Andrew Adonis, Keith Thomas, eds. Roy Jenkins: A Retrospective. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. xviii + 353 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-927487-1.
Reviewed by Henry Miller (Department of History, Queen Mary, University of London)
Published on H-Albion (March, 2006)
Roy Jenkins: Liberal Titan
This book is essentially a collection of reminiscences by friends, colleagues and acquaintances of Roy Jenkins, who was one of the most important British postwar politicians. As the editors rightly argue in their preface, Jenkins's "political impact was greater than that of many prime ministers" (p. vii). Jenkins was a reforming Home Secretary in the 1960s and then a powerful Chancellor of the Exchequer in Harold Wilson's first Labour government. After Labour unexpectedly lost the 1970 election, Jenkins and his supporters were marginalized as the party became dominated by the left. Jenkins was increasingly uncomfortable in Britain's polarized party politics of the 1970s and with the left's anti-Europeanism. He was an unenthusiastic member of Wilson's second government and then became President of the European Commission (1977-81). In 1981, Jenkins co-founded and led the breakaway Social Democratic Party (SDP) with other disillusioned Labour moderates. In later life, Jenkins was the Liberal Democrat leader in the House of Lords, the chair of a Royal Commission on Britain's electoral system, and Chancellor of Oxford University from 1987 until his death in January 2003. Jenkins was also a distinguished biographer, publishing well-received studies of Henry Asquith, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill, William Gladstone, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, as well as many other works.
Given Jenkins's importance in postwar British politics, it is surprising that the only substantial works on him are his own excellent memoirs, A Life at the Centre, and John Campbell's 1983 study, written when Jenkins's career was far from over. Giles Radice's triple-biography of Jenkins, Tony Crosland and Denis Healey, Friends and Rivals (2002), does fill this gap to some extent. This retrospective will not fill this hole, as the editors are at pains to make clear: the book "is not an overall assessment of Roy Jenkins's historical importance" (p. vii). Rather, the book is a chronologically organized collection of narrow and constricted memories of people who knew Jenkins, rather than attempts at assessing Jenkins or placing him in context.
The first few chapters are chiefly of interest for the comments of the contributors about the young Jenkins's ambition. Asa Briggs writes that Jenkins was always "determined to pursue a political career" (p. 27), which is corroborated by other contributors (pp. 9, 15). The chapters on Jenkins's two stints at the Home Office suffer from being written by a civil servant and a special adviser (chapters 6 and 9). The chapters are good on the mechanics of Jenkins's tenure and bring out his civilized liberalism, but this is not really placed in context. In the 1960s, Jenkins was working in a climate which favored the expansion of personal freedom in issues like homosexuality and abortion, but in the 1970s the climate was increasingly authoritarian, with IRA terrorism and trade union militancy overshadowing other policy issues. The chapter on Jenkins's chancellorship is written by Dick Taverne, a Jenkinsite and a junior minister under Jenkins at the Treasury. Taverne discusses the various plots to unseat Wilson in the late 1960s and also defends Jenkins's record as Chancellor from criticisms.
Elsewhere, Kenneth Baker provides an entertaining account of Jenkins's image in political cartoons. Roy Hattersley and Donald McFarlane discuss Jenkins's popularity with his constituents and his common touch which contradicts his reputation as a rather grand, elitist figure. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. brings out Jenkins's affection for "liberal America" as a writer and politician (p. 245). Crispin Tickell's chapter is illuminating on how Jenkins sought to carve out a proactive role for the President of the European Commission, much to the horror of some heads of government like President Giscard of France (pp.187-188, 202).
The best two chapters are by David Marquand and David Cannadine. Marquand provides an excellent account of the dilemmas Jenkins (and his supporters) faced in the 1970s, "torn between loyalty to the party which had helped to make him what he was, and a visceral unwillingness to bow the knee to a machine which seemed to be forcing him to betray his beliefs" (p. 115). Marquand charts Jenkins's estrangement from Labour and two-party politics which culminated in the founding of the SDP in 1981. Jenkins's career in the SDP is then taken up by fellow co-founder Bill Rodgers. David Cannadine provides a thorough discussion of Jenkins's career as a writer. Cannadine notes that Jenkins's first subjects were the "impeccably loyal party men" Asquith and Clement Attlee, but that later on he found himself drawn to figures like Gladstone and Churchill, who, like him, could not be contained by the rigidities of two-party politics, as well as to European and American leaders (p. 304). Cannadine also argues that Jenkins's writings were an extension of his liberalism and his beliefs, his sympathy for progressive politicians whether American, British or European, who, like him, made practical changes to encourage "greater freedom, tolerance, and equality" (p. 277).
Apart from these two chapters, however, the book is mainly an affectionate tribute by Jenkins's friends, and is good and interesting within those terms. Those interested in a full study and assessment of Jenkins will have to wait for Andrew Adonis's official biography, which may be some time, as Adonis is currently an education minister in Tony Blair's government. In the meantime there are Jenkins's memoirs and Giles Radice's Friends & Rivals. David Marquand's Guardian obituary is the best short introduction to Jenkins's career.
. Roy Jenkins, A Life at the Centre (London: Macmillan, 1991); and John Campbell, Roy Jenkins: A Biography (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983).
. David Marquand, "Lord Jenkins of Hillhead," Guardian January 6, 2003 at http://politics.guardian.co.uk/politicsobituaries/story/0,1441,869254,00.html.
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