Magazine article The Spectator

Fwankly Disappointed

Magazine article The Spectator

Fwankly Disappointed

Article excerpt

IT'S all right, it's all right, says Roy Jenkins, wreathed in smiles as he stands on the landing and watches me puff up to his Notting Hill flat. `One of the advantages of your being late,' he says, handing me some champagne, `is that I have now written 580 words today, even though it has been a rather mouvemente day.'

Well, phew, I think, as we sit down. If I have allowed Roy to add a few lines to his oeuvre, which stretches from Purpose and Policy (1947) via his `storming' (T. Blair) life of Gladstone to the present biography of Churchill, then I cannot be wholly in disgrace. What energy, I think, as I gaze at Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, who already has at least six inches in Who's Who. He was the first leader of the Social Democratic party, and is the holder of the Order of European Merit (Luxembourg), the Grand Cross, Legion of Honour of Senegal (1979), the Legion of Honour of Mali, Order of Charles III (Spain), Hon. DLitt. Glasgow and holder of gongs from Berkeley to Bologna, Chancellor of Oxford University and Lord High Everything Else.

There used to be a club where rightwing fogeys would meet to make the famous Jenkins hand-purse gesture, which has been likened to an aristocrat fondling the breast of a passing peasant girl. They would stick their noses into glasses of claret and say things like, `It has a lively velleity.' They used to use the word `rancour' a great deal, pwonounced as Woy would pwonounce it, and laugh immodewately.

At least, they did until three years ago, when it emerged that they were not alone; and that the president, chairman and secretary of the Roy Jenkins Appreciation Society is Tony Blair. It was Roy, you will remember, who pointed out that the 20th century was the Tory century because the Labour party and the Liberals fatally failed to unite, and it was Roy who sowed in Tony's mind the notion that this century should be the liberal century. Now we are three years into the Project; and, though Roy gives credit to Labour for its achievement in education and in fighting child poverty, he is plainly disappointed.

`There are times when governments slightly lose their touch, and this government is going through one.' The reform of the Lords does not impress him and he speaks of a `shoal of not very distinguished nominations. Even if you leave out some of the more rococo edges of Harold Wilson's lavender list, I think they were better nominations than this lot.' He's not happy that fox-hunting has been shunted up the political agenda. `I'm not a great foxhunter. I'm not a fox-hunter at all, but I believe even more strongly that, if people want to do it, why the hell shouldn't they do it?' He'd like to see a more libertarian Home Office, which reminds me of the consistent liberalism running through his own politics.

He was the home secretary who began to relax the laws on homosexuality and who abolished the death penalty. On his watch divorce and abortion were both made easier. His dictum - that the `permissive society is the civilised society' made him a hate-figure for right-wing frothers. `I do not regret any of the liberalising measures I introduced in the 1960s, nor do I think anybody in the Tory party would want to object except as part of fulminating at large. . . . It was typical of Mrs Thatcher's attitude to the death penalty that she always said she was in favour of it, but never tried to persuade anyone else to be in favour of it.'

But what does he think of the continuing pressure to push back the boundaries of conventional morality? What about gay marriage? There is a pause. `I haven't applied myself greatly to that,' he says, beaming, then adds: `I don't think it is worse than a lot of marriages that actually take place.'

All these anxieties are nothing, of course, next to his preoccupation with Europe. EC Commission President Jenkins revived the Exchange Rate Mechanism, and is one of the honoured ancestors of the euro, and he feels strongly that Blair should show more of a lead. …

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