The Home Secretaries (23): Roy Jenkins

jenkins 1977Roy Jenkins, 1965-67

Labour, under Wilson

Roy Jenkins was perhaps the greatest home secretary of them all, and one of the most interesting political figures of post-war British history, and one of the greatest never to be prime minister.

You can read more about his time as chancellor, and his failure to become prime minister, here.

jenkins boy

He is sometimes, misleadingly, said to be the son of a miner. His father had been a miner, but became the Labour MP for Pontypool, Clement Attlee’s PPS and a junior minister in Attlee’s government. Attlee was a witness at Roy Jenkin’s wedding and godfather to his first son. Thus, Jenkins was born into the Labour purple: growing up, he knew the likes of Morrison, Wilkinson and Dalton too. Despite hardly standing out at school, Jenkins went to Balliol College, Oxford. He was there at the same time as Edward Heath and Denis Healey as well as his closest ally, and one time lover, Tony Crosland. He secured a first in PPE.

jenkins marriage

Then came the war: he started in the artillery, though never leaving Britain, before going to Bletchley Park. Having married, and then contested a safe Tory seat in 1945, he entered the Commons in 1948. When Bevan resigned in 1951, Jenkins became an avowed Gaitskellite, along with Tony Crosland.

In opposition, Jenkins remained a minor figure in many ways, almost better known as an author and historian. Interestingly, the subjects of his books were all Liberal: Mr Balfour’s Poodle recounted the story of the People’s Budget and the House of Lords crisis; he wrote biographies of Sir Charles Dilke and Asquith. He was a regular contributor to the Observer, and to the Spectator (edited by his friend, the Conservative Ian Gilmour). In many ways, and tellingly given his future career, Jenkins was always as much a liberal, or even Whig, as anything else. When, in 1964, he was offered the editorship of the Economist, he seriously considered taking up the offer.

Jenkins was also famous for his love of good living. He didn’t get into the office until ten, and never took work home. He left every lunchtime clear in his diary, and filled them with good lunches and fine wine. He had many affairs, though his marriage remained strong and stable (one of his affairs was with Leslie Bonham-Carter, wife of Asquith’s grandson). He played tennis. He moved in the inner circles of high society. Wilson once quipped that he was more of a socialite than a socialist. He was sometimes accused of being lazy. In fact, he would prove to be an extremely effective minister.

jenkins tennis

As a strong supporter, and friend, of Gaitskell, he had been a long-standing opponent of Harold Wilson, who had resigned with Bevan in 1951, and ran for the leadership against Gaitskell in 1960. He might have supposed that his chances of high office had gone when Wilson beat George Brown in 1963. In fact, it was probably his support for Brown that led Wilson to appoint Jenkins as minister for aviation, even if not in cabinet, seeking to balance his government.

Perhaps more surprising was his appointment as home secretary the following year. When Michael Stewart had gone to the Foreign Office, Jenkins had been offered the Ministry of Education, but turned it down (it went, instead, to Crosland). Had Jenkins accepted, Wilson’s first full reshuffle would have come too soon. Jenkins had learned that a reshuffle was imminent, but that Wilson didn’t believe that Jenkins wanted the Home Office. Jenkins sought a meeting, and corrected Wilson’s mistaken assumption. On this occasion, he was not merely ambitious, but assertive with it.

jenkins again

The Home Office has more often been a political graveyard rather than a stepping-stone. It is also true to say that few home secretaries enhance their reputations in that office. Unlike his two predecessors, Jenkins did. There were the usual nasty surprises, from Soviet spies escaping from prison to stricken oil tankers, but Jenkins dealt with them. What made Jenkins stand out were his reforms, and the elan with which he handled them.

One of his first acts as home secretary was to replace the board that stood in his office, which listed the details of all the condemned prisoners, with a drinks cabinet. For Jenkins, as a natural liberal, the state interfered far too much with individual liberty and in doing so, could be both brutal and dehumanising. Thus, it was under his aegis that a raft of liberal reforms were introduced. They were not all his doing: the death penalty was suspended under Soskice and abolished under Callaghan, for example. However, it is fair to say that the bulk of the major reforms in Wilson’s governments came under his aegis or were initiated by him.

He introduced parole and created the Parole Board, along with suspended sentences. Majority verdicts for juries could now be allowed. An outdated and inefficient police service was reformed. Most of all, abortion was legalised, homosexuality was decriminalised and suicide was no longer a crime. He would pave the way for theatre censorship be ended. Divorce was made less costly, painful and stigmatising. In a Labour Party still strongly influenced by nonconformism, and with a very strong strain of social conservatism, that was no mean achievement. It was also some way ahead of public opinion.

The means by which some of these bills were passed was similar to that by which the moratorium on hanging had been. The government gave time to private members bills (as did to David Steel’s Abortion Bill) without using the whip, thus making it easier for liberal Tories to lend their support. In that sense, Jenkins’ contribution can be overdone; however, without his support, and careful nurturing, they would never have passed. Taken as a whole, Jenkins’ two years in the Home Office left a permanent mark on a country that was now more liberal and kinder than before.

It also established Jenkins’ reputation. When Jim Callaghan was forced to devalue sterling in 1967, Jenkins was the natural choice as the new chancellor. Had Wilson won in 1970, Jenkins might well have succeeded him (you can read about that, here). He comfortably won the election for the deputy leadership after George Brown lost his seat in 1970. However, by 1972, he was not even in the shadow cabinet.

The reason was Europe. In government, Wilson had applied for EEC membership (you can read about that here). When Heath applied, Wilson opposed it: in part for party political reasons, in part because his own party was so bitterly divided over the issue. When the bill came before parliament, the government gave its own backbenchers a free vote. In contrast, Wilson issued a three-line whip, in effect ordering Labour MPs to oppose the bill. Jenkins was passionately pro-EEC. In the end, Jenkins was the de facto leader of the 69 Labour MPs who voted with the government (another 20 abstained): you can read about it here. From thereon in, Jenkins was hated by the left, and the anti-marketeers, and by Wilson’s inner circle.


He still won the vote for the deputy leadership again in 1972, but his position as deputy leader was becoming untenable, and he soon resigned. However, whilst he still had supporters, by the time he returned to the shadow cabinet in late 1973, his position was much diminished. When Heath went to the country in the snap election of February 1974, Jenkins was publicly ambivalent about Labour’s pretty left-wing manifesto, and about Wilson’s leadership. Wilson couldn’t afford to alienate Jenkins’ supporters, but neither did he want him as his chancellor or foreign secretary.

Thus, Jenkins returned to the Home Office, unhappily. There were reforms once more. He had been one of the fathers of the 1968 Race Relations Act, which outlawed racial discrimination; the 1976 Race Relations Act created the Commission for Racial Equality, at a time in which race was a controversial and difficult issue. The Sex Discrimination Act, 1975, outlawed discrimination on the grounds of gender.

photo 1 (6)His last major contribution as a Labour minister was to lead the Yes side in the 1975 referendum (you can read about it here and here). Famously, in a live TV debate, he attacked his own cabinet colleague Tony Been with all the intellectual vigour he was so capable of. Left, he can be seen campaigning alongside Tories (such as Willie Whitelaw and Reginald Maudling, to his right) and Liberals such as former leader Jo Grimmond (far left). Many on the left never forgave him.

It was a great victory, but it came with a political cost. Jenkins would later say that ‘things were never quite the same for the Labour Party’ after it. Labour’s political divisions were not healed: if anything, they widened, and deepened. When Wilson resigned in 1976, Jenkins ran for the leadership, but only won 56 votes. For most Labour MPs, he was too divisive a figure; the left hated him with more venom than they ever had. Nor did Callaghan offer him the Foreign Office, and by the time Callaghan was contemplating moving him to the Treasury, Jenkins had decided to go to Brussels.


Harold Wilson had first mooted the idea of Jenkins becoming the next president of the European Commission. In the end, though initially uneasy, he accepted. Jenkins had left active politics, for the time being: he did not cease to be active in politics. His 1979 lecture, Home Thoughts from Abroad, saw him musing about the possibility of a political realignment. He did not use his postal vote in the 1979 general election; his wife voted Liberal. He had contemplated joining the Liberals (he had grown close to the Liberal leader, David Steel, during the 1975 referendum campaign).

gang of fopurBy 1981, however, three former ministers, frustrated at Labour’s leftward turn, were contemplating breaking from Labour. It was all but inevitable that Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and David Owen would gravitate towards Jenkins: they became known as the Gang of Four. The famous Limehouse Declaration looked to break the mould of British politics, as the phrase went at the time.

jenkins latertIt created the Social Democratic Party. For a brief while, it looked as if the SDP, in alliance with the Liberals might succeed in breaking that mould. Jenkins won a famous by-election in Glasgow Hillheads and Shirley Williams won in Crosby; 28 Labour MPs crossed the floor. In the autumn and winter of 1981, Thatcher was the most unpopular prime minister in polling history and the Alliance, between the SDP and the Liberals, were ahead in the polls.

It didn’t last. In the first place, Thatcher recovered, and with her, the Tory vote (helped, of course, by the Falklands War). Labour would hold on to just enough of their core vote to see the alliance threat off. The Alliance had underlying weaknesses though. Only one prominent Conservative joined the new party. There was tension between the Liberals and the SDP. There was also tension between Jenkins and Owen. And then, in truth, Jenkins was not the force he had been, and it showed.

In some ways, the Alliance vote in 1983 was remarkable. Overall, they polled 25%, comparable to the Liberal performance of 1929. However, that yielded them a mere 23 seats: the SDP were reduced to six. The British electoral system did what it does to third parties: Labour polled a mere 28%, but had 209 seats. Jenkins resigned the leadership, and spent four unhappy years on the periphery of the Commons. He was then part of the bulk of the SDP that merged with the Liberals to form the Liberal Democrats. The great experiment had failed.

Jenkins went to the Lords, where he led the Liberal Democrat peers, and wrote. He wrote biographies of Churchill and Gladstone. He also attracted a disciple. Tony Blair saw Jenkins as one of the godfathers of new Labour. The men became friends; the Blairs attended his funeral.

Jenkins may have been born into the Labour tribe, but he had long since ceased to be tribally Labour. His books often centred on men whose political affiliations were at least mutable. Gladstone had been a Peelite Conservative, and then he was a Liberal who split his party. Mr Balfour’s Poodle (the Lords) had been put back in its kennel by Lloyd George and Churchill, hardly figures noted for their fixed affiliations. Asquith’s Liberal party split. Churchill crossed the floor. He wrote his own memoirs (better than most), A Life at the Centre. All of them were, in more than one sense, liberal. Before his death, he was planning to write a book on JFK.


Both the Labour left and the Tory right detested Jenkins. Amongst all the eulogies, his death was also marked by a tranche of right-wing articles deploring him: soft on crime, breaking up the family and heralding the permissive society. For his defenders, all Jenkins was doing was bending the law to adapt to social realities that either already existed (abortion) or socio-economic change was bringing in any case (Gay rights, women’s rights, easier divorce). The left had never liked him. When Jenkins left for Europe, with David Marquand in tow, he famously told a meeting of Labour backbenchers that he ‘left without rancour’. Given Jenkins lisp (he was often referred to as ‘Woy’) the word rancour came out sounding rather different: at which point, the Beast of Bolsover himself, Denis Skinner, quipped, ‘I thought you were taking Marquand with you’. Skinner was being witty, in his familiarly brutal manner, but the left’s hatred was genuine. The Bennites, who were increasingly powerful and vociferous in the Labour Party in the ‘eighties, saw him a as the personification of a Labour right that had betrayed socialism. His defection to create the SPD simply confirmed that. In the 1983-87 parliament, their personal vindictiveness towards Jenkins was palpable.  It is the same left wing that so despise Blair, and now control Labour.

6750034For Labour’s centrist tradition, the Liberal inheritance that Jenkins came to personify was something to be proud of, and something that won elections. Both Jenkins and Blair believed that the creation of the SPD had, at lengthtaught Labour a lesson in political reality.

For that, or all his many achievements, Jenkins finest hour was in the Home Office, first time round. There are a remarkable number of political careers that seem to leave no trace; that is often true of home secretaries. In a Britain that now is perhaps more socially liberal than at any previous time in its history, Jenkins years at the Home Office ushered in an age which saw the government cease to act as guardians of a supposed national mortality, and instead to be guardians of individual freedom, and of civic equality.

Jenkins was one of ten home secretaries since 1906 to serve as chancellor too. He was also one of only three to hold the Home Office twice. He was one of eight home secretaries to lead a party. Perhaps fittingly, only one other man was home secretary whilst a member of one party, and then leader of another party altogether. Than man was the subject of one of his biographies, Churchill. In its peroration, Jenkins describes that man, Churchill, as the greatest human being to have occupied ten Downing Street. As a historian (as was Churchill), Jenkins understood the importance of history’s judgement. Jenkins never won the greatest prize, but he was surely the most civilised and civilising of our home secretaries. If he remains one of the lost leaders, he had a very substantial impact on British politics, society and history. And has there ever been a politician who had more fun doing it, or with whom one would rather have had lunch?

jenkins lunch

David Steel features in a BBC Radio Great Lives episode on Jenkins here.

There is an excellent BBC documentary:

And, fittingly, a fine biography:

jenkins campbell

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