Roy Jenkins: A Retrospective

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Roy Jenkins: A Retrospective, edited by Andrew Adonis and Keith Thomas Oxford University Press £18.99, 353 pages

Roy Jenkins might have been prime minister. Instead he hesitated at the moment of opportunity. Yet during a political life spanning more than half a century he exercised more influence over the direction of the nation than many of the holders of the highest office. As writer and historian, raconteur and unabashed lover of fine wines, Jenkins also gave the lie to the notion that politicians can flourish only within the confines of Westminster.

People in politics remember Jenkins for different things. For a dwindling band of fervent pro-Europeans, he put principle before party by giving vital support to Edward Heath in taking Britain into the then Common Market.

A few years earlier he had been the chancellor who rescued Harold Wilson’s government from the economic chaos of enforced devaluation. It was then that he missed the chance to seize the crown. If there were later regrets about remaining loyal to Wilson, they were well-hidden: “I think I would have liked being prime minister in retrospect rather more than I would have enjoyed it at the time,” he would say.

For others, the abiding memory of Jenkins’ political life is his emergence as the leader of the Gang of Three, who broke with Labour in the early 1980s. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) failed to break the mould, but Jenkins lived to see Tony Blair carry the torch of social democracy into 10 Downing Street. For me, though, what counted most was his time as home secretary during the 1960s. Jenkins was author or sponsor of most of the liberalising legislation that broke decisively the power of the state over the nation’s social mores. This revolution has proved every bit as important as Margaret Thatcher’s economic revolution.

All this, of course, alongside a series of masterly biographies of Asquith, Gladstone, Churchill and other statesmen past. Somehow Jenkins also managed to squeeze in the presidency of the European Commission. And none of it interrupted a good lunch.

The pleasure of this sympathetic collection of essays lies in the way it paints Jenkins in all his many colours, from a childhood in South Wales to mentor to Tony Blair. What emerges, as editor Andrew Adonis observes, is a picture in which the three spheres of Jenkins’ life - politics, writing and social life - merge into one: “For Roy, biography was politics by other means, as was a large part (but not the entirety) of his social life.”

Alan Watkins writes elegantly about Jenkins’ early years in parliament and David Marquand eloquently of his spell in the Treasury. One of my favourites was novelist Robert Harris’s account of a late friendship forged between country neighbours. For several years until Jenkins’ death in 2003, the two men lunched their way across the village pubs. “One of his aims in life,” Harris writes, “was to avoid passing a mealtime alone, and in this, as in much else, he was triumphantly successful.”

The champagne and red wine that accompanied these meals never slowed him down. Nor did a heart attack in the autumn of 2000. Recuperating at home, Jenkins managed to write more than 80,000 words of his Churchill biography in a matter of two months. Harris writes admiringly: “There was something Roman about his capacity to operate on all these levels - political, literary, social - with equal energy.”

My guess is that if there was a big disappointment in Jenkins’ life it lay in someone else’s missed opportunities. When Tony Blair entered Downing Street in 1997, he seemed to share Jenkins’ big political ambitions. Yet the prime minister ultimately ducked the electoral reforms that might have unified the two parties of the centre-left as the dominant force in British politics. Blair’s second promise to his mentor - to make Britain’s peace with the rest of Europe - also proved more rhetorical than real. But we can hardly blame Jenkins for that.

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