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Roy Jenkins was one of the most influential British Labour politicians of the second half of the twentieth century. The son of a miner, he was however far from working-class. His father had risen to become a successful Member of Parliament and made sure his son was given an advantageous education culminating in an Oxford degree. His socialism therefore was always of an intellectual kind rather than being rooted in the unions as his father’s had been. And like many socialists, especially of that era, he gradually moved from the left towards the centre. A prominent Cabinet minister in the ’60s and ’70s, Jenkins held at different times two of the great offices of state, as Home Secretary and Chancellor, and was accounted to be successful in both positions. In the first role he is credited with pushing through the socially liberal legislation that some later claimed led to the ‘permissive society’, while as Chancellor he was seen as having transformed the balance of trade and fiscal position of the UK, which were still suffering from the aftermath of WW2. Consistently pro-Europe, he was one of the strongest proponents for Britain’s entry to the Common Market.
Had the tensions between left and right within the Labour Party not become so toxic during the 1970s, there is very little doubt that Jenkins would have become party leader and quite probably Prime Minister. Instead, he decided to leave parliament to take up the post of President of the European Commission. But on his return, when the Labour Party was showing every sign of lurching even further to the Left, Jenkins ended up leading the breakaway group that was briefly known as the Social Democratic Party, before merging with the Liberal Party to become the Lib-Dems we (in the UK) all know and love today. Jenkins returned to Parliament for a while as MP for Glasgow Hillhead, but it was soon clear that the SDP was not going to fulfil the hopes of its followers by replacing the Labour Party as one of the two major parties in Britain, and Jenkins was defeated at the next election.
Alongside this lengthy political career, Jenkins had a second career, perhaps equally successful and certainly more lucrative, as a journalist and political biographer of, amongst others, Asquith and Churchill. Add in a complicated personal life, and a huge network of friendships with many of the most influential people of his time, and it’s clear that any biographer of Jenkins himself has his work cut out for him.
John Campbell is the author of many political biographies and won the 1994 NCR Award for his biography of Edward Heath. He admits in the introduction to this book that he admired Jenkins a good deal, and hopes that he has not allowed this to stop him being critical when required. I, on the other hand, always found Jenkins to be a pompous, arrogant buffoon who was serially disloyal to the parties to which he belonged. So the question for me was whether Campbell would be able to persuade me that I, in my youthful ignorance, had misjudged the man.
The biography is hugely long and detailed, but written with a clarity and flow that make it a pleasurable read. I kept feeling that surely something could have been cut to make the size more manageable, but concluded eventually that it was the fullness and complexity of Jenkins’ life that led to the length, rather than any failing on the part of the author. There is a fairly heavy emphasis on Jenkins’ personal life in the early part of the book – specifically his relationships with Tony Crosland (another Labour politician), then his wife and his multiple mistresses. But happily, once Campbell had made his point about the unconventionality of Jenkins lifestyle (or perhaps one should say conventionality, since it bears comparison with that of politicians of earlier days), he allows the subject to fade into the background and concentrates much more on the political side of his life.
I did feel that Campbell’s partiality for Jenkins showed through too clearly in some places, letting him off the hook on occasion, and giving him a little more praise than necessary. In general, though, I prefer affectionate biographies to hatchet jobs, so overall Campbell’s approach worked well for me. I was somewhat less keen on the way he portrayed some of the politicians on the left if the Labour Party – it wasn’t so much that I disagreed with his depiction of them as that I felt he adopted an almost sneering tone at times that led his account to feel as if it were being somewhat biased by his own personal political stance.
Overall, though, I found this a well written and hugely informative biography. While sticking closely to his subject, Campbell sets Jenkins’ life in the context of the times at all stages and as such this is also a revealing look at the wider political history of the second half of the twentieth century. Jenkins lived a well-rounded life indeed, never allowing the pressures of his various roles to get in the way of the more hedonistic side of his nature, but Campbell convinced this reader at least that the charge of laziness that was sometimes made against him was unfair. While I still stand by pompous and arrogant, Campbell has persuaded me that I must retract the word ‘buffoon’ – no-one who achieved so much in so many fields deserves that title. And while he was disloyal to his parties, it seems he remained loyal to his core beliefs, which in the end may be more honourable – so I acquit him of that charge. Jenkins’ life was a full and interesting one, and this biography does its subject justice – highly recommended (to political nerds like me, that is, not to normal folk).