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

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.