Tuesday, October 6, 2020

King of the Castle

The Daily Express has an incredible feature article: “Why Barbara is King of the Castle.” As I thought, the press is crediting me with having fought and won triumphantly a battle with my colleagues over the Transport Bill. Dick is a bit fed up about all this having loyally supported me all the way through and not relishing his role as the ogre of the piece.’ This is from the diaries of Barbara Castle, born 110 years ago today, a key figure in the Harold Wilson’s Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s.

Barbara Anne Betts was born on 6 October 1910 in Chesterfield, though was brought up in Pontefract and Bradford, as her father, a tax inspector, moved to different positions. In Bradford, the family became involved with the Independent Labour Party. There, Barbara attended the local grammar school where she excelled academically, and enjoyed acting. At St Hugh’s College, Oxford, she joined the university Labour Club, and became its treasurer. She moved to London to take up journalism, and became more involved in politics. She began an affair with the much older William Mellor, helping him in the 1935 election campaign. She, herself, was elected to St Pancras Metropolitan Borough Council in 1937. Through the Second World War she worked at the Ministry of Food and was an Air Raid Precautions warden during the Blitz. She worked as a journalist on the left-wing weekly Tribune and for the Daily Mirror, whose night editor, Ted Castle, she married in 1944. The following year she was elected Member of Parliament for Blackburn - a seat she would hold for 34 years - quickly making a name for herself as the Red Queen (for her fiery speeches and red hair).

Castles first appointment in government was as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade, and then she continued in the same role for Harold Wilson. During the 1950s, she emerged as a high-profile Bevanite, and a vocal advocate of decolonisation and the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Under Prime Minister Wilson, she served, initially, as Minister for Overseas Development (a newly created position) from 1964 to 1965. Subsequently, she was appointed Minister of Transport (1965-1968) and then First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Employment (1968-1970). 

In opposition, while Ted Heath was Prime Minister, Castle continued to be the spokesperson on employment although she fell out with Wilson. When Labour was returned to power in 1974, Wilson appointed her Secretary of State for Health and Social Services. When James Callaghan took over the Labour leadership, in 1976, she was dismissed from the cabinet. Three years later, despite having opposed Britain’s entry into the Common Market, Castle was elected to the European Parliament, where she remained a leading socialist until her retirement in 1989. She was created a Life Peer in 1990. She died in 2002. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Cotton Town, The University of Bradford, Spartacus Educational, or The Guardian.

While still an active politician, in the 1980s, Castle published two volumes of diaries, chronicling her time in office from 1964-1976 (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980 and 1984). They were widely praised, as Wikipedia notes: the London Review of Books said that they show ‘more about the nature of cabinet government - even though it deals with only one Cabinet - than any previous publication, academic, political or biographical.’ Michael Foot in The Listener claimed that the diary, ‘whatever else it is or not, is a human document, hopelessly absorbing’. Paul Johnson in the Sunday Telegraph wrote that it was ‘a contribution of first rate importance to our knowledge of modern politics’.

In her preface, Castle states: ‘Whatever else may be said about political diaries they are at least an instantaneous account and therefore more accurate than a retrospective one. And it takes courage to publish them. I would like to think that, say, Roy Jenkins or Tony Benn had kept a record of what they thought, said and did at every stage in their progress in government and then were ready to publish it later without any expurgations designed to polish up their image or distort the facts retrospectively. Such pieces of self-exposure can only strengthen the democratic process by enabling people outside government to follow the evolution of those inside and judge for themselves why politicians think and act as they do and how far any adaptations of policy they may make are due to honourable realism and how far to political cowardice.’

Here are two extracts.

23-26 December 1965
‘Papers full of pictures of me. My appointment the sensation. The fact that I couldn’t drive had almost, as Harold predicted when I tried to use this as an argument against appointing me, turned out to be an asset. Ted and I drove back to London so that I could kiss hands. Then into the Ministry with Tony to introduce him and say last farewells. I could hardly tear myself away from my beloved desk. (Andrew later sent me a letter I shall treasure all my life.)

So home at last to Christmas, punctured by various phone calls which I refused to take. Stephen Swingler nobly took over the ministerial comments on the road accident figures; also stood by for twenty-four hours for a meeting with George Brown about the railways’ ‘early warning’ of their intended fares increase due to expire on 28 December. On Christmas Eve Stephen phoned to say all attempts to locate George had failed. He had been doing a tour of office parties and just wouldn’t reply to messages. That morning he was still hors de combat and the meeting clearly could not be held. Apparently this sort of thing has happened before.’

11 March 1968
‘The Daily Express has an incredible feature article: “Why Barbara is King of the Castle.” As I thought, the press is crediting me with having fought and won triumphantly a battle with my colleagues over the Transport Bill. Dick is a bit fed up about all this having loyally supported me all the way through and not relishing his role as the ogre of the piece. Frank Allaun popped up to me in the dining room in the House to tell me at more than one meeting recently - some with trade unionists and some with university people - my name has seriously been canvassed for PM. It is a flattering thought, but I don’t take it seriously.

In the meantime I am mopping up a series of office meetings. One concerned Clause 45 of the Transport Bill in which we really are taking a fantastically wide extension of the manufacturing powers of nationalized industries. Having won Cabinet approval for the general principle of extension in the Bill, I have sent my officials away to work on it and they have come back with the Bill drafted to give me practically limitless powers. It is amusing to hear them explaining solemnly that any attempt to define the powers in a Bill in order to limit them would merely lead to unwarrantable restrictions. Once again I marvel at the civil servants: these chaps really hate the whole idea of these manufacturing powers but, the policy having been adopted, they are taking the job of implementing it au sérieux. Hankey, Deputy Treasury Solicitor, assured me that the only way to control the use of the powers was by the provision officials had made for the Minister to approve all proposals for their use, to have the right to modify or withdraw proposals and the duty to publish them. The control in other words would be through the Minister. The CBI has been pressing for inclusion of a phrase to the effect that, in using the powers, nationalized industries must behave in all ways like ‘a company engaged in private enterprise’. Hankey is against my accepting this on the grounds that it doesn’t make any sense, but the others think it might have some advantages presentationally. The real safeguard is that I have got Bill Johnson to agree reluctantly to set up a separate subsidiary company to run the railway workshops. This of course would have to conform to the Companies Acts. But, having gone into all the pros and cons very carefully for an hour this morning, I have decided that an amendment to include the desired words would not do any harm and might do some good. I have asked them to consult the Scottish Office urgently and table a Government amendment on these lines.

Went along to Dick’s room at 7.45 to discuss the Transport Bill guillotine to find no John Silkin there. Dick was in a sour and desperate mood. He had been dining with Aubrey Jones, who complained he had never been consulted on the new proposals for P and I policy. Dick wasn’t too optimistic either about the Budget being radical. “The trouble is”, he says, “Harold and Roy will just think it is radical.” We sat there drinking and gossiping for nearly an hour waiting for John Silkin to turn up.

His failure to do so only heightened Dick’s irritation. That was his trouble, he said, he had to deal with a Chief Whip who was irresponsible. He himself was still seriously thinking of throwing in his hand: why didn’t he just retire and write books and see more of his family? In these moods Dick is not a very reliable witness to anything. But I am really worried by his state of mind.’

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