Monday, January 26, 2015

book review

Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell (Jonathan Cape, 2014)

I've long been a fan of Roy Jenkins, who won my allegiance in both his professional capacities, as a politician and as an author. As a politician, he was the only genuinely civil libertarian Home Secretary (the government minister responsible for prisons and the police) that Britain has ever had, who oversaw the liberation of abortion and homosexuality laws, and who ran a long-running campaign against blue-nosed censorship. He was also one of the founders of what became the Liberal Democratic Party, which was a nice idea while it lasted.

As an author he first came to my attention with a short book on Harry Truman giving a refreshingly different British-eye view of that intensely American figure. He's best-known for his doorstop-sized biographies of Gladstone and Churchill, but my favorite book of his is his comprehensive survey of all the Chancellors of the Exchequer who served between 1885 and 1947. His insights into the likes of Austen Chamberlain and Hugh Dalton are priceless. But then so is his volume of memoirs, A Life at the Centre, not only well-written but introspective and honestly self-evaluative.

That might leave an authorized but not uncritical biographer, writing over a decade after Jenkins' death, with little new to say. And indeed, there's a lot here that just runs over the same ground as the memoirs, and a lot more that does so with a little more of a critical view of Jenkins' actions. Campbell is also very repetitious, probably through lack of editing, and the reader will learn over and over again that Jenkins was not a lazy politician, though he was a dedicated gourmet and oenophile. The most interesting parts come after Jenkins writes the memoirs, and earlier on during the four years he spent as President of the European Commission. Campbell rightly notes that this is the dullest chapter of Jenkins' memoir; it's not so dull as Campbell tells it, because he doesn't let the political issues get lost in the high society.

Campbell is less reticent than Jenkins on his personal life. Of his courtship of his wife, Jenkins says only that, after playing in a cricket match, "we left together and have been so for the subsequent half century." It was not so smooth as that, and Campbell has a lot more to tell, with plenty of letters to quote from. It's a highly Jenkinsian moment when he writes to his then-fiancée, "I think that the desire for a more complete possession than one can ever attain is a necessary accompaniment to loving anyone as much as I love you. Or perhaps it is just the result of too much Proust."

Campbell also lifts the corner on Jenkins' extracurricular sex life. Most of the press attention to the book has gone here, though it occupies only a small part of the space. He had a lot of affairs, but always on a "friends with benefits" basis with social equals whose company he enjoyed (as did his wife, who grew resigned to this). There was never any question of breaking up his marriage; most of them were married too. He never fell in lust with the tea girl, so there were no scandals. All three of his principal ladyfriends are mentioned in the memoirs, though only in the context of his social life.

Most of this had leaked out in other sources since Jenkins' death; what's entirely new is a brief statement that he did a little sexual canoodling in college with his best friend, Tony Crosland, later his government colleague. (There's an attached source note. The reader turns to it eagerly. "Private information," it says. F.U., Campbell.) That would explain a lot about the urbane, civilized, balanced Jenkins' continued fondness for Crosland, who was louche, disorganized, and a staggering berk. Their tempestuous friendship/rivalry is well-chronicled here. But the memoirs are a better source for the dirt on the main political antagonist of Jenkins' later years, David "Dr. Death" Owen.

This is a long book, 749 text pages, considerably longer than the memoirs. Would it were less repetitious, but it never gets bogged down in detail. It's largely sympathetic towards its subject, but sufficiently detached and occasionally critical. I'm glad it's out at last, and that I went to the trouble of ordering a copy.


  1. Thanks for this, David - I'll look out for it. Yes, that relationship with Crosland explains a lot! Just one very minor niggle: Woy was indeed one of the 'Gang of Four' who broke away from Labour, but the party they founded was called the Social Democratic Party, which fell into the hands of Lord Owen of Split, and ended up combining with the Liberals to form the present Liberal Democratic Party. Otherwise, nice review!

    1. That is why I carefully wrote, "what became the Liberal Democratic Party." Not wishing to indulge in a long history at that point, what I was referring to that he co-founded that became it was the Alliance, of which the SDP was a part and for which Jenkins was the prime enthusiast among the Gang of Four.

    2. Indeed. My excuse is that it's relatively early morning here, and I don't really wake up until at least 11 a.m. GMT. :-)