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Highly Entertaining Memoirs
on 30 September 2007
Roy Jenkin's lived a full and varied life, as a highly successful politician, writer and bon viveur (his enjoyment of claret was famous), and his memoirs, first published in 1988, certainly captures this. As a portrait of the Wilson governments they match the Castle, Crossland and Benn diaries (with greater perspective allowed to diarists who are inevitably by their medium caight in the moment), and he takes into the formation and eventual rupturing of the SDP.
But first he tells us how he got there. Rather like Gordon Brown, Jenkins was not born into a wealthy family but rather an family of some local political importance. He proceeded to Balliol College, Oxford, where he wryly admits to only ever attending one lecture, and meets future political allies and adversaries such as Tony Crosland and Ted Heath (president of the Oxford Union, generally a route to future success) and also captures some of the excitement of the 1945 Labour victory. As a political buff myself it was heartening to find that others followed politics with such avidity!
His life as a Minister is well captured; Jenkins was also a highly-admired political biographer (with Asquith, Churchill and Gladstone some of his subjects), so it is no surprise that he writes so elegantly and with teasing irony on ministerial life. There are few remarkable surprises or soul-bearing disquisitions as marked the Alan Clark diaries. Rather, Jenkins gives the impression of a man of great intellect and power who knew his worth. (I find it rather telling that he constantly refers to "Wilson", even though as PM and Chancellor they had to work closely together; he is not dismissive but it's clear he feels that he would have made a better Prime Minister).
Some sections of the book are engrossing, especilly chapter when as Chancellor he faced a daily struggle with the value of sterling and the British economy. The passage where, in 1968, a run on the pound almost capsizes the entire government, is thrilling to read and gives an impression of the phyisical and mental stamina required at the top-levels of politics. Similarly, the early days of the SDP, where opinion polls had them at 50%, seem tremendously exciting, and given the height of the ambition (to break the British two-party system, no less) and how close he came, so they must have been. The subsequent fallout and disillusion are also keenly evoked.
However some are less captivating sections. The period as President of the European Commission is one. Perhaps it is because most readers will be less familiar with the cast of politicans from the various EEC (as it then was) countries. The post was concerned more with coordination than with policy creation, and given the near-standstill the EEC reached whilst considering the British rebate, it must have been rather tedious compared to being Chancellor or Home Secretary.
Jenkins also fills us with a sense of his "hinterland", his enjoyment of good food, cigars, travel, books, tennis and wine. One has the sense of a rich and varied life, and he enjoys teasing other politicians (like Barbara Castle) who seem unable to switch off from politics. But little is conveyed of the character of the House of Commons, of being an MP, again unlike Alan Clark's diaries. Perhaps this is inevitable when he was a Minister for so long, and the leader of the SDP afterwards.
It should go without saying that you'd need to have an interest in British politics to find this book enjoyable. But if you do, then its elegance, proximity to major events, historical sense and effective portraits of major postwar political figures (from JFK to Margaret Thatcher) make it one of the best of its kind.