The Baroness Castle of Blackburn
Castle in Malawi, 1965
|Secretary of State for Health and Social Services|
5 March 1974 - 8 April 1976
|First Secretary of State|
6 April 1968 - 19 June 1970
|Michael Heseltine (1995)|
|Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity|
6 April 1968 - 19 June 1970
|Minister for Transport|
23 December 1965 - 6 April 1968
|Minister for Overseas Development|
18 October 1964 - 23 December 1965
|Member of the House of Lords|
15 June 1990 - 3 May 2002
|Member of the European Parliament |
for Greater Manchester West (1984-1989)
Greater Manchester North (1979-1984)
17 July 1979 - 21 July 1989
|Member of Parliament |
Blackburn East (1950-1955)
5 July 1945 - 7 April 1979
|George Sampson Elliston|
Barbara Anne Betts
6 October 1910
Chesterfield, Derbyshire, England
|Died||3 May 2002 (aged 91)|
Hell Corner Farm, Ibstone, Buckinghamshire, England
(m. 1944; died 1979)
|Alma mater||St Hugh's College, Oxford|
|a. ^ Office vacant from 19 June 1970 to 5 July 1995.|
Barbara Anne Castle, Baroness Castle of Blackburn, (née Betts; 6 October 1910 - 3 May 2002), was a British Labour Party politician who was the Member of Parliament for Blackburn from 1945 to 1979, making her the longest-serving female MP in the history of the House of Commons until that record was broken in 2007 by Gwyneth Dunwoody. She later became the Member of the European Parliament for Greater Manchester from 1979 to 1989 and subsequently a member of the House of Lords, having been granted a life peerage in 1990. She was the only woman to hold the position of First Secretary of State.
One of the most significant Labour Party politicians of the 20th century, Castle developed a close political partnership with Harold Wilson and served in several Cabinet roles during both his premierships. As Minister of Transport (1965-1968) she oversaw the introduction of permanent speed limits, breathalysers and seat belts. Castle was then elevated to Secretary of State for Employment and First Secretary of State (1968-1970), and successfully intervened in the strike by Ford sewing machinists against pay discrimination. Following this Castle introduced the Equal Pay Act 1970. During her time in government Castle also served as Minister for Overseas Development and Secretary of State for Health and Social Services.
Barbara Anne Betts was born on 6 October 1910 at 64 Derby Road, Chesterfield, the youngest of three children to Frank Betts and his wife Annie Rebecca (née Ferrand). Raised in Pontefract and Bradford, Castle grew up in a politically active home and was introduced to socialism from a young age. Her older sister, Marjorie, later became a pioneer of the Inner London Education Authority, while their brother Tristram (almost always called Jimmie) engaged in field work with Oxfam in Nigeria. She joined the Labour Party as a teenager.
Her father was a tax inspector, exempt from military service in the First World War due to his high rank in a reserved occupation. It was because of the nature of the tax-collecting profession, and the promotions he received, that the family frequently moved around the country. Having moved to Bradford in 1922, the Betts family swiftly became involved with the Independent Labour Party. Although her father was prohibited from formal political activity because of his role as a civil servant, he became editor of the Bradford Pioneer, the city's socialist newspaper, after William Leach was elected to Parliament in 1935. Castle's mother ran the family home while also operating a soup kitchen for the town's coalminers. After Barbara had left home Annie was elected as a Labour councillor in Bradford.
Castle attended Love Lane Elementary School, then to Pontefract and District Girls High School. After moving to Bradford at the age of twelve, she attended Bradford Girls' Grammar School. She became involved in acting at the school and developed oratorical skills. She excelled academically, winning numerous awards from the school. She also organised mock elections at the school, in which she stood as the Labour candidate. There were some aspects of the school that she did not like, notably the presence of many girls from rich families. In her last year she was appointed Head Girl.
Her education continued at St Hugh's College, Oxford, from which she graduated with a third-class BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. She began serious political activity at Oxford, serving as the Treasurer of the Oxford University Labour Club, the highest position a woman could hold in the club at the time. She struggled to accept the atmosphere of a university that had only recently begun to question its traditionally sexist attitudes. She was scornful of the elitist nature of some elements of the institution, branding the Oxford Union "that cadet class of the establishment".
Castle was elected to St Pancras Metropolitan Borough Council in 1937 (where she remained until 1945), and in 1943 she spoke at the annual Labour Party Conference for the first time. Throughout the Second World War she worked as a senior administrative officer at the Ministry of Food and she was an Air Raid Precautions (ARP) warden during the Blitz.
She became a reporter on the left-wing magazine Tribune, where she had a romantic relationship with William Mellor, who was to become its editor, until his death in 1942. Following her marriage to Ted Castle in 1944, she became the housing correspondent at the Daily Mirror.
In the 1945 general election, which Labour won by a landslide, Castle was elected as the Member of Parliament for Blackburn. As Blackburn was then a two-member constituency, she was elected alongside fellow Labour candidate John Edwards. Castle had secured her place as a parliamentary candidate through the women of the Blackburn Labour Party, who had threatened to quit unless she was added to the otherwise all-male shortlist.
Castle was the youngest of the handful of women elected.[nb 1] Although she had grown up in similar northern industrial towns, she had no prior connection to Blackburn. Eager not to appear as a parachute candidate, she studied weaving and spinning, and spent time living with a local family. In her maiden speech she highlighted the problems facing servicemen then going through demobilisation.
Immediately upon her entering the House of Commons Castle was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade, who had known her as a member of the pre-war Socialist League. Harold Wilson succeeded Cripps in 1947 and retained Castle as his PPS, marking the beginning of the pair's lengthy political relationship. She gained further experience as the UK's alternate delegate to the United Nations General Assembly for 1949-1950, when she displayed particular concerned for social and humanitarian issues. She soon achieved a reputation as a left-winger and a rousing speaker. During the 1950s she was a high-profile Bevanite, and made a name for herself as a vocal advocate of decolonisation and the Anti-Apartheid Movement.
Labour returned to government under Harold Wilson in October 1964 following a general election, defeating Alec Douglas-Home's Conservative government by winning a slim majority of four seats, thus ending 13 years of successive Conservative governments. Wilson had selected his core Cabinet four months prior to the election; Castle knew Wilson intended to place her within his Cabinet, which would make her the fourth woman in British history ever to hold position in a Cabinet, after Margaret Bondfield, Ellen Wilkinson and Florence Horsbrugh.
Castle entered the Cabinet as the first Minister for Overseas Development, a newly created ministry for which she, alongside the Fabian Society, had drawn up the plans for. For the last year she had acted as the opposition spokeswoman on overseas development. Castle's plans were extensive, though the ministry's budget was modest. She set about trying to divert powers from other departments related to overseas aid, including the Foreign Office and the Treasury. She was only partially successful in her aims and provoked an internal Whitehall dispute in the process.
In June 1965 Castle announced interest-free aid loans would be available to certain (not exclusively Commonwealth) countries. She had previously criticised the Conservative government for granting loans that only waived up to the first seven years of interest, which she considered to be counter-intuitive.
In August, Castle published her government white paper Overseas Development: The Work of a New Ministry. The financial commitments of the ministry were omitted from the report, after a protracted clash between Castle and her Cabinet colleagues James Callaghan (Chancellor of the Exchequer) and George Brown (Secretary of State for Economic Affairs). Labour had made a manifesto promise to increase aid spending to 1% of gross national product, almost double Conservative spending. However, the national economy was unstable, public resentment towards the Commonwealth was growing due to immigration, and within Cabinet aid was viewed with either indifference or contempt. Castle grappled with Callaghan and Brown over the department's budgetary allocation; they reached a compromise following Wilson's intervention, but the sum only amounted to a small increase in spending.
In February 1966, Castle addressed Parliament, calling for "a profound change in public attitudes" to curtail increasing road fatality figures, stating: "Hitler did not manage to kill as many civilians in Britain as have been killed on our roads since the war". The statistics bore out; between 1945 and the mid-1960s approximately 150,000 people were killed and several million injured on Britain's roads.
She introduced the breathalyser to combat the then recently acknowledged crisis of drink-driving. Castle said she was "ready to risk unpopularity" by introducing the measures if it meant saving lives. She was challenged by a BBC journalist on The World This Weekend, who described the policy as a "rotten idea" and asked her: "You're only a woman, you don't drive, what do you know about it?" In the 12 months following the introduction of the breathalyser, Government figures revealed road deaths had dropped by 16.5%.
Castle also made permanent the national speed limit (70 mph). Having been introduced as a four-month trial by outgoing Transport Minister Tom Fraser in December 1965, Castle first extended the limit period in 1966 and in 1967 made the limit permanent, following the findings of a Road Research Laboratory report revealing motorway casualties had fallen 20% since its introduction.
During a tour of New York City in October 1966, where Castle was examining the impact of traffic problems in American cities, she vocalised plans to introduce a London congestion charge, which was to be introduced as soon as the technical details of fee collection were solved. Castle urged New York's Transport Commissioner to adopt the same policy, describing plans for more roadways as "self-defeating", stating the solution was "more and better mass transit systems".
Castle also sanctioned the construction of the Humber Bridge, which was the world's longest suspension bridge upon its opening in 1981. In late 1965, the Labour MP for nearby Kingston upon Hull North died, triggering a by-election. The marginal seat was of critical importance to the government and its loss would have reduced Labour's majority in the House of Commons to just one. Harold Wilson invoked Castle to find the necessary funding and promise the bridge's construction as an 'election sweetener'. The move paid off, with Labour holding the seat.
She presided over the closure of approximately 2,050 miles of railways as she enacted her part of the Beeching cuts--a betrayal of pre-election commitments by the Labour party to halt the proposals. Nevertheless, she refused closure of several lines, one example being the Looe Valley Line in Cornwall, and introduced the first Government rail subsidies for socially necessary but unprofitable railways in the Transport Act 1968.
One of her most memorable achievements as Transport minister was to pass legislation decreeing that all new cars had to be fitted with seat belts. Despite being appointed to the Ministry of Transport, a role which she was originally unenthusiastic about, Castle could not actually drive herself, and was chauffeured to functions. (The Labour politician Hazel Blears recalled driving Castle at one time as a young Labour Party activist in the 1980s.) Despite her lack of a driving licence, she attracted controversy when she told local government leaders to give added emphasis to motor vehicle access in urban areas, as "most pedestrians are walking to or from their cars."
Castle and her husband Edward Castle had bought a new flat in John Spencer Square in late 1967 while she was the Minister of Transport.
As Secretary of State for Employment, Castle was also appointed First Secretary of State by Wilson, bringing her firmly into the heart of government. She was never far from controversy which reached a fever pitch when the trade unions rebelled against her proposals to reduce their powers in her 1969 white paper, 'In Place of Strife'. This also involved a major cabinet split, with threatened resignations, hot tempers and her future nemesis James Callaghan breaking ranks to publicly try to undermine the bill. The whole episode alienated her from many of her friends on the left, with the Tribune newspaper railing very hard against the bill, which they held to be attacking the workers without attacking the bosses. The split is often said to be partly responsible for Labour's defeat at the 1970 general election. The eventual deal with the unions dropped most of the contentious clauses.
Castle also helped make history when she intervened in the Ford sewing machinists' strike of 1968, in which the women of the Dagenham Ford Plant demanded to be paid the same as their male counterparts. She helped resolve the strike, which resulted in a pay rise for Ford's female workers bringing them to 92% of what the men received. Most significantly, as a consequence of this strike, Castle put through the Equal Pay Act 1970. A 2010 British film, Made in Dagenham, was based on the Ford strike. She was portrayed by Miranda Richardson.
In April 1970, Castle's husband Ted lost his position as an alderman of the Greater London Council. He was devastated and although he was supportive of his wife's achievements, he considered himself a failure against her. Upset and concerned by her husband's distress, Barbara moved to persuade Wilson to grant Ted a peerage.
In May 1970, Wilson called a general election, held on 18 June. The Conservative Party, led by Edward Heath, enjoyed a surprise victory, despite opinion polling indicating a steady lead for Labour in the run-up. Castle privately blamed complacency within Labour for their loss and had expressed skepticism of their poll lead, writing in her diaries: "I have a haunting feeling there is a silent majority sitting behind its lace curtains waiting to come out and vote Tory."
In the immediate aftermath of the government's defeat, Castle found she was out of favour with Wilson. The day following the general election, Wilson held a final inner Cabinet meeting at Downing Street, to which Castle was not invited. Eager to make contact, she later called him at Chequers, where Wilson engaged in a brusque telephone conversation with her.
Refusing to acknowledge her career had been curtailed, Castle proposed to run for deputy leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party. When she informed Wilson of her plans he was furious; Castle's reputation within the party had been damaged by the failure of In Place of Strife and Wilson censured her, claiming her plan would split the party. In an act of retribution for her challenge to the deputy leadership, Wilson impeded Ted Castle's peerage, which he had all but promised prior to the general election.
Castle remained as the Labour shadow spokesperson on Employment. The new Government introduced many of her policy suggestions as part of their Industrial Relations Act. When she was attacking the Conservative bill, the government simply pointed to her own white paper, following which Wilson reshuffled her first to the health portfolio and then out of the shadow cabinet.
Despite having been on the Labour back benches since 1972 and not part of the shadow cabinet, in 1974, after Harold Wilson's defeat of Edward Heath, Castle became Secretary of State for Health and Social Services. While serving in this position, Castle introduced a wide range of innovative welfare reforms, including the introduction of the mobility allowance, the Invalid Care Allowance (July 1976) for single women and others who give up their jobs to care for severely disabled relatives, the introduction of a non-contributory invalidity pension for disabled persons who had not qualified for invalidity pension, reforms in child allowances, and the linking of most social security benefits to earnings rather than prices.
In the 1975 referendum debate she took a Eurosceptic stance. During a debate with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe he asked her whether, if the vote would be yes, she would stay on as a minister. To this she replied: "If the vote is yes my country will need me to save it." Despite her views she later became a Member of the European Parliament (1979-1989). Her public support of leaving the EEC infuriated Wilson. Castle recorded in her diary and in her subsequent autobiography that Wilson summoned her to Downing Street where he angrily accused her of disloyalty and that as he had brought her back into the cabinet against other's wishes and advice, he deserved better from her. Castle claimed she offered to resign, but Wilson calmed down and she continued to campaign for leaving in the referendum.
In 1975, Castle introduced the Child Benefit Act, superseding the Family Allowances Act 1945. The act provided new support for families' first child, unlike the previous system in place, which provided benefit for second and subsequent children. Castle also ensured child benefit would be paid directly to mothers, not fathers, unlike Family Allowance, the previous system in place. The legislation faced opposition from unions whose male members would receive less take-home pay with the loss of Family Allowance.
Castle remained in cabinet until Wilson's resignation in March 1976. The head of the Downing Street policy unit, Bernard Donoughue, records in his diary that he warned Wilson that Castle's dogged pursuit of personal policy stances on public health would "wreck the NHS". Donoughue claims that Wilson agreed, but admitted he would leave it to his successor to resolve.
Castle lost her place as a Cabinet minister when her bitter political enemy James Callaghan succeeded Wilson as prime minister following a leadership election. Although he left Wilson's Cabinet virtually unchanged, he dismissed Castle almost immediately upon taking office, in the midst of a complex health bill that she was steering through the House Commons at the time. Although he had not yet decided on her successor at the time he fired her, Callaghan removed her under the pretext he wanted to lower the average age of his Cabinet, which she regarded as a "phoney reason". In an interview years later, she remarked that perhaps the most restrained thing she had ever achieved in her life was not to reply with "Then why not start with yourself, Jim?" (Callaghan was four years older than Wilson, the man he was replacing, and less than 18 months younger than Castle). Castle was angry to discover that Wilson had broken a private confidence in informing Callaghan that she had intended to retire from the cabinet before the next election.
Despite her Eurosceptic stance, less than a month after leaving Westminster at the 1979 general election she stood for and was elected to the European Parliament, writing in the Tribune that "politics is not just about policies: it is about fighting for them in every available forum and at every opportunity." In 1982 she wrote in the New Statesman that Labour should abandon its opposition to British membership of the EEC, saying that Britain should fight its corner inside it. This led her former ally Ian Mikardo to say to her: "Your name is mud".
She represented Greater Manchester North from 1979-1984, and was then elected for another five years to represent Greater Manchester West from 1984-1989. She was, at that time, the only British MEP to have held a cabinet position.
In the European Parliament Castle led Labour's delegation, serving as vice-chair of the Socialist Group and as a member of the Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Rural Development and also the Delegation for relations with Malta.
The Castle Diaries were published in two volumes in 1980 and 1984, chronicling her time in office from 1964-1976 and providing an insight into the workings of Cabinet Government. Edmund Dell, reviewing the diaries that cover the years 1974-76 in the London Review of Books, said that it "shows more about the nature of cabinet government - even though it deals with only one Cabinet - than any previous publication, academic, political or biographical. It is, I think, better than Crossman".Michael Foot in the Listener claimed that the diary, "whatever else it is or not, is a human document, hopelessly absorbing".Paul Johnson in the Sunday Telegraph wrote that it was "a contribution of first rate importance to our knowledge of modern politics".
In 1974, Ted Castle was made a life peer. This meant that Barbara was now formally Lady Castle, but she refused to use this courtesy title. Ted Castle died in 1979. On 16 July 1990, she was created a life peer in her own right, as Baroness Castle of Blackburn, of Ibstone in the County of Buckinghamshire. She remained active in politics right up until her death, attacking the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, at the Labour party conference in 2001 for his refusal to link pensions to earnings.
Castle was a critic of Blairism and "New Labour", in particular with Blairite economic ideologies, which she perceived to be acceptance of "market economics, unchallenged globalisation and the dominance of the multinationals". She also accused Blairites of distorting and dismissing the Labour Party's past, stating in an interview published in the New Statesman magazine in 2000, the party's centenary:
"They do not seem to have realised that all governments, whatever their complexion, end in apparent failure. Macmillan was triumphant in 1959 and was biting the dust shortly afterwards. Heath won in 1970 and spent three and half years doing U-turns, looking for the perfect answer. Thatcher was a remarkable woman, but her premiership ended in ignominy. But the current leadership seems preoccupied by the failing of Labour in power and in opposition."
Castle has been acknowledged as the most important female Labour politician of the 20th century. An adept and gripping orator, Castle garnered a reputation as a strong-willed, sometimes single-minded crusader. Political commentator Andrew Marr wrote of Castle in 1993: "Performance has been at the centre of her career. She makes excellent television and was a good Commons speaker. But she was really made for the platform, either at Labour conferences or during election campaigns. There, her wit, self-confidence and theatricality were displayed. A good Castle speech is unforgettable."
She was admired by Bill Deedes, Conservative politician and editor of The Daily Telegraph, for "her astonishing tenacity, her capacity for getting her own way in Cabinet and nearly everywhere else," though he derided her politics. To her allies, Castle was loyal and would fiercely defend them. Colleague Roy Hattersley credited her with saving his career by insisting he remain her junior Minister when Harold Wilson attempted to sack him. Nevertheless, she remained unforgiving of her enemies; when questioned on James Callaghan in a 2000 interview in the New Statesman, Castle said: "I think it is safest all round if I don't comment on him."
Referred to disparagingly by fellow Labour MP Gerald Kaufman as "the Norma Desmond of politics [...] always ready for her close-up", she was noted for always paying particular attention to her appearance. Variously described as sophisticated, stylish and glamorous, Castle was also characterised as vain, while her critics called her egocentric. Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock recalled she was distraught when her hairdresser cancelled before a television appearance; in response, Castle said: "If you're a woman in the public eye, getting your hair nice is a constant preoccupation." Her weekly appointments with her hairdresser were "an essential Friday engagement" according to Hattersley, although she occasionally wore a wig - which she nicknamed Lucy - for public appearances without the benefit of her hairdresser to hand.
In 2008, Castle was named by The Guardian as one of four of "Labour's greatest heroes" and in 2016 she was named on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour Power List as one of seven women judged to have had the biggest impact on women's lives over the past 70 years, alongside Margaret Thatcher, Helen Brook, Germaine Greer, Jayaben Desai, Bridget Jones, and Beyoncé. Several women politicians have cited Castle as an inspiration for embarking on their careers, including Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry,Tulip Siddiq, and former Conservative MP Edwina Currie.
Since Castle's death there have been several plans mooted to memorialise her with a statue in her constituency town of Blackburn, most recently in 2018. In the town a dual carriageway that constitutes part of the ring road is named Barbara Castle Way. She was commemorated on a postage stamp issued as part of the Royal Mail's Women of Distinction series in 2008 for piloting the Equal Pay Act through parliament. She appears on the 81p denomination.
Castle was portrayed by British actress Miranda Richardson in the 2010 film Made in Dagenham, dealing with the 1968 strike at the Ford Dagenham assembly plant. She was later portrayed by stage actress Sophie-Louise Dann in the 2014 West End musical adaptation of the film. In the third series of Netflix drama The Crown, Castle is portrayed by Lorraine Ashbourne. In the BBC1 drama ''The Trial of Christine Keeler'' (2019-2020) Castle is portrayed by Buffy Davis.
Barbara Castle was the recipient of "The Order of the Companions of OR Tambo in Silver", a South African award to foreign nationals for friendship with that country. In a statement the South African government recognised Castle's "outstanding contribution to the struggle against apartheid and the establishment of a non-sexist, non-racial and democratic South Africa". This can be seen throughout Castle's career with her active support for the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) in Britain from the very start of its existence and her continued interest and devotion to colonial issues within Parliament.
In 2002 Castle was posthumously awarded an honorary degree from the Open University. The award, Doctor of the University, was presented for Public Services for works in areas of special educational concern to the OU.
Castle also received a Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1990, for services to European democracy.
In September 2008 Northern Rail, Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council and PTEG (Passenger transport executive Group) named a train after her. The plaque was unveiled by Barbara's niece, Sonya Hinton, and Ruth Kelly MP (then Secretary of State for Transport). A commemorative brochure of the event was produced by PTEG.
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
| Member of Parliament for Blackburn
| Minister for Overseas Development
| Minister for Transport
| Secretary of State for Employment
| First Secretary of State
| Secretary of State for Health and Social Services
| Member of the European Parliament for Greater Manchester
|Party political offices|
| Chair of the Labour Party
| Leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party