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Friday, 3 May, 2002, 17:24 GMT 18:24 UK
Barbara Castle: Labour's red queen
Barbara Castle
She was a tireless advocate of socialism
Barbara Castle was one of the most impressive politicians of her generation, at the peak of her influence in partnership with Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

Respected for her intellect, and feared for her sharp tongue, she was an ambitious, feisty and powerful woman long before Margaret Thatcher arrived on the scene.

Elected MP for Blackburn in 1945, she held the seat for more than 30 years.

Barbara Castle was the daughter of Frank Betts, a Yorkshire tax inspector, who was also an active member of the Independent Labour Party.

She won a scholarship from Bradford Girls' Grammar School to St. Hughs College, Oxford.

A young Barbara Betts at Oxford
The young Barbara Betts at Oxford
During World War II she worked on the Daily Mirror and in 1944 she married Ted Castle, later Lord Castle, a Mirror journalist.

The 1945 Labour landslide saw her win Blackburn. She became Parliamentary Private Secretary to Sir Stafford Cripps, then President of the Board of Trade and later served in a similar capacity under Harold Wilson.

As an Opposition backbencher, her particular interest was colonial affairs. Sympathetic to nationalist movements in Africa and Asia, she was a tireless critic of apartheid.


When Mr Wilson formed his government in 1964, he appointed Mrs Castle to the new post of minister of overseas development.

A year later she was appointed minister of transport, the first woman to occupy this office. She introduced breathalyser tests, an unpopular expedient which rapidly reduced the number of road accidents.

In 1968, Mrs Castle became secretary of state at the new department of employment and productivity. As one of the most important members of the government, her responsibilities were far greater than those of any previous woman minister.

Barabara Castle with Harold Wilson
Harold Wilson was a major influence on her career
Inevitably, she was frequently in conflict with the unions over wage claims, and in 1969 her White Paper, In Place of Strife, with its proposals to contain the power of the trade unions, threatened to cause a major split in the Labour Party.

The eventual settlement with the TUC General Council involved dropping the proposals from the session's legislative programme, and this was denounced by the Opposition as a government surrender.

Following Labour's defeat in 1970 Mrs Castle held a number of posts on the Opposition bench and spent some time on the backbenches.

In spite of her own efforts to legislate against irresponsible strikes, she was savagely critical of the Conservative government's Industrial Relations Bill.

Raised pensions

Following his re-election in 1974, Harold Wilson made her social services secretary, responsible for fulfilling her party's electoral pledge to raise retirement pensions and other social benefits.

She masterminded a new earnings-related and inflation-proof pension scheme which, among other things, reflected her determination to give complete equality to women.

Barbara Castle with a copy of In Place of Strife
In Place of Strife: the focus of her battles with the unions
But she had to contend with formidable disputes in the National Health Service over the government's plans to phase private practice out of the service.

Though she was removed from office when James Callaghan took over as prime minister in April 1976, Barbara Castle did win higher pay for nurses and increased benefits for old and disabled people.

In April 1977 she told her Blackburn constituents, whom she had represented in Parliament for more than 30 years, that she would not stand again at the next general election.

Euro MP

On her retirement from the Commons in May 1979 she entered the European Parliament where, as leader of Labour's delegation, she frequently made her views known on the control of expenditure of taxpayers' money.

In January 1988 she said she would not seek re-election to the European Parliament, because she wanted to return to an active role on the domestic stage.

Barbara Castle walks her dogs in a field outside her home
Barbara Castle continued her political battle even in old age
Barbara Castle retired from front line politics in May 1989, her husband having died in December 1979. Although she became a Life Peer the following year, she continued to berate both New Labour and the Conservatives for what she saw as a lack of commitment to pensioners and the welfare state.

Barbara Castle was a tireless and passionate advocate of socialism, who retained her fiery nature and formidable debating skills right into old age.

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