New College of the Humanities

Downing Street Diary

John Shepherd | Published in History Today
Downing Street Diary: With James Callaghan in No.10
Bernard Donoughue
Jonathan Cape   562pp   £30.00

On January 10th, 1979, the Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, returned from the Guadeloupe summit in the sunny Caribbean to a snow-bound Britain paralysed by strikes, go-slows and ‘work to rules’. His ill-judged remarks at a hasty Heathrow press conference – famously misreported under the  headline ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ – seemed to encapsulate a hapless and inept administration battling against irresponsible unions while the icy temperature of industrial relations plummeted.  

As Head of the Policy Unit during the Wilson-Callaghan administrations, Lord Donoughue had an insider’s view of the heart of government before 1974. His Diary is a first-class primary source for our understanding of metropolitan politics in the late 1970s.  Incisive insights shed a light on Westminster in the way that the diaries of Hugh Dalton, Richard Crossman and Barbara Castle did for earlier decades. Scholars will also cast an eager eye over Lord Donoughue’s version to compare it with Tony Benn’s celebrated record of Cabinet government.

Downing Street Diary is a sharp-witted account, peppered with pungent comments and scathing observations, particularly about left-wing trade union leaders and certain Labour figures. At the same time, Donoughue provides a rounded picture of the achievements and tribulations of the avuncular, shrewd and decent Jim Callaghan – in sharp contrast to the style of his predecessor Harold Wilson, as revealed in the first volume. Callaghan never went to university, yet he held all the three major offices of state before becoming PM. Afflicted by stage fright before big speeches, he often burst into joyous song around No. 10. However, Callaghan significantly ducked holding an  election in 1978 and stuck dogmatically to his disastrous five per cent pay limit policy.

Also revealed is the hectic world of Lord Donoughue himself, who rarely missed a luncheon appointment and wisely found time for opera, theatre and watching football. Recruited from the London School of Economics (he had to give up his academic tenure in order to stay on in Downing Street when his extended leave of absence ran out), Donoughue clearly wielded considerable influence as, for instance, in shaping Callagh-an’s 1976 speech at Ruskin College, Oxford on the ‘Great Education Debate’. Thirty years on, with another Labour government facing possible electoral defeat, this lucid and highly readable account evokes at times a disturbing feeling of déjà vu.

John Shepherd is the author of Britain’s First Labour Government (Palgrave, 2006).

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