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The politician and writer Roy Harris Jenkins was one of the greatest leaders that the Labour party never had. He was seen by many as the godfather of New Labour and the hastener of Tony Blair's changes within the Labour movement.
Roy was born on Armistice Day, 11 November, 1920, into the mining community of Abersychan, Monmouthshire, South Wales. His father, Arthur, was a miner's agent who rose to the position of President of the South Wales Miners' Federation before becoming Labour MP for Pontypool. Arthur then went on to become Clement Attlee's Principal Private Sectetary (PPS). Roy won a scholarship to the local grammar school before going to Balliol College, Oxford, where he attained a first in politics, philosophy and economics (PPE). Among his peers at Oxford were other leading post-war Labour figures including Tony Crosland and Denis Healey (both Labour) and Edward Heath (a Conservative).
Following the Second World War, Jenkins stood for election for Solihull, but was defeated. He entered the House of Commons three years later in 1948 when he was successfully elected the member for Southwark. In the election of 1950 he was successful in another Birmingham seat, Stetchford, which he represented until 1977. He was a follower of Hugh Gaitskell and the central-left element of the party, rather than Harold Wilson's far-left group. However, being very pro-European, Jenkins was dismayed when Gaitskell abandoned his pro-Europe stance. When Wilson succeeded to the leadership following Gaitskell's unfortunate death, Jenkins found himself still in favour and about to experience a rapid promotion.
After Wilson's 1964 election victory, Jenkins found his skills recognised by other factions within the Labour Party, which helped to advance his rise through the party ranks. He served as Minster for Aviation and then, in 1965, he was promoted to one of the top posts, Home Secretary1. His tenure of the Home Office saw liberalisation in a number of areas - homosexuality and abortion were both legalised2, the laws on divorce were loosened and censorship was abolished in the theatre.
When the pound devalued in 1967 and James Callaghan consequently resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Wilson called upon Jenkins to look after the ailing British economy. Jenkins was a prudent Chancellor who refused to make tax cuts or reduce expenditure. However, following the defeat of Labour by Edward Heath's Conservatives in 1970, many on the left wing of the party blamed Jenkin's low-key, non-tax cutting budget on their defeat3. When Wilson returned to power in 1974, Jenkins found himself back in his familiar seat at the Home Office, although he was starting to find that he was out of place in the new Cabinet.
The Leader Labour Never Had
With Labour back in opposition, many expected Jenkins to launch a leadership bid against the defeated Wilson. However, Roy had a passion for something other than being Leader, which he believed in to such an extent that it would deprive the Party of his services.
Heath and the Conservatives were backing closer ties with Europe and considering possible entry into the Common Market4. The Labour party came out against these moves, which saddened Jenkins and led him to resign his post as Deputy Leader of the party, though he stayed on in the Cabinet.
When Wilson finally stood down as Leader, Jenkins came in third on the first ballot (behind Michael Foot and James Callaghan). He realised that the party was not going to forgive his betrayal over Europe and stood aside, allowing Callaghan an easy win.
A European Gentleman
Jenkins and Heath led the successful 1975 referendum campaign which led to Britain's entry into the Common Market. Although it resulted in him later abandoning his dream of leading the Labour Party, Jenkins received a more fitting accolade for his work in that area. Jenkins' reward for his continued support of the European ideal was being appointed the first British President of the European Commission, a post he held from 1977 to 1980. One of his greatest achievements while he was Commission President was persuading the European leaders, especially sceptical German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, to consider the creation of a zone of currency stability between the member states. This feat later led to the European monetary system and the European Single Act of 1985, both of which have paved the way for the single European currency in many of the member states today. Jenkins was to be an influence in Brussels until 1981, when a more pressing engagement led to his return to British politics.
Leader of the Gang of Four
Jenkins abandoned the Labour party over policy disagreements and, in January 1981, became one of the so-called 'Gang of Four'5, makers of the historic Limehouse declaration. Jenkins, along with David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams, became a founder of the Social Democratic Party. He was leader of the Party from March, 1982, until shortly after the 1983 elections in which the Social Democrats worked in alliance with David Steel's Liberals.
Having only recently returned from Brussels, Jenkins, like Williams was not an MP (Williams had been defeated in the 1979 general election). This situation was rectified in 1982 when he was elected MP for Glasgow Hillhead at a by-election. Williams also regained a seat by winning the Crosby by-election during the previous year. Jenkins was to represent Glasgow Hillhead in the Commons until 1987, when he lost his seat and retired.
Upon his retirement, Jenkins was given a life peerage, taking his seat as Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. He remained active in the Lords, serving as Liberal Democrat leader there from his elevation until 1998, when fellow Gang of Four veteran Lord Rodgers replaced him.
In 1987, Jenkins proved to be successful in one last election. He stood for Chancellor of Oxford University. Although the post is largely ceremonial, it holds great prestige and Jenkins brought much passion to the post. The role took on a little importance when a number of new educational measures were introduced and he guided the University to move with the changes. The Chancellorship of Oxford is a job that goes on for life. When Jenkins died the next election was held and on that occasion Bachelors degree scholars were able to vote, where previously the electorate had to have a Masters degree or above.
Writer of Renown and Honours
Among Jenkins' books is his autobiography, A Life At The Centre (1991), a play on the fact that while at the centre of Labour politics, his left wing colleagues eventually found in Jenkins a champion for the centre and the forthcoming Liberal Democrats. He wrote many biographies of great political figures of all major parties: Labour Baldwin (1987), Liberal Asquith (1964) and Gladstone (1995), and Conservative Churchill (2001), as well an account of American President Truman (1986). He used his vast amount of insider knowledge of politics in writing Mr Balfour's Poodle (1954), The Labour Case (1959) and Chancellors (1998). He was given a Whitbread award for his work on Gladstone and, in 2001, Jenkins received a lifetime award from the Wolfson History Prize panel. His last book was Twelve Cities published in 2002.
In addition to being an Honorary Fellow of his old college, Balliol, Jenkins received similar honours from St Antony's Colleges in Oxford and Berkeley College, Yale. He held honorary doctorates from many universities including Harvard, Pennsylvania, Louvain, Urbino, Michigan, Wales, Reading, Warwick, Trinity College Dublin, Bristol, Georgetown, Kent, West Virginia, Bologna, Sofia and London.
For his work in promoting European unity, Jenkins received the Charlemagne and the Robert Schuman Prizes in 1972. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1992 and awarded an Order of Merit in 1993. He received additional European honours including the Luxembourg Order of Merit, the Prix Bentinck and the Freedom of the City of Brussels. Also, Jenkins was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Charles III from Spain, the Order of Merit from Italy, and was made a Commander of the French Légion d'honneur.
He died on 5 January, 2003, aged 82.