What if Roy Jenkins had become Prime Minister?
Mr Speaker’s Lecture, 25 February 2019
Despite the 43 year age difference us, maybe because of it, Roy Jenkins was the closest political friend I have ever had and one of my closest friends. He inspired me from the moment I read his biography of Asquith as a 14 year old until literally the evening before he died sixteen years ago, when we discussed on the phone his planned biography of JFK and his concerns about the imminent Iraq invasion.
Every day I think what Roy would have done in the present situation – in the way, he told me, he thought of Tony Crosland every day after Crosland’s death in 1977.
I have not the slightest doubt that Roy would have been uncompromisingly against Brexit, which is the undoing of much of his life’s work, and that belief motivates me every day in resisting Brexit.
I can also say with confidence, Mr Speaker, that Roy would strongly have approved of you and your robust performance as speaker.
Roy didn’t have much time for the Speakers of his day. He thought George Thomas was a fraud, Weatherill a bore, and Hylton-Foster a fool. Indeed, he thought the role of Speaker had become essentially ornamental. Roy did not object to the ornamental in our national life: he collected honours, loved being unofficial advisor to the Queen on who else should be in the Order of Merit, and the post he most coveted and enjoyed was being Chancellor of the University of Oxford. “Even Asquith and Gladstone didn’t get Oxford”, he said to me with his Cheshire cat smile over lunch at Brook’s. In typical fashion he then rated his own performance as Chancellor of Oxford “about on par with Macmillan – less doddery, less flamboyant, but more assiduous and au fait – and considerably better than Halifax, Salisbury and the Duke of Wellington.”
Roy was chronically impatient. One of the things he particularly liked about being Chancellor of Oxford was that, in his words, it was “maximum kudos for minimum time”. His country home was at East Hendred , which he calculated optimistically at just a 17 minutes drive from the Sheldonian Theatre, so he used to leave his house precisely 29 minutes before an engagement as Chancellor, leaving 12 to park and don his Chancellorial robes.
The problem with the Speakership, in Roy’s view was that the ratio of kudos to time was terribly inefficient. He would have been appalled by the Stakhanovite hours you keep in the chair, Mr Speaker, particularly your neglect of lunch and dinner. On the other hand, he would have been hugely impressed, as are we all, by the way you have transformed the Speakership from the dignified to the efficient part of the constitution, using Walter Bagehot’s distinction in The English Constitution.
This raises the first question about Roy as prime minister: would he have put in the work required? I don’t have any doubt that he would have done so. He always strove for the rapid transaction of official business, but not at the expense of it being done badly. In all the offices he held – Home Secretary, Chancellor, President of the European Commission – he was regarded by most of his officials and colleagues as the best performer they had ever seen in that role, which that augurs well for a Jenkins premiership. Virtually all his former permanent secretaries joined the SDP.
When it came to performing important roles Roy – rising to the level of events – was always ready to invest the necessary time and energy, as I explained in my 2012 lecture, also at your kind invitation, Mr Speaker, on Roy Jenkins as transformational minister, when I described his brilliant feat in orchestrating and enacting the legislation to legalise abortion and homosexuality as Home Secretary, including being present, voting and guiding throughout successive all-night sittings to get both bills through – more than 150 divisions in total, in not one of which, tellingly, did either the Prime Minister Harold Wilson or the Leader of the Opposition, Ted Heath vote.
A further underlying question for this lecture is: Was Roy Jenkins enough of a leader to be Prime Minister? He himself wasn’t quite sure.
At another of our lunches – this one on the terrace of the Athenaeum – we discussed this issue. Roy said he thought he had more innate leadership qualities than Wilson, Callaghan, and Heath – his three contemporaries who were prime minister – in terms of vision and judgement, that he had as good an intellect as Wilson and far greater than Heath or Callaghan, but that he had a less commanding personality than Callaghan, less guile and stamina than Wilson, and less brute determination than Heath. He famously said of his friend Tony Blair that he had a second rate mind but a first rate temperament – quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes on FDR. But it is important to understand that he meant this as a compliment, recognising the many qualities required for supreme leadership.
The truth is, Roy did doubt whether he had got what it takes for No 10, especially in terms of stamina and command. This partly explains his enigmatic remark in his memoirs that he thought he would like to have been prime minster but not to be prime minister.
There were three moments when he could possibly have held it or positioned himself to hold it. In 1968, at the zenith of his chancellorship and the nadir of Wilson’s premiership, when he could have launched a palace coup. In 1972, when as Labour’s deputy leader he fell out with Wilson on Europe and the general shift to the Left, when he could have launched a leadership challenge but instead resigned. And in 1983 when he held the grand, slightly comic, title of “prime minister designate” in the joint leadership of himself and David Steel in the first general election after the creation of the SDP.
In all three moments, he withdrew or hesitated at the critical point. This was most emphatic in 1972 when he resigned rather than fight Harold Wilson. Tellingly, Wilson, who had the measure of Roy, said immediately afterwards to a friend, that it was all for the best as now Roy could go off and write books while he, Wilson, would do the required horse-trading and wading through treacle – actually he mentioned a difference substance.
In 1968, when Roy didn’t move against Wilson at his nadir unpopularity, Roy thought it was a case of the regicide would not inherit the crown. But in truth, he wasn’t sure he wanted the Crown and wasn’t sure what he would do with it if he got it, particularly how he would stabilise and tough-out relations with the trade unions, which was the perennial challenge of political leadership in the 1960s and 1970s, and which Roy wasn’t at all enthusiastic to undertake.
At his peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Roy was – as he wrote of Asquith – the master of Parliament but not of the forces outside it. It is very telling that his first and in ways most personally revealing historical work was Mr Balfour’s Poodle, about Asquith’s triumph over the Tory Hereditary House of Lords in 1911. Roy’s classical predliections in politics were at home in the parliamentary arena. But scrapping with Joe Gormley, Jack Jones and Daniel Basnett over strikes and secondary picketing, let alone Arthur Scargill, wasn’t his cup of tea, although that was a beverage he rated lowly.
The irony is that Roy understood the world of the unions and the mining industry better than almost anyone else in Parliament. He was the son of Arthur Jenkins, secretary of the South Wales Miners’ Federation in the 1930s, imprisoned for illegal picketing in the General Strike of 1926 and later Labour MP for Pontypool and indefatigable parliamentary private secretary to Clement Attlee before and during the war. However, in complex ways Roy’s life was an escape from his background: which is why he went to Balliol rather than Cardiff University, and why he developed socially as he did.
Maybe the defining moment in Roy’s career was when he failed to get the nomination to succeed his father in Pontypool in the 1946 by-election after Arthur’s early death. The reason he didn’t get the seat is that his mother’s social pretentions and imperiousness were a big turn off in the valleys, and Roy’s by now well-developed Oxford accent and predilections, which his extremely well read autodidact father had done so much to encourage, didn’t entice the miners’ representatives in the constituency party either. Once he left for Oxford Roy was from the valleys, but no longer in the valleys: had maintained the connection, he might have been a formidable Labour leader.
The third occasion when Roy could conceivably have made it to No 10 was 1983, had the SDP taken off and performed far better in the elections than it did. Of the three moments when Roy could have struck, this was the one when he most wanted to do so. He felt genuinely liberated by the SDP: indeed he felt he was making up for lost time since failing to challenged Wilson in the early 1970s and mobilise the social democrats, particularly after Dick Taverne’s courageous stand at Lincoln in 1973, when he forced a by-election on Europe which many social democrats at the time thought was the moment to break with the far left. Roy agonised over Taverne and Lincoln but he didn’t move. He didn’t make that mistake in 1981.
So it wasn’t for lack of boldness that Roy failed in 1983. Indeed at no stage of his career did he lack electoral courage. Over 42 years from 1945 to 1987 he fought 12 general elections and three by elections in five parliamentary seats which is a post-war record. He is, I think, also the only post-war MP ever to have represented all three citires of London, Birmingham, and Glasgow in Parliament, and one of the very few to have spent a parliamentary career moving north rather than south, ending up in Scotland via Southwark, Stretchford and Warrington.
Roy’s courage in fighting Warrington in July 1981, in the first serious by election after the formation of the SDP, is especially notable. Shirley Williams was the obvious candidate for this gritty working class largely Catholic seat: Roy and others – some here – strongly encouraged Shirley to stand, but she declined. This time, Roy didn’t hesitate. He stood, campaigned with Jennifer with huge energy – with his trademark clicker in his pocket registering every encounter with a voter – and ran Labour closer than anyone expected. As he said in his concession speech, it was his first electoral defeat since 1945, but his greatest victory. It made the SDP. It made Roy its first leader after he won a by-election a year later in Glasgow’s Hillhead. And it was critical in cementing the SDP’s alliance with the Liberals and position the Alliance, as it was soon known, as a powerful insurgent force against both Labour and the Conservatives.
When I interviewed Jim Callaghan for my biography of Roy in 1998, he told me that he was impressed by Roy’s courage in fighting Warrington, especially as a former President of the European Commission which, as he put it to me “really is going from the ballroom to the bear pit of politics.”
The problem in 1983 wasn’t personal courage. It was that he didn’t win. Thatcher proved a better reader of English middle opinion in the early 1980s than he did he. She also came over as more vigorous and dynamic. At the time some thought this was because Roy was at heart a dilettante. I don’t agree with this. He had been a bold and effective campaigner in previous elections and in the 1975 referendum. Rather, the opportunist came too late, in particular, he wasn’t well in the 1983 election and the run-up to it, which suddenly made him seem, at 62, much older and slower than he had been even a few years before. He had serious prostrate treatment soon after the 1983 election and never recovered his previous physical dynamism. Illness is one of the most serious and underappreciated factor in political fates and Roy was no exception.
So that’s why Roy never made it to the top of the greasy pole. But had he got there, I think he would have been a good, maybe outstandingly good, prime minister.
This is largely because his principles and judgement were so good, and he was relentless in implementing them.
One of my rules of politics is that Roy was always right, even when I thought he was wrong at the time. Four instances come strikingly to mind. He said that Iraq would be a catastrophe, not just a mistake – which is what I thought at the time. He said to me “this looks to me like Vietnam not the Falklands”. He was right.
Second, he said that Wilson’s lurch to a referendum in 1972 would poison British politics open the way to unrestrained populism if the institution of the referendum took root – even as I told him that his own success in the 1975 referendum on membership of the EU proved him wrong. He was clearly right about that too.
Third, Roy said of the Thatcher privatisations of the 1980s that he was against “frontier wars” between the public and private sectors. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, this stance had put him on the hard right of the Labour party in resisting further nationalisation, and indeed was part of the reason for the formation of the SDP as Tony Benn took control of Labour after 1979. As Thatcherism advanced, and for some time afterwards, “no frontier wars” looked conservative from the other direction.
At the time, I thought Roy was too stuck in an outdated Butskellite consensus in his approach to Thatcher. That was certainly David Owen’s view as took the SDP to the right to support much of Thatcher’s economic policy after 1983. But now I think Roy was correct. Privatisation went far too far in the 1980s and ‘90s, debasing not just the public sector but the whole underpinning philosophy of public service, collective endeavour, and public responsibility. But wholesale renationalisation isn’t the answer either. Roy was basically right about “no frontier wars” and the imperative for social democracy to sustain both a strong private sector and a strong public sector.
Fourthly, another of Roy’s principles of social policy was that the state’s role in the economy, and the share of taxation on the better off, “shouldn’t exceed 50 percent but shouldn’t be much less than 50 percent either.” Rather as with his views on public ownership, before the 1980s this cast him as on the right of Labour party in arguments about the taxation of wealth and income, in an era of marginal rates above 80% on the super rich. In the face of Thatcherism, particularly after Lawson’s 1987 budget with its top rate of 40% and the subsequent abolition of the property rating system, he came to look too redistributive – and outdated – even to the moderate left, including many of my political friends in the Blair and Brown governments. But here again, Roy now looks absolutely right. A 50% top rate and a fairer division between the community and individual in respect of the very well-off, is where social democrats should camp, alongside membership of the European Union, flourishing public and private sectors, and abstention from the excesses of American imperialism. Here again, Roy was right.
So what would a Roy Jenkins government actually have done?
If the Jenkins government had been in 1968, its European policy is clear enough. It would have taken Britain into the EU much as Heath did. Its international policy is also clear – it would have stayed out of Vietnam but maintained the Atlantic alliance.
However, the key issue is how would Roy have handled the unions in general and the miners in particular? I would like to think that Roy would have done better than Wilson, Heath, and Callaghan, but I’m not sure whether he would because of the one major public policy departure which he bitterly regretted in retrospect, which was not standing firmly behind Barbara Castle and her ‘In Place of Strife’ plans for trade union reform in 1969. Maybe as prime minister he would have been stronger. But of one thing I am sure. He would certainly have been more competent then Heath and Callaghan. That alone would have avoided the catastrophes of 1973-74 under Heath and 1978-79 under Callaghan.
What of a Jenkins government in 1983? There would have been big constitutional reform, PR, devolution, a Bill of Rights, freedom of information, and possibly that most revolutionary constitutional reform of them all, an elected House of Lords. The government would have been more socially liberal, fiscally expansive, and economically redistributive than Thatcher. It would have been less hard-line Unionist in Northern Ireland. Privatisations would have been modest, and probably taken the form of minority stakes in industries like gas and electricity to boost investment. In all respects, for a social democrat, this would have been far, far better than Thatcherism, and might well have created a new Jenkinsite consensus between liberals and the left. We would have had Jenkinism not Thatcherism as the legacy from the last generation.
The big conundrum of a Jenkins 1983 government is what would have happened when Roy took Britain into the Exchange Rate Mechanism which he had devised as President of the European Commission six years before?
Would it have worked and Britain then been in the vanguard of European Monetary Union? Or would be have gone in at too high a rate – the perennial fault of British management of fixed exchange rate policies since the war – such that the crash out of the ERM would simply have happened a government earlier than under John Major? I haven’t, of course, got the faintest clue.
In the last page of his memoirs, Roy accepts that his hesitations about being prime minister “raises the question of how much I was truly at ease with power.” In classic Jenkins historical mode, he wrote:
“It is not a thought which I suspect much troubled the minds of the great determined leaders of history. Napoleon was not secretly looking forward to writing his memoirs… Lloyd George and Churchill never doubted that they were happier in 10 Downing Street even in the darkest days of war than they ever could be on the hills of Wales or in the painting groves of the South of France.”
His conclusion is this, in the final paragraph. “I was a decisive and even an adventurous politician at various stages of my life and I had more sensible views about how to lead a government than many of those who have actually do it.”
In the era of David Cameron and Theresa May, I say amen to that.