THE BEST PRIME MINISTER BRITAIN NEVER HAD

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jenkins-coverRoy Jenkins – A Well Rounded Life

By John Campbell

Vintage

ISBN: 9780224087506

RRP – $80

Reviewed by Anne Henderson

THE BEST PRIME MINISTER BRITAIN NEVER HAD

As the British Labour Party campaigned for a new leader in 2015, favourite contender Jeremy Corbyn’s position as leader presumptive provoked much comment. Comparisons with the election of Michael Foot as Labour leader abounded. Foot’s election came at the end of two decades of Labour division between the left followers of Aneurin Bevan and those on the right supporting former Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell. Denis Healey’s loss to Foot, aged 67 and frail in health, in the election of a new Labour leader in November 1980 was a victory for the left at a time when the new Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher was struggling with the inflationary economy it had inherited.

The election of Michael Foot had repercussions for Labour – none of them happy. Foot took Labour on a strong left wing policy lurch – anti-Europe, unilateral nuclear disarmament and power to the unions.  This saw the emergence of the “Gang of Four” made up of former Cabinet ministers Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers. Their break from Labour led to the establishment of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) after 28 more Labour MPs joined the “gang”. The Labour Party would forever blame these “traitors” for its further sixteen years in opposition.

Parliamentary and party politics is a crude game. Losers dot the history books – as do timely winners. In the second half of the twentieth century – in British politics – one clear winner was Roy Jenkins even though he never achieved his ambition to become Labour Party leader or prime minister. His life, as prolific author, as deputy Labour leader, as cabinet minister, as President of the European Commission, as founder of the SDP, and as Chancellor of Oxford University has been much reported and discussed in print. And now, in John Campbell’s 749-page volume Roy Jenkins – A Well Rounded Life, the details, and highs and lows of that long and full life – both public and private – have been well and truly aired. It is a monumental work which befits its subject matter. Campbell’s detail goes beyond the life of one highly achieving individual. His study also sheds much light on the British Labour Party and its machinations, an evolving political institution which in the post war period became more and more the product of highly educated professionals, far distant in character from the working poor their party had been created to represent.

With his trademark Labour background as the son of a Welsh coalminer, Roy Jenkins lived for almost his entire life as anything but. Jenkins’ father Arthur had certainly followed his own father “down the pit” at age 13, but he had also swatted over twelve years after that at night school and discussion groups and won a miners’ scholarship to Ruskin College at Oxford where exceptional working class lads might acquire higher learning. Another scholarship sent Arthur to study for ten months in Paris where he emerged fluent in French and with serious contacts among leading French socialists. Back in Wales, Arthur soon made his career as a unionist, serving also as a councillor and governor of school boards. In 1935, Arthur became the MP for Pontypool.

Roy, born in November 1920, was the only son of mature aged parents. While his mother Hattie was highly protective and he was seven before he attended school, Roy had quite an adventurous time with his father who took him on his political travels whenever he could. Young Roy, coalminer’s son, recalled seeing the Empire Exhibition at Wembley at age three. He went to union meetings all over South Wales and beyond, enjoyed “semi-celebratory meals” in fine hotels, often enough in London, and went abroad to Brussels with both parents, aged eight, where his father attended a Socialist International meeting. At ten, Roy spent six days in Paris. His earliest education was thus amongst an adult world of public meetings and good hotel cuisine. That Roy Jenkins MP, of the moderate Labour faction, became notorious for never missing lunch, however busy, with select friends, colleagues or contacts should not surprise. As the Labour Party struggled to maintain unity over its policy on Europe in 1971, Jenkins missed a vital vote in Shadow Cabinet because “he had gone out to dinner (with David Watt of the Financial Times)”. He could also drink copious amounts and not show it. The jokes abounded in cartoons – “Claret not red” was one catchcry.

Campbell’s exacting study of Jenkins’ life reveals not only a high achiever but a man who could both enjoy a rich life and an industrious one. Myths put about by rivals that he was lazy – deriving no doubt from his love of fine dining, travel and life among the establishment (his farewell dinner as a Labour MP with a group of his closest male friends included an Astor and a Rothschild) – are dealt with not only by Campbell’s arguments to the contrary but by his detailed examination of just how hard Jenkins worked.

After winning a place at Oxford’s Balliol College in 1938, Jenkins read philosophy, politics and economics – the “Modern Greats”. At Balliol, among bright scholarship students and old Etonians, he shrugged off much of his shyness and devoted a large part his time to the Oxford Union and its debates. His relationship, intellectual and sexual, with the precocious Tony Crosland dominated his early years at Oxford until, at a summer school, he met Jennifer Morris, daughter of the town clerk of Westminster and studying at Cambridge. Their relationship would lead to marriage in 1948 and be a lifetime partnership, outliving Roy’s numerous affairs as Jennifer turned a blind eye and even continued her friendships with some of the women he bedded.

It was not until 1948, after a number of attempts to gain a seat in parliament, alongside his active participation in the Labour Party and excellent Labour connections including his father’s friendship with Labour PM Clement Atlee, that Jenkins won the by-election for Central Southwalk, a seat that was to be merged with North Southwalk before the next general election. In late 1949, Jenkins secured the nomination for the seat of Birmingham Stechford which he held until his retirement as a Labour MP in 1976. But these were just select significant moments in his political career.

By 1948, Jenkins was also building a career from his writing, begun when his late father’s good friend PM Atlee offered Jenkins the job of editing a volume of his speeches to which Jenkins wrote a three-page introduction. Published in 1947 by Heinemann, it set Jenkins up. Atlee also offered Jenkins his papers to write his biography and Heinemann not only offered a good advance but the option on Jenkins’ next two books. Over a full political career, Jenkins would earn more from his writing – with the exception of his years as Cabinet minister – than from his day jobs. Jenkins was not only a fine writer, he was also prolific – producing four full length biographies, four shorter biographies, two biographical collections, and an autobiography, along with countless essays, speeches, book reviews and general commentary. Only Winston Churchill outdid him in this outpouring of journalism.

In an age that focuses so intensely on prime leader figures and star performers, Roy Jenkins’ influential life on the political stage during the second half of the twentieth century illustrates far more than the struggles of a dominant figure – it ranges vastly over the networks and make-up of our democratic systems. Jenkins came to politics, as many leading figures have done, with a sense of it, bred in it from his earliest days. But he would also move with his times and become a figure embodying changes that shaped both the politics and history of that era. And, while he appeared to Tony Benn to be “shattered” after failing to gain the Labour leadership following Harold Wilson’s retirement because he realised, as Benn put it, “he can’t ever be Leader of the Labour Party”, Jenkins seemed to others to not really have the qualities of organisation – the skill of drawing individuals to him that is required to lead.

As Harold Wilson struggled to unite the left and right divides of Labour over Europe and nationalisation of industry in 1972, and his leadership became tenuous, Campbell writes that Jenkins hesitated – “he did not want to risk splitting the party”. Colleagues such as Tony Benn and Barbara Castle felt that he was itching to break from Labour but Campbell believes they underestimated “the pull of his Labour roots”. What Jenkins wanted was a stronger and clearer leadership. The question was whether he had the qualities for that. As Campbell notes, deputy editor of the Guardian, John Cole, made a shrewd observation at the time, in a review of Jenkins’ slim volume of lectures published as Afternoon on The Potomac, that Jenkins was “more of an architect than a builder”. That is, Cole believed Jenkins could “see the vision” but questioned whether he could “shift the bricks”.

Through the years he was a Labour MP, Jenkins’ essential pragmatism about politics, heavily influenced by Labour’s Hugh Dalton, ensured his moderate position as a Gaitskellite. In the turmoil surrounding the poisonous atmosphere of the Labour Party’s 1952 conference, Jenkins often saw the aspirations of its leftist ideologues as delusional, especially in their pacifist leanings, and warned the party to have confidence in its democratic socialist ideals for a classless society. In opposition, he believed strongly that the party should always position itself as an “alternative” government and its policies had to match that challenge. This also meant Labour must “accept the need for defence expenditure commensurate with Britain’s reduced but still significant weight as a middle-ranking power”. Much of what Jenkins argued, over two decades, was ahead of its time for Labour. It should not surprise that, in policy terms, Jenkins was more than ready for the era of New Labour and Tony Blair when it arrived.

Jenkins’ most influential time as a minister came in the mid 1960s when, as Home Secretary, he pushed through legislation for reform of UK laws against homosexuality and abortion. When Harold Wilson struggled with monetary jitters and ruinous strikes, Jenkins’ name came forward as an alternative leader. His disdain for Wilson’s muddled administration was always articulated as a criticism of a government that had no long term plan for anything. The financial crisis of July 1966 had meant postponement of the Labour’s social welfare promises made at an election just four months earlier.

In November 1967, Jenkins was made Chancellor of the Exchequer – swapping jobs with a disappointing Jim Callaghan – as such, given his chance to put right much of what he saw going wrong. While his time as Chancellor of the Exchequer could be said to have been advantaged by coming in after the struggles over devaluation, Jenkins had a lot of ground to make up. In pushing for large spending cuts, Jenkins won points with the left by arguing successfully that Britain had to reassess it global commitments and contract its defence involvement to more current UK realities – i.e. withdrawal from east of Suez. There was also a need for a rapid increase in taxation, much of which he would achieve by more indirect taxes and a “special charge” on higher incomes. Jenkins’ battle with Cabinet for his package lasted twelve days in an unprecedented eight meetings, or 32 hours in total. The outcome was a Jenkins victory – described best by Tony Benn who opined, “My opinion of Roy rose. I don’t regard him as having any principles, but today in argument, getting all that he wanted from his colleagues, he was very impressive.”

For all Jenkins’ ease in High Tory company, and a feeling among many Labourites that he was not really a Labour man, it was the European question that finally put Jenkins at odds with the Labour leadership. In 1971, the Conservative government of Ted Heath sought to pass legislation in support of Britain joining the European Common Market. Jenkins was seen as the leader of a rebel group of Labour MPs who supported the Conservative legislation which Labour opposed. Campbell writes that on the day the legislation to join the Common Market passed, with the support of a significant group of pro-European Labour MPs, “this was the proudest moment of Jenkins’ career. For fifteen years, second only to Heath, he had been the most prominent advocate of Britain belatedly joining the Community.” The battle over the right to vote for a Tory bill would be long and bitter. It threatened Jenkins’ deputy leadership and, no doubt, cruelled his chances of becoming leader. That, and his indifference to younger members of the parliamentary party or those who were not part of his elite lunching squad. As Campbell writes: “There were too many younger Labour Members whom he had never taken the trouble to get to know. One MP of moderate views was reported to have said that he would vote for Jenkins if he once said, ‘Good evening’ to him in the division lobby; but he didn’t so he didn’t.”

The swings and roundabouts of British politics in the late 1960s and 1970s owed a lot to a troubled economy much as Australia sees itself facing in contemporary times – likewise an electorate which was not used to government cuts to spending. In Jenkins’ Budget broadcast in March 1968, after handing down what Ted Heath called “a hard cold budget”, Jenkins spoke of Britain “living in a fool’s paradise” for years. As Australian voters watch a two-party seesaw today, it is timely to recall the hard yards required to bring a nation to its sense about what must be done in economic reform. Ultimately, Jenkins would leave UK politics to take up the European presidency well before the inevitable and draconian economic medicine the Thatcher period would force on British voters.

Jenkins missed politics during his time in Brussels, but he did achieve more for his Britain in Europe campaign there than he had done at Westminster. He even found himself sitting between his former colleague, then British PM, Jim Callaghan and France and Germany, negotiating Britain’s place in Europe. One prescient judgement Jenkins made at the time was feeling dubious about Greece being allowed to join Europe. Ironically, another of his judgements was not so prescient. After meeting opposition leader Margaret Thatcher in 1977 in Brussels he diarised of Thatcher that she, “wasn’t tiresome, but left one with not the faintest sense of having been in the presence of anyone approaching the high quality of a great statesman or stateswoman, or even of someone who was likely to grow into this”. How ironic that was. Perhaps the Jenkins’ bar for statesmanship was simply too dependent on the blokey world of clubs (he belonged to quite a number) and old boy bonhomie. But then, his Tory friends – in particular the aristocratic Ian Gilmour – had advised him Thatcher would not last.

Jenkins walked the political stage with the confidence of a long time player, safe in his milieu of contacts and his broad experience of the globe – even spending a week or so Down Under during his travels as an MP. But his sense of Britain’s interests was securely with Europe and the US where he had high-end contacts in the Democratic establishment, as well as Arthur Schlesinger and J K Galbraith who were to become lifelong friends. He was also close to Jackie Kennedy and her sister Lee Radziwill. As Jenkins argued that Britain should be part of Europe, to his Labour colleagues in 1971, he scorned any need to protect the Commonwealth as “mere sentimentality” saying that Australia was “the toughest, roughest, most self-interested government” he had ever had to deal with.

In a sense, John Campbell has captured – in one larger than life political figure – the political spirit of Western politics in the second half of the twentieth century. Jenkins lived his life to the fullest – much helped by a wife and partner who was his equal intellectually, tolerated his weaknesses, ran his households fully so he was never caught by domestic responsibilities and inspired his various ambitions. It was a life he recorded minutely, even every meeting – over meals or not – and the time each took. His writings, like Churchill’s, also left much evidence of his personality and thinking. For all that, it is an irony that his last words were a request to his wife Jennifer for “two eggs lightly poached”.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War