‘The most conspiratorial member of the cabinet’

On the anniversary of Roy Jenkins’ birth, Adam Somerset reviews John Campbell’s biography ‘Roy Jenkins’.

Roy Jenkins by John Campbell (Jonathan Cape 2014, 818 pp)

Reviewed by Adam Somerset

“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.”

Today on ClickonWales

Today on ClickonWales Adam Somerset reviews the latest biography of Roy Jenkins by John Campbell.

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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 groundbreaking 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 can be attested to 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 1960s 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.”

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 entail 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 a 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”.

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