Theatre in Wales

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Monumental Biography

A Political Diary

John Campbell- Roy Jenkins (1) , Jonathan Cape 818 pp , May 15, 2014
A Political Diary by John Campbell- Roy Jenkins (1) “Roy keeps himself to himself with extreme care. He’s the most conspiratorial member of the cabinet.” That is Richard Crossman in his diary entry for November 6th 1966. “I watch him as he sits opposite me.” Women and men of power in all professions watch each other, their scrutiny now regularly recorded for publication, posterity and pension enhancement. In the same entry Crossman approves of Tony Crosland “proving himself a jolly good departmental Minister” but adds acidly “but in Cabinet he’s curiously lightweight.” Barbara Castle thinks little of Jenkins’ working day “Roy works at the Department till 7:30 p.m. That’s when my working day is just beginning.”

John Campbell’s observation of Castle is “the feisty left-wing battler who saw permanent exhaustion as a badge of seriousness.” “She made exhaustion into a political virility symbol” wrote Jenkins himself in a review of the Crossman “Diaries” for “the Observer”. Castle “was foolishly critical of those who did not believe that decisions were best taken in a state of prostration”. Campbell in retort alights on the qualities that make for his subject’s effectiveness as a minister- “a remarkable ability to concentrate intensely for short periods, absorb information and then take decisions quickly, and partly by focusing on certain key areas and letting the rest go.” Maintaining a regular social life is not just a hedge against exhaustion but means that he keeps himself more widely informed. “Barbara Castle might sneer” approves the author “but he believed it made him a better minister.”

Campbell’s weighty biography, unlikely to be surpassed, is frequently sharp on the facts of power. The Home Office is notorious as a ruiner of reputation. As a domain its “responsibilities cover a ragbag of somewhat miscellaneous administrative functions.” Crime and punishment, in particular denunciation of government’s feebleness in its application, are a particular delight for press attention. Jenkins, on first assuming the office, faces an obstacle in the form of an entrenched dominant Permanent Secretary. Sir Charles Cunningham’s long-established working method is that he be the sole source of all ministerial advice. Jenkins wants alternative courses of action, arguments presented by a range of civil servants and the opportunity to question them. What he receives are one or two sheets of thick blue paper containing a few hundred words.

The battle is fierce. It is “an emotionally exhausting time” but Cunningham is got rid of, to head the Atomic Energy Authority. Jenkins in two years pioneers ground-breaking social legislation so that “half a century later his brief tenure still invites admiration and controversy in equal measure.” By contrast Campbell hones in on the true nature of title and position within the EU. On Jenkins taking on the Presidency Campbell’s language changes to “had to haggle”, “delicate bargaining”, “the nightmarish jigsaw of having to allocate portfolios”. After Jenkins’ bruising years at the top in Whitehall “it was a shock to discover that he had very limited power and everything in Brussels had to be horse-traded.”

Campbell in his introduction states that the course of Jenkins’ career “throws a particularly clear light on the transformation in the conduct of politics over this half-century.” The Commons saw and heard speeches that were the making of reputation. Contact with citizens was direct rather than mediated via microphone or camera. Campbell reports that when Jenkins campaigned with intensity for the fledgling Social Democratic Party a quarter of the voters in Glasgow’s Hillhead constituency saw him in person. This difference in the era can be attested by this reviewer who, after a normal working day in 1988, was able to walk a few hundred yards and hear Jenkins powerfully address an early evening election group of not more than thirty voters.

The camera has made necessary decorum and docility at conference. Michael Foot calls the atmosphere at Morecambe in 1952 “rowdy, convulsive, vulgar, splenetic.” Campbell’s own term is “the most poisonous ever.” Cabinet Committees are in their infancy. In a post-imperial Britain Jenkins as Chancellor has a package of tough measures to get through. He learns quickly that “a Chancellor should never see together a group of spending ministers with a common interest….I never made these simple mistakes again.”

The proposals, including the East of Suez withdrawal, occupy meeting after meeting, thirty-two hours in all. “These were still the days of real Cabinet government.” On the other hand it is a common complaint of today that the unceasing eye of the camera creates leaders that look alike. Older ways had little to recommend them. After Labour’s 1955 defeat Attlee stayed on. “His heir apparent was the sixty-seven year old [Herbert] Morrison. In a party that still respected the principle of Buggins turn, Gaitskill still felt himself- at forty-nine- too young and inexperienced to push himself forward.”

Jenkins, of course, gets to meet a political leader of the next generation who has no inhibition in putting himself forward. He has himself moved into a grandee-mentor role. In January 1996 Jenkins is host at a dinner in Kensington in which Tony Blair and Jonathan Powell meet the Cabinet Secretary and four other mandarins. Campbell admits himself in his introduction as generally admiring of his subject. But that does not preclude a critique when Jenkins assumes the role of leader. Of the Social Democratic Party he writes “Quite simply, having secured the prize he turned out not to be a very good leader.”

The conclusion is based on several reasons. The circumstance of the Falklands War has given the Prime Minister an elevated status, Television is not Jenkins’ natural medium and he is little interested in the mundane aspects of organisation. Campbell also accurately pinpoints the flaw from the beginning in the make-up of the SDP.

Some details of politics fade. The debate over Concord is a battle between the “economisers” on one versus “the internationalists.” Callaghan and Brown (George) are in the first camp, Crossman, Jay and Crosland in the second. Lord Cockfield, a prime architect of 1992’s Single Market, is denied reappointment as a commissioner by the Prime Minister. It causes a row at the time and Jenkins himself is scathing in criticism. Other issues of great significance fade- in the sixties the balance of payments figures are a sign of national virility, a crucial month-by-month publication event and a potential election-swinger. In opposition Jenkins lambasts Chancellor Anthony Barber’s two billion pound budget deficit- in 1973 that is the deficit for a whole year.

But many a theme jumps out across the decades. The London Police Federation boos the Home Secretary for making mention of the miscarriage of justice in the execution of Timothy Evans. He suggests the police might recruit an officer who is non-white and receives “a howl of derision.” Campbell adds in a note that the 1966 prison population was forty thousand compared with today’s eighty-seven thousand.

In 1984 Jenkins writes a stinging article for the “Sunday Times”. Johnson Matthey Bank has collapsed and Lloyds the Insurers is mired in scandal. Jenkins’article writes of the City’s salary hikes in the face of government calls for restraint, the distorting drain of talent from industry and the poor effectiveness of regulation. New Labour may well have been over-praised for its media mastery. In the 1960’s cabinet personal special advisors are hard at work promoting their particular masters to the press. Campbell reports of three who “clearly resented what they saw as Jenkins’ tireless self-promotion.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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