A Life at the Centre by Roy Jenkins21 September 2007
Closing out the last day of this year’s Lib Dem conference with an appropriate political memoir.
A Life at the Centre by Roy Jenkins
Roy Jenkins (1920-2003) spent a long and varied career in British and European politics. During his time as a Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer under Harold Wilson’s governments, he was the embodiment of Britain in Europe, an advocate of British entry to the EU at a time when the Labour Party seemed generally determined to stick its fingers in its ears and sing very loudly to itself to drown out any thought of possibly joining the European Community. His support of Europe was ‘rewarded’ (I use quotation marks here only because some might consider it a rather dubious reward) by the invitation he received to become a European Commissioner in 1976 — right at a time when it seemed fairly certain that he no longer had any chance of becoming leader of the Labour Party and thereby a potential candidate for prime minister. He served as President of the European Commission during his time in Brussels. But in the late 1970s, he and three other renegade Labour MPs got together and created the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a reaction against both the rise of Thatcherism and the increasingly militant left-wing stance of the Labour Party. Roy Jenkins ended his political career as the leader of the Liberal Democrats (the combined SDP and Liberal Party) in the House of Lords, and wrote several massive biographies about dominating figures in British political history: Churchill, Gladstone, and Asquith, to name a few. In A Life at the Centre, Jenkins switches from political biography to political autobiography as he looks back on his origins, his opinions, and his political career.
A Life at the Centre is not immune to the autobiography’s tendency to drag and meander in sections, particularly at the beginning. Probably the best reason to read this memoir is for the parts where Jenkins discusses (not without a hint of bitterness, I might add) just how divisive a subject the European question was to the Labour Party. Granted, the squabbling over Europe really had its roots in inner-party divisions that had existed inside Labour since the early 1950s, and many commentators have suggested that Harold Wilson’s resignation in 1976 was timed to coincide with a period when Jenkins’ Europeanist stance made him an unacceptable choice for the party rank and file. (It’s a time-honoured tradition with Labour leaders, apparently, if the Clement Attlee-Herbert Morrison example and the more recent Tony Blair-Gordon Brown relations are considered.) But Jenkins resists the temptation to turn to vitriol, both over Europe and over the tensions that marked the uneasy Alliance between the SDP and the Liberals in the 1980s. In an autobiography, that’s worthy of note.
A comprehensive biography of Roy Jenkins hasn’t yet been published. There’s a 1983 biography that has obviously been overtaken by events, and Giles Radice’s Friends and Rivals: Crosland, Jenkins, and Healey does quite a bit to fill in the gaps but only focuses on the connections between its three title subjects. Until someone brings out a biography that tackles both the Jenkins papers and the papers in the National Archives (which are now available through the end of Jenkins’ time in the Labour Party), A Life at the Centre is possibly the best choice for anyone interested in looking at a history of Roy Jenkins’ life and for a notable perspective on the social democratic tradition in postwar British political history.