Author John Campbell
Publisher Jonathan Cape
ISBN 9780224087506
RRP £30
Roy Jenkins

Reviewed by John-Paul McCarthy

The new Member for Glasgow Hillhead padded across the floor of the House of Commons in 1982 in an attempt to take possession of the coveted corner seat that faces the Treasury bench at a forty five degree angle. Finding the seat occupied by Labour’s Dennis Skinner, Roy Jenkins hovered. “What’s up with you bod?”, Skinner sneered. Choosing to ascribe his behaviour to ignorance rather than malice, the SDP leader explained that “it’s traditional for party leaders to occupy the corner seats.” Not one for the meandering Socratic dialogue in any case, Skinner cut to the chase: “Really? I always thought it was twa-ditional for you when you came to Parliament to get your hands on that despatch box. You’d not been in the place five minutes before you were rubbing its edges. And now you want to sit with the rebels? Take your hook!” 

Skinner relived this confrontation for Michael Cockerell’s BBC profile of Lord Jenkins, but John Campbell, the author of this well-rounded biography of a well-rounded life that ended in the Chancellorship of Oxford between 1987-2003, has matched Cockerell stride for stride. Jenkins did find his berth near the rebels, and Skinner apparently spent the whole 1983-87 parliament shouting “Roy, your flies are undone” each time Jenkins tried to fashion a thought. As a metaphor for Jenkins’ career, this nasty clash with the chief mourners of the closed-shop and the flying picket has much to commend it. In certain respects, it speaks to the left’s ambivalence about the core values of metropolitan liberalism, those values that animated Jenkins’ frankly stunning first twenty-one month turn at the Home Office where he broke a manly lance for several despised minorities between 1965-67. And it also speaks in its way to an important thread in Campbell’s fine portrait of Jenkins, namely that un-Asquithian air of vulnerability that always lingered around him. Jenkins comes across as a more agitated figure in these pages than one would expect. He remained haunted all his life by a war-time firing range accident that ended up killing a by-stander. He found that breaching the Commons’ wall was considerably harder than Balliol or Bletchley, and never ceased to thank lady luck for handing him a pocket borough in a blitzed and semi-deserted Southwark in 1948. And he admitted with winning candour that his epic battle with the balance of payments at the Treasury after 1967 required a fair amount of alcohol — though somewhat less than required by the presidency of the European Commission from 1977-1980. (When initially marooned there amidst the stout briefs en français and the Pyongyang décor, Jenkins confessed startlingly to “not continuous, but occasional suicidal depression.”)

Refreshments aside for the moment, John Campbell’s strongest chapters centre on Jenkins’ stewardship of the old Aviation Ministry, the Home Office, and HM Treasury. His portrait of Jenkins’ assured approach to high office recalls nothing so much as Thomas Carlyle’s belief that there was much to be said in life for having a “centre of indifference”. Not for Jenkins the late nights of Mrs Castle or the sullen torpor of Callaghan. Jenkins would gather all the relevant facts, take the weekend to ponder important judgement calls, and then make his decision usually on Monday mornings. Everything from tanker crashes, hunger-strikes and the sterling balances all proved amenable to this kind of treatment. The contrast with Bernard Donoghue’s portrait of the Wilson operation is poignant. Jenkins would almost certainly have made a better fist at the premiership than either Wilson or Callaghan, though Campbell rightly cautions his admirers to remember that, on issues like miners’ pay and trade union legislation, his thinking remained as unfocused as Wilson’s. Jenkins rather excelled though at judging people, the sine qua non in many ways of the First Lord’s job, and whether these be Mrs Thatcher (“she wasn’t, to be honest, making a great deal of sense”), Schmidt (“greater depth of personality and character” than Giscard), or Tony Benn (“not very clever”), Jenkins had the requisite hanging-judge severity.

Campbell shows that Jenkins’ favourite job was his second chancellorship, this time of Oxford. No doubt flushed with the pride of his long-dead father, Arthur, who longed for his only child to study there, Jenkins smoothly replaced Harold Macmillan. He proved a most able practitioner of what Stalin called “dosing”: the knack of knowing who needs a dinner, a consoling call or an administrative poll brought down between their eyes. His only major error was when he repeatedly called Gorbachev “Mr Brezhnev” during a Sheldonian extravaganza. The General-Secretary of the Communist Party, having better manners than Dennis Skinner, was unfazed. After all, his Oxford host was himself another formidable champion of glasnost and perestroika, and his legacy too remains a possession in perpetuity.