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 Friday, 29 September, 2000, 14:04 GMT 15:04 UK
Barbara Castle: Scaling the ramparts
Barbara Castle

An interview with Barbara Castle, just before she celebrated her 90th birthday in September 2000.

Barbara Castle had just arrived back at her secluded Thames Valley house from the Labour Party conference at Brighton, where her rallying cry for pensioners had won a standing ovation. She was anxious for her lunch and could not spare "more than a minute or two" on the 'phone.

But her appetite for fighting causes was as big as ever, and so she explained at length, and with an evident grasp of detail, why the government should restore the link between pensions and earnings. "It's a legitimate right", she said.

Barbara Castle as Employment Secretary in the 1960s
She tried to curb union power in the late 1960s
Lady Castle might have been forgiven for thinking more about smoked salmon and canapés as she prepared for the week of her 90th birthday and the party in a marquee in her garden.

But since it was she, as Harold Wilson's Social Services Secretary, who masterminded an entirely new earnings-related and inflation-proof pension scheme in the 1970s, it is an issue particularly close to her heart.

And one on which she speaks with the same voice as most trades unions, although she was not always their darling. In 1969, her White Paper, "In Place of Strife", with its proposals to contain the power of the unions, was undermined and resisted by them at every turn.

It was abandoned, although many in the Labour movement feel that if the legislation had been enacted fully, the reformed unions which would have resulted would not have been so easy for Margaret Thatcher to destroy.

I think I was born a political animal

Barbara Castle

Barbara Castle managed to push through other measures. They sneered at her when she was made Transport Minister because she did not have a driving licence and criticised her introduction of the breathalyser and the 70 mile-an-hour limit. But the measures have saved many lives.

She also won a bigger share of the national purse for the NHS and equal pay for women. She has always championed her own gender, but not at the cost of sacrificing her femininity.

She still refuses to be photographed until she is satisfied that her red hair is immaculately coiffured and her scarlet lipstick freshly applied.

During the raging arguments over "In Place of Strife", she calmed her nerves by buying three new dresses. And once, so the story goes, someone looking over her shoulder as she apparently took notes at a Cabinet meeting, discovered she was writing her weekend shopping list.

Campaigning in the conference hall
A campaigner all her life
She believed that being a woman was always the chief obstacle to her becoming Prime Minister, but was grateful to Harold Wilson, who "took a joy in promoting me and giving me chances".

But while she said Wilson would sometimes flirt with her and everybody thought they were having an affair, "I was never Harold's mistress", although, she says, she was "deeply fond" of him.

Not so Jim Callaghan, who she found it hard to forgive for sacking her when he became Prime Minister in 1976, for what she regarded as the "phoney reason" of her age. Just three years later, the year her husband, Ted, died, Barbara Castle did retire, giving up her Blackburn seat after 34 years.

But then, in her seventies, she demonstrated all her old fire as leader of the Labour group in the European Parliament, helping to force changes to the Common Agriculture Policy.

The advancing years have made Lady Castle smaller and frailer and she says that a lifetime of smoking has brought "a touch of emphysema". Her sight is too poor to read newspapers and obliges her to rely more on radio than television.

With fellow campaigners, Rodney Bickerstaffe and Jack Jones
With fellow campaigners, Rodney Bickerstaffe and Jack Jones
But her voice is firm and her spirit resolute as she worries that under new Labour (she hates being called old Labour), power is being passed from the people to big business.

Barbara Castle says she has been politically conscious since she was 14, just two years before she won a scholarship to St Hugh's College, Oxford.

Seventy-six years later, in a new Millennium, she is still fighting for her beliefs.



TALKING POINT
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