Political Giant or Nearly-Man with a Touch of Arrogance?; as Roy Jenkins Dies at 82, Two Writers Pay Tribute to the Miner's Son Who Rose to the Top in Britain and Europe but Saw His Breakaway Party Fail

By Hattersley, Roy | Daily Mail (London), January 6, 2003 | Go to article overview

Political Giant or Nearly-Man with a Touch of Arrogance?; as Roy Jenkins Dies at 82, Two Writers Pay Tribute to the Miner's Son Who Rose to the Top in Britain and Europe but Saw His Breakaway Party Fail


Hattersley, Roy, Daily Mail (London)


Byline: ROY HATTERSLEY

ROY JENKINS was, by any calculations, the most successful man of his generation - twice Home Secretary, an acclaimed Chancellor of the Exchequer who balanced the nation's budget in difficult economic times, president of the Commission of the European Union and (to him perhaps most important of all) Chancellor of Oxford University.

Add to that his authorship of some of the best biographies in the English language - most recently a triumphant reappraisal of Winston Churchill's life and times - and no one can doubt that he will occupy a preeminent place in the history of post-war Britain.

Yet he never reached the top of Disraeli's greasy pole.

'I would,' he once told me 'have liked to have been Prime Minister, but there are other joys in life.' He meant food and friendship, books and wine.

However, the greatest joy of all was always being his own man. Never pretending to believe what he did not believe and never supporting a cause which he thought not just.

His failure, if failure it was, was a victory for integrity. That included supporting policies and principles with which I profoundly disagreed - an attitude to politics which resulted in him breaking away, disenchanted with the Labour Party, and founding the SDP. But despite that fundamental disagreement I have no doubt he would have made a great Prime Minister.

The beginnings were humble and prompted many critical comments about a voice which betrayed nothing of the valleys or the pit village.

But he was a son of the Welsh coalfields. His father, Arthur Jenkins, was a miner who, at the height of the general strike, was convicted of participating in an 'unlawful assembly' and sentenced to nine months' imprisonment.

Jenkins's detractors suggest that Roy - the late and only child of the family - was ashamed of his father's record. Certainly, it was a fact of family life which was kept from him until he was in his teens, but he spoke with great pride of his father's election as a miners' MP.

Arthur Jenkins's brief career in Parliament provided young Roy with his first steps up the political ladder.

He became parliamentary private secretary to Clem Attlee, the leader of the Labour Party and for six years Prime Minister. Young Roy knew, or at least met, all the great figures of pre-war politics.

Families like the Jenkinses took education seriously. So their son was encouraged to prepare hard for the 'scholarship' which took him to Abersychan Second School.

Most of their neighbours would have been delighted to see their sons pass on from the local sixth form to the University of Wales. But for the Jenkinses it was only a stepping stone. After a year at University College, Cardiff, he won a place at Balliol.

The three years at Oxford shaped the rest of his life. He failed to become president of the union but won a first and met the men who were to be his friends for the next sixty years.

They included Tony Crosland, for half of Jenkins's life his colleague and competitor in Labour politics.

'Tony', Jenkins once said to me 'was cleverer than I am.' He added, with a justified smile: 'That is a considerable achievement.' The clever undergraduate was commissioned in the Royal Artillery and spent the last years of the war at Bletchley Park with the codebreakers who deciphered German military signals. By then he had met - naturally enough at a Fabian summer school - and married Jennifer Parker-Morris, daughter of the town clerk of Westminster.

They formed a perfect partnership the Tory voting lobby. For people like me - parliamentary nobodies - defiance was easy. For the deputy leader it was an act of reckless daring.

He survived after a defiant speech in which he told the Parliamentary Labour Party that he was proud of what he had done but promised that he would not go on voting against the party while the Common Market Bill was considered in committee. …

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