Putting it on

David Marquand

  • A Life at the Centre by Roy Jenkins
    Macmillan, 600 pp, £20.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 333 55164 8

My favourite memory of Roy Jenkins dates from a golden July evening during the Warrington by-election. He is standing in the front garden of a council house, deep in conversation with an elderly Labour housewife, for whose support he is canvassing. Stooping slightly, and with a courtly gravitas that would not have seemed out of place at a European Summit, he is explaining why the ‘fluctooations’ which have characterised British economic policy for the last ten years have done so much damage to our international credit. The housewife is looking up at him with an expression of bemused, yet indulgent admiration, like an aged aunt applauding the exploits of a favourite nephew. In the background is a gaggle of SDP helpers, desperately trying to signal to the candidate that it is time to move on. It is clear that the housewife hasn’t the remotest idea what Jenkins is talking about, and that he hasn’t the remotest idea why his supporters are making faces at him. It is also clear that she is delighted to be talked to as though her opinions matter. Most of all it is clear that she will be switching her vote to him.

That little cameo underscores the story told in, but partially concealed by, these memoirs. Jenkins first stood for Parliament in 1945, at the age of 24. He has stood in every general election since, apart from that of 1979. He has also fought three by-elections, two successfully and one unsuccessfully. Altogether, he has been a Parliamentary candidate on 15 occasions. Even on fairly modest assumptions about the length of election campaigns, that means that more than a year of his life must have been spent electioneering. He was elected to Parliament at 27, and sat in the House of Commons for more than twenty-eight years, before becoming President of the European Commission. He returned there only a year after his Brussels term ended, and remained for another five. If we put the beginning of his working life in January 1946, when he was demobilised from the Army, three-quarters of it was spent as an MP.

Parliamentary and ministerial precocity went together. Jenkins was Home Secretary at 45, the youngest since Winston Churchill, and Chancellor of the Exchequer at 47. In both these posts he gave much-needed sparkle to a drab and sometimes grubby government; in the second, he also managed to undo much, though not all, of the damage which the vacillations and procrastinations of the previous three years had done to the British economy. When Labour left office in 1970, he was rewarded with a crushing victory in the election for deputy leader and seemed (by no means the same thing) obvious frontrunner for the eventual succession to the leadership. These achievements were built partly on executive competence, but they owed even more to parliamentary flair. As a backbencher Jenkins had not been a particularly outstanding debater. As a minister, he turned himself into the most authoritative and deadly gladiator on the Labour Front Bench. In the 1970 Parliament, particularly after the Common Market split, and his resignation from the deputy leadership, he had fewer opportunities to shine. But when he got the chance to show it, his touch was still sure. No one who heard them will forget the incandescent invective with which he savaged Anthony Barber at the end of a two-day censure debate on the eve of the Christmas recess in December 1973, or the cheers which resounded through the Labour benches. Dennis Skinner was so carried away, I remember, that he told me that Jenkins would certainly be the next leader of the Party.

These successes had to be worked for. To be sure, much of the work was done sub rosa. Jenkins is a son of Martha, who likes to present himself as a son of Mary. He knows perfectly well that the myth of effortless superiority is a myth, but he would like to believe it, or at least to persuade others that he believes it. Most ambitious ministers made a macho parade of Parliamentary over-commitment, tramping through late-night Division lobbies when they would have been much better off in bed, and chatting up trade-union members in the tea room when they should have been in their departments. Jenkins was at least as ambitious as any other minister, but he cultivated a style of cavalier insouciance, giving the impression that although he happened, for the moment, to be in the House of Commons, he could equally well have been coruscating at some literary salon or dining at some St James’s club.

The style undoubtedly reflected a side of his nature, but it concealed a more intriguing substance. Jenkins masqueraded as a Cavalier, but he was a Roundhead at bottom. Despite the posh – or, to a sensitive ear, slightly off-posh – accent, he is not an etiolated Old Etonian, still less a scion of some ancient Whig house. He was born, as he once told me, into the ‘working-class squirearchy’ of the South Wales coalfield. His father, Arthur Jenkins, was a miner, who went down the pit at the age of 12, worked underground until his late thirties, and ended as president of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, a Labour MP and Clement Attlee’s PPS. In a haunting opening chapter, Jenkins brings out, perhaps without fully realising it himself, the importance of that legacy. Like all miners, Arthur Jenkins was determined that his son should not follow in his footsteps. Like all Welshmen, he saw education as the route out. He had spent a short time at Ruskin, on a trade-union scholarship, and had fallen in love with Oxford. As Jenkins puts it, ‘it became almost his central purpose that I should go there as a full member of the University.’ Though he does not say so in so many words, the son arrived at Balliol carrying his father’s hopes in his luggage like a marshal’s baton.

If Oxford made him – and from these memoirs it is clear that, in many ways, it did – so did Abersychan Secondary School. The two were not as far apart as an English commentator would expect. The South Wales valleys were, and I assume still are, one-class communities, in a sense which would be incomprehensible in England. There is a status hierarchy, of course, but those at the top and those at the bottom communicate on equal terms. Perhaps because of this, perhaps because all Celts like to think of themselves as a race of kings, and are more anxious to cut a dash than to conform to a group, the torments of social insecurity which keep lower-class Englishmen in their place are not to be found in Wales. Upwardly-mobile South Walians do not quake with terror when they encounter English grandees. They beat them at their own game – ‘putting it on’, as my mother calls it. Jenkins became a past master of ‘putting it on’, but as he half-recognises in a puzzled passage early in this book, he was not alone in that. Ivor Bulmer-Thomas and Lord Chalfont, he points out, also speak English with hardly a trace of a Welsh accent; and he wonders if there is something in the air or water of the Eastern Valley of Monmouthshire that washes away deviations from standard English. The answer is that it has nothing to do with air or water, and that accent is only part of the story. In different ways, Richard Burton and Aneurin Bevan (Beaverbrook’s ‘Bollinger Bolshevik’) were also champion putters-on. So, in a rather minor key, were at least half the members of my mother’s extended family. In a putting-it-on competition between Roy Jenkins and my Auntie Bod (her full name was Blodwen), I think Auntie Bod might well have won.

But putting it on is one thing, failing examinations another. The Abersychan ethic is an ethic of exam-passers: an ethic of those who know, however elegantly they may disguise their knowledge, that the road to success is paved with alphas. For most of his time at Balliol, Jenkins devoted most of his energies to the Union and the extraordinarily convoluted politics of the Labour and democratic socialist clubs. But halfway through his last year, he tells us in one of his most revealing passages, he was thrown into panic by the approach of Final Schools. For 80 days (a characteristic touch, that 80 days), he worked eight hours a day for seven days a week, and pulled off a First. So, as a backbench MP, he wrote highly-acclaimed books and won a Granada award for innovative journalism. But these were diversions, as the Union and Labour Club had been diversions. He succeeded as a Parliamentarian and as a minister because he applied himself to the job.

We have on our hands, in short, an exceedingly successful, highly competitive, remarkably assiduous professional politician. To use a phrase of Denis Healey’s, he is, of course, a politician with a hinterland – wine, food, family, friends, talk, travel, croquet, books. Sometimes, the hinterland has loomed so large that the city it serves seems almost to have disappeared from sight. Everyone knows about Jenkins the author, Jenkins the claret-lover, Jenkins the gourmet, Jenkins the clubman, Jenkins the socialite, Jenkins the cultivated liberal intellectual. Jenkins the electioneer, Jenkins the Member of Parliament, even Jenkins the Chancellor of the Exchequer are apt to be overlooked. But in the last resort hinterlands matter only because of their cities. Jenkins the author, claret-lover, gourmet, socialite and so forth matter only because behind them looms a canny old pro, who has forgotten more about fighting elections, chairing meetings, digesting papers, taking decisions and winning debates than most of us have ever learned.

It is only fair to add that this is not, or not quite, the picture painted by Jenkins the autobiographer. The canny old pro – and for that matter the not-so-canny young apprentice who was the chrysalis to that butterfly – are massively present in these pages, but you have to dig for them. The storyline leads in a more obvious direction. The dust cover speaks of ‘a man who combined a wide social and literary life with a political panache that nearly made him prime minister’; and in a mellow, rather touching final chapter he tells us that he regrets the political obsessions of his early years.

I was too politically concentrated between the ages of, say, eighteen and thirty-two, although my four Army years necessarily constituted something of a diversion. I devoted too much attention to politics at Oxford. I was too eager to get into the House of Commons, for anywhere, almost anyhow, and when I got there I was too much of a party loyalist, thinking more about the game than about the merits of issues. I also neglected equipping myself with any money-earning qualifications, so that, but for the unpredictable chance that I found I could increasingly write for profit, I would have been exposed to the vagaries, penuries and ingrowing narrowness of being a full-time politician ... Being a full-time backbench MP is not in my view a satisfactory occupation. The time can obviously be filled in but not with work of sufficient intellectual stimulus ... There are times when an effective politician must be prepared to throw every ounce of his commitment and every moment of his working capacity into a struggle for causes which fully engage him. But these times do not occur often over a lifetime in politics, and he also needs the resources to lie fallow in the House of Commons without stultifying himself.

To which, the only possible answer is ‘up to a point, Lord Copper.’ Of course, full-time backbenchers lead empty lives, of course effective politicians have to be able to lie fallow, and if the Jenkins of today tells us that the Jenkins of yesterday was too narrowly political, we know that he means what he says. The fact remains that this book will not be read for the odd glimpse of the New York glitterati or Oxford degree days, or even for its accounts of Jenkins’s authorship and journalism. It will be read because he devoted the greater part of his life to the craft of politics, and succeeded at it.

It was an odd, not to say paradoxical, success. The canny old pro is not only a canny old pro. As a Labour backbencher, he apprenticed himself to the system; as a Labour minister, he rose through the system; in both roles he was shaped, in a thousand ways, by the system. But he earned his place in British history as leader of the SDP, when he came closer to smashing the system than anyone since Lloyd George in the Twenties. Having steamed hard and successfully along the party and national inside track for the best part of thirty years, he suddenly switched to the outside track; having been a Westminster Parliamentarian to his fingertips, he suddenly found himself appealing, like a latterday Wilkes or Bright, to a popular constituency, disfranchised by the rules of the Westminster game. It was an extraordinary mutation, for which I can think of no British parallel. Lloyd George does not provide one; Lloyd George was locked into the Liberal Party, which had, in any event, been a party of government not long before. Perhaps the nearest is Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign, but even that is not exact, since Gladstone was an insider looking out, not an outsider looking in.

Yet Jenkins did it. He did it, moreover, at an age when most people are looking forward to retirement, and at a time when no one could possibly have criticised him for failing to do it. To be sure, there was a logic to his path. His brand of liberal social democracy had never had deep roots in the Labour Movement; and even without the European split it would have had a rough passage through the upheavals of the Seventies. Once the split had taken place, and the Labour Right had been divided against itself, the most to be hoped for was a long and miserable holding operation, which would have been as likely to fail as to succeed, and which Jenkins himself was ill-placed to conduct. Yet the European split was inevitable once the party leadership had decided to swing against entry. Had Jenkins abandoned his European commitment, he might have destroyed Britain’s chances of getting into the Community and would certainly have destroyed himself, both as a person and as a politician. He was condemned to behave honourably whether he wanted to or not. But although it is easy to see in retrospect that the road to 1981 ran, however crookedly, from the Common Market vote in 1971, it was not so easy to see it then. Labour Europeans were not all Jenkinsites, and did not all join the SDP; by the same token, Europe was only one of the issues that provoked the breakaway, and not the most important. The decisive episode in the jump from inside to outside track was the Dimbleby Lecture. Once he had put his hand to that plough, Jenkins could hardly have drawn back. But the Dimbleby Lecture came eight long years after the Common Market vote, seven and a half years after his resignation from the deputy leadership and three and a half years after his defeat in the leadership election. And when it came, it came from a seemingly clear sky.

So why did this comfortable, middle-aged insider put his comfort and reputation to the hazard in this extraordinary way? What were his hopes and fears? What vision drove him on? He does not answer these questions directly; sadly, the biographer who specialises in penetrating other people’s defences has left his own untouched. All the same, he gives a few hints. One is contained in a marvellous exchange with Richard Crossman at the height of the Common Market row, in which Crossman told him: ‘Of course, the trouble with you is that you think you are a Gaitskell and you are nothing of the sort. You are much more a Bevan than a Gaitskell. You have all the Welsh capacity for wrecking.’ On the face of it the comparison is absurd, but the more I ponder it the more convincing I find it. Beneath the Balliol carapace, Jenkins is indeed a mercurial half-Celt, given to intuitive leaps rather than plodding calculation, and swept by powerful emotions. That, of course, is why he inspires the affection and loyalty that Bevan once inspired – and also the exasperated indignation.

Like Bevan, he knew what he was against much more precisely than what he was for. By instinct, he was for pluralistic liberalism, but he is not a system-builder by nature, and he never gave his instincts systematic form. He was against the remorseless tide of sectarian bitterness that swept across British politics, on the right as well as on the left, through the decade of the Seventies. He saw it engulf the old Labour Party he had once hoped to lead; he saw old colleagues and friends vainly trying to ride it and demeaning themselves in the process; and he was appalled by what he saw. Brooding in his Brussels eyrie, he also began to wonder if he had done enough to resist it himself. Should he have been bolder? Should he, for example, have campaigned for Dick Taverne in the Lincoln by-election, deliberately courting expulsion from the Labour Party as Sir Stafford Cripps had courted it with his Popular Front campaign in the Thirties? Should he have challenged Wilson for the leadership in 1972 – not to win, that was out of the question, but to establish a rallying point for the future? After an initial period of debilitating gloom, he went about his business as Commission President with his old skill. Indeed, his Brussels achievements will probably rank higher in the 21st century than his British ones. But his heart was not in it. Welling up from the depths of his being was a mixture of disgust, anger and guilt. Come what might, he had to strike out. The sky from which the Dimbleby Lecture came only seemed clear. In reality, it was pregnant with thunder.

There is a more elusive hint in a passage in the last chapter in which Jenkins asks himself how much he minds his failure to become prime minister. On more than one occasion, he reasons, became quite close. If Labour had won the 1970 Election, he would have been Foreign Secretary. Wilson had told him that he planned to resign within two or three years, and Jenkins would have been the presumptive heir. Even as things were, he might have finessed the European issue and been well placed for the 1976 contest. He might also have attempted a ‘pre-emptive strike’, either in 1968 or in 1972 or 1973. Still,

one reason that I was not more tantalised by these more or less near misses is that I always sensed that I would enjoy being prime minister more when it was over than when it was taking place. This thought set a limit to the thrust of my ambition. No doubt, also, it raises the question of how much I was truly at ease with power. It is not a thought which I suspect much troubled the minds of the great determined leaders of history. Napoleon was not secretly looking forward to writing his memoirs, whether at St Helena or elsewhere. And even those multi-volume memorialists and politicians of genius, Lloyd George and Churchill, never doubted that they were happier in 10 Downing Street even in the darkest days of war than they ever could be on the hills of Wales or in the painting groves of the South of France.

     So, although I think that I was a decisive and even an adventurous politician at various stages in my life, and had more sensible views about how to lead a government than many of those who have actually done it, I nonetheless lacked at least one of the essential ingredients of a capacity to seize power. I may have avoided too much stooping, but I also missed conquering.

This has the ring of truth, but I don’t think it is the whole truth. I think that in the Sixties and early Seventies Jenkins very much wanted to be prime minister, and had no doubt that he would enjoy it. But in those days his time of trouble was still to come. He still thought he could enjoy the best of both worlds: that he could have the palm without the dust, the leadership of the Labour Party without being untrue to himself. The long travail of the Seventies forced him to ask himself who he really was and what he really wanted.

It was because he found the answer I have just quoted that he was able to act as he did. Ambition had held him back, not driven him on. He had to transcend it before he could make the leap which may yet turn out to have transformed British politics.