Babylon

William Rodgers

  • European Diary 1977-1981 by Roy Jenkins
    Collins, 698 pp, £25.00, March 1989, ISBN 0 00 217976 8

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.

As Roy Jenkins says, although his conviction about the European Community was complete, his experience of it was negligible. When he took office as President in 1977, unlike most United Kingdom ministers he had conducted no business in the Councils or with the Commission. From a distance, it was easy to believe that a strong President might run affairs rather like a prime minister, choosing his team and planning fruitful measures. He had the strong advantage of an invitation to the Presidency from both Giscard d’Estaing and Helmut Schmidt, and a warm welcome from the smaller countries of the Community, who expected him to be their champion. After the uninspiring first years of Britain’s membership of the Community, here was a British President who would move matters on.

Things turned out differently. The Commissioners in Brussels are appointed by their governments for a variety of reasons, and competence is not always one of them. They retain their roots and loyalties in the countries and political parties from which they have come. Unlike a Cabinet, they have shared little together and meet as strangers. They have no duty towards a President who has not chosen and cannot remove them. Their motives may be a comfortable life ‘enjoying the great Babylonian hotels’ or else the satisfaction of work well done. They do not see themselves changing the course of history, and need not worry about survival in an election.

Roy Jenkins prefaces his European Diary 1977-1981 with brief pen-portraits of the team of a dozen Commissioners over which he presided. He is generous to all of them, but it is doubtful whether more than half would have found a place in a British Cabinet. An early lesson in realities came with his failure to remove two existing German Commissioners – ‘the one in my view did not have energy and the other did not have weight’ – despite the earlier prompting and support of Helmut Schmidt. A weekend get-together at Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire on the eve of Christmas was numbed by raw and misty weather and cold bathrooms. The enthusiasm of the previous months evaporated. As the time came to leave for Brussels, he was faced with the dismal prospect that his new Commission, ‘with which to re-launch Europe’, would look even less convincing than the old.

Three weeks later, on an occasion recorded in his diaries for 23 January 1977, I visited the new President in his house in the Rue de Praetère. He glanced ruefully at the half-empty red despatch box, a memento of his days as Chancellor. There were no manuscript notes on the table and the telephone did not ring. A long, enjoyable Sunday lunch was part of a familiar routine from happier times. But as I left the President and his wife Jennifer, I recalled in a sudden, sad flash of memory a photograph of Sidney and Beatrice Webb at Passfield House in the autumn of their achievement.

I did not see Roy Jenkins again in his Brussels home during his Presidency. I felt that they would be wasted years. My own temporary absorption in the British Cabinet and in the tiresome problems of tachographs (on which the President of the Commission wrote me a chiding letter which was thoroughly deserved) created a modest gap between us. Above all, I was aware that he was finding the European Community a pretty immovable object. Giscard, who had wavered for a moment about Jenkins’s appointment after having first promoted it, now showed great reluctance about allowing the President to attend the regular ‘summit’ meetings of Western leaders. In turn, Schmidt had no wish to quarrel with ‘my friend Valéry’ and preferred to let events take their course. For Roy Jenkins the summer of 1977 was a period of low morale. Would his Presidency leave any mark whatsoever on Europe?

His friends were disappointed as well, and it can be said in retrospect that their expectations, too, had been inflated by the enthusiasm and drama of the long fight to secure Britain’s entry to the Community. The Community is propelled by its Council of Ministers, and apart from the preparations for enlargement, it was becalmed. British governments, first under James Callaghan and even more so under Mrs Thatcher, showed hostility to movement except in solution of the budgetary problem. For Britain, membership of the Community remained a reluctant necessity, and any further surrender of sovereignty was viewed with distaste. As for the Germans, they were locked into an alliance with the French, who saw no imperative for change. In these circumstances, the President of the Commission had little room for manoeuvre. He acted as ambassador, visiting Emperor Hirohito or entertaining Mobutu of Zaire (‘this was a peculiarly disagreeable occasion’). More profitably, given his experience as Chancellor of the Exchequer and his long personal acquaintance with the United States, he could discuss Community business in Washington with authority and hope of influence. But the politics of the Community would remain frustrating. It was as if Low’s famous TUC carthorse had lumbered across the Channel and was now harnessed to the European ideal.

Roy Jenkins had one important achievement, more remarkable in that it represented a task he had set for himself. In July 1977, he came to the view that the best axis for advance in the Community lay in proclaiming the goal of monetary union, and in March 1979 the European Monetary System was eventually born. The period of gestation was painful, and the birth threatened to be aborted more than once. It was an exercise in political will and intellectual persuasion to carry first his own Commissioners and then the Council of Ministers. Schmidt was enthusiastic and defeatist in turn, Giscard supportive and sullen. Only the sustained purpose of the President of the Commission pushed it through on a timetable of singular urgency. 1978 was effectively the year of the creation of the EMS, and thus, to Roy Jenkins, ‘the best of my four in Brussels’.

Wrapped around events in Brussels, Strasbourg, Paris and Bonn, however, was the development of politics at home. When Roy Jenkins resigned his Cabinet office and departed from the House of Commons, few of his former colleagues and friends expected him to return to British politics. Here was a good man overthrown, ultimately the victim of his own integrity in the political jungle which the Labour Party had become.

The split of 1971 over membership of the Common Market had deeper consequences than persistent differences about Europe. The Left in the Labour Party – for example, the Bevanites in the Fifties – barely rose above a quarter or a third of the PLP. The Centre-Right was a loose and easy coalition between intellectual revisionists – the Gaitskellites in the Fifties, latterly inspired by Crosland’s The Future of Socialism – the trade-union group, and a third element which might be called the schoolmasterly class. Both the trade-union group and the schoolmasters were essentially conservative loyalists, looking back to Attlee, Bevin and Morrison. But the Common Market wrecked the coalition. The revisionists, now close to Roy Jenkins, voted for entry; the conservatives on the Centre-Right made common cause with the Left and voted against. This, coupled with the greater militancy of the trade unions in the Seventies, following ‘In Place of Strife’ and the perceived failures of the 1964-70 Labour Government, gave the Left their opportunity. The Social Contract was the basis of Labour’s 1974 Manifesto. It led to 27 per cent inflation, the visit of the IMF, a tough but ultimately unsuccessful incomes policy and the Winter of Discontent. The Centre-Right never recovered its leadership, its morale or its unity, and Labour moved into a position where it became unelectable as a government.

For those of us who remained behind in Britain, this perspective was for a time obscured. The hope persisted that Labour might be saved from itself. But from Brussels, with few ties of obligation or sentiment, Roy Jenkins began to see things differently. During 1977 and 1978 his working assumption had been similar to that of his friends – he had finished with British politics for good. But the collapse of the Labour Government in May 1979 – its worst election result for half a century – and the BBC’s invitation to give the annual Dimbleby Lecture focused his mind on an alternative course. The possibility of forming a new party of the centre increasingly dominated his thoughts in the remaining eighteen months of his Presidency.

As his diaries show, his congenial social round of lunches (often at his East Hendred home) and dinners continued during his Presidential years. ‘To lunch at the Wyatts at Connock. Clarissa Eden, the Weinstocks and John Harris ... the Weinstocks and Clarissa all being surprisingly agreeable.’ ‘Drive to Isleworth and dinner with the Gilmours ... an enjoyable and interesting dinner.’ But if these were sometimes occasions for tittle-tattle and of no great interest now, they were also, consciously, a process of ‘networking’, to use contemporary jargon Roy Jenkins would abhor. In particular, he kept in touch with politics, partly out of nostalgia – thirty years in Parliament is a large slice of life – and mainly from an undiminished interest in the political process and its apparent failure in Britain. He did not seek to divert those of us still active in government from our duty as we saw it. But he began to think of allies and of rallying opinion.

On 1 November, during dinner at East Hendred, he read me extracts of the more controversial parts of his forthcoming Dimbleby Lecture. He is right to say that I ‘was sufficiently postprandial not to be taking it in too meticulously’. But I also underestimated the impact it would have. Delivered three weeks later, it was greatly welcomed by many who had lost faith in the Labour Party and even more who felt disenfranchised by the electoral system and the choice of two, unacceptable, parties of Left and Right.

There is a myth that a politician must possess the hide of a rhinoceros. This is not the case. A politician wounds and bleeds as readily as anyone else. But he has the capacity to heal quickly and the nerve to risk further hurt. ‘Inevitably woke up early full of angst and apprehension about what the newspapers would be like,’ Roy Jenkins writes of the morning following the Dimbleby Lecture. There was much more angst and apprehension before he knew whether – in the simile of his Press Gallery Speech of 9 June 1980 – his experimental aeroplane would finish up ‘a few fields from the end of the runway’ or ‘soar into the sky’.

David Owen was wholly hostile to the idea of a new party until he suffered the personal humiliation of being shouted down at a Labour Party Conference in May 1980. Shirley Williams said that a centre party would have no roots and no principles. As for me, the voyage out of the Labour Party was a lonely, painful affair not finally accomplished until a fortnight before the Limehouse Declaration of January 1981. Through these vicissitudes, Roy Jenkins remained steady in his purpose and conveyed only to his diary his periods of despondency. These are diaries remarkably without malice, recrimination or complaint. In the dark moments of a long career, Roy Jenkins has never blamed others for the situations in which he has found himself.

Elder statesman and Chancellor of the University of Oxford, what thoughts does he have now as he rises from his sober bench in the House of Lords or moves in slow procession to the Sheldonian? Should he have challenged Harold Wilson in the spring of 1968 when the Prime Minister was at his most vulnerable? Was it right to resign as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party three years later? As for Brussels, was it a misjudged escape from politics or a necessary period of transition? For all their fascination, these diaries give few hints. We shall have to wait a little longer for the answers.