riters, colleagues, and even opponents have
paid fulsome tribute to her Barbara Castle's passionate
advocacy of the socialist cause. Most have talked about
her younger days, her posts in Harold Wilson's government
and her many achievements from that era.
The Barbara I knew covered her decade in the European Parliament
and her "retirement" to the House of Lords. I followed
Janet Anderson MP, who followed Jack Straw MP, working as
Barbara's political assistant for eight years. My first meeting
with her came as a shock. How could such a giant of the movement
be so tiny? Size, however, was not what characterised Barbara.
It was sheer force of personality, strength of will and clarity
of mind that made her tower over her contemporaries. Twelve
and fourteen hour days were the norm (we are talking about
someone in her seventies here) and crisis driven output the
name of the game. She thrived on a three crisis morning, followed
by a good lunch.
Opposed to the European Union as a capitalist club, Barbara
sought to reform it from within the European Parliament. For
many, reform was merely a turn of phrase. For her, it was
a mission into which she threw herself with passion. Election
to the European Parliament in 1979 as Leader of the British
Labour Group followed the death of her husband Ted who had
previously been a member of the non-elected British delegation
to the EC prior to 1979.
Most delegation leaders (many of them ex Prime Ministers)
preferred to sit on the Foreign Affairs Committee. "Hot
air and travel", sniffed the flame-haired torchbearer
of the left. Instead, she chose the Agriculture Committee
- "it's where the money goes" - and set to with
gritty determination opposing the entrenched farming lobby
and developing a fact-based intellectual argument for reform
of the Common Agricultural Policy. She led the battle on every
aspect of the ludicrous subsidy system and for vote after
vote painstakingly drew up separate whips for her Labour brood.
Drawing together academics, politicians and civil servants,
Barbara slaved to produce a serious document opening the door
to the beginnings of reform. Barbara's approach was always
more confrontational than the European way of compromise resulting
in skirmishes sometimes lost on tactics rather than substance.
Some of her continental Socialist colleagues found it difficult
to understand the confrontational approach born of long years
in the House of Commons and her antipathy to endemic wheeler-dealing.
She railed against undemocratic methods but they loved her
all the same for she was a linguist, hard working and a charmer
too. Fluent enough in French polished up from her University
days, Barbara took up German lessons "so as to be able
to swear at Rudi Arndt" (a giant from Frankfurt at one
time President of the Socialist Group and possessor of a somewhat
bullying style). Holidays when she was not digging the garden
and walking the dogs at her beloved Hell Corner Farm in the
Chilterns were spent on language courses in assorted parts
of Germany and France.
As well as style, Barbara had a great sense of fun. She knew
precisely when to fight a feminist battle for more women in
top posts, and when to flirt outrageously with some younger
man so as to enlist help with carrying a bag, or even with
an older one to press a political strategy. In a place where
status counts irony was used to cut down the many sycophants
- often proving tough for the interpreters. But she treated
with respect those prepared to stand their ground and argue
Always moving on to the next battle, Barbara would be at
her desk in Strasbourg, Brussels or England by 8 am, puffing
ciggies (never in public) and furiously bashing away at articles,
policy amendments, voting lists or the latest reform paper.
The inefficiencies of a multilingual assembly meeting in
three countries drove Barbara up the wall on a daily basis.
So, too, did the rigorous time slots (up to 4 minutes only)
for speeches in the European Parliament. Her style, best seen
in public meetings, was slowly to work up to a fury. Trying
unsuccessfully to reform procedures more in line with the
House of Commons, Barbara did succeed in having a Question
Time slot introduced, now popular with MEPs of all countries.
For all her opposition to the faults of the European Community,
Barbara was courageous enough to realise when it was time
to accept Labour's negative optionof withdrawal from the EC
was no longer sensible. Her pragmatic article in the New
Statesman in 1982 titled "Let Them Chuck Us Out"
proved a turning point in Labour's debate. But she never relinquished
her fight for social justice. When the Single Market was being
created she argued that every directive on the internal market
should be matched by one implementing the Social Charter.
To the journalists Barbara was always a favourite. They called
daily to seek the latest story or pithy quote. Never needing
press releases, Barbara's journalistic past gave her an instinctive
feel for the fast quotable quote. Asked about the secret of
her success, she once said "stamina, preparation and
When she finally decided to retire from the European arena
in 1989 it was not to quiet country walks, but to the House
of Lords to continue her life-long battle for a better deal
for the underdog.
In our new age of technocrats she leaves a big hole at the
heart of the Labour movement.
Anita Pollack, MEP for London South West from 1989 to
1999, was political assistant to Barbara Castle from 1980-89.