on 18 June 2002
Lord Jenkins' political history has a knack of revealing the humanity of the calculating politician in a way which makes us if not entirely sympathetic then a little more understanding. In this very brief book, which is based on his Davey lecture given in Canada, Jenkins surveys the evolution of liberal thought from Gladstone to Blair and asks just how far the accidental birth of the Liberal party (with Gladstone an initially reluctant parent) forshadowed the ubiquity of the liberal political message on the centre-left by our own times. The character of Gladstone, the instinctive reformism and oppportunism of Russell and the careerism of Lloyd George all shaped liberal politics and Jenkins does us the service of tracing the main lines of the interaction of individual character and political ideas in the compass of less than 50 pages.
The book will, however, be chiefly noted for the great contemporary question it poses. Is Blair the inheritor of the (Gladstonian) liberal tradition, Jenkins asks. The book doesn't quite address the question directly - but it does consider (briefly and with little evidence) the claim that the present UK Prime Minister is 'liberal' in instinct and conviction. Jenkins concludes, warily, that Blair is a supporter of the liberal project and his own close contact with Blair as advisor and confidante for many years suggests his conclusion is as much a private wish as a first hand report. However at several points in these pages Jenkins indicates that, while the instinct and judgement may be liberal, the party apparatus and Labour's position on PR prevent the political realignment around these values leading to a reformation of the centre-left in British politics. These pages are often bright and funny in places - which must have cheered his Toronto audience - but the serious and contemporary intent of the book is never far away.