When we were giants

by Kevin Meagher

The year is 1976. Harold Wilson has just resigned as prime minister and Labour leader. The race is on to replace him. Step forward the strongest field of candidates to ever seek the leadership.

A veritable ‘who’s who’ of Labour greats. Serious, heavyweight figures from every section of the party.

James Callaghan, currently foreign secretary, but also a former home secretary and chancellor. The eventual winner, he is still the only person to have occupied the four great offices of state.

Next, Roy Jenkins, home secretary and another former chancellor. He would go on to become the President of the European Commission and eventually split off to form the SDP.

Denis Healey, current chancellor and former defence secretary. A future deputy leader, he would lend vital credibility to the party’s fightback through the long, fruitless years of the 1980s.

Then there was Anthony Crosland. A reforming education secretary who pioneered comprehensive schooling, (after the NHS and benefits system, the greatest Labour achievement in office). While his book, ‘The Future of Socialism’ became the bible of moderate reformers in the post-war era.

From the left of the party came Michael Foot. Employment secretary at the time and a renowned orator and journalist. (He became deputy leader under Callaghan and later succeeded him as leader).

Finally, Tony Benn. Energy secretary and prince of the left – doyenne of the party’s grassroots.

Each of the six, seasoned cabinet ministers and household names. But not only that. Most had served in the Second World War too.

Crosland, a bookish intellectual had, incongruously, been a captain in the paras.

Jenkins, another captain, had worked as codebreaker at Bletchley Park.

Major Healey, meanwhile, had seen the war up-close as a beach commander in the North African and Italian campaigns.

Callaghan was in the Royal Navy.

While Benn had served in the RAF.

Foot, in contrast, showing his early brilliance, was editor of the Evening Standard at just 28.

In fact, most of them were prolific essayists, biographers and diarists. Not to mention long-serving MPs and hugely experienced political figures.

As we survey the current crop of hopefuls its hard not to feel, well, underwhelmed.

None are exactly household names. Between them, they have just twelve and a half years’ service in the shadow cabinet and none has served in government.

As we know, Callaghan prevailed back in 1976, taking over Wilson’s difficult hand for the remainder of the parliament, before losing to Margaret Thatcher in May 1979.

By which stage, Crosland had tragically died, while Jenkins had left British politics for Europe.

The lesson? Even a brilliant field of experienced ministers, each at the top of their game, can still produce an indifferent outcome.

I guess all we can only hope is this also now works in reverse – and that an average field of inexperienced Labour politicians can achieve greatness.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut

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13 Responses to “When we were giants”

  1. John P Reid says:

    This all totally ignores the fact that the Labour leader not only ran the government, they were the voice and they ran the party, this all went out the Window with Blair he didn’t run the party Mandelson did, he didn’t run the government, Alistair Campbell did, he was jus the voice, ditto Ed Miliband had Len Mcklusky run the party and now day sits seamus milne and John Mcdonnell,, Blair and Dave Cameron hadn’t had a go’vt job pre no.10 and the real experience of running a department, which i’m actually more worried that Angela Rayner hadn’t the skill of experience

  2. steve says:

    Clearly, Kevin wasn’t around to witness the antics of these “Serious, heavyweight figures”. Those who were there at the time would not recognise his descriptions. The problem with many of the politicians Kevin mentioned is, as Thatcher said of David Owen, their natural home was within the Tory Party.

    Footnote: In the 70s the Establishment favoured Owen as the future of Labour – today’s equivalent is Starmer.

  3. anon says:

    It is OK looking at the heavyweights of yesteryear – but what of the people that they represented, coveted, and protected.

    Labour, then, understood things like exploitation; they knew that if there were thousands of people outside the factory gates, the people inside were vulnerable – no matter what supposed charters were in place.

    They would understand that fixing a low-bar minimum wage would stop improvements in wages.

    And Labour, then, would have known that selling their souls to a corporatist regime like the EU would result in democracy being devalued – as Benn and Foot argued.

    It’s no good harking back to those days – values have changed; as has society – supported by the Labour Party.
    The party that once sought to protect me, and tried to improve my life and protect my job, is gone – I am now regarded as ‘populist’, ‘nativist’, or ‘Gammon’.

    This is what is missing – the very ethos of Labour is not working for the UK’s working class; the leader makes no difference – they all think in the same manner.

    I have to keep repeating this point because it seems that this party is still talking to itself.

  4. john zims says:

    Callaghan, Jenkins, Healey & Crosland, could there be any greater contrast with the political pygmies that are competing for the leadership now?

  5. Anne says:

    Those politicians mentioned were indeed people of their time – good leaders who shaped post war policies. Do we perhaps look at past leaders through rose tinted glasses? Is it worthwhile to do so. Is the world a very different place now, especially with the use of technology. Well, at this time, when we are choosing our next leaders it is perhaps good to reflect over the qualities required to make a good leader. It is interesting to note that some of the past leaders were Captain’s in the SWW – they would certainly know about motivating people. Some were intellectuals – they would be able to make and shape policies. Most were good communicators.

  6. John P Reid says:

    there’s A monty python sketch of A father wants his son to follow his footsteps and become a middle class art critic and the son wants to be a miner, and they argue,
    when Labour had its civil war in the 80’s it still had a reason to exist, for those who had their mining communities desectrated ,Labours reason for existing should be for the left behind , but it’s more interested in Middle class cities issues, if labour has to feel its fighting a moral crusade as the reason to win elections ,then that crusade against the Tories comes down too, the left behinds labour targets, that suffer under the tories ,are the Sort of “Father from Monty python who’s terrible life is going to Art school luncheons, as this is the only sort of un deserving person ,oppressed by the tories, the party feels, it wants to strive for, in posturing its a virtue to run peoples lives

    So If lisa wins the leadership she May form a minority Govt or hang on and win in 2029
    If Keir wins the leadership he’ll lose in 2024 Burgon takes over we’re out till 2040
    If RLB wins the leadership we’ll lose in 2024 but Lou Haigh could take over and we could win in 2029

    That’s why RKB is my 2nd choice after Lisa nandy

  7. Henrik says:

    As noted, Benn was a Flight Lieutenant, Callaghan a Petty Officer, Denis Healey made it to Major in the Royal Engineers, Roy Jenkins worked at Bletchley as a traffic analyst and Tony Crosland was a Captain in the Parachute Regiment. They can all be truly said to have ‘done their bit’ – which would make them, as patriotic British folk, effectively unelectable in today’s Labour Party, which hates the nation state and particularly the British one, sees patriotism as a character flaw and is far more focused on sorting out little internal struggles than, God forbid, being in any way serious about being elected.

    The major achievement of the Milliband – Corbyn years has been to make the public perception of the Labour Party one of an unpatriotic shower of Jew-hating middle-class Marxists which despises working-class people. Good job, comrades. Good job.

  8. Tafia says:

    Why does Starmer keep lying?

    He keeps banging on about handing power downwards. Just to remind the stunted numpty, that was done in 2016 whereupon he tried his damndest to get it stopped. And why does he keep pretending that he somehow comes from the working class when both his parents were at least C1 and he went to a feepaying school?

    Two-bob jobsworth and not a convincing one at that.

  9. Carol says:

    And never, ever, forgetting Barbara Castle.

  10. Brilliant Smith says:

    Callaghan great ?-Just an opportunist imo.

    Now Castle was great and brave .Ditto Healey

    Jenkins -weird personal life must be observing Brexit with great sadness.

    Crosland -outstanding thinker.

    And then there was Tony Benn.!!

  11. steve says:

    The rot began with Castle’s anti-trade union ‘In Place of Strife’ white paper. The capitulation to neoliberalism was completed a few years later by the austerity produced by Callaghan’s “You can’t spend your way out of recession” proclamation. This idiocy was followed by the Winter of Disconent and Thatcher’s victory. Thatcher then continued the anti-trade union neolib project.

    The Labour leaders of that time were mostly hapless toytown politiicians, unaware of their own limitations and incapable of critical thought.

  12. Richard Malim says:

    THe Labour challengers of 1976 were far from toytown figures but all politicians were the prisoners of the rampant trades union leaders striking for 30% wage increase which wrecked any possibility of sensible national economic policy. This was a bit of a stymie for any Labour leader but Labour was able to form a government in 1964, and 1974, and had strong government in 1966 as well as seeing off the Heath government in 1970-4.
    The point is that like the Blair Brown governments the middle classes slept in their beds without the fear of Red Revolution, whereas in 2015, 2017 and 2019 Labour threw all that certainty away and enabled the tories to fire the anti-Momentum again. Someone will have to get the new generation of very left young incomers (mostly with tiny majorities – hope springs) to pipe down and play proper democratic tunes like Healey , Crosland et al all those years ago

  13. Hugh Mann says:

    Doesn’t anyone wonder what’s gone wrong since 1997? In the 20 years between then and 2017, real male median wages fell slightly, real GDP rose 50%, real house prices rose 250% and personal debt, including student loans has more than doubled.

    Oh, and in those 20 years final salary pensions have vanished without trace from the private sector.

    I’ve got used to thinking that, for the ordinary working person wanting to buy a house and start a family, the much-derided 1970s were a paradise. But the post-2006 years are starting to make the Thatcher era seem like one, too.

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