Roy Jenkins was heavily involved in politics throughout his life, overseeing the reform of laws concerning capital and corporal punishment, homosexuality, divorce, abortion and race relations during his time in parliament. He is, to date, the first and only Briton to be head of the European Commission. Jenkins wrote a great many biographies of politicians; his own autobiography, A Life at the Centre is widely thought to be one of the best of the late 20th Century. He was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1993 and continued working until his death in 2003.
Author of Obituary: Giles Radice
President of the RSL
Roy Jenkins was an exceptional man. Though he never became Prime Minister, he was one of the outstanding British politicians of the second half of the twentieth century. As the first British President of the European Commission and a fervent advocate of the European cause for nearly 50 years, he was recognized across the continent as a great statesman. A renowned President of the Royal Society of Literature, Chancellor of Oxford, and holder of the Order of Merit, he was also the nation’s leading political biographer. To those close to him, he was a wonderfully stimulating companion with a priceless gift for friendship.
Unlike many politicians, Jenkins had what his former Labour colleague and rival Denis Healy called ‘hinterland’. He was a distinguished journalist and reviewer, winning a Granada Award of the Year for his Observer articles on the failed ICI takeover of Courtaulds. In 1948 he wrote his first book, Mr Attlee, an interim biography of his party leader which showed his potential to be a serious writer. His breakthrough book, published in 1954, was Mr Balfour’s Poodle, a well-researched account of the struggle between the House of Lords and Asquith’s Liberal Government which is still in print today. Its success led to a suggestion by Mark Bonham Carter, the Liberal politician and publisher who worked for Collins, that he should write a book about Sir Charles Dilke, the Victorian radical whose political life was destroyed by a sensational divorce case. Roy’s career as a political biographer was launched.
His three best-known biographies are his lives of Asquith, Gladstone and Churchill. His Asquith, which made extensive use of the letters between Asquith and his friend Venetia Stanley, was published in 1964 and helped pay for the purchase of the Jenkins’s vicarage at East Hendred, Oxfordshire. Gladstone, published in 1995, and Churchill, published in 2001, were the late flowering of a writer at the height of his powers. Neither claimed to be based on original research, but they are distinguished by shrewd judgement and political insight. Churchill proved to be a triumphant best seller, selling half a million copies on both sides of the Atlantic.
Roy Harris Jenkins was born at Abersychan in Monmouthshire on 11 November 1920. His father, Arthur, was a Welsh miner and trades-union official who became MP for Pontypool and Clement Attlee’s Parliamentary Private Secretary. Roy’s mother, Hattie, was also an influential local figure. Both parents had lofty ambitions for their son, who after secondary education at Abersychan Grammar School and six months at University College, Cardiff, went up in 1938 to Balliol College, Oxford– where, perhaps on account of his upper-class drawl, members of the Senior Common Room referred to him as ‘nature’s Old Etonian’. Contemporaries in what has been called the most political generation in Oxford history included Denis Healey and Edward Heath from Balliol, and Tony Crosland, who became an inseparable friend, from Trinity. Jenkins showed his promise by getting a First in PPE and becoming elected President of the Junior Common Room, though he was defeated by five votes for the presidency of the Oxford Union. With Crosland, he left the Communist-dominated Labour Club in 1940 and formed a breakaway democratic socialist group which quickly supplanted the former.
Unlike Healey and Crosland, Jenkins never came under fire during the War. He served first as a regimental artillery officer, and from 1944 at Bletchley Park decoding German ciphers. He was elected to the Commons (his ambition at an early age) as Labour MP for Central Southwark in 1948, moving, when his first seat was redistributed, to the Stetchford division in Birmingham in 1950. After a brief flirtation with Aneurin Bevan, he became – with Crosland – an acolyte of the modernising Hugh Gaitskell, who was elected leader of the Labour Party in 1955. Roy was closely involved in all the controversies of Gaitskell’s leadership (even opposing him over Common Market entry in 1962) and was devastated by Gaitskell’s tragic death in January 1963 – so much so that he nearly left politics to become editor of the Economist.
Paradoxically, it was under the leadership of Harold Wilson – Gaitskell’s successor, whom Jenkins had opposed – that Roy’s political career really took off. When Labour won the 1964 election, Wilson to his credit first made Jenkins Minister of Aviation and then, in December 1965, brought him into the Cabinet as Home Secretary, after Jenkins had had the temerity to turn down the job of Education Secretary (which went to Tony Crosland). With a clear idea of what he wanted to achieve, Roy proved to be the most radical Home Secretary of the century, supporting a raft of liberal reforms, including changes to the laws on divorce, abortion and homosexuality, which helped make Britain a more tolerant and civilised society. As Jenkins pointed out, though these changes were later much criticised by the popular right as leading to ‘the permissive society’, none of them were reversed.
It was in recognition of his growing reputation and debating skills that Wilson made Jenkins Chancellor of the Exchequer in November 1967 (following devaluation) in preference to Tony Crosland, who desperately wanted the job and never forgave Roy his promotion. Jenkins proved to be a courageous Chancellor, bringing the balance of payments back into surplus, and if Labour had won the 1970 election instead of losing it, would have been in a good position to succeed Wilson as Prime Minister.
In the 1970s Jenkins became disillusioned with Labour, especially over Europe. In 1971, though he had become Deputy Leader, he led 69 Labour pro-Europeans into the lobbies in support of British membership of the European Community against a three-line whip, and in 1972 resigned the deputy leadership, thus destroying his chances of ever becoming leader. Although he became Home Secretary again after Labour unexpectedly won the 1974 election, he was semi-detached from the Government; and when he only came third in the leadership election following Wilson’s resignation, and the new leader Jim Callaghan made Tony Crosland, not Jenkins, Foreign Secretary, Roy decided to accept an invitation to become President of the European Commission. After a shaky start, he settled into the job and helped establish the European Monetary System which eventually led to the creation of the euro.
At the end of his term, instead of retiring to East Hendred to write, Jenkins came back to British politics at the age of 60 to help found a new party (with Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers) after Labour’s lurch to the left following Mrs Thatcher’s victory in the 1979 election. For a while the Social Democratic Party (SDP), boosted by Government unpopularity and civil war inside the Labour Party, soared in the polls; Jenkins, belying his undeserved reputation as an effete élitist, proved to be an energetic campaigner, finishing a good second in the Warrington by-election and winning Glasgow Hillhead in March 1982, after which he became SDP leader. However, despite achieving the best third-party result since the 1920s in alliance with the Liberals, the party failed to ‘break the mould’ of British politics and Jenkins resigned as leader. In 1987, he was made a life peer and became leader of the Liberal Democrats (as the new merged party was called) in the Lords.
He was appointed President of the RSL the following year, and in 1991 his autobiography A Life at the Centre was published to much acclaim. To his death he remained an influential elder statesman, acting as adviser to the Liberal Democrat leaders Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy, and, intriguingly, striking up a friendship with the Labour leader Tony Blair (‘I think Tony treats me as a sort of father figure in politics,’ he remarked). He was working on the final pages of a short biography of Roosevelt on the night before he died.
I salute Roy Jenkins as a great statesman and a gifted writer, and, above all, as a generous and warm human being who enlivened a room or a lunch table by his presence.
I was deeply saddened by the death of Lord Jenkins. I did not really know him very well, but he made a profound impression on me and I was devoted to him. He had presence and authority and could be wonderfully superior, yet seemed at times surprisingly vulnerable for someone who had reached such heights in politics, literature and academe. This arose, I think, from his sense of humour, which could be both brusque and uncertain; he did not always seem confident that he understood a joke or, indeed, if a joke had actually been made. Having read many of his splendid books, I noted his odd obsession with the ages people were when they first achieved success of any kind. So it was that when I succeeded Michael Holroyd as Chairman of the RSL, and Lord Jenkins invited us to lunch with him at his club, I asked him over coffee and the last of the claret at what age he had become Chancellor. He looked beadily at me and said, ‘Of Oxford or the Exchequer?’ I shall miss him.
Roy Jenkins is irreplaceable. He was that rare thing, a politician who cared deeply for literature, and a fine writer who was also a powerful politician who civilized our society. We owe to him, as our best Home Secretary, the facts that we have sensible laws on abortion and no longer hang people or imprison gays. He also introduced the defence of literary merit into the law on obscenity. He cared as deeply for the RSL, he said, as he did for Oxford, where he was Chancellor. His presence at meetings was always a joy. His life of Dilke is one of the most entertaining biographies, and his great life of Churchill was written in his 80th year. He loved gossip, jokes, good wine and the company of women. A great and kindly light has gone out, and made these dark days seem even darker.
How lucky we were to have Roy Jenkins as President of the RSL. He brought in a breath of the world, and he also knew about the problems of writers, being himself possessed of the rare ability to command the political heights and at the same time produce weighty, witty and illuminating books – something shared with his last biographical subject, Churchill.
His inside knowledge of political process gave a precious extra dimension to his biographies. He was a prodigious reader too, something he got from his father, who had gone down the mines at twelve, become a mature student at Oxford, taken himself to Paris to learn French, and become an MP. Roy followed proudly in his footsteps, to Oxford and into Parliament, and served the idea of a European community all his life.
The first time I heard him speak at a literary gathering he told a story inspired by his double life as writer and politician. He'd noticed, he said, that even with a hangover you can still gather your strength to run a government department or attend a Cabinet meeting effectively. But if your morning-after task is to write a few pages of your current book, it is simply no good. A hangover makes writing impossible. From this he concluded, with a twinkle in his eye as he spoke, that governing a country is an easier task than writing a book. Twinkle or no, it goes down very well with writers.
For any writer Lord Jenkins was a most disturbing figure, if also an inspiration. It seemed he could do anything with grace and liberality. His manners were spot-on, his accents refined into a magnificent drawl from good Welsh roots, his syntax more than challenging most of ours, his choice of subject deftly grand, his concentration total, his way of life as leisurely as it was luxurious as it was demanding: in measuring him up, the mind stole to Roman emperors, none of whom quite matched him in the personification of non-barbarian values. In his years as President of our Society he was as rotund in physique as orotund in manner, and the two happily blended: he spoke fine wine and stood like great prose. I cannot pretend I envy him in death, however notable, but I did (and do) his life. He worked out for himself a dozen careers of a most particular distinction, beyond just writing a good book or two, which is most that we Fellows whom he lead with such good-hearted relish ever hope for. Vale, Roy bach.
Fear grew into great fondness over the ten years that I knew Lord Jenkins. One of the first times we met, he arrived at Hyde Park Gardens late for the AGM, after a battle with the Bayswater traffic, handed me a bunch of keys and asked me to park his BMW. But he then presided over the evening, as over all the Society’s more august gatherings, with such a perfect balance of gravitas and subtle drollery that I couldn’t help but warm to him. He never interfered, but whenever we needed him he was ready to help, not just by putting his weighty signature to important correspondence, but by offering his time, advice and, on occasion, great personal generosity. In 1995, we invited Fellows to send in items for an auction to raise money for the refurbishment of Miss Almedingen’s cottage. By return of post came a hefty package from the President: hundreds of pages of thick, laid, House of Lords writing-paper, closely covered with practically uncorrected tiny blue Biro handwriting – the manuscript of Gladstone. On almost his last visit to the Society, rushing straight from a tranastlantic flight to present scrolls to new Companions of Literature, Lord Jenkins became hopelessly lost in the warren of corridors that runs beneath the east wing of Somerset House. When, three quarters of an hour late, he finally emerged, he was justifiably furious with Julia Abel Smith and me for not having given him better directions. Next morning, I sat down to write a letter of apology. I had hardly begun when two envelopes – one for Julia, one for me – were delivered from the House of Lords. On that thick, familiar paper, he asked each of us with great sweetness to forgive him for having lost his temper. We admired him hugely for that.
Lord Jenkins made it very clear to me, his secretary, that in his later years there were only two vitally important organisations with which he was proud to be associated and about which he felt passionately. They were, of course, the Royal Society of Literature and the University of Oxford.
Apart from his fascination with all things literary, Lord Jenkins felt that by nominating him as President of the Society his fellow writers had recognized him as an author of some merit. They might have been surprised to know just how much this meant to him.
Fellows are nominated by peers and elected by our Council of writers – our governing Board. Being elected a Fellow of the RSL is a lifetime honour. This role gives them the opportunity to support other writers, readers and the future of literature. The RSL connects writers in the Fellowship to one another, and to a wider readership.