Barbara Castle – Red Queen


On one of the most significant political figures in UK politics in the 20th Century (you wear seat belts in cars, and vehicle drivers are breathalysed because of her) – and how online video is bringing her oratory back to life.

One of the things that I love about online video from a historical perspective is how it brings back to life historical figures that you can hear in their own words. The reason why it’s so significant for me is that we are in an age where we don’t really have the great political orators of the past, the people who can hold an audience mesmerised. I know a number of people who used to say that Tony Blair had that quality when he was Prime Minister. But he’ll never be able to avoid the shadow of Iraq – when hubris became his nemesis. Ditto his Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Jack Straw, before becoming an MP worked as a researcher for one of the most significant political figures of the 20th Century. If Margaret Thatcher was the most significant woman in Whitehall and Parliament in that century, then Barbara Castle, a Labour Cabinet Minister and Transport Minister (effectively the Secretary of State for Transport) under Harold Wilson, has a strong claim to the number2 spot. Anne Perkins wrote this obituary of Castle in 2002. Perkins, also Jack Straw’s wife, wrote a wonderful biography of Barbara Castle titled ‘Red Queen’ – reviewed here by Dennis Kavanagh.

Going through the British Newspaper Archive, I spotted this photograph of Mrs Castle as one of the women MPs elected in 1950.

Barbara Castle in 1950 Illustrated London News BNA

Above – Barbara Castle. Below, the women elected to the 1950 Parliament.

Elected Women MPs 1950 Illustrated London News.jpg

It wasn’t until 1997 that we saw the breakthrough in the number of women going beyond the number in the above paper. It was a similar picture with local government in and around Cambridge, where numbers grew in the inter-war period, then seemed to stagnate.

But it’s her oratory and clarity of thought that sets her apart from so many politicians of today.

A well-known and long-time Euro-sceptic from the Left, this speech by her is one I find more powerful than any of the ones delivered by Leave campaigners in the 2015 referendum. Utterly unflustered by hecklers and people intervening in the debate.

Listening to her it’s almost as if she is Eglantyne Jebb, Frida Stewart/Knight and my late aunt Jennifer combined into the same person. (I don’t hand out that sort of praise lightly!) And that’s coming from someone who voted to remain in the EU. I imagine she’d be scathing of the mess that the three brexiteers, Messrs Davis, Fox and Johnson are making of the process of leaving the EU.

A note on the content, the European Parliament had not been set up back then as it is now. In fact, one of the safeguards that a Cambridge University student, Colin Rosenstiel put to a conference of young liberals in Cambridge was on the democratic deficit. See the article at the foot below. Mr Rosenstiel is still around in Cambridge having been a councillor in Cambridge’s Market Ward for most of the years between the early 1970s-early 2010s.710412 C Rosenstiel on Europe.jpg

Barbara Castle was dramatised in the film Made in Dagenham with this particularly powerful scene in her fight for gender equality. Note the 1970s was the decade that saw significant new legislation passed in the areas of equalities – notably the Equal Pay Act 1970, Sex Discrimination Act 1975, and the Race Relations Act 1976.


Barbara Castle also had a tremendous media presence – I can’t think of footage of any other politicians from the time on the Left who could get anywhere near to how she was able to communicate at a time of huge social and technological change.

We also know that she had a tough relationship with the media – perhaps ironic given that her and her husband, Ted Castle, were originally journalists themselves.


On equal pay

One of her final acts as a minister in Harold Wilson’s first government was to bring in the Equal Pay Act 1970 through Parliament. This was an issue she had been campaigning on for decades, as this video shows.

It’s strange to think that in the space of 20 years, news went from the reels as above, to the much more slicker versions in comparison in the 1970s. Cambridge was at the forefront of that change in technology with the firm PYE Ltd which specialised in making broadcasting equipment as well as TV sets. But then, think of comparing 1998 with today. The jump from the few extra channels that Sky, or cable TV that we had here in Cambridge is a world away from being able to watch TV over a wifi network on a smartphone.

The Humber Bridge decision – a scandal?

One of the things that we take for granted today is that the government of the day should not make any announcements of new policies, programmes or spending during a general election campaign. With by-elections, ministers should not make announcements likely to have an impact on the constituency in said by-elections either.

As Transport Minister at the Ministry of Transport, Barbara Castle made an announcement that the Humber Bridge would be built. This announcement was a week before the Hull North by-election of 1966 – the Government’s majority being four at the time. Labour won that by-election by a larger-than-expected majority. This also allegedly influenced Labour leader, the Prime Minister Harold Wilson to call a general election for that year. It paid off – his majority increased from 4 to 96. It’s featured in this radio show on Radio 4. Was it Wilson’s decision or was it Castle’s? The controversy rumbled on in part because of the debts incurred in building the bridge – not resolved until 2012.

Barbara Castle the documentary maker

She presented this documentary on William Morris, artist, designer and social reformer, in 1995.

She mentions that the May Day bank holiday was introduced as a bank holiday by a previous Labour government – something William Morris would have approved of. She also quoted her mentor and onetime lover William Mellor as the person who introduced her to the works of Morris.

“Politics should be full of sensual beauty – art is socialism and socialism is art.”

She quotes.

The reason why William Morris stands out is because one of Cambridge’s lost gems, All Saints Church opposite Jesus College, Cambridge, was decorated by William Morris. I wrote about it in this blogpost, & is well worth a visit.


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