Barbara Castle

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Person.png Barbara Castle, Baroness Castle of Blackburn  Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
Barbara Castle.jpg
BornBarbara Anne Betts
6 October 1910
Chesterfield, Derbyshire
Died3 May 2002 (Age 91)
Chiltern, Buckinghamshire
Alma materSt Hugh's College (Oxford)
Spouse • Edward Castle
• Baron Castle
One of the most significant Labour Party politicians of the 20th century

Employment.png Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Services

In office
19 October 1971 - 24 March 1972
Preceded byShirley Williams
Succeeded byJohn Silkin

Employment.png Shadow Secretary of State for Employment

In office
19 June 1970 - 19 October 1971
Succeeded byJames Callaghan

Employment.png First Secretary of State Wikipedia-icon.png

In office
6 April 1968 - 19 June 1970
Preceded byMichael Stewart

Employment.png UK/Minister for Transport

In office
23 December 1965 - 6 April 1968

Employment.png UK/Minister for Overseas Development

In office
18 October 1964 - 23 December 1965

Employment.png Member of Parliament for Blackburn

In office
27 July 1945 - 3 May 1979
Succeeded byJack Straw

Barbara Castle was a UK Labour Party politician who was the Member of Parliament for Blackburn from 1945 to 1979. Barbara Castle later became Member of the European Parliament for Greater Manchester from 1979 until 1989.

One of the most significant Labour Party politicians of the 20th century, she served in the Cabinet under Prime Minister Harold Wilson in a number of roles, including as Secretary of State for Employment, Secretary of State for Health and Social Services, and First Secretary of State.

Early life

The youngest of three children, she was born in Chesterfield to Frank and Annie Betts, and was brought up in Pontefract and Bradford. Castle was first introduced to socialist politics and beliefs from a young age, growing up in a politically active home. Her older sister, Marjorie, later became a pioneer of the Inner London Education Authority, while her brother Jimmie engaged in field work with Oxfam in Nigeria. She joined the Labour Party as a teenager. Her father was a tax inspector. Having moved to Bradford in 1922, the Betts family swiftly became involved with the Independent Labour Party. Although prohibited from formal political activity because of his role as a civil servant, her father became editor of the Bradford Pioneer, the city's socialist newspaper, after William Leach was elected to Parliament in 1935.[1] Castle's mother ran the family home, while also operating a soup-kitchen for the town's miners. After Barbara had left home, Annie was elected as a Labour Councillor in Bradford, a role which she kept quite secret from even her close family.


Castle attended Love Lane Elementary School, later going to Pontefract and District Girls High School. After moving to Bradford at the age of twelve, she then attended Bradford Girls Grammar School. She became involved in dramatics at the school and excelled academically, becoming Head Girl. Her further education continued at St Hugh's College (Oxford), from which she graduated with a Third-Class BA degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Castle 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 was scornful of the elitist nature of some elements of the institution, branding the Oxford Union "that cadet class of the establishment".

Early career

She was elected to St Pancras Borough Council in 1937, and in 1943 she spoke at the annual Labour Party Conference for the first time. She was a senior administrative officer at the Ministry of Food and an ARP warden during the Blitz.

Member of Parliament

In the 1945 general election, which Labour won by a landslide, she was elected as the Member of Parliament for Blackburn. 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.


In the Wilson Government of 1964–1970, she held a succession of ministerial posts. She entered the Cabinet as the first Minister for Overseas Development, becoming the fourth woman in British history ever to hold position in a Cabinet, after Margaret Bondfield, Ellen Wilkinson and Florence Horsbrugh.[2]

As Minister of Transport (23 December 1965 – 6 April 1968), she introduced the breathalyser to combat the then recently acknowledged crisis of drink-driving, and also made permanent the 70 mph speed limit. She presided over the closure of approximately 2050 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 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.[3]) 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."

As Secretary of State for Employment, she 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.[4]

In the early days of the incoming Conservative government in 1970, despite failing to be elected to the shadow cabinet, 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.

In 1974, after Harold Wilson's defeat of Edward Heath, Barbara Castle became Secretary of State for Health and Secretary of State for 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.[5]

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).

Castle remained in cabinet until Wilson's resignation in April 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.[6] Castle lost her place as a cabinet minister when her bitter political enemy James Callaghan took over from Wilson as prime minister in 1976 and dismissed her almost immediately upon taking office. In an interview many years later, discussing her removal from office by James Callaghan, she claimed that the Prime Minister had told her he wanted "somebody younger" in the Cabinet, to which she famously 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).

European Parliament

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.[7] This led her former ally Ian Mikardo to say to her: "Your name is mud".[8]

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, Barbara 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.

Paedophile dossier

In July 2014, it was revealed that the late Baroness Castle had compiled a paedophile dossier in the 1980s and had handed it to Don Hale, the editor of her local newspaper, the Bury Messenger. Lady Castle put together 30 pages of information about alleged attempts by the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) to infiltrate government while seeking funding and trying to persuade MPs to legalise sex with children. As well as key members of both the Commons and Lords, she found that about 30 prominent businessmen, public school teachers, scoutmasters and police officers had links to PIE. Mr Hale, 61, said:

"Barbara was horrified at the rapid extent of PIE’s involvement with key people and her file included details of about 16 household-name MPs."

He said Lady Castle – who at the time was Euro MP Barbara Castle – passed him the dossier and asked if he would write a story based on it.

"I agreed to run something the following week but obviously had to contact certain MPs named – from the Labour, Liberal and Conservative parties – and the Home Office for their responses. The next day, Cyril Smith came to my office. He must have heard about it, or been sent by, the former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. Cyril tried to persuade me that it was 'all poppycock'. He said Barbara had her 'knickers in a twist' since leaving the House and had become bored with wine lakes and sugar mountains in Europe. He played down the whole episode and wanted an assurance that I wouldn’t run anything. I couldn’t give that and he went away very disappointed. The next day the heavy mob arrived. Two or three police in uniform and half a dozen in plain clothes. They came at 8am, before most people had arrived for work, and showed me warrant cards and a D-Notice and something signed by a Judge. They threatened me with five to ten years in prison and took away my notebooks and all the papers Barbara had given me. It was a threat to national security, and not in the public interest, they told me. If I had said no, I would have been arrested. I had to give them assurances I had given them everything. They told me not to tell anyone, and the whole thing was over within half an hour."

Mr Hale went on to be a campaigning editor at the Matlock Mercury newspaper known for his investigation that led to the freeing of Stephen Downing, wrongly jailed for the "Bakewell Tart" murder. But he said it was the incident with the Lady Castle dossier that sparked his determination to expose cover-ups:

"Barbara had been a long-serving local MP and used to come and have a chat with me every couple of weeks. We had talked about a potential paedophile ring with MPs before, but she said no one would listen. She asked me if I would take a look and run a story from her point of view. She objected to any funding of this organisation PIE, and was very concerned about the speed of their infiltration and the number of prominent names who were allegedly supporting them. Barbara was horrified, too, at the prospect of Parliament approving legalised sex with children, often under the guise of educating them, and mentioned an influx of rent boys and unsavoury and unfortunate situations that had been covered up by the authorities."

Mr Hale said she had not been surprised when he told her about the visit from Special Branch:

"She sort of expected it. This was a powerful organisation and she reluctantly admitted she was fighting a formidable foe. She apologised for the hassle it caused me. It was 30 years ago, so I can’t remember the names and full details, but I was sworn to secrecy by Special Branch at the risk of jail if I repeated any of the allegations."[9]

Honours and awards

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".[10] In 2002 Castle she 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.[11] In 2008, Barbara Castle was named by The Guardian as one of four of 'Labour's greatest heroes'.[12]


The Castle Diaries were published after the 1979 General Election, chronicling her time in office from 1964–1976 and providing an insight into the workings of Cabinet Government. A review in the London Review of Books at the time of their publication claimed, "Barbara Castle's diary shows more about the nature of Cabinet Government than any previous publication. ... It is, I think, better than Crossman", a reference to the published diaries of former Cabinet Minister Richard Crossman. However, when Enoch Powell reviewed her diaries he remarked that the "overpowering impression left on the reader's mind by her diary is that of triviality: the largest decisions and the profoundest issues are effortlessly trivialised."[13]

Life peer

In 1974, Ted Castle was made a life peer.[14] This meant that Barbara was now formally Lady Castle, but she refused to use this courtesy title. Ted Castle died in 1979. In 1990, she was made a life peer in her own right, as Baroness Castle of Blackburn. She remained active in politics right up until her death, attacking UK Chancellor Gordon Brown for his refusal to link pensions to earnings at the Labour party conference in 2001.


Barbara Castle died in Chiltern, Buckinghamshire on 3 May 2002 of pneumonia and chronic lung disease.[15]


Castle's autobiography, Fighting All The Way (ISBN 0-330-32886-7), was published in 1993.

A biography by Lisa Martineau, Barbara Castle: Politics and Power[16] (EAN 0233994807), was published in 2000 and Red Queen: The Authorised Biography of Barbara Castle by Anne Perkins (ISBN 0-333-90511-3) in 2003.

She was commemorated on a postage stamp issued as part of the Royal Mail's "Women of Distinction" series issued on 14 October 2008 for piloting the Equal Pay Act through parliament. She appears on the 81p denomination.[17]

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 and Castle's subsequent involvement in protesting against sexual discrimination.[18]

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  2. retrieved 30 December 2010.
  3. Hazel Blears’ memories of Barbara Castle, The Labour History Group, 20 June 2007
  4. "Made in Dagenham"
  5. New Labour, Old Labour: The Wilson and Callaghan Governments, 1974–79 edited by Anthony Seldon and Kevin Hickson
  6. Downing Street Diary: with Harold Wilson at no.10. Jonathan Cape, 2001. ISBN 978-0-224-04022-8
  7. Barbara Castle, ‘Let them throw us out’, New Statesman (17 September 1982), pp. 10–11.
  8. The Times (10 June 1993), p. 37.
  9. "Now it’s revealed Barbara Castle drew up dossier on VIP paedophiles: File seized by Special Branch 'heavy mob'"
  11. "OU honours Barbara Castle", The Open University, 1 July 2002. Retrieved 8 June 2013.
  12. Labour's greatest hero: Barbara Castle The Guardian, 19 September 2008
  13. "The shallow diaries of a cabinet lady", Now!, 26 September 1980
  17. Women of Distinction: 81p Stamp – Barbara Castle Royal Mail

External links

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