite up to it.

Callaghan, unlike Wilson, preferred to deal with one problem at a time. From Donoughue’s perspective the main — perhaps the only — problem was that of wages. We are told surprisingly little about the mechanics of the Lib-Lab pact, which kept Callaghan in office for much of the period, or for that matter about devolution. It was the Scottish referendum, rather than the labour chaos of 1978-79, which led directly to the fall of the government in a Commons vote.

We learn that Michael Cocks, then the chief whip, lamented his inability to offer the Conservative MP, Sir Alan Glyn, a peerage, which would have secured his abstention in a crucial debate. Cocks explained that patronage (at all events, offers of peerages) had been removed from the whips office in 1966 and handed over to No. 10. The hero of this whole strange period was not so much Denis Healey, who makes numerous ambiguous appearances, for Donoughue was hostile to the Treasury, indeed to civil servants generally. The real hero was Walter Harrison, Cocks’s deputy; mentioned only twice, he kept the whole show on the road and remains strangely unhonoured to this day.

The curious aspect of Callaghan was that he thought politically all the time — it had been his life — but he was not really much good at politics. Certainly he was reluctant to make political deals, for fear of appearing to be a conniving politician. Thus in April 1978, he decides to fix the wage limit at five per cent and the unions can go hang. In January 1979, in the depths of the crisis, he is talking about an election in March. Before that in the autumn, at the Brighton conference of the TUC, he wrapped up his decision not to have an election by attempting a rendition of ‘There was I waiting at the church’. Having risked a song, he consulted Donoughue about the number’s provenance. Donoughue asked his friend and former colleague, Joe Haines, by then returned to the Daily Mirror. Haines replied correctly: Vesta Victoria. His civil servants insisted on Marie Lloyd, not because they knew but because everybody had heard of her, while Vesta Victoria was obscure. So Marie Lloyd it had to be. It was certainly not Donoughue’s fault: quite the reverse. He had done everything he could do. It still illustrates the kind of wrong advice that prime ministers often get.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated