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.

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

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