on 11 May 2014
A very good, excellently written book. The chapters on his youth and in the war at Bletchley were interesting. After that I thought the book really took off from about 1963 onwards, how Jenkins positioned himself vis a vis Wilson and how he rose from Aviation Minister in 1964 to probably the best Home Secretary and Chancellor of the 20th century for those of liberal persuasion. From then on the story of how he (or Labour) lost the way in the 1970s, the rise and fall of the SDP and the Blair relationship are gripping reading for voyeurs of politics. For me Campbell comprehensively debunks the myth that Jenkins was lazy. A bit like Healey he prioritised life differently, couldn't be bothered to put the time in in the Commons tea room, did not do red boxes till midnight and gave himself the space to talk,listen and think. Bravo. But there was a price to pay.
Campbell also does Jenkins's other lives well, especially the author role. His books on Asquith, Gladstone and Churchill are really classics of their kind and are given due attention. I was hoping for a list of words used by Jenkins not in the averagely well educated vocabulary but that never came.
I didn't really have a different view of Jenkins as a result of reading the book but what it did well was to identify some crucial moments in British politics when life might have gone differently and in several of which Jenkins was involved.How he would have hated the politics of the last decade.Look at the expression on Vince Cable's face and imagine the distaste of Jenkins for the way the system has gone.
Roy Jenkins was one of the most influential British Labour politicians of the second half of the twentieth century. The son of a miner, he was however far from working-class. His father had risen to become a successful Member of Parliament and made sure his son was given an advantageous education culminating in an Oxford degree. His socialism therefore was always of an intellectual kind rather than being rooted in the unions as his father's had been. And like many socialists, especially of that era, he gradually moved from the left towards the centre. A prominent Cabinet minister in the '60s and '70s, Jenkins held at different times two of the great offices of state, as Home Secretary and Chancellor, and was accounted to be successful in both positions. In the first role he is credited with pushing through the socially liberal legislation that some later claimed led to the 'permissive society', while as Chancellor he was seen as having transformed the balance of trade and fiscal position of the UK, which were still suffering from the aftermath of WW2. Consistently pro-Europe, he was one of the strongest proponents for Britain's entry to the Common Market.
Had the tensions between left and right within the Labour Party not become so toxic during the 1970s, there is very little doubt that Jenkins would have become party leader and quite probably Prime Minister. Instead, he decided to leave parliament to take up the post of President of the European Commission. But on his return, when the Labour Party was showing every sign of lurching even further to the Left, Jenkins ended up leading the breakaway group that was briefly known as the Social Democratic Party, before merging with the Liberal Party to become the Lib-Dems we all know and love today. Jenkins returned to Parliament for a while as MP for Glasgow Hillhead, but it was soon clear that the SDP was not going to fulfil the hopes of its followers by replacing the Labour Party as one of the two major parties in Britain, and Jenkins was defeated at the next election.
Alongside this lengthy political career, Jenkins had a second career, perhaps equally successful and certainly more lucrative, as a journalist and political biographer of, amongst others, Asquith and Churchill. Add in a complicated personal life, and a huge network of friendships with many of the most influential people of his time, and it's clear that any biographer of Jenkins himself has his work cut out for him.
John Campbell is the author of many political biographies and won the 1994 NCR Award for his biography of Edward Heath. He admits in the introduction to this book that he admired Jenkins a good deal, and hopes that he has not allowed this to stop him being critical when required. I, on the other hand, always found Jenkins to be a pompous, arrogant buffoon who was serially disloyal to the parties to which he belonged. So the question for me was whether Campbell would be able to persuade me that I, in my youthful ignorance, had misjudged the man.
The biography is hugely long and detailed, but written with a clarity and flow that make it a pleasurable read. I kept feeling that surely something could have been cut to make the size more manageable, but concluded eventually that it was the fullness and complexity of Jenkins' life that led to the length, rather than any failing on the part of the author. There is a fairly heavy emphasis on Jenkins' personal life in the early part of the book - specifically his relationships with Tony Crosland, then his wife and his multiple mistresses. But happily, once Campbell had made his point about the unconventionality of Jenkins' lifestyle (or perhaps one should say conventionality, since it bears comparison with that of politicians of earlier days), he allows the subject to fade into the background and concentrates much more on the political side of his life.
I did feel that Campbell's partiality for Jenkins showed through too clearly in some places, letting him off the hook on occasion, and giving him a little more praise than necessary. In general, though, I prefer affectionate biographies to hatchet jobs, so overall Campbell's approach worked well for me. I was somewhat less keen on the way he portrayed some of the politicians on the left of the Labour Party - it wasn't so much that I disagreed with his depiction of them as that I felt he adopted an almost sneering tone at times that led his account to feel as if it were being somewhat biased by his own personal political stance.
Overall, though, I found this a well written and hugely informative biography. While sticking closely to his subject, Campbell sets Jenkins' life in the context of the times at all stages and as such this is also a revealing look at the wider political history of the second half of the twentieth century. Jenkins lived a well-rounded life indeed, never allowing the pressures of his various roles to get in the way of the more hedonistic side of his nature, but Campbell convinced this reader at least that the charge of laziness that was sometimes made against him was unfair. While I still stand by pompous and arrogant, Campbell has persuaded me that I must retract the word 'buffoon' - no-one who achieved so much in so many fields deserves that title. And while he was disloyal to his parties, it seems he remained loyal to his core beliefs, which in the end may be more honourable - so I acquit him of that charge. Jenkins' life was a full and interesting one, and this biography does its subject justice - highly recommended.
on 22 April 2014
Well written and well constructed biography of a key political figure. This book should be read by anyone interested in Britain's post-war political history. While John Campbell is sympathetic to Jenkins, the biography is not uncritical. Campbell admires Roy Jenkins' tenure of the Home Office during the mid-1960's and acknowledges his successes as Chancellor and EU President, but he is pretty dismissive of Jenkins' brief period as SDP leader. In fact, Campbell's account of the rise and acrimonious demise of the SDP is outstanding.
In general, Campbell is excellent in putting Jenkins' career in a political and historical context. The main themes of Jenkins' political career: a commitment to Europe, progressive reform and a belief in a more tolerant, less prejudiced society are well described. He is also very good on Roy Jenkins' other distinguished career as a political biographer.
on 13 June 2014
John Campbell is a good biographer of figures like John Major and Mrs Thatcher. Politically he is closer to Jenkins than either of them, but this is an asset - he remains objective throughout, whilst managing to capture the real sense of excitement about Jenkins' period as a reforming Home Secretary and the early days of the SDP, when they came incredibly close to breaking the old two party mould. It is fascinating reading it in 2014, after Liberal Democrats managed to become part of Government for the first time in almost 100 years and as a result may find themselves on the brink of destruction. An other interesting contemporary take is how Britain's membership of the EU, which Jenkins thought he put beyond doubt, is now widely questioned. The final contemporary take is how illiberal and inegalitarian the current political climate is, it is dificult to imagine someone on the right wing of the Labour Party today, as Jenkins was, being as committed and articulate an advocate of social liberalism and redistributive economic policy. This is an incredibly well researched and beautifully written book, which does full justice to one of the most important political figures of the last half of the Twentieth Century and vividly recreates the world in which he lived.
on 30 April 2014
I enjoyed it immensely. I was born in Newport, South Wales. I saw parallels between his life and mine, though his achievements are unmatched. What a pity he didn't stay with the Labour Party! From our current perspective it is so clear his contributions that brought better lives for all were far in excess of Benn's or Foot's.
on 5 August 2014
I bought this book purely on the strength of John Campbell's previous two volume work on the late Margaret Thatcher and was not disappointed. 'Roy Jenkins: a well rounded life' is a very absorbing story of a clever grammar school boy from the Welsh valleys who got a First at Oxford, was a successful writer, Member of Parliament, holder of high ministerial office, ending up as a Peer, Chancellor of Oxford University and a man at the heart of the liberal establishment.
The early chapters in the book are moderately interesting. The quotations from Roy and Jennifer's love letters and details of their courtship are a bit tiresome. Roy is portrayed as an indulged only child of socially ambitious parents. In a sense, he never stopped being indulged. Much is made of his humble background as the son of a miner. But as John Campbell points out, it wasn't quite as simple as that: Roy's own father was an astonishing example of social mobility from coal miner, union official, student at Ruskin College, Oxford, Member of Parliament and then minister in Atlee's government. The book only really comes alive after Roy was made a Minister in Harold Wilson's first administration. He seemed a very effective and decisive minister, but perhaps lacked the ruthlessness and killer instinct which would very likely have made him Prime Minister.
Like his rival Denis Healey, Jenkins had an extensive `hinterland' and there is much to admire in the man. I am hugely impressed by his wide variety of interests, his extensive reading and friendships (and how loyal and generous a friend he was). He was a successful writer which made him wealthy and funded his expensive lifestyle and his two expensive `wesidences'. In later life, he was an energetic and successful Chancellor of Oxford University. I find it incredible that a man in his late 70s could write a comprehensive biography of Churchill in a little over two years, while maintaining so many other public commitments. By the end of the book, I felt sad that his life ended so suddenly, when he clearly had more plans and ambitions, not least his planned biography of Kennedy. His friends must sorely miss him.
John Campbell is a very skilled and insightful biographer and his judgements are balanced and fair. The only weakness in the book is that there is little real information about his family life. His children are only mentioned infrequently. I notice that even Jenkins' autobiography is sparing in references to them. That said, this is an excellent book which I really enjoyed reading.
At the 1945 Labour Party Conference Denis Healey said, "The upper classes in every country are selfish, depraved, dissolute and decadent". What he never envisaged was that the new political class would adopt those characteristics and impose them on society under the guise of 'a more civilised society'. Roy Jenkins was at the forefront of change which was based on his own dissolute and decadent values of 'adultery without guilt' and hypocrisy without conscience. He legitimised the hypocrisy that abounded in British politics in the 1960s where the ruling class from both sides of the political divide swapped mistresses in pursuit of personal pleasure. Born into a Labour family Jenkins was never part of the working classes. The Jenkins's had a motor car and a live-in maid. His father was a full-time union official who became a Labour MP. The younger Jenkins shamelessly tried to inherit his father's Parliamentary seat, eventually becoming MP for Stechford, a constituency he rarely visited and often took for granted.
Jenkins senior was parliament private secretary to Clement Attlee, a connection his son exploited to the full. He went to Oxford where he formed a homosexual attachment to Antony Crosland whose strict background seems to have propelled him to adopt a foul mouthed approach to things and people he disliked. Their pathetic correspondence reads like an illiterate version of Romeo and Juliet. At Oxford his fondness for wine became a life-long addiction. In Opposition Jenkins supported changes to narrow the definition of 'obscene', effectively making it non-existent and opening the way for the explosion of pornography and its availability to minors. In office Jenkins found time for the Abortion Bill, introduced by the naive David Steel who was duped by the abortion lobby. Jenkins's claim that it would not lead to abortion on demand was proved wrong. He also supported Leo Abse's decriminalisation of homosexual acts. As Campbell notes, 'He probably did not envisage the positive flaunting of gay and lesbian culture that would explode a generation on, let alone the legalisation of same-sex marriage'. His idea that governmental neutrality in social matters produced no social harm was demonstrably false.
Jenkins labelled the permissive society the civilised society. In practice the society to which he referred was the ruling class to whom he belonged. He acted as the 'benevolent sponsor' of a series of social measures based on assumptions which proved to be horrendously inaccurate but was in the liberal tradition of John Stuart Mill, a tradition which was incapable of understanding the damage to social cohesion caused by government neutrality. The changes he introduced were to provided legitimacy for his own dissolute values. He dismissed the value of prison in the fight against crime and denied his prison reform programme would result in a weakening of the punishment of crime. Yet under the current justice system the element of punishment and deterrent has disappeared. He claimed the abolition of hanging would not lead to an increase in murder. A House of Commons Research paper in 2001 pointed out it had. (For purposes of clarity this reviewer is opposed to capital punishment but favours longer prison sentences). ' Equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance' has become repressive tolerance in pursuit of political correctness and aggressive minority influence in social and judicial matters.
The idea that Jenkins could ever have been Prime Minister is a figment of the media's imagination. He was widely despised throughout the Party, even if he was admired by those in the ruling elite. Never averse to nepotism Jenkins appointed his friend Mark Bonham Carter (whose wife was Jenkins's lover) to head the Race Relations Board (having already considered Gaitskell's widow and younger brother). His Cabinet colleagues resented his 'tireless self-promotion' and Barbara Castle noted, 'I believe he is temperamentally incapable of leading the Party. Despite all his care, his instinctive high-handedness will slip out'. His high-handedness led him out of the Labour Party into the formation of the Social Democratic Party. When Mayhew and other Gaitskellites plotted to remove Wilson Jenkins kept his head below the parapet. His time as Chancellor was known less for its value to the British people as to the 'gnomes of Zurich'. He knew he had no future as a potential Labour Prime Minister when he led a revolt of Labour MP's in favour of entry to the Common Market and was miffed when the position of Foreign Secretary, a post he coveted, went to Crosland. He took the role of President of the European Commission instead. Six months later Crosland was dead and Jenkins was stranded in Brussels.
Jenkins was not as malleable in government as some Labour Ministers but his days were punctured with long liquid lunches, nighttime peccadilloes and country house parties. Unlike MacDonald he wasn't changed by moving in society circles, it was his natural habitat, more so than being with his Labour colleagues in the House of Commons. The liberal press built him up into a potential leader. His small inner circle of friends were often consulted to the annoyance of the mandarins in Whitehall. He was not in favour of creating a centre party until such time as he could lead it. In 1981 he joined Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and David Owen, who matched Jenkins for arrogance, to found the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The result was a split in the non-Tory vote which ushered Margaret Thatcher to power. David Owen stated, "the SDP was just a disposable vehicle for his ambition to be Prime Minster" and when the SDP failed to make its hoped-for break through in 1983 Jenkins resigned as leader.
Campbell's admiration for Jenkins and his wife seeps through, detracting from the book as a whole. However, it would be miserly not to award four stars for a book which will outlast Jenkins's own literary output which was well received by the mutual admiration society to which he belonged.
on 22 April 2014
John Campbell is fast becoming the most prolific and the best political biographer of British politics.Along wih Charles Moore on Thatcher this will be one of the great political biographies.Campells style is extremely readable -indeed it is hard to put the book down at some points.Campbell covers not just Jenkins political but comprehensively chronicles his complicated private life and his extensive writings as an author.
By the end of the book I was not sure that I really liked Jenkins, the smooth social climber from the Welsh valleys,who by the end of his life was able to patronise the Queen(and get away with it!),however the book forces you to recognise his importance.With the exceptions of Attlee and Thatcher ,he had more influence in shaping modern Britain than any post-war PM.Through his reforms as Home Secretary in the 60s -he largely shaped the country we now live in -for good or ill!Among non-PM politicians ,only Nye Bevan(of whom Campbell also wrote a biography) can match his influence.
If you lived through this period ,or have even the slightest interest in British politics-buy this book!-not to be missed!You will see that however pompous and self-regarding he was Jenkins towers above the current pygmies of British politics Cameron, Clegg and Milliband.
on 8 December 2014
A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell is a very good book documenting the political, professional and private lives of Roy Jenkins. It is a well-written, informative and detailed work chronicling the extraordinary life of the miner's son from Wales who rose to be probably the most influential politician who did not reach the office of Prime Minister since Joseph Chamberlain.
Although, best remembered for his reforms as Home Secretary, which contrary to what some believe did not bring about dramatic modifications to society but merely were responses to trends and changes that were already occurring, he was also a reasonably successful Chancellor and one of the driving personalities behind the continued revival of Liberalism as a political force in Britain in the 1980s. Moreover, outside of politics in the fields of journalism and biography he was able to establish quite a reputation especially for his works on Gladstone and Churchill. To be successful in just one area of life, such as politics would be noteworthy but to achieve so much more professionally while having a rather complicated personal life suggests that Roy Jenkins was certainly a remarkable man if however, a bit of a patrician snob.
Unfortunately, this book is slightly let down by the author's acknowledged admiration for the subject which impinges somewhat on his analysis and conclusions. All in all though, a very good book about one of the most influential political figures of the last half of the twentieth century.
on 5 March 2015
I find the personal insights the Welsh childhood, the Balliol years and the relationships forged at Balliol and beyond a wonderful complement to the political history which is written with sympathy towards Jenkins but this is no hagiography. For me reading about three figures in my own political pantheon, and their complex and evolving friendships, Gaitskell, Crosland and Jenkins was deeply moving, and leads me to conclude what a great tragedy it was for Britain than none of the three became prime minister since any of the them would have put in the shade almost all of the postwar occupants of 10, Downing Street. Campbell's style is fresh and lively and makes political history a pleasure to read.