March 20, 2014 2:11 pm

‘Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life’

Roy Jenkins playing tennis with his wife Jennifer at their home in East Hendred, Berkshire on March 20 1976©Hulton Archive/Getty

Roy Jenkins playing tennis with his wife Jennifer at their home in East Hendred, Berkshire on March 20 1976

Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life, by John Campbell, Jonathan Cape, RRP£30, 832 pages


It never fails to amaze me how far one can get in democratic politics without ever mastering the fundamental skill of the trade: dealing cleverly and courteously with people one considers inferior. Mitt Romney came remarkably close to the US presidency without ever managing to do a plausible impression of a functioning human. Al Gore got even closer, though he was astonishingly churlish and charmless in situations he didn’t think mattered much.

Of all the not-quite British prime ministers since the second world war – from Rab Butler to Ken Clarke – perhaps no near-miss is regretted more widely than that of Roy Jenkins, a man of remarkable erudition, sagacity, foresight and even high principles.

Long ago I was told the story of how, with the leadership of the Labour party in the offing in the 1970s, he was encouraged by some of his supporters to break the habit of a lifetime, go into Annie’s Bar at the Commons and buy some of the troops a pint – at that time MPs chose their leaders with no outside help. So Jenkins marched in, went up to a group of horny-handed backbenchers and offered them all a drink, which they accepted with cheery gratitude. He shelled out for his round then said: “I’m terribly sorry not to join you, but I’ve got an important engagement” and marched out again.

This anecdote does not make it into John Campbell’s huge biography. Maybe it is not even true but it certainly rings true, and politics is about perception not reality. Campbell does mention one MP who said he would vote for Jenkins if he – just once – said “good evening” to him. It never happened. The image of Jenkins as Lord Snooty was persistent and, as his biographer makes clear, justified.

Perhaps if Jenkins had been a real toff, he would have understood the importance of such details. Instead, he was the son of a Welsh coal miner, though by the time Arthur Jenkins’ only child was born in 1920, the father was a full-time union official, and heading towards the House of Commons himself. He never lost touch with his roots, though; his son did.

This book appears at a poignant moment, days after the death of Tony Benn, almost Jenkins’ polar opposite in the convoluted Labour politics of the 1970s: Jenkins on the right, Benn on the left, although their personal relationship was quite cordial. Of the other major Labour figures of that era only Denis Healey, now 96 and another of the nearly-men, is still with us – plus, as it happens, Jenkins’ three companions in the Gang of Four, who led the breakaway from Labour in 1981: Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and Dr David Owen. From their defection came the formation of the Social Democrats, the alliance with the Liberals and hence the modern Liberal Democrats.

Relations here were more complex. Owen emerges from Campbell’s book as the only fellow politician Jenkins ever actually hated, and Healey was the one person who struck a jarring note when Jenkins died, aged 82, in 2003: “For him so many issues were matters of principle.” This was not meant as a compliment.

One can imagine how Jenkins might have irritated his colleagues, with his superior air and his ability to get through a lot of work (he wrote two dozen books, some of them outstanding) without ever knowingly missing a mealtime, almost always with several glasses of good claret thrown in.

But given the career he did have, there was a certain amount to be superior about. His grave describes him simply as “writer and statesman”, not the obvious order. And the fact is that the word “statesman” sticks to him better than to any other British political figure of the past half-century. (Note to Thatcher partisans: statesmanship, or stateswomanship, implies not just principles but an ability to comprehend the other side of an argument. On those grounds Mrs T counts merely as a highly effective politician.)

Former labour ministers (left to right) William Rodgers, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and David Owen with some of the funds sent by supporters of their Council For Social Democracy, at their offices in Queen Anne's Gate, London, on February 18 1981©Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty

Former labour ministers (left to right) William Rodgers, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and David Owen with some of the funds sent by supporters of their Council For Social Democracy, at their offices in Queen Anne's Gate, London, on February 18 1981. The council shortly announced the launch of the Social Democratic party

Did Jenkins achieve anything? Well, one can argue he was the political father, or grandfather, not just of the Liberal Democrats, now in government; but of Tony Blair and New Labour; of the euro (during his stint of president of the European Commission); of the current coalition; and of the whole post-Thatcherite social consensus.

He forged his reputation in Harold Wilson’s administration in the 1960s, a timid and fiddly government in which few reputations were made. He was rapidly promoted from outside the cabinet to the Home Office, where he became the most progressive – possibly the only progressive – home secretary within living memory. Though he held the job less than two years he ushered in a series of reforms, some of them ludicrously overdue, that helped formed the backdrop to the decade: legalisation of homosexuality and abortion; abolition of flogging in prison and of theatre censorship; introduction of police reform and a Race Relations Act. Jenkins would have got rid of capital punishment had not his predecessor, Sir Frank Soskice, effectively done that already.

When Wilson’s doomed policy of defending an impossibly high exchange rate collapsed, Jenkins became a much-admired chancellor, opting for economic rigour rather than pre-election bribery, a policy that (take your pick) either cost Labour the 1970 election or gave them credibility that saved them from a much worse defeat. Either way, when the party lost power his reputation was sky-high: both as a bold and decisive minister and as a brilliant parliamentary debater, when that still mattered. At 49, he was the obvious heir to an already discredited leader.

But amid the confused oppositional politics of the early 1970s Jenkins lost ground. He was a europhile in a party that was becoming increasingly anti; a social democrat in a party that was moving rapidly leftward; and he allowed himself to be identified with a well-fed coterie, instead of reaching out to the middle-ground backbenchers in the bar and tea room.

Labour crept back into power unexpectedly in 1974; Jenkins, his position weakened, was denied both the Foreign Office, which he coveted, and a return to the Treasury. Instead he had to go back to the Home Office, which was far less fun now, because the reform agenda had run its course and the main issue was IRA terrorism. When Wilson resigned two years later, Jenkins came a poor third in the poll to replace him and scuttled off to the Brussels presidency (where he was nicknamed “Le Roy Jean Quinze”).

He returned to the Commons in a by-election triumph in 1982, as the outstanding figure of a new SDP that looked as if it might sweep Thatcher out of power. As it might have done, had not that drunken oaf General Galtieri invaded the Falkland Islands just a week later, and transformed Thatcher’s reputation from that of an irritating woman out of her depth in Downing Street to something akin to that of Boadicea, warlike mother of the nation. Time and chance; time and chance.

John Campbell, already biographer of Thatcher, Edward Heath and Aneurin Bevan, has produced a volume that looks forbidding but reads magnificently – a riveting and vital contribution to an understanding of postwar British politics. Campbell starts from a position of self-confessed hero-worship but towards the end seems to be getting rather irritated with his subject, and not just because Jenkins’ own popular political biographies involved less painstaking research than his own. His post-political life, crowned with the chancellorship of Oxford university, was grand, comfortable, satisfying and more than a mite smug; a reference to Toad escapes Campbell’s pen somewhere past page 700. The subtitle is a bit double-edged too. Personally, the further I read, the more I admired Jenkins and the less I liked him.

The details of Jenkins’ longstanding habit of maintaining at least two posh mistresses, often the wife of a close friend – will not be news to close students of the tabloid press. In his early, indulgent phase Campbell represents the attitude of Dame Jennifer Jenkins, his wife for 58 years, as one of phlegmatic boys-will-be-boys acceptance (“Jennifer accepted that Roy was ‘gregarious’ and had . . . exceptional sexual energy. She was actually grateful – ‘within limits’ . . . ”). I thought it the least convincing passage in the book.

Three other snippets all came as news to me. One is that Jenkins probably slept with Anthony Crosland, his undergraduate friend and later political rival, at least once at Oxford when Crosland was flamboyantly homosexual. Another is that Jenkins was involved in a firing-range incident during his national service when a bystander was killed accidentally; the blame is unclear but may have left some hidden scarring.

The third is Jenkins’ late-life habit of getting exercise by walking round and round the tennis court of his Berkshire home for 45 minutes every day. He lived in lovely countryside (of course he did). Couldn’t he have bought a dog or just rambled the fields by himself? Going round and round a tennis court smacks of a rather incurious nature.

A bit more curiosity outside his comfort zone might also have led him into the Commons bars and tea room and, very possibly, into 10 Downing Street.

Matthew Engel is an FT columnist

John Campbell will be talking at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on Sunday March 23,

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