Resolved to be irresolute

Observations on Roy Jenkins

Roy Jenkins was a biographer of great politicians, but he was never one himself. At best, he was a gifted failure, too fastidious to get his hands dirty in the rough old game of politics, too remote to understand and sympathise with those whom he aspired to lead. To see him, when he was Labour's deputy leader, visiting the various regional parties that abound at the annual conference and recognising no one there was to share his embarrassment. It was especially so when his path crossed with Harold Wilson, who seemed to know everyone.

Though Wilson's father, a chemist, was slightly higher in the social scale than Jenkins's, a miner, one would never have known it. Jenkins's skill in making his background disappear might have made him a member of the Magic Circle. Wilson excelled in the working men's clubs in the north; Jenkins was unrivalled king of the Reform, Pratt's, the Beefsteak and the Athenaeum, among others, where few working men spent their evenings. Jenkins's clubland acolytes probably did him more damage than any wound he inflicted upon himself. When I dubbed them "the Reform Club Mafia", Roy Hattersley (no less) went to Wilson to complain; he was told to "get a sense of humour".

Jenkins said of Wilson that "he is a person no one can like, a person without friends", by which, presumably, he meant that Wilson's friends were not his. By comparison, Wilson was kind to him, except in his private moments, when he labelled him "Old Beaujolais" and complained of his laziness, saying that "he never works after seven o'clock in the evening" - a practice that Wilson couldn't understand. Jenkins's patrician airs and publicly paraded principles were always guaranteed to get his goat. Wilson once exclaimed to me, resentfully, that he was fed up "with all the shit thrown at me while Roy rides by on a white charger".

In the late winter of 1969-70, Wilson asked Jenkins, his chancellor, to take sixpence (2.5 pence in our present currency) off income tax to help Labour win the general election planned for June 1970. Jenkins primly refused, ensuring that his reputation as a man of integrity remained intact, even if Labour's spell of power did not.

Jenkins split the Labour Party when he resigned from the deputy leadership over Britain's policy towards the Common Market. Wilson had given an explicit promise to Harold Lever, a man with a foot in both camps, that whatever he was required to do to keep the party united he would do but that, in the end, he would ensure Labour remained in active support of our European membership. Presumably Jenkins knew of that promise, but he didn't believe it.

Wilson's greatest anger with Jenkins came some three years before the split when, after meetings with the TUC over Barbara Castle's white paper In Place of Strife, designed to curb wildcat strikes, the cabinet was finally faced with deciding whether to legislate despite union opposition. As the cabinet wavered, Wilson asked his chancellor to state his view, knowing that Jenkins had been with him and Castle from the start. "I will go along with the majority," replied Jenkins. Wilson never forgave him.

Nevertheless, Wilson was remarkably fair to Jenkins in early 1976. Shortly before his secretly planned retirement in March, he was approached by the German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, and the French president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, seeking his agreement to Jenkins being appointed president of the European Commission. Their first choice had been the German-speaking Denis Healey, but Giscard feared French opinion would prefer a candidate fluent in French. Wilson didn't believe for a moment that Jenkins could win a leadership election but, if he had been appointed to the Commission before Wilson's announcement, then Wilson would have been accused of denying Jenkins his chance to be prime minister. He stalled Schmidt and Giscard. Jim Callaghan, after his leadership triumph, let Jenkins go to the Commission.

The truth about Jenkins's politics is that he took the easy way out and disguised it as the path of principle. He could have stopped the constant gossip about the toppling of Wilson, but didn't. He could have stayed as deputy leader and helped keep the party together, but chose not to. He could have supported Wilson and Castle over In Place of Strife, but retreated from it. He could have fought Militant in the early 1980s, but plumped for the Gang of Four instead. When it came to the crunch, he was, in the words Churchill used to describe Baldwin, "decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift".

Joe Haines was chief press secretary to Harold Wilson, 1969-76