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Tuesday, May 27, 2003
Barbara Castle

A biography of Barbara Castle is being serialised in The Grauniad. It makes interesting reading although the first extract had too much about her personal rather than her political life. Here 's the link to part one.

What is most interesting is her contribution to motoring: seat-belts and the breathalyzer that seemed very contoversial at the time. These two measures have indubitably saved thousands of lives and one can now see them as enlightened and obvious measures, even in the face of civil liberties objections.

Her attempts at Union reform were less successful; 'In Place of Strife' deserved a better fate but she earned the undying hatred of the unions who instead sleepwalked into the much more drastic alternative posed by Thatcherism. At the height of Barbara's difficulties, I remember listening to a broadcast speech from a union leader (I think it was Jack Jones), saying that he couldn't countenance agreeing to the reforms contained in 'In Place of Strife'.

'Just think what the Tories would do if that sort of legislation was available to them when they next get into office,' he said (or words to that effect). He was cheered to the rafters.

'You blithering idiot,' I remember thinking. 'The Tories would think up something far worse.' And so it proved. As the second extract puts it:
After 20 years of trade union legislation and mass unemployment, many people believed that if Barbara had been able to get her bill ['In Place of Strife'] through, the end of the 20th century might have looked very different. There would have been, it is argued, no winter of discontent at the end of the Callaghan government. Labour then might have been returned again: and there would never have been a Prime Minister Thatcher, no tough anti-union laws, and no derogation by government from the commitment to full employment. Instead, Labour, able by virtue of being in power to avoid its disastrous lurch into anarchy in the early 80s, might have been able to find a less destructive way of using North Sea oil revenues to restructure and modernise the economy.
Here's the link to part two of the biographical extract.

About five years ago, I found myself sitting close to Barbara Castle in a restaurant. She was bent, old and lined, yet bright and vivacious as usual. If she had ever had a face lift, it did not show. She was quite tiny. This came as an enormous surprise. I had never thought of her as small, yet there she was, almost lost in one of the grand dining chairs in the establishment.

I wanted to ask her about the perception and reception of 'In Place of Strife' but I could not bring myself to interrupt the animated conversation she was having with someone well known - I forget who it was, now. Another misfortune: I was unable to hear what they were talking about.

During the last thirty or so years, I have frequently found myself wondering if things could have been different. If the unions had not been so pig-headed, I think they could well have been.

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