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 full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in