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Roy Jenkins – the man that helped Britain join the EU

British Labour Party, SDP and Liberal Democrat politician and author Roy Jenkins (1920 - 2003) with his wife Jennifer, UK, 18th March 1968. (Photo by Reg Burkett/Daily Express/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

Roy Jenkins – the man that helped Britain join the European Community.

This week sees the 100th anniversary of the birth of Roy Jenkins, one of the outstanding British statesmen of the post-war period.

He was one of the greatest reforming home secretaries in history, arguably the most successful chancellor of the exchequer since the war, and had major influence, not only on domestic but European politics. Without his support Britain would not have joined the European Community in 1972.

I was fortunate to serve four years in government between 1966 and 1970 as his junior minister, first in the Home Office and then, when he became chancellor, at the Treasury.

His numerous Home Office reforms included decriminalisation of homosexual conduct between consenting adults in private and the legalisation of abortion in defined circumstances, the abolition of flogging in prisons and of theatre censorship and launching the reform of race relations.

In his biography of Harold Wilson, Ben Pimlott summarised the Jenkins reforms as “consolidating a mood of change in British society which promoted more civilised social values and benefited millions. They were the most important changes of the Wilson administration”.

They also gave him an authority in the cabinet, which Richard Crossman in his Diaries described as “dominant” almost from the moment he joined and eventually as “omnipotent”.

Roy’s time as chancellor was much more stressful than at the Home Office but equally successful. He described the difference between the two in one of his favourite meteorological metaphors: “At the Home Office, sudden storms blew up out of a clear sky and vanished as suddenly as they arose; in the Treasury a long Arctic winter slowly lightened into spring.”

When Roy – who was born on November 11, 1920 – was appointed chancellor at the end of November 1967, the government had been forced into a humiliating devaluation. The state of the economy and of the Labour government could not have been more dire.

The situation was so serious that the Sunday Times declared that the whole future of the economy – and even of democracy – depended on Roy’s success. Spring eventually came, but oh how slowly!

By the end of his chancellorship, the huge deficit in the balance of payments, the major cause of the crisis, was in steady surplus. The dollar and gold reserves, which had been at rock bottom, had been dramatically strengthened, and there was a solid budget surplus as well.

We had enjoyed two-and-a-half years of economic growth at 3-4%, while inflation was not appreciably higher than that of the USA, which had not devalued, or of France which had devalued by less than we had.

What was the secret of his success? It was a combination of good judgement and extraordinary eloquence, despite a rather poor delivery and a voice which lacked resonance. For example, early in his time at the Home Office, the spy George Blake escaped from Wormwood Scrubs where he was serving a 42-year sentence.

He had been responsible for the death of a number of British agents. There was a huge public outcry. Two of the Conservatives’ outstanding parliamentary performers, Quintin Hogg and Enoch Powell, put down a censure motion. Labour morale was already at a very low ebb and Roy faced a severe crisis.

In his reply, he made a speech that several commentators described as the most outstanding parliamentary performance they could remember. At the end, the Labour benches cheered wildly, waving their order papers. One told me: “This has been such a boost to morale, can’t we arrange for a spy to escape every week?”

Roy’s first major speech as chancellor introducing the budget to deal with the economic crisis was another astonishing success. It lasted two hours and 27 minutes, as he recorded (he loved numerical exactitude). It imposed tax rises and expenditure cuts unprecedented in their severity.

But the speech was so carefully prepared, powerfully argued and felicitously phrased, and so persuasive, that at the end Labour benches cheered him to the echo. One of his colleagues, Edmund Dell, observed: “Never was such pain inflicted with such elegance.”

Roy was also master of the impromptu repartee. I remember one speech when Enoch Powell made what seemed a very effective interruption. Roy paused, thought and looked at the ceiling. The pause lasted so long there was a feeling he had been put off his stride. Then he answered: “The Rt Hon Member’s logic as always is impeccable, but since he invariably starts from false premises, he is bound to come to a false conclusion.” In a way that seemed to sum up Powell’s career.

With such a record of success, why did he not become prime minister? Because he consistently argued the case for Britain’s active role as a member of the European Community while Labour vacillated between support and hostility. But he nearly did.

Just before the 1970 general election, which, because of our economic recovery, Labour was generally expected to win, Roy told me confidentially about an interesting conversation with Harold Wilson. Wilson told him that if he won, he would take Britain into Europe and having won three elections, would retire and wanted Roy to succeed him. But Labour lost!

When Wilson eventually retired in 1976, the circumstances had changed dramatically. Heath took Britain into Europe in 1972, but in opposition, led by Wilson, Labour changed tack, opposed entry and imposed a three-line whip, hoping with the help of a group of Tory rebels to defeat the government.

However, Roy led 69 pro-European MPs to put country before party and vote with Heath, thus securing our membership. I always thought that after this “Betrayal of the Party” Roy could never be elected as Labour leader, as he would probably would have been if Labour had won in 1970.

Roy was our lost leader and I believe Britain suffered. He might have averted our steady economic decline and increasing isolation. The tragedy of our post-war history is that we never answered Dean Acheson’s charge that we lost an empire and never found a role.

The alternative was to become an active member of the European Community. In the event we rather limped in, to join only half-heartedly.

The general political mood, strongly encouraged today by Boris Johnson’s government, has been one of nostalgic complacency. We stood alone and won the war! We have our close relationship with the USA and the Commonwealth! We are special!

There were few realists among our leading politicians. One was Edward Heath, who was about the only British politician to grasp the importance of the Schuman Plan for a merged steel and coal authority between Germany and France, the first move towards the common market.

In his maiden speech in 1950, he urged Britain to join, and seize the opportunity to play an active part in the development of Europe. Later as prime minister he took us into the Community. He was a man of vision and principle but lacked the personality and leadership qualities to persuade his party and build on his achievement.

Harold Macmillan realised at the end of his career where our future lay, but by then de Gaulle had formed the view that we would never be committed members. Kenneth Clarke was a consistent pro-European, but had little effect; nor did Tony Blair, who made excellent pro-European speeches, but abroad, not in Britain.

One politician whose dynamic personality might have led to a major change in policy was Michael Heseltine, had he succeeded Margaret Thatcher. But he was rejected by the anti-European majority within the Tory Party.

Above all there was Roy, who though no longer the dominant figure in the Labour party after 1972, continued to be the leading champion of the European cause and led the successful cross-party campaign in the referendum that upheld our EC membership in 1975.

He then became president of the European Commission, where he played a major role in the EU’s adoption of the Euro, which in spite of its early troubles may yet, under the revived leadership of France and Germany, consolidate the EU into a powerful world force to defend democratic values at a time of a rising China and declining USA.

Roy was never a tribalist but always a liberal social democrat, which led him to found the SDP, which became the Alliance and ultimately the Liberal Democrats. This did not succeed in breaking the two party mould imposed by the first-past-the-post system. But who knows what may yet be the result of the present political chaos? He was a man of great warmth, wit, wisdom and complete integrity.

He wrote at the end of his autobiography: “I may have avoided doing too much stooping, but I also missed conquering.” Quite wrong! I believe the verdict of history will be that he conquered far more than the vast majority of those who climbed their way to the top of the greasy pole.

  • Dick Taverne was Labour MP for Lincoln from 1962 to 1973 and an Independent Democratic Labour MP from 1973 to 1974. He sits in the House of Lords as a Liberal Democrat.

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