Theatre in Wales

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Europe, the Labour Party & Much Else

A Political Diary

John Campbell- Roy Jenkins (2) , Jonathan Cape 818 pp , May 17, 2014
A Political Diary by John Campbell- Roy Jenkins (2) And of course Europe. The Commission over which Jenkins presides is not particularly large, the headcount being around a third of the Home Office. But it is complex with its twenty-two directorates with deep detailed policies on trade and agriculture. To a present generation the turn-around of the left on Europe is probably unknown. The hostility at the time of the 1975 referendum is a mirror image of 2014. Campbell does not quote the “three C’s”, “conservative, capitalist, clerical” which was the lens through which the then-named EEC was viewed. For the volte-face look to Jenkins. Agricultural support is of small use to Britain. “The long term solution Jenkins was pushing…was to reduce the proportion of the budget spent on agriculture…by extending Community activity into new areas (industrial, energy, social and regional policy) from which Britain could expect a more equitable return.”

His stance on Europe gets a huge post-bag, much in support but not all. “Dirty Welsh bastard” declares one. “You are no bloody good, to yourself or anybody” declares another and a little later in the same vein “You git, you soft git, go on, now piss off.”
A young Boris Johnson pokes fun at the late career in the Daily Telegraph of 22nd July 1998 with his article on “the Duke of Omnium and Lord High Everything Else”. But with the award of the Order of Merit Jenkins stands alongside Lloyd George, Churchill and Attlee.

The political course is well known and covered in many a memoir, diary and history of the period. A biography is there to round out the life, at both ends before and after ascent. Of those who entered government in 1966 Jenkins was the unique insider. Home, a rented house near to Pontypool’s station, is the place of weekend return for Arthur Jenkins, the town’s MP from 1935-1946. The teenage Roy gets to know, among others, the Attlees, Greenwood, Morrison and Dalton as family guests. In wartime he becomes one of the nine thousand working at Bletchley Park. The cracking of the German code machines entails total secrecy so that when it comes to parliamentary constituency selection he is lacking the active service record of which other Labour hopefuls are able to speak.

In 1949 he is a member of the executive of the Fabians, early on writing papers on price controls and fiscal issues. The role later forges a key alliance. On his frequent speaking trips as Fabian Chair in 1957-58 he is often accompanied by the general secretary, a twenty-nine year Bill Rodgers.

On the defections and creation of the Social Democratic Party Campbell is acute and critical. Jenkins never put sufficient effort into recruitment from the Conservatives. In part, he is right in saying that the alienated senior members really did believe that Mrs Thatcher’s seizure was an aberration and it would not be long before they got their party back. No sustained effort was put into getting support from within the unions. Frank Chapple of the Electricians whom he does approach “agrees with me on absolutely every aspect of policy but still does want to contemplate a break.”

The personal life is presented candidly. A long marriage is peppered with infidelities from an early point. At domestic social occasions, of which there is a multitude the master of the house selects the wine and ensures the supply of logs for the East Hendred house fireplace. This release from domestic duty, coupled with the natural energy and intellectual enquiry, means that Jenkins can pursue a second career, unequalled by any practising contemporary politician, as a political writer.

Interspersed between the political chronicle Campbell also regularly takes on the role of literary critic. He is both fair and just. He also touches on the sizeable earnings that often outpaced the parliamentary and ministerial earnings. Jenkins’ liking for the genre of political biography is honed by a period of disappointment after losing his first attempted election at Solihull. Back at Bletchley he consumes great tombstone biographies of Gladstone, Chamberlain, Salisbury, Randolph Churchill and others.

The first publication, on Attlee, Campbell terms “worthy but dull.” The second, “Mr Balfour’s Poodle”, earns £247 although the bookshop that shelved it in the category for “Pets” does not help. It is reviewed generously by A J P Taylor, Harold Nicholson, Leonard Woolf and its subject’s daughter, Lady Violet Bonham Carter.
“Truman” and a revised “Baldwin” were “modest little books…making no pretence to original research.” Campbell cites a paragraph from the essay collection “Nine Men of Power” and adds the critique “the long sentence is superbly constructed and reads impressively. Yet it contains no thought that is in the least original; rather a catalogue of solidly conventional judgements complacently accepted as received truths.” In “A Life at the Centre” Campbell sees “an undoubted vanity in the book…an unshakable self-satisfaction.” The late book on Gladstone pervades “a somewhat pedantic and antiquarian flavour.”

Politics brings many a foe. Campbell selects some for himself. On the first page Leo Abse is “a mischievous amateur Freudian” and much later in the text, at the time of homosexual law reform, “the eccentric amateur Freudian.” George Wigg is “a deeply unpleasant former army officer.” Jenkins’ predecessors at the Home Office include Gwilym Lloyd George, characterised alongside David Maxwell Fyfe and Henry Brooke as possessed of “wilful obscurantism.” George Thomas never gets a mention without a put-down. Doug Hoyle, winner at Warrington in 1981, makes “a sour and truculent speech.” It is quite true. Jenkins’ riposte was masterly in contrast.

When as Chancellor he presents necessary measures of financial rigour the Prime Minister intends it be introduced salami-style with the pain deferred post-election. In Campbell’s phrase the tactic is “unblinking cynicism”, a word repeated two paragraphs on- “Tony Benn was equally disgusted by Wilson’s cynicism.” The same word appears on Callaghan’s stewardship of the Foreign Office “cynically Eurosceptic.” Jenkins has his own verdict on his fellow Labour Minister: “Mr Benn in the sixties emerges as nice, honest, not very clever, but full of gimmicky talent…his description of his early period as Postmaster-General is a manual on how not to be a minister.”

It is a rough old world. Jenkins’ second term of office is not easy and not helped by his relationship with his junior minister. Privately he calls Alex Lyon “Cromwellian, dogmatic, Quakerish and well-meaning.” To his face he tells him he is “ the worst of the 14 junior ministers that I have ever had.” “Campbell has already depicted Jenkins and Benn at odds. Benn has been grabbing headlines with apocalyptic numbers of the unemployed that EEC membership will cause. The numbers are made-up with no authoritative source. At a press conference Jenkins dryly says “I find it increasingly difficult to take Mr Benn seriously as an economic minister.”

Campbell draws together the eulogies and quotes David Owen, Tony Blair, Dennis Healey, Max Hastings and Ferdinand Mount. The longest quotation is from Vernon Bogdanor in the “Observer.” “Roy Jenkins was the first leading politician to appreciate that a liberalised social democracy must be based on two tenets: what Peter Mandelson called an aspirational society (individuals must be allowed to regulate their personal life without interference from the state.); and that a post-imperial country like Britain could only be influential in the world as part of a wider grouping (the EU).” That appreciation is potent. From Europe to cannabis classification to end-of-life release from agonising illness the United Kingdom is lacking in consensus. On all these issues the generational gulf is colossal

Healey’s word for a politician having a genuine life was “hinterland.” Campbell comments of Jenkins that he “had inexhaustible curiosity about places, buildings, countries and people”. Jenkins recorded everything right down to a wine on a train to Nanking that “tasted like a mixture of sherry and Orvieto.” The breadth surpassed the supreme will to power. William Rodgers noted the qualities of loyalty and affection in his diary for 5th March 1974 “but in an odd way he hasn’t got the muscle or the will for the ugliness or the infighting”.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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