Lead book review

Was Roy Jenkins the greatest prime minister we never had?

A review of John Campbell’s biography of Roy Jenkins. The liberal reformer may have been snobbish and self-indulgent, but he was also a visionary

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

Roy Jenkins John Campbell

Cape, pp.818, £30, ISBN: 9780224087506

In any list of the-best-prime-ministers-we never-had, the name of Roy Jenkins is likely to be prominent. He was intelligent, moderate, courteous, thoughtful: he was exactly the sort of man whom any civil servant would wish to see installed in No.10. That, no doubt, is why he never got there.

John Campbell makes no bones about the fact that he is a fan of Jenkins. He was, writes Campbell, ‘the first public figure I was aware of and always the one I most admired’. Campbell is far too sensible a man and good a biographer, however, to allow his book to degenerate into a paean of praise. Jenkins’s frailties are unsparingly exposed, his occasional failures recorded, his more extravagant pretensions ridiculed. The fact that, at the end of this long and thoughtful book, one ends up admiring and liking Jenkins more rather than less is a tribute to Campbell’s skills as a biographer but even more to Jenkins’s own personality and achievements.

He had his weaknesses. The most obvious was self-indulgence. He was self-indulgent when it came to food and drink, attaching great importance to consuming the right things in the right places. Many of his most important conversations took place over the luncheon or dinner table — Campbell could have saved several pages by omitting the words ‘at Brooks’s’ after the word ‘lunched’. He was self-indulgent when it came to women. He tended to have affairs with the wives of his closest friends: a trait which might sound unattractive but in fact caused little or no offence. Neither Ian Gilmour nor Mark Bonham-Carter seem to have resented the fact that their extremely attractive and intelligent wives had a fling with Jenkins, and if they did not mind why should anyone else? (Another fling was with Tony Crosland when they were undergraduates together. Judging by the correspondence, this relationship certainly had its physical side, but that element did not survive their years at Balliol and, anyway, always meant more to Crosland than it did to Jenkins.)

He was also excessively preoccupied by his social standing. He felt no shame because — indeed, took pride in the fact that — his father had started his working life at the coal-face, but he openly rejoiced at the gap between those origins and the conspicuous grandeur which he himself achieved. In his index Campbell lists ‘alleged snobbery’ among Jenkins’s characteristics. His use of the word ‘alleged’ is charitable, to say the least. Jenkins’s snobbishness is all too easily established. Campbell, however, fairly makes the point that this was more than the mere worship of class for class’s sake:

He liked the company of clever people of any class, but he especially enjoyed the social ease and sophistication that the well-born and well-connected tended to possess. In addition, he enjoyed their society because it connected him to the late-Victorian/Edwardian political world he wrote about in his books.

One of the things that drew him most strongly to Mark Bonham-Carter was that he was H.H.Asquith’s grandson: ‘Though not strictly aristocrats, Asquith’s descendants were political royalty, and by mixing with them he could feel close to his political model.’ Though he tried from time to time to reassert his proletarian roots, the effort became less and less convincing. When he was competing with Callaghan for the Labour leadership, one of his followers tried to canvas the support of a group of miners’ MPs in the House of Commons tea room. ‘Nay, lad, we’re all Labour here,’ was the kindly brush-off.

Jenkins’s finest hour came when he was appointed Home Secretary for the first time in 1965. Campbell writes:

Coinciding with the height of Beatle-mania, the miniskirt, the contraceptive pill and ‘Swinging London’, but also with the Rolling Stones, the drug scene and the first Vietnam War demonstrations, the period 1965-7 now appears, for good or ill, a turning point in the social history of the country — a halcyon time of personal liberation or the onset of national decadence.

For Jenkins it was emphatically the former. Given a remarkably free hand by Harold Wilson, spared the nagging conviction that was to haunt him in all his future roles — that it was he, not X or Y, who should be occupying No.10 — he steered through a wide range of liberal measures relating to flogging, homosexuality, abortion, theatrical censorship and above all race relations. In three years he showed not only that he was a man of principle with an almost visionary view of his public role but that he was a shrewd politician, patient, dexterous and uncommonly effective when it came to getting his own way.  In the eyes of most people it was a question not of if but of when Jenkins would become prime minister.

It was Europe that destroyed these hopes. With de Gaulle’s resignation in 1961, Britain’s way into Europe was dramatically opened. But terms which the Labour government had found perfectly acceptable when their party was in power suddenly seemed far less attractive when put forward by the Tories. ‘Because I want to see the Tories beaten, and because I am willing to use any weapon to beat them with, I am against EEC entry on these terms at this time,’ declared a youthful and horrifically honest Neil Kinnock.

Jenkins believed passionately that Britain’s proper place was in Europe and that to sacrifice the opportunity for achieving this for party advantage was not merely politically inexpedient but morally indefensible. With 68 other Labour MPs he defied the Whips and voted with the Tory government. ‘This was the proudest moment of Jenkins’s career,’ writes Campbell. It was also the most disastrous. With it ended any possibility that he would ever lead the Labour party; he was inexorably set on the path that was to take him first to the Presidency of the European Commission in Brussels and then to the brief flourishing and prolonged wilting of the ill-fated SDP.

Reviewing D.R. Thorpe’s biography of Selwyn Lloyd, Jenkins concluded that it was ‘a model biography of a middle-rank politician’. ‘I would consider myself very lucky,’ he went on, ‘if I were eventually done by someone as balanced, sympathetic and well-informed as Mr Thorpe.’ He would not have wished to be taken too much au pied de la lettre in his reference to a ‘middle-rank politician’ but John Campbell has more than fulfilled his criteria for his model biographer.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £24. Tel: 08430 600033

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • cambridgeelephant

    No ! He was a tosser.

    • The Red Bladder

      Ever thought about reviewing a few books yourself?

  • Gwangi

    Wasn’t Jenkins largely responsible for choosing the multiculturalism model, rather than the integrationist one, as a way of managing post-war immigration?
    For that alone, he needs utter condemnation. Sadly, that outweighs any other achievements and modernising.
    It was so incredibly naïve to expect the offspring of those from different continents with different cultures and different, often backwards, religions and values to suddenly fit snugly into Western society.

    • davidshort10

      And they agree with you. So far. Over time, they will change. Freedom always wins and makes people civilised.

  • Doggie Roussel

    An utterly vain, self-serving and self indulgent creep !

    Utterly indiscriminate in his promiscuous indulgences: from the preposterous Tony Crosland, to a wanabee Polish princess and the wives of two of his best friends, who appeared to acqiesce in Woy taking these nymphs off their hands… and when asked for the reason for his sexual conquests, he responded that he was the Nijinsky of cunnilingus, although presumably he disregarded Crosland in this description of his seduction techniques…

    In short, an utter ponce and phoney… up there with Crossman, Gaitskell, Wislon, Kinnock and all the other Labour frauds who have followed them… the list is just to long and too nauseating.

  • Steven Rhodes

    A man wholly dedicated to freedom and to removing the law as mere fetter. A man who lived out the principle of ‘harm to others’ intelligently and with well-drafted (and short, easy to understand!) laws; a man open to the facts. Therefore a man who did not crumble in the face of Powell or his ilk. We should be lucky to have politicians of this vision now. You may hate him, but he was uniquely a conviction politician who did not enforce his ideals on others – a living out of a permissive society. I wonder how many ‘libertarians’ these days feel a need to condemn him.

    • mpolito

      Britain today is far more regulated than ever before: the “permissive society” means sexual license and promiscuity, paid for by the state.

      • Steven Rhodes

        ‘Britain today is far more regulated than ever before.’ This may be true (although there is more to regulate). How much of that is due to Roy Jenkins? He specialised in taking laws off the statute book. ‘The “permissive society” means sexual license and promiscuity, paid for by the state.’ News: promiscuity existed before Roy Jenkins; he merely took away the legal prohibition (and with it the state paid costs of enforcement). What do you mean by ‘paid for by the state’?

    • Simon Fay

      “a conviction politician who did not enforce his ideals on others”

      Er, I think you’re confusing Woy with that unassuming man you see browsing in Mallaig’s mobile library. The lisping adulterous stuck-up self-regarding part-time-fudge-packing c*nt made his ideals into a tower-block and moved the rest of us into it.

      • Steven Rhodes

        Too much to ask for an example? Don’t bother. I don’t converse with vulgar bigots. Goodbye.

  • scampy1

    When you look and listen to Roy and others of that era you realise the low life vermin like Blair and Brown should never have been elected to the labour party or parliament?

    • davidshort10

      That’s to do with the general level of shabbiness that is today’s world. But RJ was a number one SH1T in a better and more mannered time. I can’t understand why the Spectator publishes such a review that favours a scoundrel and an adulterer, but whoops I forgot the magazine is headed by Brillo Pad.

  • Steven Barr

    Ian Brady referred to him as “the best Home Secretary of all time”. That’s all you need to know.

  • The_greyhound

    It’s interesting that his personal life, vain, greedy, dishonourable, disloyal and self-seeking, points so clearly to his behaviour in public life. It would be difficult to think of a man who stood for so many wrong-headed destructive and ignorant beliefs, buoyed up by his vast conceit and fund of self-regard. In a hotly contested field, surely Britain’s lousiest post-war politician.

  • Simon Fay

    “Was Roy Jenkins the greatest prime minister we never had?”

    Based on this little sketch alone (which reads like a very dry parody of the reformer-types who got us here) he’d certainly fit alongside Blair & Cameron. A very progressive liberal indeed.

    Any sign of the long-awaited ‘Anilingus in Brussels’ memoir of Mandelson yet?

  • davidshort10