Roy Jenkins (Lord Jenkins), 1920-2003

Roy Jenkins played a significant role in developing and articulating a new progressive vision of social, political and constitutional change. His reforms at the Home Office helped to transform Britain into a more modern, more civilised society. He was a successful, if orthodox, Chancellor of the Exchequer. He played an important and consistent role in taking Britain into Europe and, in doing so, did enormous damage to his own career. He was instrumental in founding the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and became its first leader. Although the SDP did not, in itself, break the mould of British politics, it helped to revitalise and develop the radical centre and to force the Labour Party to change itself. At his death, Roy Jenkins was a hero of the liberal and social democratic traditions – the great reformist Liberal Prime Minister Britain never had.

Roy Harris Jenkins was born on 11 November 1920, in Abersychan, South Wales. His father, Arthur Jenkins, was an official in the South Wales Miners’ Federation who became MP for Pontypool and Parliamentary Private Secretary to Clement Attlee. His mother, Hattie, came from a more well-to-do background. From his parents, Jenkins gained a sense of civic responsibility and a strong commitment to the pursuit of change through peaceful and democratic means.

Jenkins received his formal education at Abersychan School, University College, Cardiff and Balliol College, Oxford. At Oxford, he was Secretary of the Union and Chairman of the Democratic Socialist Club, a group of moderates who had broken with the left-dominated Labour Club. In 1941, he gained a first in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, with little apparent effort. He joined the Royal Artillery and was seconded on intelligence work to Bletchley.

In January 1945, Jenkins married Jennifer Morris and they later had two sons and a daughter. After the war, he worked in the City as an economist for the Industrial and Commercial Finance Corporation, a semi-philanthropic body which channelled finance into new businesses. He wrote a brief biography of Clement Attlee, published in 1948. That April, he held Southwark Central for Labour in a byelection and became the youngest MP in the House. In 1950, the seat disappeared in an electoral redistribution and Jenkins became the MP for Birmingham Stechford; his political base for more than a quarter of a century.

In Labour’s internal struggles between Bevanites and revisionists, Jenkins enlisted with the latter camp. His book Pursuit of Progress, published in 1953, was one of the first attempts to develop a revisionist case. In The Labour Case (1959), he described the party’s goal in decidedly non-socialist terms: a society in which everyone will have the opportunity for a full and satisfying life. Labour, he claimed, was a practical party, more concerned with ends than means. His elegantly written and sympathetic portrayal of Asquith, published in 1964, suggested that Jenkins was, at heart, a modern-day Whig rather than a doctrinaire socialist. He was a close friend and strong supporter of Hugh Gaitskell, though differed with him over Europe; in 1960, he quit the front-bench economic team to be free to campaign for Britain’s entry.

When Labour returned to office in October 1964, Jenkins flourished. He was a successful Minister of Aviation and, after just fourteen months, became Home Secretary. He embarked on a series of reforms that caught the mood of the swinging sixties. He secured parliamentary time for private members’ bills to liberalise the abortion law and legalise homosexual practices between consenting adults. He also set in train a strengthening of race relations legislation and the abolition of theatre censorship.

In November 1967, following the devaluation crisis, Jenkins replaced Jim Callaghan as Chancellor of the Exchequer. His unenviable task was to restore a balance of payments surplus and a stable pound. Jenkins delivered two years hard slog. He started with swingeing cuts in public spending, with defence bearing the heaviest burden; taxation was increased sharply in successive budgets, bank lending limited and interest rates increased. By the 1970 general election, public finances and the balance of payments were both in surplus, and the economy and exports had grown strongly. Such was the basis of Jenkins’ reputation as one of the best post-war Chancellors. Yet his deflationary measures are now seen as too cautious and too late; they delayed the recovery and required him to take harsher measures later. He also failed to control the inflation stemming from wage rises, not helped by the governments climb-down on its proposed trade union reforms (which Jenkins initially supported, then backed away from).

In opposition after 1970, Jenkins gathered around him a coterie of close political supporters, including the sometime Labour MP, David Marquand, the former Treasury Minister Dick Taverne QC, the human rights lawyer Anthony Lester QC and Jenkins’ press aide John Harris. The Jenkinsites were attracted by, if not in awe of, his achievements as Home Secretary, his success at the Treasury, his steadfast support for the European cause, his stylish performances in the Commons, his mastery of television, his verbal and written eloquence, his broad perspective and clear vision, his grandness and sparkle. Jenkins also had a significant public following and enjoyed the support of such establishment papers as The Times. In July 1970, he was elected Deputy Leader of the Labour Party: many saw him as the probable successor to Harold Wilson as leader.

However, over the next six years, Jenkins became more isolated within the party as it moved to the left. The issue of Europe, more than any other, led to his divorce from Labour. When a special party conference voted, in July 1971, to oppose entry on the terms negotiated by the Conservative government, he was appalled. That October, in what many regard as his finest hour, Jenkins led sixty-nine Labour MPs to vote for the terms, in defiance of a three-line whip. In April 1972, he resigned the deputy leadership in protest at the Shadow Cabinet’s decision to promise a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EEC.

In March 1974, he returned to the Home Office in Wilson’s new government, though he was unhappy with both Wilson’s leadership and the government’s overall direction. He soon faced mounting problems over security in Northern Ireland; in particular, new terrorist attacks on the mainland, which led to the introduction, in 1974, of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which he intended as a temporary measure. Nevertheless, he brought in new legislation to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of gender, and introduced a measure of independence to police complaints procedures. During the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EEC, Jenkins headed up the successful Yes campaign, and thoroughly enjoyed working with pro-European politicians from all three parties.

When Wilson resigned in April 1976, Jenkins came a poor third in the subsequent leadership ballot, won by Callaghan. The vast political differences between Jenkins and most of the party, especially over Europe, were a major cause. Furthermore, many Labour politicians blamed Jenkins’ cautious economic management for the 1970 defeat. His personal style was too grand and aloof and he appeared too much of a bon viveur to lead the party of the working class.

After Callaghan failed to offer him the Foreign Secretaryship, Jenkins left British politics to take up a four-year term as President of the European Commission. At first, he found the role difficult and the Commission’s machinery cumbersome. There were tensions in his relationships with some European heads of government. Jenkins overcame these obstacles and took a leading role in establishing the European Monetary System.

In November 1979, he presented his Dimbleby lecture, Home Thoughts from Abroad, from which the birth of the SDP can be traced. He criticised the false choices, see-saw politics and broken promises of the two-party system and advocated electoral reform. Most crucially, Jenkins called for a new political grouping to strengthen the radical centre. As intended, this caused great excitement amongst those disenchanted with both the Thatcher Government and Labour’s capture by the hard left but who did not see the Liberal Party, on its own, as a realistic vehicle for change. During 1980, Jenkins gradually enlisted Labour’s Gang of Three – Dr. David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers. The following March, they founded the Social Democratic Party, which formed an alliance with the Liberal Party and soon took a commanding lead in the opinion polls.

Jenkins’ vision was of a centrist party that would appeal to all sections of society and bring the country together. The party would also take on a radical edge, with policies for devolution and partnership in industry. It would promote equality for women and environmental and third world concerns.

Naturally, Jenkins wanted to lead the new party, but first he had to re-enter the Commons. In July 1981, he came a close second in the byelection at Warrington, a safe Labour seat. Then, the following March, he won the Glasgow Hillhead byelection. On both occasions, Jenkins sterling performances killed the myth that he was a poor grassroots campaigner. In July 1982, he was elected as the first leader of the SDP. However, his tenure was not a happy one. As a natural man of office, he was ill-suited to leading a third party in opposition; he did not take well to the chaotic demands of party management and the need to maintain a high media profile. He found the House of Commons a far less congenial forum than before and he was now a diffident television performer. He did not establish a distinctive image for the SDP.

For the 1983 general election campaign, Jenkins was made the Alliance’s prime minister-designate, whereas David Steel was its leader. This arrangement did not work: Steel was the superior performer and enjoyed better opinion poll ratings. At the Alliance’s infamous Ettrick Bridge summit, Jenkins was sidelined. It was agreed that Steel would, in effect, lead the campaign for the final ten days. The election saw only six SDP MPs returned. A weary Jenkins then resigned the leadership, in part due to pressure from Dr. Owen, who succeeded him.

The result of the 1987 general election made it clear that the SDP had failed to replace Labour as the main non-conservative party. Jenkins lost Hillhead to a Labour left-winger. He supported the subsequent merger of the SDP and the Liberals, seeing their political differences as being of little import. He accepted a peerage, as Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, and became Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, a position he held until 1998.

Jenkins career had an intriguing afterlife. He was greatly enthused by Tony Blair’s election as leader of the Labour Party in 1994, and soon became one of his key confidants. He called on Labour and the Liberal Democrats to work together so that the progressive forces could establish a long-term ascendancy. Blair appeared to be the sort of Prime Minister that Jenkins would have liked to become. In 1998, he appointed Jenkins to head a commission on the voting system, offering one more chance to break the mould of British politics. Jenkins, whose well-written report brought a dull subject almost to life, recommended an alternative vote top-up system, which would have retained constituency MPs and used regional lists to achieve proportionality. Jenkins was convinced that he had the Prime Minister’s support, and led a lively campaign for change, which included branding Labour opponents as know-nothing, do-nothing, think-nothing MPs. Later, Jenkins was forced to accept that the Government did not intend to act on his recommendations.

In 1986, Jenkins was elected Chancellor of Oxford University. Between 1980 and 2003, he completed numerous books. These included a well-received autobiography, A Life at the Centre (1991), in which he described himself as a perpetual radical rather than an establishment Whig. His widely acclaimed Gladstone (1995) won the Whitbread Prize for Biography and Churchill (2002) was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize.


Neil Stockley was the Liberal Democrats’ Director of Policy 1995-97. He was executive assistant to New Zealand Prime Minister, David Lange and subsequently, Director of the New Zealand Parliamentary Labour Research Unit.