1966 and all that

Michael Stewart

  • The Castle Diaries. Vol. II: 1964-70 by Barbara Castle
    Weidenfeld, 848 pp, £20.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 297 78374 2

There are, one might venture to suggest, two kinds of people: those whose New Year resolution to keep a diary peters out on 5 January, and those who are still hard at it on 31 December. We are surely fortunate that Barbara Castle – like the late Dick Crossman – is in the second category. And when Mrs Castle keeps a diary, she doesn’t mess about: she really keeps a diary. The indefatigability of her labours was first revealed four years ago, when she published her diaries for the period from 1 January 1974 to 13 April 1976, the latter date being five days after her old enemy and new Prime Minister James Callaghan unceremoniously sacked her. Those two years and 104 days took over four hundred thousand words to chronicle – an average of around five hundred words a day; but since some days apparently only merited a few lines and others none at all, this means that it was not uncommon for a day to receive a thousand or even fifteen hundred words of description. In a way this is fair enough, since few people are as busy as a conscientious Cabinet Minister, and there is plenty to record. All the same, the mind boggles at the amount of time and energy that Mrs Castle must have spent in jotting down in shorthand what had happened during the past few hours, and then transcribing it all on her faithful old Olivetti typewriter in the small hours of the morning or at weekends.

This second volume of her diaries relates, rather confusingly, to her earlier spell as a Cabinet Minister, and it is a relief to find that the younger Mrs Castle is a little less prolix: the five and a half years from October 1964 to May 1970 rate only about half a million words – an average daily stint of about two hundred and fifty words, though again there are days which take five or six times more than this to deal with.

Was it all worth it? Though anxious not to give Mrs Castle the slightest encouragement to publish the diaries she is no doubt keeping as a Member of the European Parliament, I have to say that it was. For a total of some eight out of the 12 years which started with the sense of hope and purpose that accompanied the Labour victory in October 1964 and ended with the IMF being brought in to sort us out in 1976, Mrs Castle was a Cabinet Minister with close ties, stemming from their joint Bevanite past, to the Prime Minister. She was intelligent, articulate and passionately involved in whatever job she was doing at the time. How could her diaries not be fascinating? Some commentators have damned them with faint praise: useful source material for future historians, and so on. But they are more than that. For anyone interested in how the political system works in Britain, and how history unfolded during the Sixties, there is plenty to hold the attention. Mrs Castle is particularly good at bringing to life some of the personalities involved. There is George Brown, ‘bellowing on the telephone to No 10, insisting that Harold came over at once and pouring out insults to him on the phone’. There are occasional lunches and dinners à deux with Roy Jenkins, sometimes at the Connaught (‘another demonstration of what he calls, with a smile, his “expensive tastes” ’) and sometimes at No 11 Downing Street, at one of which ‘we agreed about a number of things, notably on our contempt for Jim Callaghan.’ There is Roy Hattersley, ‘a Jenkins man’, whom Harold Wilson would not appoint as a Minister of State in 1969 ‘because he is said to have made three “disloyal” remarks recently. Dick [Crossman] and I agree this is absurd because, although we don’t think Hattersley is a particularly nice man, we know he will make disloyal remarks about anyone, including Roy Jenkins.’ (How times have changed, incidentally: Hattersley bobs up all over the place in these pages, and David Steel gets a couple of footnotes, but Margaret Thatcher, Neil Kinnock, David Owen and Arthur Scargill make no appearance.)

Mrs Castle was generally rated a highly effective departmental minister, and from these diaries one sees why. She had radical instincts, a good mind, a total dedication to politics, whole-hearted enthusiasm for the task in hand, and a willingness to make ruthless use of her feminine charm and wiles to get her way in an overwhelmingly masculine milieu. As a left-winger and a woman, she was not, in the circumstances of the Sixties, a serious contender for one of the great offices of state. But when there was a tricky job to be done in the second echelon, she was the first person the Prime Minister would think of. Thus her initial appointment was as Minister of Overseas Development. Since there was no Ministry of Overseas Development, she had to build one up from scratch, and did so with skill and determination, drafting in the late Dudley Seers as head of an economic planning department which recruited a team of economists strong enough to hold their own in clashes with the Treasury and the other new ministry, the Department of Economic Affairs. A little over a year later, when the ODM was on its feet, Wilson asked her to move to the Ministry of Transport, where a weak minister was making no headway in pushing through the integrated transport policy Labour had promised. Here she found the going tougher. She took an immediate dislike to her Permanent Secretary, Sir Thomas Padmore, a mandarin who had never quite got to the top at the Treasury and had been moved sideways to a job he clearly found a bore. Again and again she plots and plans to get Sir Tom moved elsewhere, apparently with the sympathy of the Prime Minister, who is for ever promising to have a word about it with someone or other: but it is quite obvious to the detached reader that Harold Wilson has no intention of offending the mandarins by effectively sacking one of their number, and it is no surprise to learn that Padmore’s stay at the Ministry outlasted Mrs Castle’s.

If Barbara Castle had a weakness as a minister, it was the reverse side of her strength. Her dedication and enthusiasm for the task in hand sometimes caused her to lose perspective: she focused on the trees and did not notice the wood. The basic failure of the 1964-70 Labour Government lay in its inability to secure the economic growth it had promised. The National Plan, published in September 1965, was posited on a 25 per cent increase in national output between 1964 and 1970 – an annual growth rate of 3.8 per cent. In the event, the rise in output was only 14 per cent, or 2.2 per cent a year. The basic constraint on the growth of output was not the supply side factors it became so fashionable to talk about in the late Seventies, but an insufficient growth of effective demand, and this was a self-inflicted wound. Sterling was overvalued, and if it was not to be devalued – and Wilson was almost pathologically determined that it should not be – then the balance of payments could only be kept on an even keel by the fall in imports, and gain in foreign confidence, that would follow deflation. And so, in a series of packages, deflation – cuts in public expenditure and increases in taxation – was the order of the day.

Mrs Castle was clearly unhappy about this, but was unwilling to challenge head-on the basic policy decision, made by the Wilson-Brown-Callaghan triumvirate within hours of the 1964 Election victory, that the $2.80 parity must be maintained at all costs. There were many good reasons for her attitude: a large number of Cabinet members would follow the Prime Minister’s lead, wherever it went; ordinary Cabinet Ministers were in any event kept very much in the dark about what was going on in the economic policy field; and so on. All the same, it is a pity that Mrs Castle was not a little less determined to stick to her own last. I have a clear recollection of the evening of Sunday, 17 July 1966. The Prime Minister and Chancellor had agreed that another deflationary package was essential if the pound was to be ‘saved’ – i.e. kept at its existing parity. Treasury officials had told their opposite numbers in the spending departments of the cuts they would need to make. The Prime Minister had asked Thomas Balogh, Economic Adviser to the Cabinet, to appeal to the loyalty of the old Bevanite Left not to rock the boat, and Balogh had summoned me (I was then his deputy) round to his house to assist in this task. When I arrived I found Barbara Castle (and the unhappy Padmore) discussing the implications of the expected cuts with Balogh. What struck me forcibly was that, unlike myself, Mrs Castle was not concerned with questioning the rationale of the exercise, even though it constituted the final abandonment of the programme on which Labour had been elected in 1964 and re-elected the previous March: her concern was simply that of a good departmental minister – to minimise the effect of the cuts on her department. That she was in fact concerned about the overall situation is evident from the relevant passages of these diaries, and she did speak in favour of devaluation in Cabinet. But her instinct was to work within the context she was provided with, not to try to alter the context.

Dick Crossman, on the other hand, who arrived later that evening, after Barbara Castle had left, was concerned to change the context. He blundered angrily around the room, not noticing that he was knocking things over, shouting that he wasn’t going to put up with any more of these cuts and that we had better devalue and have done with it. Nothing came of it, of course, mainly because of the internal politics of the Labour Party. On an official visit to London ten days earlier the French Prime Minister Georges Pompidou had made it clear that if Britain were to join the EEC (an idea with which Wilson was at the time having one of his periodic flirtations) we would first have to devalue, as the French had done. So the Left of the Labour Party, adamantly opposed to entry, was by now more than half-convinced that devaluation was a right-wing plot designed to pave the way into the Common Market. Asked in so many words by George Brown if they would switch their support from Wilson to himself if he promised to float the pound, they refused: better Wilson with an unviable policy than Brown with a viable one.

The most spectacular example of what can be seen as Mrs Castle’s inability to distinguish between wood and trees came with the publication of the White Paper ‘In Place of Strife’ in January 1969. Moved on from Transport to the newly-created Department of Employment and Productivity (but essentially the old Ministry of Labour) in April 1968, she soon became convinced that something had to be done about Britain’s appalling record of unofficial strikes. She proposed, among other things, that in certain cases unofficial strikes should be made subject to a 28-day cooling-off period, on pain of fines; and that in certain cases unions should be required to hold secret ballots before going on official strike. Nothing very startling by the standards of the mid-Eighties, but 15 years ago things were very different. Although Mrs Castle persuaded the Prime Minister to describe these proposals, in a speech to the Parliamentary Labour Party, as ‘essential to our economic recovery; essential to the balance of payments; essential to full employment’, the whole of the Trade Union movement and a large section of the Labour Party both in Parliament and the country would have none of it. Wilson and Mrs Castle were virtually isolated at the crucial Cabinet meeting in June 1969, and had to climb down. Mrs Castle adds a good deal of fascinating detail to our knowledge of this episode, but does little to alter one’s basic judgment. ‘In Place of Strife’ was about a second-order priority – limiting unofficial strikes – and diverted attention from the first-order priority: holding down the growth of money incomes so as to prevent the favourable effects on output and the balance of payments of the November 1967 devaluation being eroded by higher inflation. Its proposals fatally alienated many natural Labour supporters, while its eventual defeat convinced much middle-of-the road opinion that the Labour Party was indeed the creature of the unions. The whole episode must have played a part – perhaps a decisive part – in Labour’s 1970 election defeat.

When all is said and done, however, one cannot read these diaries without occasionally feeling that Mrs Castle, and the nation, have been unlucky. There was another lady Cabinet Minister who was a wholly political animal, who worked like a Trojan, who fought her departmental corner like a tigress, and who was not above using carefully-calculated feminine histrionics to bounce an embarrassed Cabinet into conceding her more than it should have: the Secretary of State for Education and Science from 1970-74. Had Britain opted for its first woman prime minister a decade or so earlier, we might have been governed with no less determination, but a lot more compassion and humour.