By Paul Foot
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Obituary: Red Barbara’s Rocky Road

This article is over 22 years, 1 months old
The life of Labour left winger Barbara Castle.
Issue 264

I first heard Barbara Castle speak at a Young Socialist rally in Skegness in 1963. She was 53, I was 25. She was magnificent. She sensed an iconoclasm in the hall, with which she immediately identified. She had a way of rolling her body round her more eloquent phrases that gave the infectious impression of movement, passion and change.

I heard her last in January 2001, when she spoke at a memorial meeting for my aunt Jill Craigie. Barbara was almost blind and had to be helped to the microphone. None of the passion, none of the caustic wit and satire so prominent in 1963, was lost. She made no concession whatever to the sentimentality that so often sours these occasions. She left everyone laughing and applauding in an excited and militant mood. We were proud of her.

All my life, Barbara Castle was a symbol of the left in the Labour Party. She was reared, intellectually and politically, in the ILP in Bradford. In her halcyon years she was baulked by Tory victories in three successive general elections, and did not achieve high office until Labour won the general election in 1964, when she was shot into the cabinet as the first ever minister of overseas development. She turned out to be an outstanding administrator, easily overcoming the cloying attention of the civil service. As Secretary of State for Transport from 1965 to 1968 she beat off the hysteria of the road lobby. Her Transport Act was one of the few genuine attempts of that government to establish some sort of rational order in the chaos of a thriving capitalism.

Then, at the peak of her triumph, came disaster. In 1968 she became the first secretary in charge of employment and productivity, and set to work ‘sorting out’ the ‘problem’ of unofficial strikes, which were then proliferating. She and her advisers, and the entire press, saw these strikes as a menace to good order and industrial discipline, and they had, she concluded, to be controlled. The result was ‘In Place of Strife’, a white paper she wrote herself, which proposed a cooling-off period before strikes could take place. Workers who ignored the cooling-off period and stayed out on strike were liable to prosecution, fines and imprisonment. The proposals set out to weaken the fighting spirit of the workers, and were indignantly rejected by the entire trade union movement including right wing trade union leaders. In the summer of 1969 they were replaced by a bromide undertaking in which the union leaders promised to curb unofficial strikes themselves. With this one proposal, Barbara Castle cast away much of the respect she had earned among the organised workers and the Labour left.

Why did she set out on this disastrous course? Many leftish commentators at the time (and in recent obituaries) wrote the episode off as an aberration, a flaw perhaps in Barbara’s character. This explanation let the analysts off the hook. For the real cause of ‘In Place of Strife’ had much deeper roots which probed all the way back to that ILP training. One obituary accurately described Barbara’s attitude to the trade unions as ‘parental’. The role of social democratic government, she believed, was to work with the trade union leaders to achieve a fairer society. If, however, the trades unions behaved badly, they had to be disciplined by the social democratic state, whose weapons of discipline (police, law courts, prisons) were much the same as those used by the Tories when they were in office.

This ‘parental’ approach ran right through Barbara Castle’s political career. In her youth, as Barbara Betts, she pandered to the prevailing adoration of Comrade (or more appropriately Father) Stalin. My first job in London in 1964 was on the ‘Daily Herald’ where I met, and immediately liked, the political editor, Ted Castle, Barbara’s husband. One day, Ted explained to his young protégé what the difference was between the left and right in the Labour Party. ‘It’s all about Russia, Paul,’ he revealed. ‘The left support Russia, the right don’t.’ I remember replying that this was a quite hopeless analysis, absolutely disastrous to the left since it bound them to a state capitalist dictatorship. He looked at me as if I was mad, but the exchange has always seemed to me to explain the intrinsic flaw in modern social democracy–the belief that capitalist society can be changed by intelligent and dedicated people at the top of society without disturbing, let alone agitating, the exploited, the poor and the dispossessed into a revolt that could and would topple the rich and create a socialist order. Ted Castle, incidentally, thought up the name ‘In Place of Strife’.

In the Tory onslaught that followed Labour’s electoral defeat in 1970, Barbara Castle recovered her militant spirit and revelled in it. When Labour was returned in 1974 she became Secretary of State for Social Services. She applied her administrative skill and her agile mind to the problem of pensions, now so topical. She believed that security in old age was a matter for the state, not for the stock exchange, and she established an earnings-related state pension scheme (Serps), so much fairer and more secure than anything that had gone before it that the Tories (and the new Tories in the Blair government) systematically demolished it. When James Callaghan took over as Labour prime minister in 1976, his first act was to sack Barbara Castle, an act of right wing stupidity and obstinacy she never forgot or forgave.

Literally to her dying day, never once losing her wit or her passion, Barbara campaigned to restore the link between earnings and pensions that the Tories had slit. She was throughout a proud and sincere social democrat with all the power and weaknesses that her political persuasion implied.

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