Roy Jenkins

Roy Harris Jenkins, Baron Jenkins of Hillhead OM PC (11 November 19205 January 2003) was a British politician. Once prominent as a Labour Member of Parliament (MP) and government minister in the 1960s and 1970s, he became the first (and so far only) British President of the European Commission (1977-81) and one of the four principal founders of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981. He was also a distinguished writer, especially of biographies.

Life and career

Early life

Born in Abersychan, Monmouthshire in south-eastern Wales, as an only child, Roy Jenkins was the son of a National Union of Mineworkers official, Arthur Jenkins, who was wrongly imprisoned during the 1926 General Strike for his supposed involvement in a riot, and later an MP who was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Clement Attlee and briefly a minister in the 1945 Labour government. His mother, Hattie Harris, was the daughter of a local steelworks manager. Jenkins was educated at Abersychan County School, University College, Cardiff, and at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was twice defeated for the Presidency of the Oxford Union but took First Class Honours in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE). His university colleagues included Tony Crosland, Denis Healey, and Edward Heath and he became friends with all three, although he was never particularly close to Healey. During World War II he served with the Royal Artillery and then at Bletchley Park, reaching the rank of captain. He married Jennifer Morris (later Dame Jennifer Jenkins) on 20 January 1945 towards the end of World War II.

Member of Parliament

Having failed to win Solihull in 1945, he was elected to the House of Commons in a 1948 by-election as the Member of Parliament for Southwark Central, becoming the "Baby of the House". His constituency was abolished in boundary changes for the 1950 general election, when he stood instead in the new Birmingham Stechford constituency. He won the seat and represented the constituency until 1977.

Jenkins was principal sponsor, in 1959, of the bill which became the liberalising Obscene Publications Act, responsible for establishing the "liable to deprave and corrupt" criterion as a basis for a prosecution of suspect material and for specifying literary merit as a possible defence. Like Healey and Crosland, he had been a close friend of Hugh Gaitskell and for them Gaitskell's death and the elevation of Harold Wilson as Labour Party leader was a setback.

In government

At first Minister of Aviation in the Wilson government elected in the 1964 general election, he was Home Secretary from 22 December 1965 to November 1967. In this position he is often seen as responsible for the most wide-ranging reforms that the 1960s Labour governments would enact. Jenkins refused to authorise the birching of prisoners and presided over the suspension of capital punishment. Jenkins was responsible for the relaxation of the laws relating to divorce, abolition of theatre censorship and gave government support to David Steel's Private Member's Bill for the legalisation of abortion and Leo Abse's bill for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Wilson, with his puritan background, was not especially sympathetic to these developments, however. Jenkins replied to public criticism by asserting that the so called permissive society was in reality the civilised society.

Chancellor of the Exchequer

From 1967 to 1970 he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, replacing James Callaghan following the devaluation of the pound in November 1967. He quickly gained a reputation as a particularly tough Chancellor, although he was hesitant about increasing taxes and reducing expenditure. It is though, generally assumed that Labour's defeat in the 1970 general election was partly the consequence of one month's bad trade figures announced a few days before the election and his delivery of a fiscally neutral Budget shortly before the election.

Deputy Leader of the Labour Party

Jenkins was elected to the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in July 1970, but resigned in 1972 over the party's policy on favouring a referendum on British membership of the European Economic Community (EEC); his position had been undermined the previous year by his decision to lead sixty-nine Labour MPs through the division lobby in support of the Heath's government's motion to take Britain in to the EEC. This led to some former admirers, including Roy Hattersley, choosing to distance themselves from Jenkins. His lavish lifestyle — Wilson once described him as "more a socialite than a socialist" — had already alienated much of the Labour Party from him.

When Labour returned to power he was made Home Secretary again, serving from 1974 to 1976. In this period he undermined his previous liberal credentials to some extent by pushing through the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act, which, among other things, extended the length of time suspects could be held in custody and instituted exclusion orders.

President of the European Commission

Jenkins was a candidate for the leadership of the Labour Party in March 1976, but came third out of the six candidates, behind Callaghan and Michael Foot. Jenkins had wanted to become Foreign Secretary (Rosen (2001) 318), but accepted an appointment as President of the European Commission instead, succeeding François-Xavier Ortoli. Unofficially he was known as King John XV, from the French pronunciation of his name, Roi Jean Quinze. The main development overseen by the Jenkins Commisson was the development of the Economic and Monetary Union of the European Union from 1977, which began in 1979 as the European Monetary System, a forerunner of the Single Currency or Euro. Jenkins remained in Brussels until 1981, contemplating the political changes in the UK from there.

The Social Democratic Party

On November 22, 1979 Jenkins delivered the annual Dimbleby Lecture which he called "Home Thoughts from Abroad", detailing what he saw as the reasons for Britain's persistent underperformance as a failure of adaptability and problems associated with the two party system. More importantly he advocated a new "radical centre" and called for a new political grouping. As one of the so-called "Gang of Four", he was a founder of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in January 1981 with David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams.

He attempted to re-enter Parliament at the Warrington by-election in 1981 but Labour retained the seat with a small majority. He was more successful in 1982, being elected in the Glasgow Hillhead by-election as the MP for a previously Conservative-held seat.

During the 1983 election campaign his position as the prime minister designate for the SDP-Liberal Alliance was questioned by his close colleagues, as his campaign style was now regarded as ineffective; the Liberal leader David Steel was considered to have a greater rapport with the electorate.

He led the new party from March 1982 until after the 1983 general election, when Owen succeeded him unopposed. Jenkins was disappointed with Owen's move to the right, and his acceptance and backing of some of Thatcher's policies. At heart, Jenkins remained a Keynesian.

He continued to serve as SDP Member of Parliament for Glasgow Hillhead until his defeat at the 1987 general election by the Labour candidate George Galloway.

Peerage and death

From 1987, Jenkins remained in politics as a member of the House of Lords as a life peer with the title Baron Jenkins of Hillhead, of Pontypool in the County of Gwent. Also in 1987, Jenkins was elected Chancellor of the University of Oxford. In 1993, he was appointed to the Order of Merit. He was leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords until 1997. In December 1997, he was appointed chair of a Government-appointed Independent Commission on the Voting System, which became known as the "Jenkins Commission", to consider alternative voting systems for the UK. The Jenkins Commission reported in favour of a new uniquely British mixed-member proportional system called "Alternative vote top-up" or "limited AMS" in October 1998. No action had been taken on this recommendation at the time of Jenkins' death from a heart attack at 9 a.m. on 5 January 2003. He earlier underwent heart surgery in November 2000, and postponed his 80th birthday celebrations, by having a celebratory party on 7 March 2001.

Jenkins wrote 19 books, including a biography of Gladstone (1995), which won the 1995 Whitbread Award for Biography, and a much-acclaimed biography of Winston Churchill (2001). His official biographer, Andrew Adonis, was to have finished the Churchill biography had Jenkins not survived the heart surgery he underwent towards the end of its writing. At the time of his death he was apparently starting work on a biography of U.S. President John F. Kennedy.

Roy Jenkins is fondly remembered by Private Eye as having a passion for claret and a distinct inability to pronounce his 'r's. This was clearly shown in their obituary cartoon with the caption: Roy Jenkins, 1920-2003. WIP. Referring to the same, one of the entries in Douglas Adams' The Meaning of Liff reads "WATH (n.) : The rage of Roy Jenkins".

For some conservatives, such as Peter Hitchens in The Abolition of Britain, he was a "cultural revolutionary" and takes a large part of the responsibility for the decline of "traditional values" in Britain.


  • Rosen, Greg (2001) Dictionary of Labour Biography, Politicos

Selected bibliography

Books by Roy Jenkins:

  • (2001). Churchill : a biography. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0-374-12354-3.
  • (1995). Gladstone : a biography. Macmillan. ISBN 0-8129-6641-4.
  • (1991). A life at the centre. Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-55164-8.
  • (1989). Gallery of 20th century Portraits and Oxford Papers. David and Charles. ISBN 0-7153-9299-9.
  • (1986). Truman. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-015580-9.
  • (1984). Baldwin. Collins. ISBN 0-00-217586-X .
  • (1964). Asquith. Collins. ISBN 0-00-211021-0 ., revised edition 1978
  • (1958). Sir Charles Dilke: A Victorian Tragedy. Collins. ISBN 0-333-62020-8.
  • (1954). Mr. Balfour's poodle; peers v. people. Collins. OCLC 436484.
  • (2005). Roosevelt. Pan Macmillan. ISBN 0330432060 .

Books about Roy Jenkins:

  • Andrew Adonis & Keith Thomas - Editors (2004). Roy Jenkins: A Retrospective. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-927487-8 .
  • Giles Radice (2002). Friends and Rivals: Crosland, Jenkins and Healey. Little, Brown. ISBN 0-316-85547-2 .
  • John Campbell (1983). Roy Jenkins, a biography. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-78271-1.

Offices held

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