A century since the birth of Roy Jenkins

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The 11th of November is the 100th anniversary of the birth of a political giant who helped form the modern Liberal Democrat party.

Roy Jenkins made a huge political impact, firstly within the Labour party as a reforming Home Secretary in the 1960s bringing in reforming legislation on decriminalising homosexuality, modernising divorce laws, and liberalising censorship laws. Then as one of the four founding members of the SDP that was to merge with the Liberals to form the Liberal Democrats.

Having been elected deputy leader of the Labour party in 1970 in 1976 Jenkins ran for the leadership of the Labour Party. In what was possibly the most talented field of candidates to contest a UK leadership election, being up against Jim Callaghan, Tony Crosland, Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Dennis Healey. Ironically despite having a wealth of talent the Labour party over the next few years fell apart. Crosland died the next year, Jenkins formed the SDP in 1981, Benn and Healey were to fight it out in a bitter factional split, while Callaghan in 1976 and then Foot in 1980 as Labour leaders had to try and hold the fractious party together.

Despite his talents Jenkins had become increasingly disillusioned with the Labour Party’s move to the left in the 1970s and this helped prevent him winning the leadership election. Speaking in 1976 he said “I do not think that you can push public expenditure above 60% and maintain the values of a plural society with adequate freedom of choice. We are close to one of the frontiers of social democracy”. Thus highlighting the constant tension between on the one hand the social democratic belief in the need for high public spending to provide quality public services, eliminate poverty and ensure all have a decent income to live on, whilst avoiding a too big state that tramples on freedom and stifles initiative and hard work. Having lost the leadership to Jim Callaghan, Jenkins left parliament to become president of the European Commission.

In 1979 still out of British politics he delivered the Dimbleby lecture calling for a strengthening of the radical centre and warning of the increasing extremes of the Conservative and Labour parties, it made a huge impact. He considered joining the Liberal Party at the time but was advised by David Steel to wait and form a new party that could work with the Liberal Party.

Roy Jenkins along with Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and David Owen then formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981. 28 Labour MPs, 1 Tory MP and numerous councillors joined the party. It surged briefly into an opinion poll lead in late 1981 and won a series of by-elections. In 1982 Jenkins was elected the first leader of the SDP and gained Glasgow Hillhead in a by-election. At the 1983 election he was given the, perhaps slightly inflated, title of “Prime Minister Designate” but he did achieve at 26% the highest vote for centre/liberal parties at a general election since 1923 and at just 2% behind Labour the closest the party has come to overtaking one of the two big parties since that 1923 election. He stood down following the election to be replaced as leader by David Owen.

Following the 1987 general election Roy Jenkins was a major figure in supporting the merger of the SDP and Liberal Parties that was to form the modern Liberal Democrats. David Owen meanwhile opposed merger vociferously. Roy Jenkins succeeded as SDP leader essentially because he was an instinctive liberal as well as a Social Democrat. David Owen failed as SDP leader, and nearly caused the collapse of the centre parties, because he was an instinctive, visceral, anti-liberal.

Roy Jenkins became a Lib Dem member of the House of Lords, and in his later years he was widely praised by then Labour leader Tony Blair. In 1998 Jenkins published the Jenkins Commission which recommended a change to the voting system in general elections to a more proportional system, sadly the Blair government failed to take it up and we still have to put up with the unfair first past the post system for general elections.

Roy Jenkins died in 2003. As well as being a towering political figure he was very much a renaissance man whose writings live on in a series of excellent biographies. In particular, Gladstone and Churchill which he was to write in later years and earlier works on past Prime Ministers Stanley Baldwin and Herbert Asquith among others. His own autobiography A Life at the Centre remains one of the favourites of the many 100s of British politicians of all stripes autobiographies that I have on my bookshelves.

* Michael Mullaney is Vice-Chair of the Social Democrat Group, an Executive Member on Lib Dem run Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council and the Lib Dem Finance spokesperson on Leicestershire County Council.

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This entry was posted in Liberal History and Op-eds.


  • Richard Underhill 10th Nov '20 - 10:40am

    Roy Jenkins also said that could not take Tony Benn seriously as an economic minister.
    The other three waited for him to return from Brussels before holding a leader election in which David Owen opposed him and came second.

  • John Marriott 10th Nov '20 - 12:29pm

    Back in 1981 my heavily pregnant wife and I attended a broadcast of “Any Questions” from the hall of the school where I was teaching. Chaired by that master of suave, David Jacobs, the panel consisted of Dame Judith Hart, William Keegan, Sir Richard Marsh and Roy Jenkins.

    After the broadcast the panellists and Chairman were invited by the Head for drinks in our staff room so we had a chance to chat with the ‘celebrities’. Dame Judith didn’t have much to say, Lord Marsh was urbane and Mr Keegan, still happily with us and still raging against Brexit in his Observer column. ‘Soy’, of all of them, was the one prepared to engage in a political discussion. It was nearly a year since the Limehouse declaration, which led the following March to the foundation of the SDP so, having just started as a Liberal Party activist, I was keen to hear his views on cooperation. While still basking in the heady excitement of poll figures, which seemed to indicate even then that the new party might be forming the next government, I seem to recall that he nevertheless did not rule out working with David Steel at some future date.

    In the 1983 General Election – the first in which I was actively involved, Lincolnnwas designated an SDP seat and I enjoyed a hectic few weeks following our candidate, with a small determined band of mainly ex Democratic Labour councillors and supporters, (most of my newly acquired Liberal Party colleagues preferred to melt away and go and help Andrew Phillips in the Liberal designated seat of Gainsborough). Our candidate was the late Freddie Stockdale, who wizzed around in his battered Saab (the Rolls remained parked at his stately pile in the south of the county) often accompanied by his fierce cheroot smoking first wife, with an opera cassette blaring out of the car’s stereo (Freddie went on to run a small opera company that used to perform in schools around the country). We ran Labour pretty close that year and probably allowed Tory, Kenneth Carlisle, to retain the seat he had won off Labour’s Margaret Jackson (later Beckett) four years earlier, she herself the Victor over Dick Taverne in the autumn election of 1974. Mind you, recent constituency boundary changes had made Mr Carlisle’s task much easier. Happy days, nevertheless!

  • Richard Underhill 10th Nov '20 - 12:30pm

    Ted Haath’s memoirs show the importance of experience of casualties in wartime, such as Harold MacMillan. As these people die they cannot be recreated.

  • John Marriott 10th Nov '20 - 12:33pm

    Sorry about the typos. I omitted to say that Mr Keegan was, I recall, rather subdued and that “Soy” should have read “Woy”. The ‘s’ and the ‘w’ are rather too close on my iPad and my arthritic fingers rather large!

  • Richard Underhill 10th Nov '20 - 12:36pm

    Jo Grimond said that I was an Asquithan Liberal and hDavid Steel was a Social Democrat.

  • Barry Lofty 10th Nov '20 - 2:08pm

    Another period of great hope which in the end did not quite materialise, but I much admired Shirley Williams at the time and still do.

  • Back in 1983 I too was campaigning, standing in the Richmond (Yorkshire) constituency as the ‘Liberal Alliance’ candidate against Leon Brittan.

    I well remember on 30 May, 1983 when David Steel lured ‘Prime Minister Designate’ Jenkins’ to the Steel home in Ettrickbridge near Selkirk. There DMS ‘ Stellenbosched’ Roy and took over the lead role in the campaign. One wonders is there some sort of jinx in claiming to be a potential Prime Minister ?

    I also well remember being in 51, Victoria Street at LPO back in 1964 when Lady Violet was not best pleased that Roy the Boy had revealed the H.H. Asquith-Venetia Stanley relationship in the Asquith biography.

  • Richard Underhill Nothing so advanced…. I rather gathered you were a Gladstonian Liberal, Mr Underhill.

  • Mike Falchikov 10th Nov '20 - 4:56pm

    Remember campaigning in the Hillhead by-election with great pleasure and how well “Woy” went down with the locals. As a Labour minister he was the only liberal Home Secretary we have had in my lifetime.

  • @John Marriott

    Interesting to read your memories, John. I think there is a real need – and I have spoken about this before on LDV – to have somewhere were people can submit memories like this – a “Lib Dem oral (written) history site” as everything gets lost and I regret not writing up a quick summary of the campaigns and elections I have been involved in immediately afterwards – one is normally too knackered!

  • barry coward 10th Nov '20 - 8:45pm

    My father was a civil servant in the home office Immigration Branch when Roy Jenkins was Home Secretary. My father said that Jenkins was the only Home Secretary who, in my father’s time, read, understood and made perceptive comments on briefs sent to Jenkins.

  • John Marriott 10th Nov '20 - 10:38pm

    @Michael 1
    Thank you for those kind words. Yes, I am afraid I am often guilty of living in the past. I had intended to say more about Roy Jenkins but fell foul of the LDV length diktat. Perhaps I might get away with adding my final paragraphs now.

    I shall always remember him as a reforming Home Secretary in the late 1960s. It was largely his efforts that managed to pilot long needed legislation through Parliament – and let’s not forget David Steel’s famous private member’s Bill that ushered in the 1967 Abortion Act, that went a long way to giving women the right to choose, something which is sadly under threat particularly on the other side of the Atlantic and more recently in Poland. Steel’s efforts neatly dovetailed with the legislation for which his future political fellow traveller was largely responsible.

    What also impressed me was that Lord Jenkins after his stint in Brussels, like Paddy Ashdown after leaving the military for a comfortable job in the Diplomatic Service, could have rested on his laurels; but preferred to follow his conscience and fight for his beliefs. Taking Jo Grimond’s advice, both refused to forsake an easy life and chose to march towards the sound of the guns.

  • James Fowler 11th Nov '20 - 9:55am

    Roy Jenkins – Should have joined the Liberals.
    Shirley Williams – Should have joined Liberals.
    David Owen – Should have joined the Conservatives.
    Bill Rogers – Should have stayed in Labour.

  • Christopher Haigh 11th Nov '20 - 12:11pm

    @James Fowler- interesting observation. I would say Shirley Williams, Ted Rodgers and David Owen were social democrats who should have been reincorporated into the labour party under Neil Kinnock. Roy Jenkins was definitely a liberal and should have become leader of the old Liberal Party. David Owens views on the EU is similar to that expounded by Peter Martin on here re dislike of federalism, the Eurozone and the treatment of Greece after the financial crisis.

  • Tahir Maher Tahir Maher 11th Nov '20 - 2:15pm

    I have been reading his autobiography – which is excellent by the way – and Roy Jenkins noted in 1956 (I believe it was) that the Tories steal your ideas!!! 🙂 old habits die hard

  • David Evans 11th Nov '20 - 3:48pm

    Roy Jenkins, along with two others in the ‘gang of four’ were an essential part of the success of the Liberal Democrats, bringing with them as they did, lots of social democrats to revitalise the liberals at that time. None of them were 100% natural liberals in the modern sometimes rather abused sense used by many self styled progressives. However, they brought back to the party a lot of the values that had largely been lost from the Liberal party over many decades, and helped turn us from a fringe party to one capable of appealing to a wider audience and getting elected – including the author of this piece.

    We need to focus on getting people like them back.

  • Michael Mullaney 16th Nov '20 - 11:05pm

    Thanks to everyone who commented on the post. Good to see it generated lots of comments about Roy Jenkins and memories from the time of the Alliance.

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