Book review: Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell

How would the “best prime minister we never had” have judged the record of New Labour? Positively.
April 23, 2014















Gang of Four: the founding members of the SDP (from left) William Rodgers, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and David Owen in 1981

© Getty images

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To do Roy Jenkins justice is a tough challenge for any biographer, but John Campbell has pulled it off. Justice does not mean hagiography. But Roy Jenkins was a complex, radical and courageous politician, unmatched in the 20th century, and he merits this long but very readable tome. Jenkins is firmly in the grade of “best prime ministers we never had” and had he not resigned as Labour’s deputy leader in 1972, over the original Europe referendum, he would almost certainly have become leader and prime minister. He cultivated and received deep loyalty from his followers in the party and had a strong, ecumenical appeal beyond it. He may, as Barbara Castle once remarked, have found it difficult temperamentally to head the Labour Party but I am not so sure: for all his “high” living and academic snobbery he got on well with working people and the “old fashioned” sort of Labour activists. It was the oppositionist, “them and us” class warriors he could not stand.

Jenkins tended to retreat when the political atmosphere became intolerable. He found salvation in travel, in his prodigious authorship—he wrote more than 20 books, including bestsellers on Asquith, Gladstone and Churchill—and, of course, his famously energetic social life. But in between, he was a brilliant Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1960s, and again in the Home Office in the 70s. He was a wonderful Commons performer in his day, a good speechmaker on the stump and a compelling personality on radio and television before the onset of soundbites and photo-opportunities. Yes, he was sometimes insufferably immodest. But he had a lot to be immodest about.

He certainly had a charmed life. Born into Labour aristocracy as the son of a Welsh miner who became Clement Attlee’s close parliamentary aide, Jenkins was brought up as a pampered only child, taking every advantage of his parents’ devoted attention and good schooling. My mother was taken as a girl by her Labour cabinet minister father, Herbert Morrison, to stay with the Jenkinses in their Pontypool home and recounted being pitted against this impossibly self-assured youngster. Campbell describes the young Jenkins as a “studious boy… unusually—indeed, obsessively—numerate.” It was just as well that Roy later found a wife in Jennifer, who was his equal in intellect and political judgement, meeting Roy’s needy and sometimes self-indulgent lifestyle while pursuing a satisfying professional life of her own.

Let me declare my bias. I am a strong pro-European, a closet liberal in Home Office matters and centrist in my politics, so inevitably I am a Roy Jenkins fan. I also hope my approach as a minister was similar to his, although daily social lunches washed down by a fine claret were, for good or ill, not a New Labour trait.

Which brings me to the interesting question: was Roy Jenkins the begetter of New Labour or did his “betrayal” nearly finish off the party before New Labour approached the drawing board?

The question arises because after he left parliament in 1976 to become, the following year, the first (and, I bet, not last) British President of the European Commission in Brussels, he quit Labour. This followed what he saw as the hard left’s takeover of the party and its subordination to trade union power. (The latter was an inevitable consequence of Labour’s—including Jenkins’s—fatal climbdown in reforming industrial relations and attempting to place the unions properly within the law.)

In deserting the party, Jenkins created further space for the left, which they occupied enthusiastically. In his Dimbleby lecture, a year before his return from Brussels in 1981, he set out the arguments for “breaking the mould” of two-party British politics and forging a new centrist political movement spearheaded by moderates like himself. This was not an attempt to de-ideologise politics. He saw himself as a progressive, a modern social democrat whose politics had not broadly changed since he first started battling against “tribal” leftism in the 1950s and early 60s. In those days he spoke out strongly in favour of Labour’s “paramount task” to “represent the whole of the leftward-thinking half of the country… and give that half some share of power.” Now, decades on, it was not the basic leftward thinking he rejected but the Labour Party’s credibility in advancing it. His lecture subsequently spurred the Gang of Three—Shirley Williams, David Owen and William Rodgers—to switch their own allegiance to a political alternative to Labour when the party voted to adopt policies of withdrawal from Europe, unilateral nuclear disarmament and the creation of a form of siege economy. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) was duly born in 1981 and, led by Jenkins, it quickly garnered support across the country.

It is convenient for the moderates who remained in the Labour Party, as I did myself, to argue that they were gravely weakened by this villainous exodus, and of course they were. Under pressure, moderates had already begun to move leftwards to “affirm” their Labour credentials and this made it harder for the party to respond creatively to Britain’s waning postwar settlement. It was Margaret Thatcher’s intellectual and electoral ascendency that was driving change in this period, including in the Labour Party. But the formation of the SDP had a particularly galvanising effect on Labour because the SDP was succeeding in presenting itself as the more appealing alternative to Thatcher. If Labour did not pull itself together, and fast, it would face electoral oblivion. This was the argument deployed with force by the then leader, Neil Kinnock, and the long, hard fought battle to stop the Labour Party being replaced by the SDP, and subsequently by the SDP-Liberal Alliance, began in earnest. More than a decade later, this battle culminated in Tony Blair’s victory in 1997.

Of course many think that rather than the SDP replacing Labour, New Labour simply became the SDP. I do not object to this jibe because I think Labour should maximise its moderate centre ground support as the SDP did—as long as its appeal is based on progressive policies that are radical both economically and socially.

An equally interesting question is how, had he lived beyond January 2003, Jenkins would have judged the overall record of New Labour as a worthy progressive successor to the SDP. Iraq apart (as Campbell shows, Jenkins had been suspicious of the use of force internationally ever since the “humiliation of Suez” in 1956), I think he would have broadly approved, with some important caveats.

Economically, he admired the government’s performance, although he did not live to see the financial crisis. He told me he thought Gordon Brown was a good Chancellor. He might have taken his foot off the spending pedal a little earlier than Brown but Jenkins firmly believed in high quality public services and opposed their privatisation or market reform. He supported income re-distribution—his own Budgets did not spare the rich—and he believed the goal of a centre left party was to “lean against inequalities.”

Where he disagreed with New Labour was over the Treasury’s determined blocking of Britain’s entry to the European currency. As Commission President, Jenkins had overseen the design of the progenitor of Europe’s single currency and he had high hopes of Blair leading Britain in at the beginning of his premiership. Blair certainly favoured entry and Jenkins urged him to hold a referendum on the principle of joining while his political authority was still strong. But, facing stiff opposition from his key supporter, Rupert Murdoch, and his nemesis, Gordon Brown, Blair faltered and Jenkins’s disillusionment with him grew, as this book chronicles. (Nonetheless, Campbell writes that Jenkins “could not help liking [Blair] and remained determinedly unbitter” towards him.) I doubt Jenkins’s fervour for the single currency would have been dented by the eurozone’s later near-collapse. When it came to Europe, he was ever the optimist.

On Home Office matters, in the balance between prison security, punishment and rehabilitation, for example, and the rights of the accused, Jenkins was not an enthusiast for Jack Straw’s approach. He would have found it easier to live with both Charles Clarke’s and Alan Johnson’s later tenures. Jenkins was not soft on crime and he had been tough in introducing the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1974. He also prepared the legislation in 1967 for the exclusion from Britain of the Kenyan Asians. Where he would have applauded Blair’s government was its introduction of strengthened rights and civil partnerships for homosexuals. Jenkins was not gay himself except in the old-fashioned sense of that term (and despite his university liaison with his dashing Labour contemporary, Tony Crosland) but he pioneered the liberalisation of homosexuality in the 1960s, along with repeal of the obscenity laws and theatre censorship. His record was thoroughly damned for its “permissiveness” thereafter by the Conservative Party until David Cameron became leader and ushered his party reluctantly into the modern age.

Jenkins’s biggest personal disappointment was not a matter of policy but the failure to bring about a permanent progressive alliance of Labour and the now fully merged Liberal Democrats, having again been encouraged by Blair’s early enthusiasm for this project. Jenkins’s contribution was to chair a commission on electoral reform but Blair neither implemented this nor brought about the wider realignment. The trouble for Jenkins was that he did not believe Blair ever properly tried. This is unfair: had the political cards been stacked differently—notably if Labour’s majority in 1997 had been smaller—Labour would have looked more solicitously towards the Lib Dems, and vice versa, and Blair could have pushed the agenda more decisively. Perhaps on this topic Ed Miliband will choose to pick up where Tony Blair left off, should next year’s general election result force him to do so. In which case Jenkins’ big smile will beam down upon him in No 10.

Which leads to a final question of whether, overall, Jenkins’s political career was a success or a failure. Campbell argues that he lacked the “single-minded ambition” required to become prime minister, but endorses Jenkins’s own judgement that his Home Office reforms in particular were “significant and worthwhile.” As Home Secretary, the social revolution he drove and the balance he struck between order and liberty have come under pressure but not been fundamentally overturned. On Europe, yes, there is now widespread scepticism about the EU’s institutions, but there may be a deeper underlying acceptance of it as the appropriate vehicle for Britain’s engagement with the modern world. And the New Labour tenets that Jenkins believed in—a mixed economy, strong public services, social mobility, and multilateralism abroad—may no longer be called New Labour but are not being seriously challenged in the party. All told, that is not a bad legacy for a man whose political career spanned nearly 50 years, with only eight of them in actual ministerial office.

Jonathan Cape, £30