A 1977 portrait of Roy Jenkins. (Photo: Jane Bown/The Observer)
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The broken legacy of Roy Jenkins

He was the most successful chancellor since the 1940s and the most radical home secretary since WW1, responsible for the abolition of the death penalty, the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the SDP. Yet a decade after his death, his social-liberal world-view is in crisis.

Roy Jenkins died in the liberal establishment’s equivalent of the odour of sanctity. He was a devoted chancellor of Oxford University, equally at home entrancing undergraduate audiences with a mixture of wit and grace, and conferring honorary degrees on the world’s great and good. He belonged to the select band of recipients of the Order of Merit, one of few politicians to have done so since the order was founded. He had been the most successful chancellor of the Exchequer since Stafford Cripps in the 1940s, and the most radical home secretary since Winston Churchill before the First World War. The two great liberal reforms of the 1960s – the decriminalisation of both homosexuality and abortion – were sponsored by backbenchers, but they would not have reached the statute book without his deft and resolute support from the Home Office. In the 1970s, he was responsible for the path-breaking Sex Discrimination Act and the creation of the Equal Opportunities Commission. No one had done more to overcome the Pecksniffian intolerance that had ruined so many lives in the old days.

In a different sphere, he had led the Yes campaign in the 1975 European referendum to a crushing 2:1 victory. He had been the first – and to date the only – British president of the European Commission. In this role, he had played a leading part in setting up the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, the forerunner of today’s eurozone. His 1979 Dimbleby Lecture, calling for a realignment of British politics around the “radical centre”, had opened the way for the creation of the Social Democratic Party 18 months later. As SDP leader, he had been the prime mover in the creation of the SDP-Liberal alliance, which won the highest third-party vote in 60 years in the first general election it fought.

After much bitterness, and with Jenkins as midwife, the alliance had given birth to today’s Liberal Democrat party. Charles Kennedy, the Lib Dem leader when Jenkins died, followed a Jenkinsite path. More remarkably, Tony Blair’s pro-European and revisionist “New” Labour Party seemed anxious to occupy the political territory that the SDP had staked out nearly 20 years earlier. The tolerant, outward-looking and reformist social liberalism that had been Jenkins’s lodestar since his forties seemed securely embedded in the political culture.

A decade later, his legacy looks more problematic. Despite a promising first term, New Labour turned out to be a disaster. Ed Miliband’s attempts to breathe life into the battered and humiliated Labour Party that lost the 2010 election have so far borne little fruit. The Liberal Democrats have whored after the false gods of Orange Book market fundamentalism. Their reward has been a slump in their poll ratings. The eurozone has imprisoned southern Europe in a deflationary economic straitjacket, tailored in Berlin. On a deeper level, the second most serious crisis in the long history of capitalism has called into question the complacent economic and political assumptions that underpinned the reformist, social-liberal world-view.

Self-evidently, Jenkins cannot be blamed for any of this. He can’t even be blamed for failing to realise that his version of social liberalism was living on borrowed time. But the contrast between political success in life and political failure after death raises questions about the former, just as Napoleon’s exile in St Helena raises questions about his achievements before his invasion of Russia. Sadly, John Campbell’s stylish and absorbing new biography, Roy Jenkins: a Well-Rounded Life (Jonathan Cape, £30), fails to ask them. His Jenkins is Jenkins as he would have wished to be remembered – not without the warts exactly, but with warts he was happy to acknowledge.

For most of his life Jenkins was a highly ambitious professional politician. He was born in that nursery of political talent, the South Wales coalfields, the only child of adoring parents. His father, Arthur, was a miner who had gone down the pit at the age of 12 and had risen to become vice-president of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, a Labour MP and parliamentary private secretary to the Labour leader Clement Attlee. Thanks largely to his father’s encouragement, Jenkins won a place at Balliol College, Oxford, another nursery of political talent. He fought his first parliamentary election in 1945, aged 24. He was elected in a by-election in 1948 and sat in the House of Commons until his departure for Brussels in 1977. In 1982, shortly after his return to Britain, and representing the SDP, he was elected in another by-election, this time for Glasgow Hillhead, after a barnstorming campaign marked by nightly feasts of oratory at packed meetings, reminiscent of Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign a century earlier. He held the seat in the 1983 general election, but lost it in 1987. He was an MP for a total of 33 years, well over half his working life.

But, as Campbell emphasises, Jenkins was a politician with a difference. To use a term coined by his near contemporary and unforgiving rival Denis Healey, he rejoiced in a non-political “hinterland” – good food, better wine, ruthless croquet, railway timetables, wonderfully wide-ranging and sometimes hilarious talk, travel, books, smart clubs, mostly smart friends and very smart lovers – that expanded steadily with advancing years. His literary output was prodigious. In 1948, the year of his election to parliament, he published his first book, an uninspired biography of Attlee. This was followed by a jaunty account of the pre-1914 Liberal government’s battle to clip the wings of the House of Lords and a biography of Sir Charles Dilke, a late-Victorian Liberal politician, ruined by a lurid divorce case.

In 1964, on the eve of his appointment to Harold Wilson’s first government, Jenkins published his best book, a biography of Herbert Asquith, prime minister from 1908 to 1916. In retirement, he published a host of slighter works; a mellow and endearing autobiography; and two bulky biographies, one of Gladstone and the other of Churchill. In a writing life that spanned 55 years, Campbell tells us, Jenkins published 22 titles. He had been a professional politician for most of his working life but a professional writer for virtually the whole of it.

Campbell, a professional writer, too, is a sure guide to the literary element of Jenkins’s non-political interests. His occasionally contorted treatment of the rest of the hinterland is another matter. As is now de rigueur for biographers, he spends a lot of time on the sex life. Campbell resurrects an old story – that in their undergraduate days, Jenkins was seduced by the then homosexual Anthony Crosland – but the only source he cites is “private information”. His quotations from their correspondence, though, make it pretty clear that there was a homoerotic element to their relationship. That phase in Jenkins’s life ended when he and Jennifer Morris (daughter of Parker, soon to be Sir Parker Morris) fell in love at a Fabian summer school at Dartington Hall in August 1940. From then until his death more than 60 years later, Jennifer was his sheet-anchor. She cosseted him, did her unsuccessful best to persuade him to eat and drink less, created a warm and welcoming atmosphere for entertaining, bore him three children and tolerated his infidelities. She was, and is, a great lady; I wish Campbell had devoted more space to her.

He devotes a lot of space to the infidelities, and very revealing they are. Jenkins had two long-term extramarital lovers (“girl friends”, as Campbell unhappily calls them). Both were married to close friends. One was Caroline Gilmour, wife of the leftish Conservative politician Ian Gilmour and daughter of the 8th Duke of Buccleuch, owner of vast estates in the Borders. The other was Leslie Bonham Carter, an American heiress and the wife of Mark Bonham Carter, Asquith’s grandson. In themselves, these liaisons did not matter much (except, of course, to those involved). But, like Jenkins’s studied, slightly off-posh accent, his membership of Brooks’s Club and his increasingly patrician manner, they were part of a pattern that mattered enormously.

His “girl friends” were not just charming and attractive; they were also well-born and in the social swim. To understand him, we should strip away the Balliol carapace and see him for what he was: a captivating, mercurial, passionate and surprisingly vulnerable Welsh arriviste, determined to storm the heights of London and New York society as well as to climb the greasy pole of politics. In the last chapter of his 1991 autobiography, he asked himself whether he was “an establishment Whig” or a “persistent Radical”. The answer is that he was neither. He was a would-be establishment Whig, with occasional forays into radicalism. His forays were courageous and sometimes pathbreaking; they helped to make Britain a more civilised place to live in. But they never led him beyond the comfort zone of the bien pensant intelligentsia.

That applied to his liberal reforms as home secretary and his “relaunch” of monetary union as president of the European Commission. Ironically, it also applied to his Dimbleby Lecture and his role in the SDP. In the party’s early days, Ralf Dahrendorf, the future Lib Dem peer, commented acidly that the SDP stood for a “better yesterday”. That wasn’t true of the SDP as a whole. It certainly wasn’t true of the restless, sometimes almost feverish radicalism of David Owen. But it was true of Jenkins.

Like the French army in 1940, he was fighting a defensive war, immured in an ideological Maginot Line. I have no right to blame him; I followed him into the line. In any case, blame games are beside the point. What matters is to learn the lessons of the past. Unrecognised by Campbell, the lesson of his book is straightforward: in the harsh climate of the 21st century, bien pensant liberalism is no longer enough.

David Marquand’s “Mammon’s Kingdom: an Essay on Britain, Now” will be published by Allen Lane in May

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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