Thirteen years ago, in the late afternoon of an April day, I was summoned across Whitehall from my office in the Ministry of Defence to see the Home Secretary. Roy Jenkins rose from his chair and said: ‘Well, it’s all over, Callaghan is appointing Crosland.’ He nodded to a handwritten envelope addressed to the President of the French Republic. I knew that it contained a letter declaring his willingness to become President of the European community. We talked for a while, and I sadly conceded that my resistance to his departure from British politics was at an end. A little before six o’clock we watched the television news for public confirmation of events. There it was. Anthony Crosland had become Foreign Secretary – the only job that would have kept Roy Jenkins away from Brussels and the Berlaymont.
The previous six years had been an extraordinary chapter of events. In early 1970, despite the Labour Government’s failure to devalue the pound in its first flush of office, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Roy Jenkins, presided over a balanced budget and a balance-of-payments surplus. By that summer, following Labour’s loss of office and the defeat of George Brown in his Belper seat, he had become Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and heir-apparent to the leadership. But within eighteen months the dispute about Britain’s membership of the Common Market had torn Labour apart. Roy Jenkins had resigned as Deputy Leader, and he and his supporters had been cast into outer darkness.
Then the pendulum swung again. Harold Wilson, now back in office, sought, after a period of mainly bogus ‘renegotiation’, endorsement in a referendum of Britain’s continued membership of the European Community. Roy Jenkins led the all-party ‘Britain in Europe’ campaign, and achieved what he calls ‘the most satisfactory national election result in which I have ever significantly participated’.
But in the Labour Party the issue of Britain’s membership of the Common Market would not go away, and there was little forgiveness towards those 69 Labour MPs who had voted in support of a Tory government for Britain’s entry. Roy Jenkins was no longer the natural candidate for the succession when Harold Wilson resigned as prime minister, coming third with 56 votes in the Parliamentary Labour Party behind Callaghan’s 84 and Michael Foot’s 90. When Callaghan won on the second ballot (Jenkins having withdrawn), it would have been magnanimous to offer the Foreign Office to the colleague best-equipped to hold it. But Callaghan felt personally uncomfortable with a man whose record at both the Home Office and the Treasury had been, by common consent, more distinguished than his own. By contrast, he enjoyed the teasing and irreverent company of Anthony Crosland, and Crosland had supported him in his first bid for the leadership of the Labour Party after Gaitskell’s death. The Prime Minister could also call on an argument of political substance. As he later wrote of his decision not to appoint Roy Jenkins, ‘the wounds had not healed since his resignation ... every action he would have taken as Foreign Secretary would have been regarded with deep suspicion by the anti-Marketeers on our benches.’
The consequences were profound. Roy Jenkins departed for Brussels; Anthony Crosland died tragically in office; David Owen succeeded him at the age of 38; and the scene was set both for the creation of a new centre party by the ‘Gang of Four’ and for its later disintegration.
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