Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life 
by John Campbell.
Cape, 818 pp., £30, March 2014, 978 0 224 08750 6
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Three hopes​ or dreams have played important parts in modern progressive politics in Britain in the decades after 1945. The first is the dream of the social-democratic equivalent of the philosopher-king. This expresses the hope that even in contemporary mass democracies a figure will emerge who can work the political machine and at the same time embody intellect, sensibility and liberal values, someone who can win power and then exercise it in the name of reason and enlightenment. The longing of those with intellectual and radical inclinations to be governed by someone like them can, of course, encourage the investment of unrealistic hopes in potential candidates and the chosen champion can become the target of unreasonable blame.

The second, sometimes contingently related dream is what may be called the fantasy of the middle ground. This depends, logically as well as practically, on the model of a spectrum. The spatial metaphor exerts its own semantic pull, and so those placed at either extreme of the spectrum must be described as ‘extremists’ – zealots, ideologues and so on. By contrast, those nearer the middle must be more ‘moderate’, characterised by good sense, willingness to compromise, lack of fanaticism. All this is reinforced by the conventional wisdom of the pollsters; being ‘too right-wing’ or, especially, ‘too left-wing’ is taken to be synonymous with ‘unelectable’. If only – goes the dream in its classic form – those of good will from all parties could be brought together on the middle ground, the wasteful hostilities of traditional sectarianism could cease and the sensible administration of business begin.

The third is the dream of the politician who transcends class identity, moving away from defining origins not just to enjoy wider worlds but to take the wider view. This is also a dream about enlightenment, figured as the logic of a life story. Its hidden premise is the thought that those who most completely emancipate themselves from their inherited class identity are best placed to be swayed by reason and evidence rather than tribal affiliation. This is different from the cherished picture of the working-class boy or (less often) girl who rises through education but then devotes a political career to fighting for the interests of ‘their people’. It is, rather, a fantasy about not having one’s own ‘people’, not being bound to the chippy defensiveness of a lower class or the insouciant selfishness of an upper class, but being released instead into the free upper air where good arguments are sovereign.

It was the fate of Roy Jenkins more than of any other recent figure in British politics to serve, during his life and in some ways since his death in 2003, as the incarnation of these dreams. Over and above his actual achievements and failures, Jenkins carried the burden of embodying the centre-left’s idea of its best self, the emblem for all those hopes that politics might be a bit more rational and enlightened and, well, agreeable than it actually is. He appeared to meet several of the job specifications for the role of social-democratic philosopher-king. And his own trajectory, moving easily from a South Wales grammar school via Oxford to Parliament and high society, becoming chancellor by the age of 47, meant that he seemed unstoppably destined for the highest political office, and at the same time the champion of a cultivated liberal progressivism untarnished by the stale stereotypes of cloth cap versus top hat.

But that was not the way it turned out, and so Jenkins became a prize exhibit in another cherished category: the nearly men, those who, for all their talents, don’t make it to the top, and who then have another set of qualities projected onto them: not quite ruthless enough, too self-indulgent, not sufficiently in tune with the mainstream elements of their parties. For all his early achievements, Jenkins failed to become leader of the Labour Party, failed to become prime minister, failed to ‘break the mould’ of two-party politics, failed to get Britain to join the euro, failed to replace the first-past-the-post voting system. Inevitably, given the hopes that had been invested in him and the fantasies that had partly worked themselves out through him, these failures were seen as more than personal. As his career subsided into jowly grandeeism, a set of political hopes subsided with him. The stubbornly unbroken mould was taken by many of his admirers to indicate that politics remained tribal – and by many of his critics to confirm the fate of those who desert their party.

All this makes it hard to see Jenkins himself, stripped of the dreams that attached themselves to him. In choosing ‘a well-rounded life’ as his subtitle, John Campbell risks some obvious jibes about his increasingly portly subject, but he delivers on its promise. It is a persuasive, if at times indulgent, portrait of a life rich in satisfactions. At its heart were a long, close marriage and three children, to which were added the pleasures of a varied adult sexual life, including at least two long-lasting relationships with intelligent and interesting women. Beyond this, Jenkins had an unusually wide circle of friends with whom he enjoyed many of his favoured activities: above all, talk, both serious and gossip, but also travel, attractive houses, good food, even better wine and so on. And he wrote – and wrote not just more and better than most politicians but more and not noticeably less well than a lot of professional writers. The photo of a beaming 75-year-old Jenkins in black tie being awarded the Whitbread biography prize in 1995 for his Life of Gladstone suggests a life well-rounded in many senses.

And yet, nagging questions about Jenkins’s politics and political leadership – and, indeed, about the shape of modern British politics more generally – are not stilled or resolved by this meticulous and perceptive biography. If anything, the questions become more pressing in the light of what we learn about the decisions and beliefs of a man who was for a while the crown prince of social democracy. Nor are the questions of merely historical interest, since Jenkins’s career continues to frame our sense of the progressive political possibilities for the early 21st century. Were the travails of the Labour Party in the later decades of the previous century contingent on local circumstance and individual personality, or did they represent a structural failure in the party-political quest to be both left-wing and electable, under the circumstances of an increasingly global and rapidly deindustrialising economy?

One term often used now in disparagement of Jenkins, as of some other intellectuals of the Labour Party of his generation, is ‘patrician’. We know well enough what we’re supposed not to like about anyone to whom the term is applied – their condescension, assumption of superiority and unreflective class attitudes – but perhaps this is too quickly dismissive. After all, perhaps leaders or teachers should assume that they know better in some ways, however much that grates. Jenkins’s ‘patrician’ confidence helped to make him a notably liberal home secretary, an unwavering champion of the European ideal, and, in the final phase of his career, a valuable chancellor of Oxford University. In these cases, he was willing to act repeatedly on the truth that politicians should lead as well as follow. Such actions constitute an acknowledgment that politics cannot only be about satisfying the public’s current supposed preferences. As with other politicians, too much may have depended on an under-examined inheritance of social and cultural confidence, especially as he aged, but at least in the first half of his career, he put this confidence to good radical purpose, and in this he was representative of the relation between his generation of Oxford-educated Labour politicians and the wider electorate.

One of the central tensions in Jenkins’s later career concerned this question of political leadership understood as something larger than a series of reactive gyrations round the greasy pole. He had been prepared to defend policies which were perceived as unpopular with substantial sections of public opinion – on decriminalising most forms of homosexual activity, for example, or on ensuring proper rights to abortion, or on not reinstating capital punishment, all of which he supported as home secretary even though he didn’t, as is sometimes thought, initiate legislation on them. Although public opinion on the issue of joining (or, later, of staying in) some form of European union tended to be more volatile, Jenkins was prepared to take a stand on what he believed was right, even in the face of hostility from sections of his own party and of the country at large.

But on the central questions of the relation between social justice and economic and fiscal policy, Jenkins seemed less willing to try to take public opinion in a more radical direction, so raising doubts about whether he had comparably intense convictions on such matters. At the beginning of his career he endorsed the conventional Labour positions on nationalisation and redistribution as essential steps in the pursuit of greater social justice. Later, he seems to have retreated from these positions, and to have done so a good deal sooner than many of his contemporaries in the party. Later still, he disowned socialism as the label for his beliefs, and spoke and wrote little about questions of economic inequality. Was this, as some of his critics alleged, to be explained largely in terms of his own increasing social and financial success, his obvious delight in the company of the moneyed and titled, and the waning of an inherited political faith which had always served him better than he had served it? Or was it, as the defenders of his memory argue, that the ‘socialism’ from which Jenkins was increasingly estranged had become an anachronism and that he was helping to fashion a politics better adapted to what is now called ‘an aspirational age’?

In making the case against former colleagues he now deemed to be too far to the left, the later Jenkins frequently took his stand on the need to appeal to the middle ground of the electorate. But as well as allowing spatial metaphors too much influence, this treats existing beliefs as largely immutable. Why, after all, might politicians not aim at trying to get inhabitants of that middle ground to change their minds? Why shouldn’t radical prescriptions pilloried (by some) as being ‘far left’ play a similar role in economic as in, say, sexual matters: initially at odds with a lot of inherited or unexamined conviction, but the received wisdom of the next generation? Endorsing received attitudes on these questions may concede too much to the powerful interests that tend to steer opinion rightwards in a class-divided society.

But what, by the time he was in a position of political leadership, did Jenkins actually believe about the economic determinants of social justice? His critics said that his idea of a centre party represented little more than a coalition of the well-intentioned, a fantasy that flew in the face of the adversarial nature of politics in general and the British electoral system in particular. Rather than leading from the left, endeavouring to persuade a majority of voters that the attempt to tame capitalism in the name of social justice is both right in itself and in their interest, a self-consciously centrist political leader tends to read the present disposition of political conviction (or prejudice or apathy) as a given, positioning himself at the midpoint of that imagined spectrum. In place of a political philosophy, a centre party of this kind relies on the psephological equivalent of a tape-measure. Could this be said of Jenkins in his later career, and if so what kind of inspiration can he continue to provide?

These are​ not questions Campbell raises explicitly, perhaps feeling they are incompatible with the task of producing a readable biography. He may admire Jenkins too much to want to take this distant, quizzical perspective. He records that ‘Roy Jenkins was the first public figure I was aware of and always the one I most admired’; having served as ‘an enthusiastic foot-soldier in the SDP’ and published a short biography of his hero in 1983, Campbell ‘continued to admire him almost without reservation’. In addition, this is the authorised biography (a task first assigned to Andrew Adonis and then handed on), written with the full collaboration of Jennifer Jenkins. Although Campbell is too intelligent a writer to be content with any kind of hagiography and too well informed about recent British politics not to recognise Jenkins’s centrality to the ‘painful’ story of the ‘retreat of social democracy in Britain’, he can’t be expected to call into question the basic premises of his hero’s later career. Nonetheless, the story he tells so skilfully is susceptible to more than one reading.

Jenkins’s social trajectory has sometimes been represented as a classic rags-to-riches story, but the reality was more complex (to his credit, Jenkins himself rarely attempted to play the proletarian card). It is true that his father began his working life as a miner, but he soon moved into trade-union activity and was the miners’ agent for his region, as well as a county councillor and governor of several local schools, by the time Roy, an only child, was born in 1920. His socially ambitious mother also engaged in local public life, eventually becoming a magistrate and a supporter of various charities. In 1935 Arthur Jenkins was elected MP for the mining constituency of Pontypool, and his son soon got used to meeting leading Labour figures, as well as seizing every chance to listen to debates in the Commons (‘as a schoolboy, I was an assiduous gallery-sitter in the House’). Jenkins senior was close to Attlee in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and was appointed under-secretary in the Ministry of Town and Country Planning in 1945. But then in 1946 he died, at the age of 63. Violet Attlee, the prime minister’s wife, collected Mrs Jenkins and her 25-year-old son from the hospital and took them back to Downing Street for the night, which proved to be, as Campbell nicely observes, ‘the only time in his life that Roy slept in Number Ten’.

After modest success at the local grammar school, Jenkins had failed to win an open scholarship to Oxford, but he was offered a place and it seems his father found a way to support him financially. At Balliol between 1938 and 1941, his overwhelming focus was the Union, though (foreshadowing things to come) he twice failed to be elected president. The most important figure in his Oxford years was the dashing Tony Crosland, two years older, with whom he had a passionate relationship for a while, and with whom he maintained a close and at times rivalrous friendship until the latter’s early death in 1977. Crosland was the more obviously brilliant of the two, with more theoretical interests (he briefly became an economics don after the war), but Jenkins was already displaying the ability to master and organise quantities of information that was to serve him well in his ministerial roles. He duly got a first in PPE, despite allegedly getting the lowest mark in philosophy by a Balliol man since that degree was first examined in 1924. He then had a somewhat miscellaneous war, ending up, as a captain, working with the code-breakers at Bletchley. In 1940 he had met an attractive, capable, independent-minded Girtonian called Jennifer Morris, daughter of the town clerk of Westminster; the couple were married early in 1945 – the reception was at the Savoy; Attlee made the principal speech – and it remained a close, mutually supportive marriage, of a distinctly traditional kind, for the remaining 58 years of his life. When their first child was born in 1949, Attlee and Crosland stood as godparents.

From his teenage years, Jenkins had had one consuming interest and goal: a parliamentary career. It says much about his single-mindedness at this stage that while he was doing his basic training in the army he subscribed to just one publication, which he read avidly – Hansard. After a few false starts, he entered the Commons in 1948 as member for Central Southwark (Attlee’s support didn’t hurt), becoming the baby of the House. Since his constituency was due to disappear in a boundary change, he found himself a safe seat at Birmingham Stechford, which he represented from 1950 until he went to Brussels as president of the European Commission in 1976.

As Campbell rightly notes, MPs during Jenkins’s long first spell on the opposition benches (1951-64) enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy; they spent much less time on constituency work than is now the norm and weren’t asked to perform particularly onerous duties by their parties (and weren’t subject to constant media scrutiny). This suited Jenkins, since he had already embarked on his second career as a prolific journalist and author. After well-received books on the parliamentary crisis of 1910 and on Charles Dilke, he undertook a biography of Asquith, a figure he admired and identified with. Campbell supplies a long list of characteristics the two shared, including a ‘lack of interest in speculative thought’. His standing as a serious journalist was attested by the offer in 1963 of the editorship of the Economist. After some hesitation, he turned it down: ‘Politics is my life. I’ve never wanted to do anything else.’

Just occasionally, Campbell permits himself some critical assessments of Jenkins’s writing, with its tendency to favour surface polish over deeper analysis. Quoting a representative example, he writes: ‘The long sentence is superbly constructed and reads impressively. Yet it contains no thought that is in the least original; rather a catalogue of solidly conventional judgments complacently accepted as received truths.’ He then adds that Jenkins ‘wrote quickly and disliked revising what he had written, because he thought in images rather than ideas’. Received truths, writing quickly, not thinking in ideas: this sketches the flip-side of Jenkins’s much praised intellectual manner, suggesting some of the reasons he was never likely to make a mark as a radical political thinker. What he loved, and excelled at, was a traditional form of parliamentary debate, and his oratorical or forensic triumphs in the Commons represented some of the high points of a career not light on achievement.

At the time of the 1951 election, he was still willing to call himself a socialist, but in the internecine war between Bevanites and Gaitskellites by which the Labour Party was riven in the 1950s, he became a firm Gaitskell man and was soon identified as being on the right of the party. Gaitskell’s early death in 1963 was a deep personal and political loss – he kept the former leader’s photograph on his mantelpiece for the rest of his life.

In some ways​ , the statement that best represents Jenkins’s politics when he was still a rising star was written not by him but by Crosland. It is hard now to recover the confidence about political and economic progress that underlay Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, published in 1956. ‘The national shift to the left, with all its implications for the balance of power, may be accepted as permanent,’ it serenely declared. Economic prosperity, too, could henceforth be taken for granted, so that ‘we should not now judge a Labour government’s performance primarily by its record in the economic field.’ ‘Personal freedom, happiness and cultural endeavour’ should instead be the goals: ‘the cultivation of leisure, beauty, grace, gaiety, excitement, and of all the proper pursuits, whether elevated, vulgar or eccentric, which contribute to the varied fabric of a full private and family life’. In a much quoted swipe at the Fabian tradition of the Webbs, Crosland wrote: ‘Total abstinence and a good filing-system are not now the right signposts to the socialist Utopia: or at least, if they are, some of us will fall by the wayside.’ The book’s concluding words were: ‘We do not want to enter the age of abundance, only to find that we have lost the values which might teach us how to enjoy it.’ Jenkins shared Crosland’s commitment to the fuller expression of human personality, which helped make him such an appropriate and successful home secretary in the Swinging Sixties, but he also shared a wider optimism that economic growth would be a benign force, tending to reduce the worst forms of social injustice, and this may have had a bearing on the later phases of his career.

Taking this optimism into the 1960s, Jenkins declared that the aim of politics should be ‘to use prosperity as a means to a more civilised and tolerant community’, which led him to this revealing statement of belief: ‘One of the central purposes of democratic socialism is to extend throughout the community the freedom of choice which was previously the prerogative of the few.’ This could be interpreted as expressing real radical intent, though ‘freedom of choice’ is a slogan any socialist would do well to be wary of, and Jenkins’s phrasing seems to suggest leaving the prerogatives of the few unaltered, while giving others the chance to share them. Perhaps someone who was always enthusiastic about the United States was unlikely to identify the extremes of inequality as the principal social evil. Like several others of his generation, Jenkins was drawn to the openness, informality and sense of opportunity characteristic of American society, not least because those features contrasted favourably with the still deeply class-conscious and hierarchical nature of British life before 1960.

The Labour governments of 1964-70 marked the apogee of Jenkins’s career within the party. Following his successful tenure at the Home Office, he became chancellor in November 1967, after Jim Callaghan had appeared hapless in the face of a sequence of sterling crises leading eventually to devaluation. Jenkins was widely reckoned to have played a bad hand well. Going into the 1970 election, he seemed the obvious choice to succeed Wilson as Labour leader, and prime minister, whenever the latter stood down. But after Labour unexpectedly lost the election, the question of entry into Europe again became a live political issue. Jenkins, believing that Britain should be part of what eventually became the European Union, felt he had no choice but to vote with the great majority of Heath’s Tories in favour of entry; he saw the issue as, in Campbell’s words, ‘bringing together all the sensible people in public life in a common cause’. A considerable portion of his own party was opposed, and many never forgave him for what was seen in some quarters as a betrayal, an interpretation that drew sustenance from his lofty manner and expensive tastes. In 1973 three Bradford councillors complained about him in Labour Weekly: ‘The truth is that Mr Jenkins is indistinguishable from the liberal wing of the Conservative Party.’ There was enough truth in this to be damaging, and it prefigured his hopes for a coalition of the right-minded in 1981. He clearly preferred the company of enlightened Tories such as Peter Carrington or Ian Gilmour to many on the left of his own party. He was a frequent guest in grand houses and a constant luncher at Brooks’s and other haunts of the well-born, well-connected and well-oiled. While in opposition, he could pay for his high life by doing even more journalism. His salary as chancellor had been £8500, but in the tax year 1972-73, when out of office, his total declared income was more than £35,000 (getting on for £400,000 at today’s prices), only a fifth of which came from his salary as an MP. Even his tastes in fiction, where his favourite modern authors were Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, suggested the claret-loving socialite rather than the mining-bred socialist.

During his second spell at the Home Office in 1974-76 he oversaw important legislation promoting gender and racial equality, and introduced a much needed independent element into the system for investigating complaints against the police (at the time Robert Mark, the commissioner of the Met, was attempting to tackle corruption in his force, offering the memorable definition that ‘a good police force is one that catches more crooks than it employs,’ which has continued to prove a demanding benchmark). When Wilson unexpectedly announced his decision to stand down in March 1976, triggering a contest for the party leadership, Jenkins decided to throw his hat in the ring (the story went that ‘when one of Jenkins’s supporters tried canvassing a group of miners’ MPs in the tea-room he was met with a kindly brush-off: “Nay, lad, we’re all Labour here”’). He came third in the first round of voting among Labour MPs, behind Michael Foot and Callaghan, and promptly withdrew. He then withdrew from domestic politics more comprehensively by becoming president of the European Commission, spending four years in Brussels with limited power and abundant perks.

Jenkins raised the profile of the Commission and enjoyed consorting with heads of state. His grand manner and imperfect French led one wag to dub him ‘Le Roi Jean Quinze’. He certainly had a regal way of doing things. He knew that he ate and drank and smoked too much, so while he was in Brussels he briefly took up running. But he did it in his characteristic manner. Initially, he would walk through the Bois de la Cambre to a lake not far from his Brussels residence and there jog a carefully timed fourteen-minute course before being picked up by his official car and driven back – ‘after a while, he started being driven to the Bois as well as back.’ (Similarly, his idea of dieting was drinking white wine rather than red at lunch.) On the major policy question, he took the debatable view that ‘monetary union is more likely to be the cause of economic convergence than the result of it,’ and pressed for this. But all the while he was still brooding on the configuration of domestic politics in Britain.

‘I don’t think that in his heart of hearts he cares – or knows – much about the trade-union movement,’ a friend observed in the mid-1970s. This proved one of the chief weaknesses of his position within the Labour Party that decade, especially as he came more and more to believe that the unions were part of the problem facing economic policy, not part of the solution. Campbell refers more than once to Jenkins’s ‘journey from socialism’, and by the end of the 1970s Jenkins would describe himself as ‘an extreme moderate’. He believed, as Campbell puts it, that Labour ‘could not afford to be a narrow socialist party imposing unpopular left-wing nostrums on the basis of a minority vote, but must aim to “represent the hopes and aspirations of the whole leftward thinking half of the country … A broad-based, international, radical, generous-minded party”’. Of course ‘broad and generous’ will seem to trump ‘narrow and unpopular’, but only because the verbal deck has been stacked in advance. Why, turning the negatives into positives, should Labour not have aimed to be ‘a broad socialist party carrying out popular left-wing policies on the basis of a majority vote’? It says something about how far Jenkins had travelled that when late in 1979 he showed the first draft of his Dimbleby Lecture to his friend Ian Gilmour, the latter – at the time a junior Tory minister – objected on the grounds that it was ‘too right-wing’.

The Dimbleby Lecture was, in effect, Jenkins’s rallying-call for a new left of centre party (perhaps more centre than left). Campbell’s account of the founding of the Social Democratic Party is naturally sympathetic to Jenkins’s own perspective, but far from one-eyed. Initially, the new party, in a semi-formal alliance with the Liberals led by David Steel, enjoyed a heady surge of popularity. A Gallup poll in December 1981 put the Tories on 23 per cent, Labour on 24, and the new Alliance on 51. Jenkins triumphantly re-entered Parliament by winning Glasgow Hillhead in March 1982, but the Alliance’s frothy lead in the polls was already beginning to drop. The biggest blow came the following month: perhaps the individual with the single greatest impact on the fate of the SDP was General Galtieri. When Thatcher went to the polls in 1983 as the victor in the Falklands (as well as presiding over a reviving economy), it was clear that the SDP was not likely to turn its early popularity into a substantial number of seats. Campbell loyally suggests that on the eve of the 1983 election, ‘while still far from looking like an alternative government, the Alliance did begin to look like an alternative opposition.’ But critics maintained that, by attracting the overwhelming bulk of its votes from former Labour supporters and scarcely any from former Tory supporters, the SDP’s impact was effectively to split the anti-Tory vote, with disastrous consequences. Jenkins’s supporters retorted that the Labour Party was unelectable and that the future lay with a coalition of those committed to social democracy.

Jenkins was by some way the most senior of the Gang of Four – the others were David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams – and in these years he still had the aura of a political heavyweight. In a 1983 lecture he called for ‘some of the rational panache which Keynes showed nearly fifty years ago’, and ‘rational panache’ isn’t a bad description of Jenkins at his best. But his best, increasingly, seemed to be in the past. In the 1987 election, he lost Hillhead (Thatcher lamented the rejection of a figure of such stature, adding: ‘It tells you something about the Scots’) and the Alliance vote played much the same role nationally as it had four years earlier. The election was effectively the end of the road for the SDP, especially since it led to Owen’s vain (in every sense) attempt to maintain the SDP as a separate party after the bulk of its supporters had endorsed a merger with the Liberals. Campbell is admirably fair-minded in discussing Jenkins’s colleagues and opponents, but Owen is one figure to emerge from this biography looking pretty tarnished. (Norman Lamont is another, but that is a more straightforward case.)

Though Jenkins went on to serve for some years as leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords, his active parliamentary career was largely over. For all his romance with Parliament, even he began to tire of the mixture of town-council tedium and prep-school rowdiness. His election earlier in 1987 as chancellor of Oxford University gave him a congenial stage for some late theatrical flourishes, and he did his best to carry out his pre-election promise to ‘oppose the philistinism and short-sightedness which now colour prevailing attitudes towards the universities’. He seems to have won glowing praise for his performance in this largely ceremonial and advisory role, though Campbell does record that when conferring an honorary degree on Gorbachev in 1996, Jenkins – ‘having perhaps lunched too well with Robert Harris’ – referred to him throughout as ‘Mr Brezhnev’. His last important political role was as the author of a 1998 report proposing an alternative to the first-past-the-post voting system, a long-held passion. However, the complex balancing of various alternative mechanisms that he proposed in his report failed to persuade those committed to the existing system or satisfy those who wanted radical change. Blair made a polite show of welcoming the recommendations, but the report was consigned to the longest of long grass, to Jenkins’s bitter disappointment.

Well before​ his death in 2003, Jenkins had come to seem a dated figure. He was good at lengthy formal speeches and elegantly turned articles and essays – the traditional genres in which his political heroes from earlier generations had also excelled – but his somewhat Asquithian style of oratory seemed out of place in the slanging match of the late 20th-century House of Commons and he did not come across well on television. No less dated were his assumptions about domestic responsibilities, where he was about as far from being a New Man as it is possible to be. He seems to have disqualified himself from even the most minimal practical tasks: in 1994 he fell off a table when attempting to change a light bulb. Various explanations come to mind, as do several variants on an old joke.

What he did continue to do was write – and at an extraordinary, Trollopian rate. His 700-page Life of Gladstone was researched and written in just under three years, but even that feat was put into the shade by his thousand-page biography of Churchill. After five months’ preliminary reading, he began writing this just before his 78th birthday and finished it very shortly after his 80th (including 1076 words on Christmas Day 2000 – he always kept meticulous records of his daily production). Asquith he had admired almost without reservation; Gladstone had fascinated yet puzzled him; Churchill he came to respect more than either, and there were obvious elements of identification at work: ‘I was … increasingly struck by Churchill’s extraordinary combination of an almost puritan work ethic with a great capacity for pleasure, even for self-indulgence. I found that combination rather attractive.’ Published in October 2001, the book sold a hundred thousand copies in hardback before Christmas and a year later sales in the UK and the US had reached half a million.

In all his writing (and, apparently, conversation) Jenkins loved reputation-bibbing, loved all kinds of ranking, especially of politicians; he also loved emphasising personality and the play of contingency. In Britain there seems to be a particularly highly developed tradition of this kind of connoisseurship where political history is concerned. It involves an obsessive focus on individual character, a delight in awarding and withholding marks, a narrow focus on Westminster and Whitehall, and an untroubled passage between past and present. Such talk is unmistakeably male, redolent of the brandy and cigars part of the evening. For initiates, such talk retains a deep fascination; for everyone else, it seems clubby and boring. Jenkins adored it and, by all accounts, excelled at it. In several reminiscences it’s said approvingly that he had no interest in ‘abstract theories or general speculation’, but this can also be a limitation, and it brings us back to those fundamental questions raised earlier about Jenkins’s legacy for progressive politics.

Apart from the special circumstances of 1945-48, successive Labour governments in the second half of the 20th century, and perhaps beyond, struggled to introduce measures that made for a less unjust society while at the same time avoiding any diminution of prosperity. The difficulty of doing this was compounded by the fact that from the 1950s onwards a constantly rising level of consumption was an established expectation, and competition between the parties became increasingly focused on ways of meeting it. Until the 1970s it seemed possible for Labour governments to deliver this while at the same time using the power of the state to reduce certain forms of inequality. It is arguable that for a progressive politics to have been successful in the long term the electorate would eventually have had to be persuaded that a reduced level of prosperity for the majority, together with a substantially reduced level for the very wealthy, might have to be the short-term price of running a decent society and retaining enough autonomy to make the decisions necessary to sustain it. But that was not the way it seemed to most actual or potential Labour leaders at the time.

It was certainly not the way it seemed to Jenkins, though he became less and less inclined to elaborate any kind of alternative. He had treated economic growth as an overwhelmingly positive force, eventually bringing plenty to all; even in our less optimistic times ‘growth’ has remained the shibboleth, treated reverentially by politicians of all parties. But growth, as the markets understand that process, makes the rich vastly richer since they are best placed to take advantage. It may make life at the bottom of the heap a little less desperate, but it serves to increase inequality, and increasing inequality means increasing injustice. In believing, or affecting to believe, that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’, too many politicians since Jenkins’s time have persuaded others, and perhaps themselves, that a widely diffused prosperity will render irrelevant most questions of social injustice. Any other view is stigmatised as ‘levelling down’, as though socialism, and especially nationalisation or redistributive taxation, were simply a matter of reducing the privileges of the rich, out of envy or spite. But attempting to limit the power that those who control capital have to shape or ruin the lives of those who don’t is not levelling down. It is a form of the same logic Jenkins used to increase human dignity and autonomy by his reforms as home secretary.

The question of the effective agency actually available to a modern politician has gained a sharper edge in recent years with the popularity of a more bleakly pessimistic analysis than Jenkins was ever confronted with. On this view, the much fought over questions of policy and ideology are not what matters any longer because what now determines the fate of all contemporary politics are the convulsions of global capitalism. From this perspective, any ideal of social justice in one country is an illusion. This analysis is in stark contrast to the confidence in the efficacy of government that was widely felt when Jenkins came of political age. But even if the now fashionable argument exaggerates the powerlessness of national politics, as it does, we can still ask whether Jenkins needed to adapt his more optimistic understanding of the relation between the state and the economy to the changing character of structural exploitation. And certainly those who now look to Jenkins’s example for inspiration about the prospects for social democracy may have to ask harder questions about this topic than his admirers seem disposed to do. This could involve redescribing the long agony of the Labour Party in the late 20th and early 21st century, as it ceased to be the political expression of the industrial working class and failed (thus far) to become the representative of all those whose lives are blighted by the new forms of finance capitalism.

The lesson to be drawn from the final phase of Jenkins’s political career may have less to do with tactical misjudgments or those contingent cultural tastes journalists loved to harp on, and more to do with that distaste for general ideas. In the absence of a developed analysis of the changing character of capitalism and thus of what a progressive party should or could represent in a financialised world, it was harder to appreciate that one of the principal tasks of such a party had to be to combat the class that collects an economic rent from its control of finance. A large enough number of people can be bribed by the promise of increased personal prosperity to make the maintenance of this structure seem like a viable political project for the right. Extending throughout society ‘the freedom of choice which was previously the prerogative of the few’ cannot, in these circumstances, be an adequate goal for the left. Those who wish to audition for the role of Jenkins’s successor as the best hope of progressive political leadership may have to update Crosland’s Future of Socialism. But perhaps what needs to be superseded now is not the killjoy bureaucratism of the Webbs, but rather the grinning compliance of ‘Britain is open for business.’

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Vol. 36 No. 15 · 31 July 2014

With his study of Roy Jenkins, Stefan Collini gives us another of his beautifully judged portraits of Britain’s 20th-century intellectuals, politicians and scholars (LRB, 5 June). But for me the pleasure was marred on this occasion by the sideswipe in his final sentence at ‘the killjoy bureaucratism of the Webbs’. I tried to dispel this characterisation in a book I wrote more than thirty years ago, Fabianism and Culture, substantial sections of which were devoted to showing how the Webbs sought to resist any such ascetic and mechanistic excesses in their socialist thought – and in their own lives, for all the self-restraint they embodied. David Cannadine, who reviewed the book in the LRB, 15 July 1982, noted that I’d succeeded at least in making the Webbs ‘two-and-a-half dimensional’. It’s sad to see them reduced once more to casual caricature.

Ian Britain

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