Reader, a test before we begin. Did you ride in an automobile today? Did you wear a seat belt?
If so, then you owe something to Barbara Castle neé Betts (1910-2002) who was a Labour Party stalwart for two generations. She radiated conviction, energy, and determination. The Red Squire Stafford Cripps said in the 1940s she was a prime minister to be, but that was not to be. By the way, Cripps was not an easy man to impress for he had few good words for several others who did become prime minister.
By Lisa Martineau in 2011.
She was lefter than thou yet from a public school, Oxford, and championed radical causes in the 1930s. That together with her red hair invited the sobriquet ‘The Red Queen.’ A title she accepted with pride.
Her achievements were great and small, from securing a ladies’ toilet near the chamber of the House of Commons, a feat other women had been unable to perform. It was, inevitably, called Barbara’s Castle. She also led the charge against turnstiles on public toilets for women, starting with House of Commons. There were no turnstiles on mens’ toilets, yet they were not pregnant, towing children, or carrying shopping. Of course, Margaret Thatcher fixed all that gender inequality by doing away with free public toilets, making it pay if you want to go.
At the other end of the continuum, she was a founder of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and a tireless exponent of the New Jerusalem that Socialism undiluted offered. She worked just as hard to speed British exit from the fifty-seven colonies it held in 1945. To that end she travelled to many of them, particularly in Africa. I rather suspect the parliamentarian played by Flora Robson in the film ‘Guns of Batasi’ (1964) was inspired by her. By the way, Richard Attenborough is electric in this film.
With the flaming red hair, blue eyes, and resonant voice that emerged from this petite woman, she was spellbinder at the podium. Even lifelong enemies like Hugh Gaitskell said he found himself nodding when she argued cases he opposed.
As a minister of the crown she had a deadly eye for detail and put in nineteen hour days and expected the same from the public servants. When they could not, or would not, match her pace she hired private consultants to add to the workforce. One of her great achievement as a minister in four departments was to hire economists. Hard though it is to believe but the ministries of Overseas Aid, Transport, and Health employed no economists until she arrived. Much as the Sir Humphrey’s of the day disliked her, they found her to be a champion for the department unlike any other minister. As one cabinet colleague, and later prime minister, James Callaghan, another lifelong enemy, said, she simply would not shut up until she got her way, and she often got her way because it was the only way to shut her up. Even in times of declining budgets she always boosted the allocation to her department by brow-beating cabinet and won most of the border disputes with other departments.
There is much to like and to admire in Barbara Castle. It is also true that she was completely one-eyed: Socialism was a planned economy, nay, a planned society. Socialism will give people what is good for them whether they want it or not, whether they think it is good or not. There is a zealot there for whom the problem may require that the people be re-educated. She had no patience, no toleration for those who did not accept her vision of the planned society. Guess who would be the planner in chief.
She detested the sewer socialist in her party in the 1940s and 1950s. ‘Sewer Socialist' were those who wanted and accepted small gains, like clean water, a working sewer system, modest wage increases, affordable housing, industry pension funds… These incremental changes she dismissed as distractions from the larger, main game of social (r)evolution. When Clement Atlee staked his Party on the National Health Service, she thought it was trivial, and said so. The whole of the planned society had to come first before any of its parts.
When she visited the Soviet Union in 1937 it was the Light on the Hill, and she said so forever thereafter. She was not the only intellectual who saw what she wanted to see in the USSR in the 1930s, see Paul Hollander ‘Political Pilgrims’ (1997), but, while many others recanted, admitting their errors, she never did. Indeed in the 1970s she was still defending the paeans of praise she had sung to Comrade Stalin in justifying the Show Trials. While she advocated abortion in Great Britain, when Stalin outlawed it in the USSR, she rushed to the typewriter to justify his action and extol his wisdom.
Successive Labour Party leaders from Clement Atlee, Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Michael Foot,Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown found her a loose canon. She certainly blundered as she steamed ahead, arousing expectations that were impossible to fulfil in constituents, in African nationalist leaders, and in many others. But nothing is accomplished if nothing is tried. She tried, if she was trying. Like Moses Malone, whose recent passing I noted, she had ninth and tenth effort, not just second and third effort.
When she advocated British withdrawal from Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios of Greek Cyprus invited her to Athens for private talks. She was all but forbidden to go by the Party leader, by the Foreign Office, by the Ministry of Defence; she went. The professional diplomats had been unable to find an accommodation in Cyprus for years, but she did it in two weeks. The arrangement that led to the Green Line which still partitions this island emerged from personal intervention.
She did not play by the rules, and that enraged many, even some who were close to her like Harold Wilson.
One of the rules she despised was making deals. She wanted everyone to agree with her, and she asserted her case from first principles, not mutual interest or advantage. Nor would she delay until the timing was more conducive. No way. It was always now or never!
Though the author does not give it emphasis, there is a transformation when she became a cabinet minister. She learned that half a loaf makes a good meal. Compromise today, for tomorrow is another day. As minister of transportation she revolutionised what had been a moribund backwater. In so doing she incurred tsunamis of abuse. She legislated seat belts, breathalysing, speed limits, and other changes that vested interest denounced as a communist plot. The abusive letters, death threats, systematic smear campaigns, jostling on the street, hectoring from the public gallery in the House, she endured from individual motorists who had a god-given right to drive drunk at high speeds, automobile manufacturers who claimed they would be bankrupted by installing seat-belts, publicans, and brewers because breathalysing would and did reduce alcohol consumption. Oh, by the way, her measures also reduced road accidents, deaths, and injuries by 50%.
There was only one way for her, and that was up. She became First Secretary to Cabinet, an archaic title, which made her de facto Deputy Prime Minister to Harold Wilson. She learned to trim, to temporise, to compromise, to balance, to wait for the right time…all those things she denounced in Atlee, Gaitskell, and others in the 1940s, and 1950s. The Tribune group, and later Militant Tendency, in the Labour Party attacked her daily, and she learned what it was like to have marbles underfoot every hour of every day. Some may have seen one of the best political dramas ever, 'Bill Brand, MP,' from this time. I say 'best' because it got the politics right. In that respect it is comparable to 'The Sandbaggers.'
Then she moved to labour and took on the Trade Unionarchy that was running much of Britain in the late 1960s. Rivalry between unions took the form of endless demarcation disputes and in effect put the entire county on an unofficial three-day working week (which later became official when the Tories took over). The days lost by strikes in the twelve months before she took over surpassed the total for the previous decade! By now she was less interested in a blueprint for the New Jerusalem and much more interested in sewer socialism, quite literally getting sanitation to work. While Prime Minister Harold Wilson sent her forth, most in the Labour Party opposed any effort to rein in the unions. She was comprehensively undermined, as she had undermined others in earlier years, and failed.
Fail and move up, that is an old adage in Brit politics. She was moved on to take charge of the NHS, rolling up her sleeves started to work reducing private medicine to zero. The doctors resisted, they struck. The winds of hyperbole blew. Once again she played Saint Sebastian, taking the arrows meant for Wilson. She wore away her opponents but the backbiting in cabinet reached new levels. Then Wilson pulled a rabbit out of his hat: He quit. Though she won her battle with the medicos, she was dumped by Wilson’s successor before she could conclude the matter.
She had no future with the new Prime Minister, Callaghan, whose hostility was open; he was a union man first and last, and saw no role for women out of the kitchen. Castle’s effort to legislate for equal pay for equal work for women and then the effort to increase the pay for nurses was anathema to organised labour in the day.
The unions and their bought-and-paid for parliamentarians attacked her even more savagely on equal pay than they had on her earlier effort to sanction illegal strikes. The hate mail, the threats, the denunciations were hysterical. She had to go, and Callaghan dismissed her in his first act after taking the oath while in the car. He did not even wait to get to the office.
She went to the backbench, where she was free to speak her mind. Did she ever! She got herself on every committee in Parliament and the Labour Party and tore into the Labour Government. She reverted to type: Lefter than thou. She hit the typewriter for the newspaper which loved seeing the Labour Party tear itself apart (again). The Tories had only to sit back and watch the fun.
The advent to the European Parliament led her to becoming a Member of the European Parliament where she quickly established a reputation as a demon for detail. She became the leader of the Socialist bloc.
In 1990 she finally accepted a place in the House of Lords, something she has turned down earlier, where she resumed her role as the Socialist conscience of Labour. Age did not weary her, as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown found when she lit into them. She died at her desk, reading legislation line-by-line which always did, looking the mistakes, inconsistencies, slips, and red flags.
The comparison has to be Margaret Thatcher. Ambitious, smart, driven, and similar in complexion and appearance.
Castle was something of a clothes horse, always careful of her appearance, always a man-magnet, with a taste for country houses and French champagne. There were no children. She never learned to drive a car. Her husband Ted, himself a journalist, led the cheering for her. In those days she still performed all the housewifely duties. She ironed, cooked, dusted, often while dictating into a machine.
It also has to be said that she endured the heavy hand, sometimes literally, of the uninhibited sexism of the time and place. Even the newspaper stories from the day make this reader today cringe.
We will not see her like again.
The author does have a distance from the subject, frequently pointing out Castle’s inconsistencies, volte faces, mistakes, and rapacious ego. But at other times it slips into the 'Barbara could do no wrong' tone.
For a book about politics there is precious little about the elections, especially in the 1960s and 1970s when she played a major role.
Too often the author shows Labour partisan colours. Calling everyone by the first name meant I got lost among the several Dicks, Jims, and Tonyes. There are some typos. Some broken syntax, well, sentences that even on a second reading did not compute in this reader. Some more editing would have increased its impact and shelf-life. I also wearied from the detail of this meeting and that but perhaps a Brit pol junkie would eat that up.
This detail of events though seems to somehow to obscure the person. Her number one supporter, husband Ted, died, and she kept going, inspired, she said, by Dennis Potter’s ‘The Singing Detective.’
I read this book on Kindle. I do find navigating the bookmarks hit and mostly miss and I have not yet mastered switching to Whisper. The Kindle edition has none of the photographs of the published book.