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Last updated:12 April 2016

Barbara Castle

Barbara Castle book coverBarbara Betts was born in Chesterfield in 1910 into a Socialist and Christian family. The family moved frequently but Barbara received the main part of her education in Pontefract and Bradford in West Yorkshire. She campaigned for Norman Angell, the successful candidate for the Bradford Independent Labour Party (ILP) in the 1929 General Election.

Later that year she received a scholarship award to study at the University of Oxford, initially to study French but later Philosophy, Politics & Economics (PPE).  She wrote of Oxford that ‘it was a closed and introverted community in which the lucky few expanded their egos as much as their minds and formed themselves into mutual-admiration societies’.  Although restricted academically by the University, she joined the Oxford Labour Club and enjoyed the experience of political discussion. After graduation she went back to the family who were now living in Hyde and she became active in the Hyde Labour Party.

She became involved in national Labour politics through her long-standing relationship with William Mellor who had been the editor of the Daily Herald. They were both members of the Manchester branch of the Socialist League, an organisation which ran from 1932 to 1937 and which was set up to influence Labour Party policy from the Left.  The high point of the Socialist League was the success of its policy statement Forward to Socialism at the 1934 Labour Party Conference.  Barbara was elected to the National Council of the Socialist League and in 1937 became a councillor on St. Pancras Borough Council.  She worked as a journalist on Tribune and in that capacity visited the Soviet Union.

Much of Barbara’s campaigning work was directed towards the creation of a United Front against Fascism but the Labour Party would not participate alongside the Communist Party and in 1937 the Socialist League was dissolved at the insistence of the Labour Party leadership.  William Mellor died in 1942 and Barbara recorded that she was helped back from mourning by the publication of the Beveridge Report later that year.  She wrote that ‘it sent a thrill through the Labour movement’ and she made her first speech at a Labour Party Conference in 1943 where she urged the adoption of the Beveridge proposals.

In 1944 she married Ted Castle, a journalist who had worked for the Manchester Evening News and the Daily Mirror. Barbara was adopted as the Parliamentary Candidate for Blackburn and in 1945 she joined the new Labour Government under Clement Attlee. She became associated with the ‘Bevanite’ faction within the Labour Party as a member of the ‘Keep Left’ group.  As a keen rambler, she helped in the creation and development of the National Parks Commission.

In the long period of opposition, she was part of the machinations surrounding the ‘Bevanite’ faction and the later accession of Harold Wilson.  In terms of policy, she began to take an interest in the process of decolonisation, becoming a member of the Movement for Colonial Freedom and joining in with anti-apartheid protests. She continued her opposition to the then ‘Common Market’ at the time of discussions about Britain’s entry in the early 1960s.

When the Labour Party was elected to government in 1964 Harold Wilson appointed Barbara as the Minister of Overseas Development with a seat in the Cabinet.  Here she supported the process of decolonisation but encountered strong civil service resistance.

In December 1965 she became the Minister of Transport attracting attention at the time because she couldn’t drive.  This “disadvantage” was seen as one which would not permit her to fully appreciate transport policy. She introduced a 70mph limit on motorways, legislated for the use of the breathalyser and made seat belts compulsory.  The last two measures brought her a considerable amount of personal abuse and press vilification.  Of longer term significance to transport policy, she failed to substantially reverse the recommendations of the Beeching Report.

In 1968 she became the Secretary of State for Employment & Productivity where she had to implement unpopular government measures.  She wrote (in a chapter in her autobiography entitled ‘In Place of Popularity’) ‘I was the victim again of my impulsive streak: I wanted to help Harold and the Labour Government, though it was vanity to imagine that I could single-handedly turn a negative economic policy into a positive one’.  That ‘negative’ policy resulted in the proposal ‘In Place of Strife’ which purported to give greater rights to trade unions in return for cooperation in avoiding strikes.  In many respects, ‘In Place of Strife’ damaged not only Barbara Castle but the authority of the Labour Government.  The proposals were subsequently dropped but many of the provisions appeared later in Conservative legislation. The fact that as Secretary of State she managed to bring in the Equal Pay Act 1970 is often overlooked.

When Labour won the 1974 General Election Barbara became the Secretary of State for Social Services.  She recollected that ‘we entered two years of the most important social reforms since the Beveridge Report’ as changes were made in line with the ‘Social Contract’ with the trade union movement. She introduced Child Benefit and in her own words ‘modernised’ the Beveridge proposals in the light of changes in society.  In attempting to end pay beds in the NHS, Castle ended up in dispute with the British Medical Association and many hospital services were disrupted.

With the retirement of Harold Wilson in 1976, Jim Callaghan sacked her and she subsequently spent ten years as a member of the European Parliament, despite her opposition to British membership as expressed in the 1975 Referendum. Her husband and political soulmate Ted died in 1979, by that time having become Baron Castle.

In her autobiography she concluded that ‘the Labour Party’s major problem is psychological. We have not got our opponents’ arrogant belief in their right to rule’.  In 1990 she was “elevated” to the House of Lords and became Baroness Castle of Blackburn.

The Guardian obituary written by Anne Perkins [4 May 2002] referred to her as ‘the most important woman politician Labour has produced’ and ‘an unflagging champion of an ethical socialism that she believed should shape every aspect of life’.

The Working Class Movement Library has material on Barbara Castle to come in and read. Her autobiography Fighting all the way [K27] and the well-regarded sets of Labour Government diaries [P15 & I04] are to be found alongside many speeches and pamphlets [Labour Party Box 25, with some in boxes 1 and 23].

There are also biographies on Barbara by Anne Perkins [A61], Lisa Martineau [I28] and Wilfred De’Ath [H34], and Barbara Castle’s work Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst at N04. Two examples of her early work, Are controls necessary? (1947) [Co-op Societies – Box 1] and Keeping left (1950) [Labour Party – Box 8] are also to be found in the Library.