Games, Set and Match to Woy

Paul Johnson

Roy Jenkins, an only child from the valleys, was born into the socialist purple. That is, his father Arthur, a miners’ agent, was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment during the General Strike, though thanks to the generosity of Lord Birkenhead he served only three. His mother Hattie, who worked in a music shop and had strong middle-class aspirations, concealed the prison term from little Roy, then six, who did not learn of it till his mid-teens. But it was Roy’s start in life, at any rate Labour life. Arthur became a favourite of Clem Attlee, who made him his PPS and later a junior minister. When Arthur died in 1946, aged only 67, Roy and Hattie were invited to spend the night of the funeral at Downing Street. Two years later he was given the tail end of a safe Labour constituency due to be abolished, which made him baby of the House. Attlee, most unusually for a prime minister, was one of his sponsors when he took his seat. In time for the 1950 election, Jenkins secured the newly created Labour stronghold of Birmingham Stetchford, and held it for 26 years. In fact the Labour establishment did Jenkins proud, and if that night in 1946 was the only one he spent at Number 10, it was entirely his own doing.

Jenkins’s career — Minister of Aviation, Home Secretary (twice), Chancellor of the Exchequer, Deputy Leader, President of the European Commission, and founder of the Social Democrats (“the Gang of Four”) — is skilfully recounted by John Campbell in this workmanlike biography. The book has attracted attention chiefly because it deals openly with a number of furtive episodes in Jenkins’s private life. The first of them concerns Anthony Crosland, then 20, who met Jenkins when he went up to Oxford, aged just 18. “Years later,” Campbell writes, “Roy confessed that Tony had successfully seduced him at least once.” The authority for this is given as “private information”. It is backed by Tony’s letters, which are openly affectionate (“Very much love, my pet, Tony”). Crosland called him his “pansy Beau Geste” and taught him theoretical socialism and upper-class ways. He was taken up by Jenkins’s parents, and later described by Jenkins himself as “the most exciting friend of my life”.

Crosland was clearly the main factor in transforming Jenkins from a Welsh arriviste into the accomplished operator we knew. He failed to win a scholarship and his father paid for him to go to Balliol, then the leading forcing-house of Oxford talent. There, his scout described him as “one of the best tippers” (£5 to £10 a term) and the speed and dexterity with which he acquired a posh accent led a colleague to describe him as “one of Nature’s Old Etonians”. He perfected the varsity drawl and the only word which baffled him was “situation”, which he pronounced the Welsh way. His ‘r’s, which became ‘w’s, started (I think) as an affectation but became habitual. He followed Crosland in taking a First but not in becoming president of the Union, though his performance there was creditable. In the Army, unlike Crosland and his contemporary at Balliol Major Denis Healey, he failed to see action but, thanks to the Master of Balliol, A. D. Lindsay, he got a cushy job at Bletchley and rose to the rank of captain.

He quickly learned the tricks of the House of Commons, becoming a first-class performer, especially in debate, and fully justified the Balliol maxim of “effortless superiority”. But his rise was assisted by the relentless efforts of his wife Jennifer, daughter of the Westminster town clerk, and his ability to make friends (and in some cases mistresses) of the well-born wives of the smoother type of politician. The most important of these were Caroline Gilmour, daughter of the Duke of Buccleuch, and Leslie Bonham Carter. Jennifer accepted both into the family and these three hard-working and able women ran Jenkins’s rich and purposeful life.

Campbell, however, does Jenkins an injustice when he says that, thanks to these adoring partners, he had “nothing to do except eat, drink and talk”. All the evidence, from the earliest times, suggests he was always industrious. The fact that he insisted on taking a leisurely lunch with wine, and usually knocked off for good at seven, testifies to his robust common sense. It is impossible, I think, to point to any case where Jenkins missed an important political trick by his liking for wine and good company. What prevented him from becoming prime minister was his devotion to Europe, which denied him the full heritage of Gaitskellism and led him into the aberration of the “Gang of Four” and the SDP. But this last came close to success in altering the two-party structure of British politics, and it certainly made possible the eventual success of Blairism. But this in turn raises the query: in the long term, was Blairism a plus for Labour? On the answer to that depends one’s verdict on the ultimate value of Jenkins’s own career as a politician.

In worldly terms, however, it is hard to deny him the accolade as the most impressive political chancer of the 20th century. He must have eaten more rich meals in fashionable restaurants and drunk more bottles of premier cru claret than any other politician except Churchill. The accumulated cost of this was no joke. His 80th birthday treat in Paris, for instance, rated a bill for four of “nearly £2,000”. He belonged to an array of top clubs, including The Club, the Other Club, Grillions and Brooks’s, and prudently turned down invitations to join White’s. He was for many years a popular Chancellor of Oxford University, and this in turn made him a top scorer in the honorary degree racket. Once asked how many he possessed, he admitted he had lost count. “But then,” he drawled, “one’s interest fades after one has scored the double-double.” By this he meant Oxford and Cambridge, and Harvard and Yale. He humbly denied he had more than anyone else: “Isaiah beats me hollow,” adding quickly, “though a lot of his come from crummy places like Bulgaria and similar dumps.”

To my mind Jenkins’s greatest achievement was writing, in his late seventies, two rattling good biographies, of Gladstone and Churchill. These were the best of a score of books, some of them —Asquith and Dilke, for instance — worth reading even today. I suspect this literary output will survive as Jenkins’s monument long after his political scores and stunts have sunk into oblivion

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