Roy Jenkins, Europe and the Civilised Society
- Extra Reading
Roy Jenkins was Home Secretary from 1965 to 1967 and again from 1974 to 1976. He sponsored homosexual law reform and the legalisation of abortion as well as legislation outlawing racial discrimination. He helped create what its supporters called the civilised society but its enemies labelled the permissive society. During the 1970s, Jenkins’s support for European unity put him at odds with many in the Labour Party; and in 1981, he helped found the new but short-lived Social Democratic Party. Meanwhile, as President of the European Commission, he had played a fundamental part in launching the idea of European monetary union.
This is a part of the lecture series, Making the Weather: Six politicians who shaped our age.
Winston Churchill wrote of Joseph Chamberlain, Colonial Secretary at the beginning of the 20th century, that, even though he never became Prime Minister, he 'made the weather', meaning that he played a crucial role in shaping the political agenda of his day. These lectures discuss six postwar politicians, none of whom became Prime Minister, but who, like Joseph Chamberlain, also made the weather and so helped to shape the age in which we live.
The other lectures in this series are as follows:
Aneurin Bevan and the Socialist Ideal
Iain Macleod and Decolonialisation
Enoch Powell and the Sovereignty of Parliament
Tony Benn and the Idea of Participation
Sir Keith Joseph and the Market Economy
15 January 2013
Roy Jenkins, Europe and the Civilised society
Professor Vernon Bogdanor
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the third lecture in the series “Making the Weather”, on post-War politicians who did not become Prime Minister, but had as much impact (and maybe more) than those who did become Prime Minister. The first lecture was on Aneurin Bevan, responsible for the National Health Service and a great spokesman for democratic socialism. The second was Iain Macleod, responsible for the rapid pace of decolonisation and a great spokesman for progressive Conservatism. This lecture is on Roy Jenkins, who has three very great achievements to his credit: his liberal legislation as Home Secretary in the 1960s; his strong support for European unity; and his support for the idea of realignment on the left.
But first, we shall listen to his voice. This is a recording of him speaking in 1975 at a rather rough meeting in East London where he was being attacked by militants from the left-wing of the Labour Party. As you will see, they threw flour bombs, but he handled it with great aplomb.
I think that conveys something of the flavour of Labour Party disputes in the 1970s!
I wonder how many listening to Roy Jenkins would have been able to guess that he was of Welsh origin. Someone once said to Aneurin Bevan that they did not think Roy Jenkins was ambitious. “Not ambitious?!” Bevan replied. “Anyone who comes from South Wales and learns to speak like that must be very ambitious!”
Roy Jenkins was born in 1920 in Abersychan in South Wales, around twelve miles from Tredegar where Bevan was born. More remarkable still, Roy Jenkins’ background was very similar to that of Bevan’s: he too was the son of a miner.
His father had gone down the pits at the age of twelve, and worked underground for 24 years. In 1908, he won a scholarship to Ruskin College Oxford, and then he went to France where he learnt French. After 1918, he became a District and County Councillor for the Labour Party. The most striking episode in the career of Roy Jenkins’ father occurred in 1926, soon after the General Strike, at the time of the Miners’ Strike (and which continued when the General Strike was over). Roy Jenkins’ father was a picket in that strike, and he was accused and convicted of illicit assembly and sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment, though he actually served only three months.
Now, many Labour MPs with such a pedigree would have made much of it. One Labour MP said to a journalist at the time, “If my father had been a Welsh miner who’d gone to prison during the General Strike, you would never have heard the end of it.” But Roy Jenkins never used or mentioned it. Part of the reason for that was his fastidiousness. To speak of his origins or to exploit them for purposes of political advancement would have struck him as highly distasteful. But there is another equally important reason and it is this: his father was not proud of being arrested during the Miners’ Strike – he was rather ashamed because he was a respectable and law-abiding figure. Roy Jenkins’ father said that, although he had been organising the picket, he had not sought to incite but to pacify the people. While the left-wing thought he had been right to cause a riot and was a working class hero, Roy Jenkins’ father said he had been seeking to prevent a riot but had been set-up by the police, and he insisted that trade unions, like everyone else, were subject to the law. Indeed, he later became a Justice of the Peace, as his wife, Roy Jenkins’ mother, did also. The General Strike had a paradoxical effect on Roy Jenkins’ father: it made him more law-abiding and, in a sense, more sympathetic to the Labour Party Establishment and less sympathetic to the left-wing than he had been before. Politically speaking, he was to the right of his son, Roy.
Roy Jenkins said that the main effect of all this on him was to make him sceptical of convictions that were based solely on the evidence of the police; he said that this was not a bad way for a Home Secretary to be.
But all this was kept hidden from the youthful Roy Jenkins. As I say, he never used it, and he was certainly not proud of it, any more than his father was. But it is fair to say that he was sometimes accused of snobbery. When he was asked at Oxford where he came from, he did not say “Wales” but “The Marches”.
Meanwhile, his father became a figure in what you might call the Labour Establishment: trade union official, Councillor, and in 1935, he became a Labour MP for Pontypool and then a Parliamentary Private Secretary to Attlee, Leader of the Labour Party. He would undoubtedly have gone further in politics but he died in 1946. This helped Roy Jenkins’ career. He became close to Attlee and his first book was a short biography of him, written in 1948.
Now, although Jenkins’ background was similar to that of Bevan’s in many ways, the family was rather more comfortable. Jenkins’ father had enough money to pay the fees for Roy to go to Oxford. Unlike Bevan, who did not go to university, he had a very good education at Balliol College Oxford. Whereas Iain Macleod, my second figure, wasted his time at university, doing very little except becoming a professional bridge player, Roy Jenkins did extremely well. He gained a First in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, which he claimed played no real part in his life, but this must, I suspect, have increased his self-confidence.
He also became involved in political activity and led a breakaway from the left-wing (indeed, Communist-dominated) Labour Club at Oxford and formed a Democratic Socialist Club. This perhaps prefigures what happened in 1981, when he broke with the Labour Party to form the Social Democratic Party (the SDP).
Following military service, he hoped, but failed, to secure a safe seat in 1945, but was elected in a by-election for Southwark in 1948. That was a seat which was to disappear in the boundary changes. In 1950, he won the seat which he held for 27 years in Birmingham: Birmingham Stechford. It is fair to say he never really fell in love with Birmingham. He is recorded in Richard Crossman’s diaries as once lighting a cigar and saying, as the train pulled out of Birmingham, “Don’t you always feel an enormous sense of relief at this point?”
He rapidly established his reputation in Parliament in a number of different ways, firstly as an author. I have already mentioned the book on Attlee. In 1954, he published a short book on the 1911 battle between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, which had culminated in the Parliament Act. This book had a title which I think he later regretted: Mr Balfour’s Poodle. It refers to a remark made by Lloyd George that the House of Lords was not the watchdog of the constitution but the poodle of Mr Balfour, the Conservative Leader. However, this was misunderstood in some bookshops, I gather, and was sold in the section devoted to pets rather than the constitution!
He then wrote two more biographies, one of Sir Charles Dilke, a Liberal Leader of the 1880s, and then of the Liberal Prime Minister Asquith, which was published in 1964, shortly before Labour won power.
He also established his reputation as a prominent backbencher and, rather remarkably and unusually, he pioneered an important piece of legislation, the Obscene Publications Act. This established a test of literary merit for works which people intended to ban, so that could overcome any accusations of obscenity. This was the legislation that enabled Lady Chatterley’s Lover to be published in 1960 after a famous trial: Penguin Books v the Crown. In a sense, it led to the last gasp of the old establishment: when the QC appearing for the Crown said “Is this a book you would like your wife or your servants to read?” the jury did not accept the implication and allowed Lady Chatterley’s Lover through. That was a remarkable achievement for a backbencher.
Now, when he entered Parliament in 1948, the Labour Party was arriving at a split between the right and the left. In the 1950s, these battles became very strong, and Roy Jenkins sided with the right-wing of the Labour Party. This meant was that he took the view that socialism was not fundamentally about nationalisation or about public ownership, which tends to be the view of the left-wing, but about equality, and that equality could be secured without major public ownership, but by fiscal means, by redistributive taxation.
He became very friendly with Hugh Gaitskell, who was elected Labour Leader in 1955. He took the view, as Gaitskell did, that Labour was too opposition-minded and this would never satisfy a rather conservative electorate (with a small “c”). They believed that the left-wing, and Aneurin Bevan in particular, would rather frighten the public. Jenkins became very close to Gaitskell and he later said, “I admired and indeed loved him more than anyone else with whom I have ever worked in politics.” When he was unexpectedly asked on Desert Island Discs, 27 years after Gaitskell’s death, who was his political hero, he said immediately Gaitskell.
However, in the early 1960s a subject of dispute came between them, and it is a subject which still wracks British politics: namely, Europe and the Common Market, as the European Union was then known. Roy Jenkins was a strong supporter of Europe, whereas Gaitskell was what would now be called a Euro-sceptic.
In 1960, Roy Jenkins made the first of his resignations. He resigned from Labour’s frontbench to campaign for Europe. He was deeply upset when Gaitskell came out against Europe, and he made a famous remark, which many people may think is still true. He said that joining Europe would mean that Britain would become subsumed into a federal state, and that would mean, in Gaitskell’s famous words, “the end of a thousand years of history” - a grave mistake.
But this friendship was interrupted only briefly, and respect remained between the two of them. Shortly after making this speech, Gaitskell died, tragically early and unexpectedly, in January 1963.
Rather paradoxically, Harold Wilson - who succeeded Gaitskell and who Roy Jenkins did not care for very much - actually helped his advancement, in an ironic, perhaps tragic, way. Wilson was more prepared to advance Jenkins than Gaitskell had been. Gaitskell was very careful about the accusation that he was advancing only his friends, and Wilson felt he needed to conciliate someone who had been on the other side in politics. So, Jenkins’ political prospects were enhanced, in an odd way, by Gaitskell’s death and the succession of Wilson.
When Labour came to power in 1964, Jenkins was appointed Minister for Aviation; a year later, he became Home Secretary, a key position in the government. He was only 45 and, as he said proudly (he was rather addicted to collecting facts about previous politicians), he was the youngest Home Secretary since Winston Churchill in 1910.
His tenure at the Home Office was regarded by those who worked with him as an outstanding success, and his Permanent Secretary, Sir Philip Allan, who had been at the Home Office since 1934, said that he was by far the best Home Secretary he had ever known.
In his book, The Labour Case, written in 1959, shortly before the election, which Labour lost, Jenkins said that one of Labour’s main aims should be to ensure the State did less to restrict personal freedom than it did; the State should not restrict freedom, it should expand freedom in people’s personal lives. The first thing that he wanted reformed was what he called the “ghastly apparatus of the gallows”, capital punishment. That was being abolished when he became Home Secretary. It was not due to him. It began under his predecessor, but it was abolished while he was Home Secretary. However, he would certainly have abolished it if it had not already been in the process of being abolished.
He ended flogging in the penal code and the prison discipline code, and he reformed the criminal justice system by a much wider use of bail and parole and more suspended sentences. He also reduced the numbers going to prison.
He also introduced majority verdicts for juries, which was a controversial matter at the time.
But the issues for which he is best known are the reform of the homosexuality laws and the reform of the abortion law. In both of these cases, the measures reforming the law were not Government measures, but measures arising from Private Members’ Bills. In the normal course of events, Private Members’ Bills will not get through Parliament because Governments will not find time to debate them – they are usually talked out on Fridays, and a Private Members’ Bill has no chance of success unless the Government will give it time.
On these matters, which were thought to be matters of conscience, the Government thought it was inappropriate to legislate. This was particularly the case with regard to abortion, as there were Catholics in the Government who were against it on principle. But the Government did agree to give private Members time so that these bills had a chance of getting through, and that was largely Roy Jenkins’ doing – it was his pressure that led to extra time being found.
The first of these major bills was homosexual law reform, which was passed in 1966, despite the fact that opinion polls at the time indicated a majority against the reform. The second reform was on abortion, making abortion legal, which resulted from a Private Members’ Bill from the future Leader of the Liberal Party and a colleague of Roy Jenkins in the Liberal SDP Alliance, David Steel.
Thirdly, Roy Jenkins introduced a Race Relations Act, which made it unlawful to discriminate on grounds of race, colour or ethnic origins in public places, and he set up the Race Relations Board, which has now been transmuted into the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
He was instrumental in the abolition of theatre censorship. Before Jenkins became Home Secretary, there was a figure called the Lord Chamberlain, to whom all plays were submitted. He decided whether they could or could not be performed in public. This was an invidious task which most Lord Chamberlains did not like.
The Private Members Bills caused some controversy because people said that this was wrong that the Government was succeeding in obtaining the passage of controversial laws without accepting responsibility for them; they were trying to get the best of both words because much of this so-called permissive legislation was unpopular with voters and perhaps particularly with Labour voters. But the argument in favour of what Jenkins was that granting time merely allowed the House of Commons to decide and it did not follow that it would decide in favour of reform – in fact, with a Labour Party majority, it did.
Roy Jenkins was by far the most liberal Home Secretary Britain had seen since the War, and that was particularly unusual in Labour Party terms. The Attlee Government had been a much more successful Government than the Wilson one in its social and economic reforms - the Health Service, National Insurance, and so on - but on the whole, it had been fairly authoritarian in connection with matters of morality and conscience. It was, for example, in favour of the retention of capital punishment and it was not going to legislate on homosexuality. Perhaps the working class constituency that supports the Labour Party is more authoritarian than people who vote for other political parties, and critics of Roy Jenkins said that working class people were more likely to be victims of crime and therefore would suffer from a more libertarian penal policy. Be that as it may, Roy Jenkins is the only really liberal Home Secretary that the Labour Party has ever produced, more liberal even than some liberal Conservative Home Secretaries.
Critics, particularly those in the 1980s, said that Roy Jenkins had introduced what they called the permissive society. During the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit tended to say that he was responsible for a lot of the social problems that Britain had at that time, through his legislation.
Jenkins replied that he had not created a permissive society but what he called a “civilised society”: “If you think my legislation is so poor, why don’t you amend or repeal it?” But, in fact, it has not been amended or repealed in any serious way. No Government would contemplate reversing the reform on homosexual law reform. There are of course suggestions for slightly tightening the abortion laws, but I do not think there is a serious move towards making abortion illegal, as it was before the 1960s. These reforms are permanent, they have survived, and I think they are almost all that have survived of the Wilson Labour Government from 1964 to 1970. The economic reforms, on the whole, have not lasted – the planning machinery, the incomes policy, and all the rest of it. They have not lasted, but these reforms have, so that is the first great achievement.
His second great achievement was to become Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was appointed Chancellor in late-1967, a difficult and desperate moment for the Labour Party because, coming into power in 1964, it had fought a three-year rear-guard (and unavailing) battle to prevent devaluation of the Pound. The Pound was eventually devalued in November 1967. We then had fixed exchange rates, not a floating rate as we do now. This was seen as a defeat for the Government, and it destroyed the confidence it had fought so hard to maintain. Sterling reserves were very low and there was a great possibility of a second devaluation; people were very worried about that.
Roy Jenkins said that the only way to avoid that was what he called “two years of hard slog”, which were serious cuts in public expenditure. As a result, many of the Labour Party’s favourite policies had to be abandoned. For example, prescription charges were introduced, the raising of the school leaving age from fifteen to sixteen was postponed for four years, and there were severe cuts in roads and housing expenditure.
In Roy Jenkins’ first budget, in 1968, there were massive increases, primarily in indirect taxation – Purchase Tax, which was the predecessor to VAT, vehicle licence fee, betting tax, petrol duty, tobacco duty, wine and spirit duty, every single indirect tax you can think of - and he increased taxation by nearly a thousand million pounds, which was over twice the increase in any previous budget, including wartime.
There was a cartoon by the famous Osbert Lancaster about this in the Daily Express at the time, where Maudie Littlehampton says, “Were I a non-smoking teetotaller, with a brand new car, mad on collecting savings certificates, and living in an under-developed country, I’d say Mr Jenkins has done a splendid job!”
But oddly enough, this very tough budget won enormous applause, and one Labour backbencher said, “Never has pain been inflicted with greater elegance.”
Iain Macleod, who did not care for Jenkins very much, wrote in the Spectator, “Mr Jenkins is the vogue. If he had stood up on Budget Day and recited the list of trains arriving at Victoria Station, the trendier commentators would have been breathless with admiration.”
That was followed by two more tough budgets, increasing taxation by a further £600 million. By 1969, the balance of payments was back in surplus, and there was a Government surplus - as opposed to a deficit, which is what we are more used to now. Indeed, this was the only surplus that Britain had in the budget between 1936 and 1987. Roy Jenkins’ reputation was at its height, and had the Labour Party won the Election in 1970, which appeared likely, he would have been appointed Foreign Secretary and most likely would have been the successor to Harold Wilson as Prime Minister.
His Budget in 1970 was moderately generous, but not as generous as later critics would have liked. But the fact that it was a moderately generous budget misled Harold Wilson into holding an early General Election, which he lost. Later on, critics of Jenkins said he ought to have had a more generous Budget than he did. It is fair to say the Treasury said he was being too generous, so perhaps he was right – he was in the middle.
The defeat of Labour was a great surprise to Jenkins, as indeed it was to most commentators. The week before the Election, the Economist had a cover with a picture of Harold Wilson and Roy Jenkins together, with the caption “In Harold Wilson’s Britain”. The assumption made by everyone was that Labour would win the Election. But Labour lost, and the Conservatives were back in office. This was going to damage Jenkins because it was likely that the Party, in opposition, would swing to the left, as in fact it did.
Nevertheless, Jenkins had again won admiration at the Exchequer, as he had at the Home Office, and his Permanent Secretary, Sir Douglas Allan, said, “He was the finest Chancellor I ever worked with.” He had these two encomia from his top civil servants.
Now, the 1970 General Election really led to a very considerable and radical alteration in British politics because it heralded an age of economic crisis and political polarisation, unprecedented since the end of the War. In that atmosphere, Jenkins’ consensual, rather rational, moderate, middle-of-the-road style would be at a discount – he would not be able to handle that as well as the earlier years of consensus.
At the same time, Jenkins began to question many of the assumptions he had held about politics since 1945. The 1970s was an era of transition, both for the country – the transition to Thatcherism - and an era of transition for Jenkins, which resulted in him leaving the Labour Party and forming the Social Democrat Party.
Now, the key question facing people on the right of the Labour Party throughout the ‘70s was whether the Party could be rescued in the name of the kind of moderate, tolerant, pluralistic form of social democracy which Roy Jenkins believed in. At first, it seemed that it probably could, but by the end of the decade, Jenkins was not so sure. He first sought to win over the Labour Party to try and conquer it for his own point of view, but then he decided to break with it.
Labour in opposition swung, as it so often does, to the left, and the issue on which the left/right battle was fought was Europe. The left-wing came to attack Wilson, Jenkins and the Labour leadership for supporting British entry into Europe. Since Edward Heath was leading Britain into Europe, it became a popular attack on the Tory Government. Roy Jenkins was in a difficult position because he supported Heath in securing entry to Europe.
Wilson himself was faced with a challenge to his leadership by the Shadow Home Secretary, James Callaghan. Although he had supported Europe in office, Callaghan was coming out against it in opposition. He made use of a speech given by President Pompidou of France, who had said, quite innocently I think, that French ought to be a major language in the Community. Callaghan made a speech, known colloquially in Labour Party circles as “the language of Chaucer speech”, in which he said: “If you are saying that the language of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth should be downgraded in Europe, then I have only one thing to say to you, and since there should be no misunderstanding, I will say it in French: Non, merci beaucoup!” That was a demagogic speech but, as you can imagine, it had some resonance with the British public, as perhaps a similar speech would today. This was a great threat to Wilson’s leadership.
Jenkins said to Wilson, “If you stay firm on the Common Market, I will support you against the threat from the left and the threat from Callaghan against your leadership – I’ll make sure that your leadership doesn’t suffer if only you stick to the Common Market that you supported in office.” Wilson took the view, possibly correctly, that Jenkins and the right-wing were simply not numerous enough nor powerful enough to achieve that. Wilson veered and took up a middle position, saying that he was opposed to British entry on the terms negotiated by the Conservatives and that the Labour Party, if it won office, would re-negotiate and put the result to a referendum. There is a slight feeling of déjà vu here: it is funny how this issue comes round and round, again and again! We are talking about a debate from 40 years ago.
This put Jenkins in a very difficult position – he did not believe that. The first crisis he faced was whether to vote in principle for entry into the European Community. The Labour Party as a whole was opposing it on Conservative terms, and it was suggested to Jenkins that he take a middle position by abstaining. He said he could not do that. He thought it was a crucial issue in British politics where you had to stand up and be counted – it was like Munich, or Suez, or the Lloyd George Budget, or the House of Lords reform, or the General Strike, or any of those issues. He said that he would not want to have to say to his grandchildren, “I abstained.” So, he voted. He ignored a three-line whip to vote for entry, with 68 other Labour MPs.
But then, in 1972, he resigned as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and from the Shadow Cabinet, on the issue of the referendum. This was perhaps the wrong issue to resign on, but in those circumstances, it is no doubt difficult to find the right issue.
He then ran a campaign on Europe and other issues in which he thought the Labour Party was veering too far to the left. He took the view that Labour was going so far to the left that it would lose the next General Election, and that the pendulum would then swing back to the right, probably to his benefit.
He says in his autobiography that 1974, according to his strategy, was the year in which “temporising Labour leadership was due to receive its just reward in the shape of General Election defeat”. But just as in 1970, when the voters had very perversely declined to help Roy Jenkins by voting for the Conservatives, the voters were equally perverse in 1974 and declined to help him by defeating Labour; they actually voted Labour back into office, by the narrowest of majorities - four seats. In fact, the Conservatives won more votes, but Labour had four more seats. Roy Jenkins said, rather ruefully, in his autobiography:
“To paraphrase Wilde, getting one election wrong might have been excused as a misfortune, but to make a mistake about two pointed to carelessness, though in mitigation of my misappraisal, no one could have been expected to foresee how much help Edward Heath would give to Harold Wilson’s return to Downing Street.”
I think the February 1974 Election was the crucial election of the post-War period, because it was not only a defeat for Edward Heath’s brand of censurist Conservatism, but also a heavy defeat for the Social Democrats, led by Roy Jenkins, in the Labour Party; it seemed to show that the Labour Party could swing to the left and still win a General Election. So it was a defeat not only for Roy Jenkins personally, but a defeat for the brand of social democracy that he represented.
In that Government, he became Home Secretary again, with rather less enthusiasm than the first time, but again, he introduced important legislation. He strengthened race relations legislation by an Act of 1976 which banned indirect discrimination on grounds of race, and he introduced a Sex Discrimination Act in 1975. But during this Government, he gradually became more and more disillusioned with the Labour Party, and he saw himself as a semi-detached member of the Government, on the outside. He was further upset when Margaret Thatcher won the Conservative Leadership in 1975 because he thought that was swinging the Conservative Party to the right, just as Labour had swung to the left, and that this would be a period of adversary politics which would not do the country much good.
Furthermore, in 1975 he took a leading part in the referendum on Europe, the only one we have ever had on Europe, which took place after we were in the European Community. We joined in 1973, but the referendum in 1975 was concerned with whether we should stay on the terms re-negotiated by Harold Wilson. This was largely a cosmetic re-negotiation and the referendum was won for the pro-Europeans by two to one. Jenkins worked with people from other parties in that referendum - Conservative pro-Europeans such as Edward Heath and William Whitelaw - but perhaps more important for the future was the Liberal Leader, David Steel. He rather enjoyed working with members of other parties, even against some in his own Party.
It was a paradox because he had resigned on the issue of the referendum, and he had tried to ensure that it did not take place. However, when it did take place, it rather reinvigorated him and led him to a different view of what politics could be about. He came gradually to sympathise with proportional representation which would, as it were, institutionalise coalition in British politics. At that time, the Labour Party was bitterly opposed to proportional representation. In a diary entry of 1974, Barbara Castle said that it was a very interesting reflection of Roy Jenkins’ mind that he was getting interested in proportional representation and coalitions.
Now, in 1976, Wilson, rather unexpectedly, resigned the leadership, and there was a contest for the leadership of the Labour Party between six candidates, of whom Roy Jenkins was one. But his appeal in Government, and perhaps the public, was always greater than his appeal to the average Labour backbencher, partly because his style of life was very different from the average Labour backbencher. He made no attempt, as perhaps other politicians would have done, to pretend otherwise. He did not pretend that he liked beer and sandwiches when he did not. He did not butter-up backbenchers in the Tea Room of the House of Commons. He was a man of government, and the opinion of civil servants as to his abilities and those who had worked with him in government, and perhaps the opinion of the public, was much greater than that of the average Labour backbencher.
But when it came to the outcome of the election, he gained 56 votes. James Callaghan was the leading figure of the right, with 84 votes. Jenkins then withdrew, but he did say that it would only have required fifteen switches from Callaghan to himself to have secured the leadership. Gradually, he felt that he was not deriving much satisfaction from his membership of the Government and he thought that he really ought to leave.
The opportunity came in January 1977 when he became President of the European Commission. He resigned his seat in Parliament and went into Europe, and he was the first British President of the European Commission. He was, to date, the only one, and I suspect that if we remain on the outer fringes of the European Union, there will not be another.
In this position, he was again a very creative figure. It was Jenkins who raised, or rather resurrected, the question of European monetary union: that is, the Eurozone. He secured support on his own terms for the European Monetary System, which was a great achievement. This meant that exchange rates should be fixed by the European countries – each country would maintain its own currency - the Pound, the Mark, the Franc and so on - but they would be fixed in terms of other European currencies. It was a step towards the Euro as he saw it.
That came into existence in March 1979. Britain did not join until October 1990, in the last months of Margaret Thatcher’s term in office, shortly before she resigned as Prime Minister, and against her better judgement. We left, or perhaps we were forced out, in September 1992, on what pro-Europeans called Black Wednesday and anti-Europeans called White Wednesday. This confirmed the hostility of many towards the Euro.
But whatever one thinks of that, Roy Jenkins was one of three Presidents of the Commission to have a real substantive impact.
Now, in 1979, when Callaghan, the Labour Prime Minister, went to the country, Roy Jenkins did not vote; he found the Election depressing, with Labour switching to the left, and the Conservatives to the right. Later that year, he gave the BBC Dimbleby Lecture, called Home Thoughts from Abroad, in which he advocated a realignment of British politics based on proportional representation and coalition government.
His chance of doing that came in 1981 when three people who had remained in Labour politics joined with him to form the so-called Gang of Four: Shirley Williams, David Owen, and Bill Rodgers. This was a breakaway party allied with the Liberals. Courageously, Jenkins decided to stand, in what seemed an unpromising constituency as a safe Labour seat, in Warrington, in a by-election in 1981. He was defeated by just 1,700 votes, which he said was his first defeat in 30 years in politics, but nevertheless “the greatest victory in which I have ever participated”, because it showed that the Liberal SDP Alliance was a living force.
Then, in the spring of 1982, he was returned for Glasgow Hillhead, as an SDP Member of Parliament, and for a brief heady moment, it looked as if the Alliance would, in the terminology of the time, “break the mould”, i.e. the two-party system. Its support in the polls at one time was 50%, but then it gradually fell. After the Falklands War, support swung back to the Conservatives, and the Alliance proved to be a victim of the first-past-the-post system in politics: it won 25% of the vote in 1983, the highest for a third party since the 1920s, but not enough to break through – just 23 seats.
Jenkins then resigned the leadership and, in 1987, he lost his seat in Glasgow. His last speech in the House of Commons, interestingly enough, was against the restoration of capital punishment. After his resignation, the SDP collapsed, under the leadership of David Owen, in recriminations and squabbles, so it really got nowhere.
There was compensation for him at the time of the defeat in 1987 because he was elected Chancellor of Oxford University - a rather ceremonial position, which he greatly prized - and he became a member of the House of Lords. He returned to his earlier career of writing books, and wrote very good biographies of Gladstone and Churchill. The latter was written when he was 80, 50 years after his first book on Churchill’s great opponent, Attlee. He said that it was harder to be a writer than a Minister, harder when you faced a sheet of blank paper than to be a Minister when your civil servants help you through the committees and so on. I suspect that is actually true.
He became a mentor, late in life, to Tony Blair, and hoped for a realignment of politics in 1997. Blair was sympathetic to that, but Labour’s majority was too large to make it possible. If there had been a hung parliament or a small Labour majority, it would have happened.
He chaired a committee on electoral reform, which, not surprisingly, recommended a moderate form of proportional representation. Tony Blair promised a referendum, but that was something of a politician’s promise because he did not say when it would happen.
The last book he wrote appeared before he died, called Twelve Cities, and it was very much written in his own style. He said of Birmingham, which he had represented for so many years: “It was not a city which easily clutches the heartstrings.” There was a brilliant parody of it by Craig Brown, the satirist, in Private Eye, which I will read an excerpt from:
“Hainault is, one might almost suggest, the most oxymoronic of tube stations, being on the Central Line but very far from central, east of Woodford, yet south of Grange Hill, it is not a station with which I would claim an instinctive and intimate relationship, rather one which I would say has always greeted me most warmly, offering to carry my bad, whilst stopping short, as it were, of asking me in for a bottle of hallway-decent claret.”
Shortly before his death, Roy Jenkins wrote to Craig Brown praising what he called his “very funny, unwounding and even affectionate parody” – he rather liked it.
Near the end of his life, he had lunch with John Major, who asked him if he regretted not being Prime Minister. In reply, Jenkins asked whether John Major ever regretted that he had been Prime Minister!
Jenkins said, I think rather typically:
“I rather think I would have liked being Prime Minister in retrospect rather more than I would have enjoyed it at the time… This thought raises the question of how much I was truly at ease with power. It is not a thought which I suspect much troubled the minds of the great determined leaders of history. Napoleon was not looking forward secretly to writing his memoirs, whether at St Helena or elsewhere, and even those multi-volume memorialists and politicians of genius, Lloyd George and Churchill, never doubted that they were happier in 10 Downing Street, even in the darkest days of War, than they could ever be on the hills of Wales or in the painting groves of the South of France… I may have avoided doing too much stooping, but I also missed conquering… But at a personal level, looking around does not lead me to feel envy of those who have been Prime Minister.”
He said in his memoirs that he was perhaps not ruthless enough. Possibly, he could have seized power from Wilson when Wilson was very unpopular in the late-‘60s. He said, “People who effectively seize the prime ministership – Lloyd George, Macmillan, Margaret Thatcher – do not let such moments slip by.” I am slightly doubtful whether he could have seized the premiership, but it is an open question.
I think it is reasonable to say that his influence on politics was as great as, if not greater than, many who have held the office of Prime Minister. He was the leading libertarian and internationalist of post-War British politics and showed great political courage on many occasions – on his resignations, on the European issue, his list of liberal reforms, obscene publications, abortion, homosexuality, and his willingness to court unpopularity as Chancellor by increasing taxation.
Roy Jenkins died in 2003. Before this, he felt that some of his great causes were not prospering. In 1999, he said to the writer Robert Harris, with whom he formed a late friendship, “I have three great interests left in life: the single currency, electoral reform, and the union of the Liberals with Labour, and all three are languishing.”
He dreamt, near the end of his life, of a reconciliation with David Owen. However, the dream had been ruined because Owen had said, “Roy, it really is wonderful to see you again, especially as you now agree that, on everything we disagreed about, I was right and you were wrong!”
I think it is fair to say that his causes have languished since his death. There has been a political realignment, but on the right, through the current Coalition. I think that Roy Jenkins would have opposed this because, although he was on the right of the Labour Party, he was strongly anti-Conservative. He never sympathised with Thatcherism, he was against the rule of the market, and he was in no sense a strong nationalist but a strong European, which probably cannot be said of this Government. I think he would have opposed the present Government, and his closest allies in the House of Lords - Shirley Williams, Lady Williams and Lord Rodgers - are also moderately sceptical towards this Government.
Of course, on the subject of Europe, he wanted Britain to join the Euro; for him, Europe was arguably more important than the Labour Party. It was his fundamental cause. Obviously, we are much further from joining the Euro than we were when he was alive, and the Euro is now facing much greater difficulties than he might have anticipated.
But there is a great deal of his legacy that remains. The main aspect is the liberal society, the emphasis on greater personal freedom, which I think is irreversible.
The fact that the Labour Party is much closer to the SDP that Jenkins helped form in the 1980s than it is to the Labour Party that he left in 1981, is also important. The Labour Party is now, broadly speaking, the sort of social democratic party that he could have supported.
He is also to be remembered for his tremendous executive ability; he was arguably one of the top five Ministers in Government since the War. He had great executive ability, in all the positions he held – Home Secretary, Chancellor, and President of the European Commission. He was brave, honourable and clear in what he believed in, and prepared to fight hard for it. He was a man of great integrity and loyal to his friends, and perhaps the last really literate Member of the House of Commons who read very widely.
He said of his greatest political friend in his early years, Hugh Gaitskell, that he has left a memory “which is in standing contradiction to those who wish to believe that only men with cold hearts and twisted tongues can succeed in politics.” I think the same can be said of him and, like Aneurin Bevan and Iain Macleod, he leaves behind the thought of what might have been.
Thank you very much.
© Professor Vernon Bogdanor 2013
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