Castle, Barbara (1910—)

views updated

Castle, Barbara (1910—)

British political leader and author who became the most powerful woman in British politics prior to the appointment of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister. Name variations: Baroness of Blackburn. Born Barbara Anne Betts in Chesterfield, England, on October 6, 1910; daughter of Frank Betts (a government official) and Annie Rebecca (Farrand) Betts; attended St. Hugh's College, Oxford University; married Edward (Ted) Castle (a journalist), in 1944 (died 1979).

Began working life as a journalist; elected member of House of Commons (1945–79); held several important ministerial posts (1964–76); served as member of national executive committee of Labour Party (1950–79) as well as chair of the party (1958–59); member of European Parliament (1979–89); created life peer (1990) with title of Baroness Castle of Blackburn of Ibstone in the County of Buckinghamshire; well known as the author of diaries detailing the nuts and bolts of cabinet decision-making (1960s and 1970s), as well as a biography of the Pankhurst sisters; published autobiography (1993).

One of the United Kingdom's most respected, and sometimes feared, politicians of the day, the Labourite Barbara Castle predicted in a 1972 interview with The New York Times that the moment had come for her country to accept the appointment of a woman to its highest political post: "I'm certain we shall have a woman Prime Minister in Britain before very long; the mood is right. Two of the ablest prime ministers in the world are women—Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir . I think it would have an immensely unifying and stimulating effect on political life." By the end of the 1970s, in a nation known as much for its steadfast traditionalism as for its democratic innovations, Margaret Thatcher had indeed been chosen to guide Britain through the countless challenges faced during the closing decades of the 20th century. Many students of British political history assert that Barbara Castle, Thatcher's political opposite in virtually all facets of political theory and practice, was equally qualified to become Britain's first female prime minister.

She was born Barbara Anne Betts in 1910 to parents whose strong marriage made a lasting impact on her. In the Yorkshire industrial town of Bradford where Barbara grew up, her father Frank was a government tax inspector who spent his leisure hours reading and writing; he was also a passionate socialist whose activism in the Independent Labour Party included editing a vigorous local leftist journal, the Bradford Pioneer. All aspects of politics were discussed in the Betts home, and Barbara Castle was to always regard her father, an idealistic and intellectually curious man, as one of the most powerful influences in her life. Already having joined the Labour Party in 1927, Barbara entered St. Hugh's College, Oxford University, on a scholarship. Her political militancy undiminished, she served as secretary-treasurer of the university's Labour Club. During her university years, she felt stifled by her studies and was only an indifferent scholar. Politics was her passion, and her opinions were both strongly felt and eloquently argued. Morally outraged by the human suffering caused by the economic depression of the 1930s, she became increasingly critical of the leadership of the Labour Party, particularly that of the prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, who as leader of a national government abandoned socialism as an achievable goal. Decades later, as a member of the British government, Castle would be one of the most vocal representatives of the party's left wing, continuing to dream of the creation of a socialist commonwealth.

As a young university graduate during the depths of the depression, Castle struggled to find a niche in society. She worked for a while in Manchester, selling grocery supplies to local shops, but seized the opportunity to return to the infinitely more stimulating intellectual life of London, finding work as an assistant editor of Town and County Councillor, a journal for local government officials. During these years, she spent her leisure hours as an active member of the Socialist League and in 1937 entered political life as a member of London's St. Pancras borough council. Sensing the imminence of war, she took the lead in her council in pushing for civil-defense measures. In her personal life, she fell in love with a gifted left-wing journalist, William Mellor. Mellor, however, was married and never divorced his wife. Personal disappointments were largely forgotten as the second world conflagration in a generation began to make its mark on the United Kingdom. In 1940, she was appointed to the Metropolitan Water Board, and starting in 1941 she worked as a full-time administrative officer in the Ministry of Food. For the next several years, she would gain valuable experience as a bureaucrat, also serving in her spare time as an air-raid warden.

Despite the considerable demands of her several jobs and the uncertainties of wartime, she was never far removed from the world of politics in the early 1940s. Within the Labour Party, she came under the sway of Aneurin Bevan, leader of the left wing, an eloquent Welshman and ardent champion of working-class interests. Optimistic about the postwar future of a Britain advancing toward a socialist society, she was active in the Fabian Society. Castle also carried out some of the research that was incorporated into the Beveridge Report, a historic document outlining the post-1945 welfare state that would provide social security for all citizens "from the cradle to the grave." Castle was one of the authors of the influential 1943 anthology Social Security, which became a key document for the post-war welfare state. She quit her government job in 1944 and began writing a column for the Daily Mirror, giving advice to the men and women who were beginning a return to civilian life. Also in 1944, she married the journalist Edward Cyril (Ted) Castle.

Having proven her loyalty to the Labour Party, Barbara Castle was chosen to run for Parliament in July 1945. The election, which swept Winston Churchill and his Conservatives from office, constituted a veritable peaceful revolution. Elected as M.P. for Blackburn, an industrial city in Lancashire, Castle became Britain's youngest woman member of Parliament; she was well liked by her constituents, serving uninterruptedly from 1945 through 1979. Although knowledgeable in many areas, Castle realized early on that there was much yet to learn, and as a junior legislator she spent the next few years as parliamentary private secretary to the president of the Board of Trade, working first for Sir Stafford Cripps and from 1947 through 1951 for Harold Wilson. During the next years, she experienced firsthand the problems of an increasingly interdependent world environment by traveling to a number of war-ravaged nations on the Continent. An early supporter of the United Nations, she served in 1949–50 as an alternate British delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. In 1950, Castle was elected to the national executive committee of the Labour Party, a post she would serve in until 1979.

The fine prospects Barbara Castle appeared to have in 1950 were dashed in 1951 when the Labour Party was defeated at the polls by Churchill and his resurgent Conservatives. The entire decade would prove to be a time of troubles for the Labourites, split internally between moderate and activist wings and facing an electorate now considerably disenchanted with some if not all aspects of the welfare state. Even though her party was defeated at the polls in 1951, 1955 and 1959, Barbara Castle remained popular with her constituents and was returned to her parliamentary seat at each election. The prospect of political success or failure in no way moderated her position when she felt that certain things had to be said. Concerned about the threat of a world nuclear conflagration, she criticized the American dominance of the Western alliance. On one occasion, she took on Prime Minister Churchill himself for not standing up to the Americans on the matter of the potential use of nuclear weapons in the Korean war. Not mincing her words, Castle addressed Parliament: "We used to think of [Churchill] as a bulldog sitting on the Union Jack. He has become a lapdog sitting on the Stars and Stripes of America."

Although she regarded herself as a committed socialist, Castle sometimes spoke during this period as a somewhat aggrieved British patriot saddened by the dramatic decline of her nation's power vis-a-vis the United States. By the mid-1950s, sensing that the time had arrived to make dramatic moves to end the Cold War, she spoke out strongly in favor of such measures as allowing the sale of British machine tools to the Soviet Union and full diplomatic recognition of the People's Republic of China. Her 1954 trip to China as a part of a Labour Party delegation brought considerable disapproval, not so much in Britain but from hardliners in a United States still strongly influenced by McCarthyism.

By the late 1950s, Barbara Castle had become a well-known personality on the British political stage. While not always popular with the more conservative elements within her party, the articulate Labourite was liked by her peers and the media. Never lacking confidence, she dared to speak out on unpopular issues that sometimes baffled the so-called experts. While visiting the violence-racked British colony of Cyprus in September 1958, Castle was quoted in the press as saying that, in their searches of the civilian population, British troops on the island were "permitted to be very tough." Since terrorism on Cyprus had claimed some British civilian lives, her statement was highly controversial back in Britain with the Labourite leadership quickly distancing itself from her views. Despite the furor, Castle did not back off from her engagement in the tragic Cyprus situation; she interviewed Cypriote leader Archbishop Makarios in Athens, and the main theme of their discussions centered around the urgent necessity of full independence for the colony.

The British Foreign Office was furious at what they saw as Castle's "meddling" in a highly volatile situation, but the entire incident only served to enhance her already solid reputation for courage and integrity. By the end of the 1950s, it was apparent to many intelligent observers of the British political scene that Barbara Castle was an individual to watch. In January 1959, the Toronto Globe and Mail wrote of her as combining the traits of a journalist and a "dash of the actress" as well as exhibiting "slim, smart good looks and her striking copper-colored hair, pale skin and bright blue eyes [which] mark her out from her dowdier, worthier and altogether less exciting rivals." But Castle would not continue her political ascent during the next two decades because of her appearance, but rather because of her skills and convictions.

Within the Labour Party, Barbara Castle's reputation was very high indeed in the late 1950s. Having already served as vice-chair of the party's national executive committee in 1957–58, in October 1958 she was elected chair of the committee for 1958–59. The fact that the Labourites were once again defeated in the national elections of 1959 doubtless affected Castle's prospects within the party for she was not re-elected as chair of the national executive committee nor was she named to the shadow cabinet. Her manifold talents, however, could not be ignored, and party leader Hugh Gaitskell appointed her to be Labour's chief spokesperson in the area of public works. Refusing to trim her sails lest she offend powerful elements within her party, Castle continued to speak out on matters she believed to be of vital interest to her nation and the world at large. Deeply concerned over the potential of a nuclear armageddon, in 1961, she strongly criticized the British decision to allow the stationing of American Polaris submarines in Scotland's Holy Loch.

Morally outraged by state-sanctioned racism in South Africa, in 1963 Castle became honorary president of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement. She joined the campaign against racism in South Africa at a time when it was by no means certain that the system of Apartheid could ever be toppled. During one anti-Apartheid protest against the shipment of British arms to South Africa in May 1963, with little more than a dozen idealistic demonstrators on hand, she brushed aside the harsh reality of the indifference of most of her compatriots, promising those present that more demonstrators, namely those from Durham, Nottingham and Manchester, "were expected later."

The Labour Party was finally returned to power in October 1964 after more than a dozen years in the political wilderness. One of the first acts of the new prime minister, Harold Wilson, was to create a new ministry, that of Overseas Development, and appoint his friend and colleague Barbara Castle as its first head. Only the fourth woman in British history to hold cabinet rank, Castle was also the only woman minister in Wilson's cabinet. (She was the first woman to serve in the British cabinet since Florence Horsbrugh , who had held the post of Minister of Education a decade earlier.) Castle exhibited both imagination and sensitivity in her role as the administrator of British foreign-aid programs. Respected by the governments of the Commonwealth, Minister Castle became in November 1964 the chair of the consultative committee of the Colombo Plan, a multinational organization for the economic development of southeast Asia; she was the first woman to hold this important post. Despite budgetary pressures, she was successful during her brief term in office in raising the amount of funds Britain gave to underdeveloped nations. Most observers gave Castle high marks for her tenure as Minister of Overseas Development, noting her "tireless zest for hard work, and her power of swift decision"—qualities that enabled her to both capture and hold the loyalty of her civil servants.

Most important was the positive evaluation of her work by Prime Minister Harold Wilson who in December 1965 appointed her Minister of Transport. Now in charge of a vast empire of transportation affairs, she personally did not know how to drive an automobile, a detail that provided the press, with whom she enjoyed a good relationship, ample sport at the time of her appointment. With this promotion, Castle took on what was very likely the highest position ever held up to that time by a woman in the British democratic system. As before, she wasted little time in effecting change. Refusing to accept as inevitable the statistically high number of deaths and injuries on British roads and highways, she imposed a general speed limit of 70 miles per hour throughout the United Kingdom. Despite some opposition, she was able to win the public over to her position, namely that reducing speeds saved lives.

Convinced that her country was basically stuck in the 19th century where transport was concerned, Castle worked hard during her first months as Minister of Transport to draw up a coherent master plan to coordinate and modernize the country's railroads, ports, and canals as well as its trucking and bus lines. In a series of white papers that began to be issued in the summer of 1966, she announced a number of different plans to coordinate the various aspects of the British transportation system. While accepting that automobiles constituted a major part of a modern nation's life, she also remained convinced that mass transportation, whether railroads or busses, should remain in public hands in order to stay competitive with cars. Conceding that automobiles were a dominant form of transportation, Barbara Castle also noted, "But that doesn't mean public transport should be a Cinderella."

Castle visited the United States in 1966 to study urban transportation's problems and possible solutions. One of the major achievements of her tenure was the Road Safety Act, which went into effect in October 1967 and imposed stiff penalties on drivers who failed a breath test for intoxication. Enraged, some pub owners commented on these changes by introducing a new drink called "the Bloody Barbara," consisting of only tomato juice and tonic. The reforms were accepted by the public, however, at least in part because of the persuasiveness of Castle, who skewered critics through a series of interviews that won over the nation to the goal of fewer highway fatalities.

In April 1968, much of her agenda in the transportation arena achieved, Castle became part of a cabinet restructuring and accepted the important portfolio of first secretary of state for Employment and Productivity. Formerly known as the Ministry of Labour, the organization she took over faced the daunting tasks of significantly improving British industrial productivity and overcoming generations of class tensions and suspicions within the nation's social fabric. Castle was given special responsibility for policy regarding prices and incomes, in effect serving as national chief of labor relations. No woman in Britain had ever achieved such a high-ranking political position before her.

By the 1960s, Castle was becoming increasingly concerned by the rapid deterioration of Britain's industrial position within an increasingly competitive world economy. The retention of outmoded union rules encouraged countless wildcat strikes, which cut deeply into national productivity. Scarcely concealed under the facade of British civility were lingering class hatreds from an earlier age of social injustice and industrial strife. These resentments, which had smoldered since Victorian times, now increasingly burst forth in major national strikes fueled more by powerful emotions than purely rational economic goals.

Hoping to break this vicious cycle of distrust and destructive behavior for the good of the nation, in January 1969 Castle issued a policy statement outlining a new course of industrial relations. Published as a pamphlet entitled In Place of Strife: A Policy of Industrial Relations (its memorable title was suggested by her journalist husband Ted), the white paper issued by her ministry called for drastic revisions in national labor laws. Although she was quite aware that there would be strong resistance to these reform proposals from the unions, Castle felt that she was in the right both because of the clear necessity of the changes and because of the apparent support she had from within the leadership of the government and the Labour Party. But once the unions began to fight back, and point out how many votes they could muster in an election, most of Castle's fair-weather allies in the cause of labor law reform now deserted her, including such powerful Labour leaders as Roy Jenkins and James Callaghan.

Revealing a lack of political backbone, most of the Labour Party leaders ran for cover when union opposition to the reforms outlined in the pages of In Place of Strife became a matter of arm-twisting and pressure tactics. Only Castle's old political mentor and friend Prime Minister Harold Wilson remained steadfast in his support. Due to her strong performance in her two previous posts, she was increasingly being mentioned in the late 1960s as the individual with the strongest chance of becoming Britain's first woman Prime Minister. Harold Wilson agreed with this high assessment, once calling her "the best man in the Cabinet." Most political observers regarded her during these years as the first woman in British politics to be treated by men as their equal. Nonetheless, the bitter feelings unleashed by her proposals for major labor union reforms effectively destroyed whatever chances Castle had of achieving the very summit of British political life.

A realist, with her party deeply divided by the labor reform issue in the closing months of 1969, Castle admitted she had been defeated. Even during this tense period she rarely missed an opportunity to communicate directly with workers her strong belief that they themselves could turn around the nation's declining economic productivity. Thus, in November 1969, she urged dockworkers to lift their eight-month ban on the handling of container ships, noting that their intransigence would likely cost them their jobs if shippers decided to use Antwerp rather than London as their port of entry.

Refusing to bow under the pressure of the militants in the left wing of her party, Castle made it known to them that Labour had to be concerned about the issue of inflation, which impacted on the entire national economic well-being, as much as they needed to be concerned about the issue of justice for union members. Such sentiments created deep and permanent distrust of Castle on the extreme left of her party, but she continued to prefer what she saw as the truth of the issue over political expediency. After she spent almost two years attempting to increase industrial productivity through persuading the unions to accept some reform measures, her effectiveness had largely evaporated. Accepting her diminished influence on this front, Castle returned to her other responsibilities as a member of Parliament and leading member of her party. Before leaving her post, however, she introduced a bill in January 1970 in the House of Commons to require employers to give women equal pay for equal work, the changes to be phased in until finally completed at the end of 1975, when it would become law as the Equal Pay Act.

Starting in 1964, Castle began to keep a detailed diary of her daily activities. As a former journalist, she had been trained in shorthand and thus was able to record verbatim countless exchanges in the Cabinet Room of the British government. This documentation not only fixed her important place in modern British history but was recognized immediately after the publication of the first segment in 1980 as a major source of information for future historians of British political life. By the early 1970s, she had become an internationally recognized political figure whose expertise and courage made her a desirable lecturer. One of the many tangible honors she received during these years took place in August 1969 when she was a luncheon guest at Lloyd's of London, the first woman ever invited to this prestigious and exclusive group.

After ending her Cabinet career in 1976 as secretary of state for Social Services, Barbara Castle began a second distinguished career as a member of the European Parliament, serving in this post until 1989. Advancing age did little to reduce her energy or capacity for making bold and controversial statements. In a 1993 interview, she noted: "any government I'd been a member of would have been ashamed to get the country into this mess." Reporters loved her, while sometimes her colleagues in the Labour Party winced at her typically frank assessments of the party's tactical errors. When Castle was involved in a public issue, one could be certain of two things: that she would be outspoken and that her motives would be based on a grand perspective of the issues involved. In December 1996, Baroness Castle of Blackburn, a title granted her in 1990, threatened to walk out on the pension policy review panel of which she was a member, stating in no uncertain terms: "I shall not indefinitely go on lending myself to this farce. The review body clearly has no real say in policy making."

In the 1990s, Barbara Castle, a diminutive redhead whose willpower and critical judgment was undiminished despite her weakened eyesight, had become one of the surviving legends of Old Labour, a rare blend of the idealistic and pragmatic elements of politics. At her 84th birthday celebrations in 1994, session chair Robin Cook affectionately described Barbara Castle as "one of our youngest members in spirit." Castle participated with great fervor in a half-century of British politics, giving it a rare energy and zest.


Baxter, Sarah. "Fortified Castle," in New Statesman and Society. Vol. 6, no. 256. June 11, 1993, p. 23.

"The Best Man," in Time. Vol. 91, no. 22. May 31, 1968, pp. 27–28.

Castle, Barbara. The Castle Diaries 1964–70. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984.

——. The Castle Diaries 1964–76. London: Macmillan, 1993.

——. The Castle Diaries 1974–76. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980.

——. Fighting All the Way. London: Macmillan, 1993.

——. Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst. London: Penguin, 1987.

"Castle, Barbara (Anne Betts)," Current Biography 1967. NY: H.W. Wilson, pp. 58–60.

"Chief's Call for Arms Ban," in The Times [London]. May 21, 1963, p. 16.

De'ath, Wilfred. Barbara Castle: A Portrait from Life. Brighton: Clifton Books, 1970.

Great Britain. Department of Employment and Productivity. In Place of Strife: A Policy for Industrial Relations. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1969.

Halligan, Liam. "Labour Pensions Review 'A Sham,'" in Financial Times [London]. December 2, 1996, p. 7.

Hammel, Lisa. "Barbara Castle: 'Women in Politics'—Lecture Topic She Knows Well," in The New York Times Biographical Edition. February 1972, p. 269.

"Mrs. Castle's Recipe," in Time. Vol. 93, no. 5. January 31, 1969, p. 63.

National Union of Teachers. "In Place of Strife": A Commentary on the Government White Paper prepared by the Executive of the National Union of Teachers. London: National Union of Teachers, [1970].

"Profile of Barbara Castle: Tigress in the Tank," in New Statesman. Vol. 71, no. 1817. January 7, 1966, pp. 12–13.

Rose, Paul B. "Barbara Castle: Labour's Fearless Fighter," in Contemporary Review. Vol. 263, no. 1532. September 1993, pp. 127–131.

"She Masterminds Plans for British Transport," in Business Week. No. 1905. March 5, 1966, pp. 90–92, 94, 99.

Vallance, Elizabeth. Women in the House: A Study of Women Members of Parliament. London: Athlone Press, 1979.

Vaughan, Margaret. "The Fiery Fighter Who Was Too Honest to Win," in The Herald [Glasgow]. June 11, 1993, p. 17.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

About this article

Castle, Barbara (1910—)

Updated About content Print Article