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Thursday, 28 March, 2002, 06:21 GMT
Lord Callaghan celebrates his 90th
Lord Callaghan
Lord Callaghan is celebrating his 90th with a party
Reaching a 90th birthday is an achievement for anyone.

But for Lord Callaghan, the jocular Labour former prime minister they called "Sunny Jim", his introduction of cats' eyes to Britain's roads rides high on his list of most significant accomplishments.

As he prepares for a big family party to celebrate his nonagenarian status with his son and daughters, 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, he stresses: "I had a great battle to get them introduced.

Lord Callaghan relaxes on a park bench.
Lord Callaghan relaxes on a park bench.

"The Road Research Laboratory wanted them, but there were officials in the Ministry of Transport who did not," he said.

"I remember one particular official telling me: 'If you decide to have cats' eyes, people will drive in the middle of the road when there is fog and there will be inevitable collisions'."

The peer recalls, with a twinkle in his eye, the memory of when he was a junior transport minister shortly after the war, adding: "I managed to persuade them ..."

Lord Callaghan, who was prime minister almost 25 years ago, says he envies the huge Commons majority commanded by Tony Blair.

Electioneering in Agbingdon.
Electioneering in Abingdon in 1979

"If only I had had a majority - that ought to have been my theme song - I would have done a number of things."

But he adds: "That's all past and done."

Despite his personal popularity, the then James Callaghan will be remembered by many for the Winter of Discontent's power-cuts and strikes.

His brief premiership ended in 1979 - with no overall majority he succumbed to a vote of no confidence and then lost the subsequent general election.

The politician, who has also been Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, is kindly towards his successor Baroness Thatcher, who has recently withdrawn from public life following minor strokes.

Lord Callaghan
Smiling Lord 'Sunny Jim' Callaghan.

"I hope she will be all right. At 76 she is still a chicken. I hope she has many more years to go."

And he says of Mr Blair: "I think he has made a great success - our dashing prime minister.

"It would be foolish to attempt to deny that. He has had a great victory and I wish I had had a majority - that would have made a lot of things easier."

But Lord Callaghan, who lives on a farm near Lewes, East Sussex, warns that the Tories could rise again from their two election defeats.

"The pendulum swings and it will swing again," he said.

Lord Callaghan with the Queen and five former Prime Ministers.
The Queen and six former Prime Ministers.

Apart from a "bit of arthritis" the peer describes himself as fit and well, although he suffered a minor stroke over a year ago that has affected the sight in his left eye.

"I was lucky it did not go to the brain," he said.

He is proud to have been a professional politician.

"It was a life of service. I have enjoyed it and I am very sorry that today politicians now stand in such low regard.

Lord Callaghan with his wife Audrey.
Lord Callaghan with his wife Audrey.
"I was very lucky in many ways, by being in the right place at the right time. I feel very blessed.

"It is nearly 25 years since I was prime minister. I have had a long time to think. I have been able to learn a lot in that time. One goes on learning.

"I think about things more. I wish I had thought about them earlier.

"I don't focus on the immediate short term any more. As you grow older you reflect more about the long term."

See also:

22 Feb 00 | Labour centenary
James Callaghan: Success and setbacks
11 Mar 99 | UK Politics
Don't mention the past
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