March 14, 1977 12:00 PM

When Britain’s 50th prime minister, James Callaghan, arrives in Washington this week, he will discover that he and President Jimmy Carter have much in common.

Both are Baptists, have taught Sunday school, are owners of prosperous farms, live simply and like to retire early. Both were once regarded as outsiders by fellow politicians and are pragmatic and adept at backstage maneuvers. Callaghan even flaunts a sort of down-home folksiness, typified by his nickname—”Sunny Jim.”

Like Carter, Callaghan has inherited enormous problems. The 64-year-old Labour party leader is faced with a British inflation rate of 16.6 percent, high unemployment, dissension over home rule for Scotland and Wales, and persisting violence in Northern Ireland. And his economic problems—underscored by the declining power of the British pound—are multiplying.

When Harold Wilson, British prime minister for seven and a half years, retired last April, Callaghan was foreign secretary. He previously had served as home secretary and chancellor of the exchequer. For lack of funds, he was forced to end his formal education after high school, and has never been completely accepted as a leader by some of the more snobbish Labourites. (“It takes two gentlemen to make a bargain,” he jokes, “and I’m not a gentleman.”) Still, he managed to outflank five Oxford-educated rivals to become PM, the first since Churchill without a university background.

Born a block from the vast Portsmouth navy yard, Callaghan was the son of a chief petty officer. He was 4 when his father was killed in World War I, and he, his mother and elder sister were rescued from poverty by a $9-a-week government pension obtained by a sympathetic Labour MP. “After that,” said Callaghan later, “we were staunch Labour for life.”

As a young man, he worked for seven years as a government tax clerk, moving into politics via union activism. In 1945, after navy service, he was elected to Parliament.

He has been called a plodder and worse. Former Labour minister Lord Wigg said last year, “Jim in a moment of crisis can’t save himself, let alone the country. When he was chancellor in 1967 he trembled with uncertainty over the pound.” Henry Kissinger, unhappy with Callaghan as an intermediary in Cyprus in 1974, reportedly wrote him off as “a boy scout.”

But Callaghan’s peacemaking trips to Northern Ireland as home secretary were praised by both Catholics and Protestants. He also renegotiated Britain’s membership in the Common Market as foreign minister, and last year the Times of London called him “a man the nation can trust. His yea is yea and his nay is nay.”

Callaghan has never been accused of being flashy. He and his wife, Audrey, a factory executive’s daughter he met when both were teaching Sunday school, have been married for 38 years. (“She brought an essential element of middle-class stability to my working-class insecurity,” he says.) They spend as much time in a two-room flat in London or at their 130-acre dairy farm in Sussex as they do at 10 Downing Street. (Audrey: “He likes to walk outside and see a bit of the world before getting down to work.”) Their relaxation focuses on their three children and nine grandchildren.

Some polls indicate that if Callaghan called an election today, the Conservatives would defeat the Labour party. But he isn’t required to do that before 1979. In any case, Callaghan—who became a teetotaler two years ago—will have something to look forward to at the end of his political career. “I daresay,” he observed recently, “when I have finished being prime minister, I may have a drink again. Life won’t be nearly as absorbing as it is now. I’ll need some consolation.”

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