Roy Jenkins died in 2003, at the age of 83. His last recorded words to Jennifer, his wife of 62 years and five months, were “two eggs, lightly poached”. The funeral was held at the parish church of East Hendred, near to Oxford, with the service held by the vicar and the Dean of Christ Church. He is buried in the graveyard. On his tombstone, Jennifer had written: Roy Jenkins 1920-2003 Writer and Statesman.
Jenkins was first elected to the House of Commons in 1948, where he sat for 28 years, rising to be Home Secretary twice, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Deputy Leader of the Labour party. But he wrecked his position in the party on account of his determined support for the UK’s entry to the European Economic Community, losing the leadership to James Callaghan.
On the suggestion of Chancellor Schmidt and President Giscard d’Estaing, he took the post of President of the European Commission for four years, and returned to the House of Commons as one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party, which he hoped would break the two party strangehold of Conservatives and Labour over British politics. He then moved to the House of Lords where he played a vigorous role until his death in 2003. Overall his active parliamentary life stretched across 55 years.
As the son and grandson of miners, Roy Jenkins was born into the Labour purple. His father became MP for Pontypool in 1935, was parliamentary private secretary for Clement Atlee, and died in 1946. During Roy’s youth, he came to know all the leading figures of the 1945 Labour government, won a scholarship as a grammer school boy to Balliol College, Oxford, did his officer training and went to Bletchely as a cryptographer of the German enigma codes.
Over the first post-war decade, Jenkins espoused radical causes, favoured nationalization on the grounds that the money required for investment could no longer be raised privately, and went on to call for the abolition of large private fortunes, taxation of over 95% on income for high earners, destruction of the public schools, and a capital levy to spread the ownership of wealth.
But it was also noted that he loved the good life, had a weakness for the aristocracy, sent his son Charles to Winchester, and held lunch and dinner parties in mock-Edwardian style. He was much impressed by his first visit to the Council of Europe, and in 1953 went to Washington D.C. and to Harvard, where he met such liberal luminaries as Arthur Schlesinger and J.K. Galbraith.
By the end of the Labour administrations of 1945 to 1951, the limits of what could be achieved nationalizing as much as possible of the UK economy became more evident. Like his former lover, Tony Crosland, Jenkins staked out a new identity as an advocate of cultural change. For Jenkins, the objective was to achieve a more “civilized society” through legislation inspired by an “optimistic humanism”; in his best selling book “In Pursuit of Socialism”, Crosland dubbed his vision as one of “socialist hedonism”.
Whatever the formulae, their programmatic proposals were much the same: abolition of the death penalty; legalization of homosexuality; abolition of censorship; reform of the licensing and betting laws; making divorce easier; abolition of abortion laws; humanisation of immigration laws or raising the remaining restrictions on equal rights for women. Jenkins vigorously cultivated cross party support for the causes he espoused.
In view of later attacks on Jenkins time at the Home Office, it is worth recording that much of the foundation of his reforms were laid under the Premiership of Harold MacMillan. Censorship was eased; the laws against homosexuality were relaxed; the death penalty was questioned; not least, it was the Conservative government, against the leadership of the Labour Party, that opened the first exploratory negotiations for the UK’s entry to the EEC.
Opposition to his vision of a civilized society did not deter him. As Home Secretary in 1966-67, he did what he thought right for the country, not for popularity. Leadership, he believed, meant setting the direction of change, not following where public opinion beckoned. Few reforms were popular: working class Labour members opposed his support for decriminalising homosexuality. He was, his opponents declared, writing “a buggers’ charter”; his easing of the abortion law met with resistance from Catholics; he pushed through abolition of the death penalty against widespread disapproval in the country; he altered the ancient requirement of unanimous verdicts by juries to opposition in the legal profession; and he set up the Race Relations Board, calling for immigration, “ not as a flattening process of assimilation, but as equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance”. In this, he could claim paternity for what later came to be called the politics of multiculturalism.
Jenkins was an early convert to the UK’s membership of the EEC. Membership would boost the UK economy, and allow the UK to work among equals rather than “waste our substance trying to keep up with the power giants of the modern world”. Living within the UK’s means informed his opposition to building the supersonic Concorde aircraft, to be jointly manufactured with France, and as Minister of Aviation, he abruptly cancelled the TSR2 , Britain”s “lost bomber” in the phrase of Damien Burke, the historian of the aircraft (http://tsr2.info/index.php). A similar rationale informed his support of the UK’s withdrawal east of Suez, and as Chancellor of the Exchequer, following the pound sterling’s devaluation, he became converted to the idea of monetary union.
Jenkins found little backing in the Labour Party for his views on the EEC. John Campbell tells the story of how Jenkins tried to win over Hugh Gaitskell. Jenkins arranged a meeting between Gaitskell, and Jean Monnet, the champion of a federal Europe. The meeting was a tremendous failure. Monnet failed to answer any of Gaitskells’ points, brushed them aside as trivial and urged Gaitskell “to have faith”. Gaitskell replied: “I don’t believe in faith. I believe in reason and you have not shown me any”. Later at the Labour party conference of October 1962, Gaitskell stated his position that Britain’s participation in a federal Europe would mean “the end of Britain as an independent European state, the end of a thousand years of history!” In modern jargon, the Labour leader considered that governance of the UK was more important than arguments about country size and large internal markets. Gaiskell died unexpectedly in January 1963.
Jenkins was at the forefront of all the political battles about “Europe”. He led a rebellion of Labour MPs against the party whip in 1971 in support of the Heath government’s European policies, and took the lead in the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership. For his efforts, he received the Charlemagne Prize, and became President of the European Commission in 1977. There he helped to relaunch the idea of monetary union, in the shape of what came to be known as the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.
As President of the EEC, he soon discovered that his knowledge about the EEC was thin. Initially, he was frustrated that the Commission did not operate like the UK civil service; he had imagined that he would be Prime Minister of Europe. In fact, Paris and Bonn made the weather in Brussels. It was President Giscard d’Estaing who agreed to direct elections to the European Parliament, severing the existing link to national parliaments. Previous to the first elections in 1979, national parliaments sent delegates to the EP, much as they did to the Council of Europe’s Assembly. Jenkins floated the idea of monetary union, but it was Schmidt’s concern about the DM’s vulnerability to revaluation that prompted his conversion in early 1978 to the exchange rate mechanism. On his watch, the EEC launched Lomé II, its aid with some trade package for African, Caribbean and Pacific countries.
Jenkins backed the EEC’s southern enlargement to include Portugal, Spain and Greece, but it was the newly elected Mrs Thatcher who put a break on the process. The battle of the rebate lasted from 1979-1984, during which Thatcher battled to reduce the burgeoning budget contribution that Edward Heath had meekly signed up to.
Jenkins, once retired from the Presidency, made withering criticisms of Thatcher’s ability to mistake statesmanship for accountancy. In fact, Paris’ enthusiasm in the early 1970s for UK entry was prompted by the search for a new source of funds to finance the Common Agricultural Policy, of which France was the prime beneficiary. Similarly, the lengthy negotiations for southern enlargement were in essence about who would pay the bill for incorporating Iberia’s still large farm population. Giscard clearly hoped the UK would. In Thatcher’s view, France was “the kept woman of Europe”. She insisted, and finally won at the summit at Fontainebleau in 1984. Chancellor Kohl agreed to play Europayer, as part of his cheque book diplomacy to get support in western Europe for the impending changes in East-West relations.
Breaking the mould.
Even before leaving London for Brussels in 1976, the signs were on the wall that Labour was no longer his political home. David Marquand is reported here as considering that Jim Callaghan’s election over his five university educated rivals was a sign of Labour becoming more aggressively proletarian, wedded to an outdated socialism , predicated on a captive capital market, heavy industry, and extensive state ownership of the “means of production”. For long, this had not been Jenkin’s world: he had welcomed the break with Marxism by the German Social Democratic Party at Bad Godesberg in 1959, while his libertarian views and enthusiasm for Europe put him ever more out of step with Labour voters.
In 1983, he formed the Social Democratic Party with other supporters of Hugh Gaitskell, to break the domination of Labour and Conservatives over British politics. Into the 1970s, he had favoured the alternation of parties in government on the grounds that Labour could be counted on to push for progress, while the Conservatives would elect for a pause for reflation. But he had not anticipated a leader like Thatcher, determined to reverse the ratchet process of step by step advance. With Labour veering to the left, and the Conservatives to a more hardline policy to reverse the decades of creeping stagnation, Jenkins hoped to open up a space for the radical political centre. Initially, the SDP met with success, but the wind was taken from its sails by the fallout from the 1982 Falklands war. The Conservatives swept to victory in 1983, and again in 1987. Liberals and Social Democrats merged in 1988 to form the Lib Dems.
What can be said of Jenkins legacy? As John Campbell writes, although he held office only for 8 years, he left an indelible mark on British politics in three key areas: the Home Office of the 1960s; UK membership of the EU; and the reshaping of the centre left of British politics.
Since his period in the Home Office, definitely the UK has become a more liberal society. For which Jenkins receives the plaudits of his supporters and the criticism of his opponents, who blame his liberalization of the country’s laws, as a major cause for the surge in family breakdown, the rise in criminality, the frequency of divorce, or the use of abortion as a contraceptive device.
On his European policy, the same comment pertains. His supporters look on him as a far sighted leader, who understood that a post imperial country such as the UK was best served by full hearted membership in the EU. Without full participation in all policy areas, notably in monetary union, he insisted, the UK would not wield the influence that it could. His critics argue that there was no need to sacrifice UK sovereignty, expressed in the supremacy of the Crown in Parliament, in order to get access to markets. In the light of the plight that the EU is currently in, this critique has gained resonance.
Finally, Jenkins definitely contributed to breaking the mould in British politics. In the longer term, his vision has proved prophetic. Once in the House of Lords, he cultivated his cross party networks; enjoyed making speeches with the content and the weight that used also to have been customary in the House of Commons; he was a withering critic of both Thatcher and Major governments, and an early enthusiast for Tony Blair’s New Labour. He favoured Blair’s Europeanism, but became disenchanted with his failure to implement proportional representation in UK electoral law, or to fulfill his initial enthusiasm for the UK’s entry to the Euro. His last publication was to join with Geoffrey Howe, Peter Carrington and Douglas Hurd, three stalwarts of the Thatcher years, to sign a letter protesting at The Times refusal to publish a pro-Euro letter by eleven retired ambassadors. The mould was not broken by the time of his death.
A number of points may be made. First, Jenkins libertarian policies have to be placed in a wider context than this excellent biography allows for. It is noticeable that the Crosland-Jenkins rethink on the meaning of socialism in the UK in the late 1950s mirrored the discussions in the European Communist parties of the period. These discussions led to the phenomenon of Eurocommunism, inspired by the writings of Antonio Gramsci, to whom capturing the commanding heights of the economy came a distant second to capturing the commanding heights of culture. Jenkins was a leading activist in this broad movement on the European left. In the UK, he definitely may lay claim to have given legal expression to what later has come to be known as multiculturalism-the idea that all cultures can live cheek by jowel, as long as tolerance prevails. Tolerance may be said to have become the ersatz religion of modern Britain: but it is legitimate to ask Jenkins’ ghost what he would consider the limits to tolerance, and why? This biography provides no clue to his answer, other than the utilitarian one that anything is permissible as long as the action does not harm another.
Second, it would be excessive to ascribe the evolution of British social trends to Jenkins’ libertarian legislation. Many other factors were at work: as a French gynecologist friend of mine told me of the women who went through his practice in the 1960s, there was barely any relation between the women of 1960 and those of 1970, such had been the impact of the pill on relations between the sexes. Indeed, it is possible to argue that Jenkins’ legislative activism at the Home Office in 1966-1967 spared the UK the explosion of a more revolutionary libertarianism in France in May 1968. Arguably, Jenkins counterpart in EU and German politics, is Danny Cohn Bendit, a libertarian in social mores and an ardent Europeanist.
But just as the assumptions of “les soixante huitards” about human beings were fundamentally naïve, so I would argue that Jenkins “optimistic humanism” was misguided, and also ill thought out. Misguided because of the assumption that if social mores were made more civilized, people would become so too. The trouble with this view is that we are all born, and we all die, and the lessons that we hopefully learn, normally arduously, over our life time, always start again with a new life. Humans are condemned to the treadmill of relearning everything about the moral world from scratch. We can cultivate through education, and the pursuit of excellence in all domains, but we never escape the need to judge between right and wrong. We may wish to make things all relative; but we cannot avoid the reality of absolutes, absolute evil, and, much rarer, absolute good.
Ill thought out because progress is technological not human. There is definite and measurable progress in technology; it may be so, that there is progress in the way that public affairs are conducted. What is surprising is that someone who wrote so well about great men of the past-Gladstone, Asquith or Churchill-could hold such an assumption dear. Maybe he did not: he was capable of casting damning judgements on individuals, such as Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary before the 1914 war, whom Jenkins considered largely responsible for the disaster. Jenkins was an impressive observer of political leaders: his observation of Giscard d’Estaing as vain, and Schmidt as the more impressive individual is worth recording. Deng Xiaoping he judged “extremely tough..with a great grasp of the details of international affairs”.
John Cambell mentions Jenkins meeting with Pope John Paul, also an optimist but an oak of faith, as well as being a considerable linguist, theologian and definitely a charismatic leader. Jenkins records that his meeting was more agreeable than with previous Popes, but he records that “the sheer human and intellectual impact on me was less than I expected”. Was this an ingrained British reticence to the institution of the papacy, because Pope John would not have shared all of his libertarian agenda(abortion, gay rights), or because of personal chemistry? It may be that Jenkins was more at home with the laid back Anglicanism he inherited from his family.
Third, Jenkins was a convinced European. So am I . But I disagree with him. Why? Jenkins general ideas about not taking the details too seriously as long as the movement is in the right direction, linked to his fundamentally social democrat belief in the ratchet process of progress, made him a natural convert to Jean Monnet’s version of Europeanism. Monnet’s lesson from the failure of the League of Nations to preserve the European peace in the interwar years was that the fragmentation of Europe into states and statelets had to be surmounted by the creation of a federal authority overriding all of them, and capable of speaking with one voice for Europe as a single entity on the world stage. Monnet has definitely been successful in terms of Jenkins’ direction of movement, and the ratchet process whereby ever wider powers are placed in the European institutions.
My observation is that this trend to the centralization of powers has gone along with a secular stagnation in economic growth; exhorbitant levels of unemployment; the hollowing out of democratic accountability in the nation states, including in the UK, and the de facto reemergence of a state hierarchy, with Germany at the top, setting the tone for relations with Russia; for EU policy towards the Ukraine; for the imposition of a stabilization policy on France and the Mediterranean, that would make the Tea Party to the right of the Republicans look positively Keynesian; and arguably, a Germany which set the tone in 2008-2010 in fostering the wave of populism that is sweeping Europe from the Syriza movement in Greece to the rise of Marine Le Pen in France. Chancellor Merkel harkened to the Bildzeitung’s depiction of Mediterraneans as lazy, and in need for a touch of belt tightening. We are back in a world of power politics, which Monnet’s institutional creativity was intended to tame.
Something has gone wrong in Europe, and what has gone wrong has been the direction of movement. Europe is a congery of peoples and states, with a variety of languages, and diverging historical memories, but sharing a broad common culture and religious inheritance. Trying to force it into a pattern of centralization and harmonization, the inevitable consequence of Monnet’s method, is creating a political monster, a Leviathan, that is a far cry from Jenkin’s “optimistic humanism”. Simply, after all the institutional creativity to which Jenkins devoted much of his political life, Germany is being tempted to make a German Europe, rather than to make Germany more European. Of solidarity with regard to Greece, there has not been a scrap. Of foresightedness in dealing with Russia over the Ukraine, there has only been ham handedness. Germany is the leader in Europe, and Europe is clearly in trouble.
The mould, which Jenkins sought to break in the early 1980s, has been broken in the UK in the May 2015 general elections. But not in a way that Jenkins would have wanted. Labour has been annihilated in Scotland, the land of its birth, if we take Keir Hardie as its founder. But even there, there are nuances to recall for Jenkins shade. Scotland is old, not new Labour. It is also not so pro EU as SNP rhetoric allows for. Definitely, though, what he wrote(controversially, I would add) about the Thatcher years would find approval in Scotland: “Judged by all the hard criteria, inflation, balance of payments, investment, prospects for growth, Britain remains as it was in 1979, a second rate economy in danger of falling into the third rank”.
In the words of Vernon Bogdanor, the constitutional expert and former Oxford don, writing in his obituary in The Observer, behind his Whiggish exterior, Jenkins “was the first politician to appreciate that a liberalized social democracy must be based on two tenets: what Peter Mandelson called an aspirational society(individuals would be allowed to regulate their personal lives without interference from the state); and that a post-imperial country like Britain could only be influential in the word as part of a wider grouping(the EU)…Jenkins was the prime mover in a form of social democracy, which being internationalist, is peculiarly suited to the age of globalization and, being liberal, will prove to have more staying power than the statism of Jospin or the corporatist socialism of Gerhard Schroeder”.
Unfortunately, it is clearly the corporate socialism in Gerhard Schroeder’s 2003 reforms that have set the tone for Germany’s emergence as Europe’s, and not just the EU’s, undisputed No 1. In the UK, Jenkins libertarian legacy in social legislation is a curious pendant to Thatcher’s libertarianism in economic policy: both required the use of state power to impose on a reticent country. Jenkins disliked Thatcher’s flag waving, and in his “European” guise pretended its states need to “pool” sovereignty. They have, particularly in monetary matters. So a coalition of like minded creditor states, led by Germany, tell the rest that they have to repay the debts incurred. The result is that southern countries have unemployment rates higher than in the 1930s.
The fact is that Europe remains a mosaic of interdependent states, where people and companies can marry, but countries can only do so at their peril. Jenkins seemed to assume they could. In this, he was fundamentally wrong.