Surprising discoveries in the Jenkins biography

As a rather late LibDem, I needed to study the excellent John Campbell biography of Roy Jenkins, “A well rounded life” more than most.  It has given me a schooling in foundational Party history that I sorely lacked.  Thank you to Matt Turner, commenting here, for the recommendation.

If I’d read it on Kindle, these are some of the surprising bits I would have highlighted.  In no particular order, some discoveries that surprised me:

The author is convinced that Tony Crosland seduced Jenkins “at least once”. The tone of their letters was certainly extraordinary, and renders even more striking how they went on to be political allies and rivals in various different arena, right up to Crosland’s death in 1977, moving gradually apart as Jenkins overtook and then exceeded Crosland’s promise and achievements.

His lifestyle appeared extraordinary relaxed even during the heat of high ministerial office.  Every day had its one and a half hours for lunch, usually social. It always involved wine, and was often with one of his mistresses.  This pattern extended into an evening life seemingly dominated by dining clubs, then weekend trips to country houses, all larded through with enough leisured reading time to polish off Proust in his first few weeks as  Home Secretary.  In fact, social affairs (a typical week is described on p290) sounded far the most exhausting aspect of living: Nevertheless …

…he achieved an astonishing amount in a short time in the Home Office In less than two years he helped end flogging in prisons, legalise homosexuality and abortion, end theatre censorship, and bring in a Race Relations bill.  The latter is despite the fact that …

…both the TUC and CBI opposed Jenkins’ measures to improve racial equality The author explains the former simply with “there was still a lot of casual racism in the workplace”.  I still don’t understand it.

In 1970 he could command £1500 for each of ten 10-15,000 word biographical essays for the Times.  By today’s standards this is an astonishingly generous amount.  By this inflation calculator it is £20,000 per piece, or £1.50-2.00 per word.  (another way of putting it: writing four such pieces could earn him enough to buy a house). That looks like 5-10 times today’s rate, for what seems like a pleasurable hobby (despite the biographer not regarding Jenkins as consistently original or insightful)

Matthew Oakeshott was a really important SpAd to Jenkins The biography mentions many advisers, acolytes and “Jenkins-ites” who clustered around him for decades. The book is peppered with references to those who went on to dominate LibDem politics, and who clearly learned their trade and gained political leanings somewhere in Jenkins’ circle.  But having known (now Lord) Oakeshott*, this is the reference that tickled me most.  His speeches written in the Home Office for Jenkins were adjudged “extraordinarily good”, something I can believe, and he was close enough to  the birth of the SDP to be the one who  photocopied the Limehouse Declaration for the press. During a less happy phase (see below) Shirley Williams blamed him for a hurtful anagram of her name, “I whirl aimlessly”.

In 1976 Jenkins said “I do not think that you can push public expenditure above 60 per cent and maintain the values of a plural society with adequate freedom of choice”. This, he knew, would “provoke a storm”, and sure enough had Barbara Castle noting bitterly “how these people come out in their true colours!” Astonishing, how large the Left assumed the State should be.

As European President, Jenkins felt he lacked a purpose so put European Monetary Union on the agenda.  It was accepted as a proper policy aim for Europe within 18 months, with a $50m fund and the ECU brought into existence.  I think it tells you something about the monetary trauma of the previous decade that such a flawed idea could be accepted so quickly

I had no idea how hate-filled and bitter were the days of the Alliance, despite the astonishing initial success of the SDP.  Their very first poll put them on 36% (without the Liberals), and they had 43,000 members within days of forming (close to current LibDem levels), plus £0.5m in donations (the equivalent of £2m today).  A failed Liberal who in 1979 had finished fourth in Croydon North West with 10% won the post-SDP bye-election with 40%. What an astonishing appetite for a centrist alternative there must have been, culminating in that 51% poll for the Alliance in December 1981.

Yet they blew it, in any number of ways: perhaps by failing to push Shirley Williams to stand in Warrington, perhaps by failing to act like a cohesive force in Parliament and stamping their identity there, but above all through persistent Liberal-SDP fighting over seats and party management, and strategic direction.  From today’s vantage point, it seems extraordinary that these parties should squabble over whether or how to combine, given the prize on offer and the size of the challenge. But above all, I was amazed by …

… the degree of animosity between Owen and Jenkins David Owen was once part of a band of MPs who clustered around Jenkins during his ministerial heyday in the mid 1960s, frustrated by the lack of killer touch shown during leadership opportunities when Wilson was weak in 1968.  But by the 1980s they were fighting horribly: over the right relationship with the Liberals, over policy detail, but really about Jenkins’ poor leadership of the SDP during its vanishing opportunity in 1982-3.  The near simultaneous release of their memoirs rehearsed the bitterness again, with Owen one of the few people Jenkins could not bring himself to treat generously.

Overall, I think this book should be a part of the modern Liberal Democrat canon, as I am sure it will come to be.  I have no idea how dispassionate it is towards a subject the author clearly admires.  But the way he balances  adulation for Jenkins’ setpiece Parliamentary occasions of the 1960s with bleak honesty about his portentousness in the 1980s is a reasonable test.  By displaying the  social liberalism, fiscal competence, internationalism and political radicalism of his subject so well, I think John Campbell has provided a good portrait of the sort of politician we need more of now.

*personal disclosure: he was one of those who interviewed me for my job advising Vince Cable

Published by freethinkingeconomist

I'm a mid 40s, former special adviser (Downing Street 2017-19, BIS from 2010-14), former FT leader writer and Lex Columnist, former financial dealer (?) at IG, student of economic history, PPE like the rest of them, etc. This blog has large gaps for obvious reasons. The name is dumb - the CentreForum think tank blog was called Freethink, I adapted that, we are stuck now.

3 thoughts on “Surprising discoveries in the Jenkins biography

  1. My dad, an immigration officer, is very appreciative of Roy Jenkins – because as home secretary, he introduced the first police personal radios and the principle that one was issued to every copper. It was a huge project but dad argues it was the biggest improvement in policing since Robert Peel.

    It’s not exactly what you associate with Jenkins, but think for a moment how badly a procurement like that can screw up. The replacement, Airwave, ran hugely over budget and late and ended up being obsolete before going into service, and it’s now running out of capacity.

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