Le Roi Jean Quinze

Stefan Collini

  • Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell
    Cape, 818 pp, £30.00, March 2014, ISBN 978 0 224 08750 6

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.

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