Roy Harris Jenkins Biography

Born November 11, 1920, in Abersychan, Monmouthshire, Wales; died of a suspected heart attack, January 5, 2003, in East Hendred, Oxfordshire, England. Politician and author. Roy Harris Jenkins, also known as Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, was a figure of tremendous influence in British politics in the post–World War II era. As a leading Labour Party name, Jenkins tried unsuccessfully to unite his ardently leftist party toward a more reasonable center. In Britain he is sometimes referred to as "the best prime minister we never had," according to his New York Times obituary by Paul Lewis.

Jenkins came from South Wales, where his coal–miner father rose to a position of prominence in the national miners' union and even served in Parliament. He fulfilled his parents' expectations of a stellar career himself after earning a degree from Oxford's Balliol College in 1941 and serving on the famous codebreaking team at Bletchley Manor during World War II. Joining the British Labour Party, Jenkins lost his first bid for a seat in Parliament in 1945, but was elected three years later from a district in South London. Between 1950 and 1976 he represented voters of Stetchford constituency in the city of Birmingham as a Member of Parliament (MP). During his first decade in the House of Commons, Jenkins worked to modernize British censorship laws that dated back to the Victorian era.

Jenkins was politically allied with Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, a centrist like himself, but enjoyed a less cordial relationship with Gaitskell's successor after 1963, Harold Wilson. Both men were at odds politically—Jenkins, for example, supported Britain's entry into the European Economic Community (EEC), the forerunner of the European Union—and Wilson was said to have been wary that Jenkins might try to usurp his party leadership. When Wilson and Labour won the 1964 elections, he appointed Jenkins to serve as Britain's aviation minister. As such, Jenkins convinced a reluctant Wilson government that it was indeed bound to honor the terms of a contract to build an expensive new supersonic airplane with French aerospace interests, later christened the Concorde.

Jenkins was made Home Secretary in 1965, and worked to liberalize archaic British laws in the midst of a dramatically changing society. His office made strides in legalizing women's reproductive rights, easing divorce restrictions, and decriminalizing homosexuality. His era as Home Secretary was later derided by Labour's foes, the Conservative (Tory) Party, as the start of what it considered Britain's far too permissive era. But other issues derailed the Wilson government: in 1967, an economic crisis loomed when the pound sterling was devalued, and Jenkins and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, James Callaghan, traded jobs with one another. Jenkins worked to deliver a balanced budget, but the austerity measures came too slowly to improve matters with the British public, and Labour lost the 1970 national elections.

Still serving as a Birmingham MP, Jenkins turned to championing England's formal entry into the EEC. Many in his party were opposed to the prospect of a federated Europe, and Jenkins sided with Tory MPs in a historic Commons vote on the matter in October of 1971. For it, he "was elevated in the media into a politician of principle," noted Dennis Kavanagh in London's Independent newspaper. Wilson and the Labour Party returned to power in 1974, and Jenkins again served as the cabinet's Home Secretary. After a street in Birmingham was rocked by a Irish Republican Army bomb attack, he introduced the harsh Prevention of Terrorism Act to combat the internal threat.

Yet the Labour Party was bitterly divided at the time over many issues, of both the pragmatic economic kind and thornier ideological ones. Wilson resigned in early 1976, and Jenkins stood for election to succeed him, but came in third. That same year, however, he was appointed President of the European Commission, the first British politician to hold the Brussels job. Always a visionary, he made a 1977 speech arguing for monetary union across Europe, which began finally in 1998 with the introduction of a common currency, the Euro.

Jenkins returned in 1981 to a Britain sharply divided after the rise of arch–conservative Tory leader Margaret Thatcher in 1979. The Labour Party had drifted far to the left, and had lost a record number of Parliament seats. To remedy this, Jenkins co–founded a splinter party, the Social Democrats, with a more centrist political stance, but it sputtered out after a few years.

Jenkins had also enjoyed a long second career as an astute biographer of past prime ministers, from William Gladstone to Winston Churchill. In 1987 he was made chancellor of Oxford University, and created a life peer that same year, which gave him a seat in the House of Lords. His own memoirs, the aptly titled A Life at the Centre, appeared in 1991. In it, he wrote of his years–long attempt to rid the Labour platform of some of its more entrenched socialist ideals, the same ones that made middle–class voters wary. It was a strategy later successfully adopted by a younger Labour politician, Tony Blair, whom Jenkins had befriended in the late 1970s.

Jenkins and other Labour politicians were sometimes derided for enjoying a posh life on weekends while championing the common laborer in Parliament, but in turn he criticized colleagues who adopted working–class accents to appeal to voters. A competitive tennis player, he owned an estate in Oxfordshire that boasted a croquet lawn, and was a dedicated gastronome. Since 1945 he was the spouse of Jennifer Morris, whom he had met at Balliol, and they had two sons and a daughter. His death on January 5, 2003, at the age of 82 prompted Blair to term him, according to the Richard Pearson of the Washington Post, "one of the most remarkable people ever to grace British politics."


Chicago Tribune, January 6, 2003, sec. 1, p. 10; Independent (London, England), January 6, 2003, p. 14; Los Angeles Times, January 6, 2003, p. B9; New York Times, January 6, 2003, p. A19; Washington Post, January 6, 2003, p. B5.

Carol Brennan

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