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Roy Jenkins’ unfinished revolution

What Labour can learn from how the “liberal and radical” reformer changed Britain.

By Simon Jenkins

When Keir Starmer looks back over past Labour prime ministers, the one said to catch his eye is Harold Wilson. We can only reply, each to his own. But we might ask which Wilson was it? In 1965, a year into Wilson’s first term of office, the Liberal leader Jo Grimond savaged him in a Guardian article as a failed reformer. He called him competent but not radical, and certainly no liberal.

The ever-sensitive Wilson was deeply wounded. He duly summoned his 44-year-old junior minister at aviation, Roy Jenkins, and promoted him to be home secretary. Jenkins was a writer and member of Labour’s sociable Frognal (or Hampstead) set and not altogether to Wilson’s liking. But as a backbencher in 1959 he had sponsored a private members’ bill liberalising “obscene publications”. He seemed the right man to see off Grimond and the Guardian.

At the time, Britain’s attitude to social and sexual behaviour, crime and punishment, had barely changed since the 19th century. Homosexuals were in jail, abortion was illegal and the last hanging had taken place as recently as 1964. Labour’s manifesto had made no commitment to reform any of these areas. With other things on his mind, Wilson was disinclined to engage in controversy.

When Jenkins arrived at his new post he found his office grimly decorated with a picture of Charles I and the names of prisoners previously awaiting execution. As he outlined his reform agenda, his austere permanent secretary, Charles Cunningham, flatly objected and did everything to obstruct him. At one point he even broke down in tears. Jenkins pushed him into retirement and brought in a new permanent secretary, Philip Allen, from the Treasury. He restaffed his private office from outside the department under his personal aide, John Harris. Allen recalled his own first instruction, “There was work to be done, and to be done at once.”

There ensued one of the most sensational bursts of social reform in British history, one that took place in the fewer than two years before Jenkins was transferred to the Treasury. Though hanging had been suspended by his predecessor, Frank Soskice, he formally ended capital punishment. He banned flogging in prisons, radically eased divorce and introduced parole and suspended sentences into the justice system. He went on to legalise homosexuality and abortion, introduce a tough Race Relations Act, regulate gambling for the first time and abolish theatre censorship.

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While some of these reforms were pushing at an unlocked door it was by no means open. Jenkins had to confront the initial hostility of Whitehall officials, sceptics in the cabinet, the police and the legal establishment. Many policies, such as the ending of hanging and flogging, were fiercely opposed by a mostly right-wing press. Although Wilson enjoyed a comfortable majority after 1966 and scrupulously supported Jenkins behind the scenes, he never publicly espoused his programme. He treated most issues as “free vote”, unrelated to Labour’s core task of economic reform. He told his speechwriters never to mention the Jenkins programme. Ben Pimlott’s Wilson biography merely listed it in passing.

Jenkins was thus embarking on what was virtually a personal agenda of reform. He had offered a modest foretaste in his 1959 “Penguin Special”, The Labour Case, where he asked in one chapter, “Is Britain civilised?” He declared that the state should “do less to restrict personal freedom”, and floated his various “civilising” measures. But the idealism of a young MP in his thirties was a world apart from the harsh reality of the Home Office.

Establishing command of both the government machine and the legislative process were critical. Jenkins’s first move after re-staffing his office was to seize a minor Home Office bill on parole and convert it into a major criminal justice reform. He was determined to show himself as concerned with crime as with social policy. The bill abolished flogging in prisons, improved legal aid, brought in shotgun licences and, to a storm of controversy, introduced majority jury verdicts, making conviction easier. The prison population in England and Wales sharply increased in the decade after to an unprecedented 41,000 (it is near 90,000 today).

Jenkins was relentless. He slashed the number of police forces in England and Wales from 117 to 49, appeasing the police with a hefty pay rise. After a visit to Chicago he ordered police officers to be equipped with two-way radios. He fought off regular attempts to reintroduce hanging, notably after a number of high-profile murders of police officers. There was resistance in the Metropolitan Police to his demand for the recruitment of black cadets.

At the same time Jenkins implemented his ambition to legalise homosexuality and abortion. The first had been treated as electorally toxic ever since the Wolfenden report supported it in 1957. Wilson personally opposed it, claiming it would cost Labour six million votes. Jenkins’s tactic was to use a private members’ bill by the MP Leo Abse. He vocally supported it and, crucially, ensured the whips gave it parliamentary time. Passage was finally secured only by retaining criminality for homosexuals in the merchant navy.

The same assistance was given to David Steel’s bill allowing abortion. Here resistance was intense from the Catholic lobby, and Jenkins had to resist frequent late-night filibusters. He was heckled by protesters, but he ignored them all and later gleefully pointed out that the young Margaret Thatcher had voted in favour of both.

Next, Jenkins was desperate to put an end to Britain’s archaic theatre censorship. No sooner had homosexuality passed the Commons in July 1967 than he immediately asked the cabinet for a bill abolishing the lord chamberlain’s vetting powers. This was as recommended by a committee of inquiry he had himself set up on taking office. Wilson and other ministers were hesitant at the portrayal of living people on stage. This seemed hypocritical given the hilarity that greeted Harold Macmillan’s treatment by the BBC television satire That Was the Week that Was. Wilson was fixated by the impending staging of the Private Eye satire, Mrs Wilson’s Diary. The prime minister summoned a copy of the script and ensured that eight scenes were cut.

Jenkins was adamant to the point of arrogance. When his colleague Richard Crossman chided him for so upsetting Wilson, Jenkins pompously retorted that: “I’m not prepared as a liberal and radical home secretary to have my reputation ruined.” He was said (by Crossman) even to have mooted resignation. Eventually the lord chamberlain’s archaic powers were ended, again by a private members’ bill, passed in 1968.

The most insistent and complex of Jenkins’s reforms was a drastic toughening of the law against race discrimination. A Race Relations Board had been established by Soskice but proved ineffective. Jenkins installed his friend Mark Bonham Carter as chairman and between them they fashioned a bill that gave legal muscle to a ban on discrimination on the basis of colour, race or ethnicity. It was a reform that Jenkins felt should have gone much further.

At the same time he managed to get a gaming bill announced in the Queen’s Speech of 1967, which was to license the booming and gangster-ridden betting industry. It was a work of great complexity, yet it established a legal basis for what was soon a major if not benign new industry. Finally, and almost as an afterthought, Jenkins’s last measure was to agree to “double summer time” as requested by retailers and others. It added an extra two hours to the day, and was introduced in 1968. All his reforms survived unrepealed by later governments except this one, furiously opposed by the Scots. It was abandoned in 1971, the one reform Jenkins did not mention in his memoirs.

There were some areas that Jenkins was to regret not having time to address. He was to return reluctantly to the Home Office in 1974, where his period was dominated by those twin curses on British government, immigration and Northern Ireland. Neither proved susceptible to his zeal. His most radical achievement during his second appointment was an act banning discrimination on the grounds of gender. He later admitted his failure to liberalise alcohol licensing, Sunday observance and the recreational use of cannabis. The latter would have put Britain ahead of all Europe and completed what would have amounted to a royal flush of social reform.

Jenkins erected the statutory infrastructure to what became the halcyon years of the “swinging Sixties”. Conservatives accused him of ushering in a “permissive society” under the guise of libertarianism, a charge that was at least mitigated by his somewhat aloof personality. He certainly saw his homosexual reform as anything but permissive. It was intended, he said, to remove “a great weight of loneliness, guilt and shame”.

There is no doubt Jenkins’s period at the Home Office pushed him forward among those jostling to succeed Wilson as prime minister. He had shown skill and self-confidence in handling a major department and its relationship to parliament. He was masterful at the despatch box, when the Tories under Edward Heath lacked firepower. He contrived to make the Commons his ally not his obstacle.

Jenkins’s shrewdest tactic was to present reform as a facet of social progress rather than partisan Labour government. Issues such as capital punishment, abortion, homosexuality and censorship were removed from the realm of party politics, largely through the use of private members’ bills he helped to guide through.

Westminster today finds itself in a similar predicament to 60 years ago. Successive parliaments have seemed unable to tackle overdue reforms to assisted dying, recreational drug use, prison conditions, asylum detention and freedom of speech. Progressives could reasonably expect Keir Starmer’s shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, to pick up the Jenkins baton. Like him she would have to face down a right-wing press, a reactionary Tory party and that most entrenched block on change, timid colleagues eager to avoid controversy.

What Roy Jenkins did was demonstrate a methodology. He showed how a confident and able minister could turn a lethargic political institution, the Crown in parliament, into an engine of reform. In just two years he brought about one of the great acts of postwar leadership. Could Labour do likewise today?  

[See also: Does Tony Blair deserve so much of our contempt?]

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This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink