Thursday, 17 April 2014

John Campbell, 'Roy Jenkins, A Well-Rounded Life'

this has been, kind of, the political biography of the moment. Everyone's attention was drawn to it by the reviews noting that Tony Crosland was a gayer in his young days (maybe people knew that, but it was before my time), and for a while turned Woy that way too. But there's a lot more to the book than that. Campbell sets out his stall at the beginning by saying that he was and remains an admirer of Jenkins. Fair enough. And that he got access to letters and papers and so on, and cooperation from Roy's widow, Dame Jennifer Jenkins. (I like that even after Roy went to the Lords she preferred to use the title she had won in her own right). You therefore get some tired LibDemmery early on, "ill-advised attempts to play the world's policeman" and so on. He never goes as far as Blair-hating, because of Jenkins' documented admiration for Blair and the considerable work they did together, on electoral reform, but also, and perhaps more significantly, the mentoring work Roy did with Tony before 1997.

Denis Healey is quoted, splendidly: "Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your Liberals, and possibly your Social Democrats!" This was over Finland in World War II. Healey was a communist at the time. Campbell wonders if Healey remembered those words in 1981.

Jenkins did his officer training at Alton Towers! Not then the place it is now, but a genteel establishment of tea rooms and pleasure gardens. There's a lot of good social history nuggets like this.

Campbell is well edited, only a few infelicities spotted, though he does misuse metaphors rather irritatingly: "the socialist millennium ... had run into the sand." Grrr.

Both Roy Jenkins and Harold Wilson were committed to a European single currency, with the UK being part of it, in the 1970s, and had discussions to this effect with their French counterparts once de Gaulle had packed up his veto and taken it back to Colombey-Les-Deux-Eglises. Did you know that? I didn't. Pity it didn't come to anything.

By the time Jenkins wrote his memoirs, in 1990-1, he had (rightly) taken the view that political parties "cannot resist returning obsessively to the issues that most divide them". This seems both percipient and prescient.

I did not like Roy Jenkins. He was easy to mock, at least from the late 1970s on, with his drawling artificial accent and his speech impediment and his fondness for claret. I did not like what I saw then, and still do, as the "Gang of Four"'s betrayal of the Labour cause, enabling the Thatcher years and everything that meant. It was not attributable to the Gang of Four that the Labour Party failed to implode, moved towards the centre, and gave us the Blair years. But Roy Jenkins was an interesting politician. Socially liberal, when not all government ministers were, even in the late 1960s - his numerous affairs, tolerated by his wife, were another matter, and perhaps typical of the times - an intellectual who was not as clever as he thought he was, pompous and affected, but he held the great offices of state, and made a difference. He failed to take out Harold Wilson and become Prime Minister, which he thought ever afterwards was the greatest political mistake of his life. I disagree. It does not seem (and Campbell's book is very interesting on this) that it would have been possible for Jenkins to do it. The numbers simply were not there. Well, we'll never know. But I am a Wilson woman, and remain so. If anything, this book reinforced me in that.

The votes on Europe, the "Common Market," as it was known at the time. (I voted yes in the referendum). Jenkins said, "People didn't want to say, when asked in the future, what did you do in one of the great divisions of history, 'I abstained'." No, of course they didn't, and don't. But this is rhetoric. Any MP who has abstained on one of the crucial votes in parliamentary history (Iraq 2003, anyone? So-called rebel Martin Salter, anyone?) is going to want to cover up the fact. And everyone else is going to throw it back at them. It is routine to note that MP X voted against reducing the age of consent, that MP Y was a rebel on Europe, and so on.

Campbell reminds us that when Dick Taverne, a sometime associate of Jenkins', was deselected in Lincoln (for voting against the whip, not with it as it would be today), and stood as an "independent" candidate calling himself "Democratic Labour", he soundly defeated the official Labour candidate, Margaret Jackson, who later became Margaret Beckett. She hasn't reminded the world of that fact in more recent years.

Interesting times. An interesting man and an interesting politician. A miner's son from South Wales who went to Oxford and reinvented himself as a claret-swilling posh bloke. Er, not quite. His father had been a miner, sure, but quite early on became a full-time union official and councillor, and became an MP (Arthur Jenkins) and even a government minister.

This isn't a great book, but it's a fascinating one, and it's one of the best things I have read on the history of the left (well, the mainstream left, anyway) in Britain in the 20th century.

I have decided I would like Roy Jenkins' death. He lived into his eighties, although he had developed health problems linked with fine eating and fine drinking. His wife came into the bedroom one morning and asked what he would like for breakfast. He said he would have two lightly poached eggs. She went away to the cook them, and when she came back with them he was dead.


Anonymous said...

Yes. Two eggs 'lightly' poached. The key is in the use of the word 'lightly'.

Harold Wilson, Jenkin's bete noir and better, was once asked to talk about salmon.

When asked if he liked salmon, he said that he liked it tinned - and then doused with vinegar.I am sure that Harold Wilson enjoyed many varieties of salmon, including poached (lightly) and smoked. But he was a politician. Having banished the

Tories to the grouse moor, plus fours and so forth to match, a spot of tinned makes good media sense. So does a dollop of HP sauce with china ducks on the wall. I am sure that Harold Wilson never mentioned the ducks or the sauce. But he knew that the mention of the tinned salmon 'with vinegar' would evoke the above and make all the people needed to vote Labour (but who had refused to do so for 13 years) come back to the fold.

Woy , lightly poached as he was -- never got that , even 'lightly'. So that is why he was never a Labour Prime Minister and why Harold Wilson earned that title from the electorate four times.

Let's look at Jenkins' so-called great libertarian 'reforms' as Home Secretary. Well - can we again, look at liguistics? The 'Jenkins reforms'? Maybe. But Harold Wilson was the PM directing those governments, so really, they are the Wilson reforms, as executed by his Home Secretary. Ok Woy? Thought not.

The guy was a viper, a traitor and a toad - all at once. In later life, he took on the facial characteristics of a grapefruit. Dame Jennifer didn't leave him because women from that background didn't tend to in those days. She had a good and distinguished career herself - especially with the National Trust. So -- good. But in the end -- so much so, 'Woy of the Wovers'! In the 20th century, there are just three Labour PMs who have cut it. And they are all linked and each has built upon his predecessor. Attlee, Wilson and Blair. The other Leaders including present incumbent, merge into a cake with a very soggy bottom. Woy didn't even get to the bottom stage. Over and out. But I will read the book -- that story of envy,poshing up,and everything 'lightly' is a heady brew. Which is rather an apposite way to end this post about the man who had a nose for a woman - but a better nose for a jolly good wine and no sense of smell for a political stink.

Brummagem Joe said...

Of the big three (four if you want to include Callaghan) of the Wilson 1964-70 cabinet there's no doubt that Jenkins was in almost every respect the most significant and the one that had the longest career in public life. The smallness of his critics is invariably signalled by their mockery of his speech impediment and taste for high living. Characteristics which he shared with Churchill by the way. Jenkins is one of the best prime ministers we never had. He got caught out by timing and in politics timing is all.

Anonymous said...

Got caught out because he believed his own myth. Not advisable.

Mike Homfray said...

The reforms would not have happened without Jenkins. He strongly supported them - because he had genuinely liberal views on social and cultural issues.

That doesn't mean that everything else he did was commendable, but he was the most radical Home Secretary this country has ever had.