Roy Jenkins

(1920—2003) politician and author

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(b. Abersychan, Monmouthshire, 11 Nov. 1920; d. East Hendred, Oxfordshire, 5 Jan. 2003)

British; Chancellor of the Exchequer 1967–70, president of European Commission 1976–81; Baron (life peer) 1987 Jenkins's father was a Labour MP, who served for a time as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Labour Prime Minister Attlee. In 1948 Jenkins was elected for a London constituency and, after that disappeared due to redistribution, he was elected for Birmingham Stetchford in 1950. He held the seat until his resignation in 1976. In the 1950s Labour was in Opposition and Jenkins proved himself a skilful advocate for the party on television. He also was a highly regarded author. He supported the revisionist policies of the party leader Hugh Gaitskell. In 1959 he introduced the Obscene Publications Act, which eased censorship.

Roy Jenkins entered the Cabinet in 1965 as Home Secretary in the Wilson government. He held this post until 1967 and presided over the liberalization of laws on divorce, abortion, and homosexuality. Critics later derided these measures as encouraging the permissive society: Jenkins preferred to call it the civilized society. In 1967 he replaced Callaghan as Chancellor of the Exchequer, following the devaluation of the pound. He proved to be something of an iron Chancellor and gained control of public spending and brought round the balance of payments. After the 1970 election defeat he was blamed by some Labour MPs for not using his 1970 budget to engineer a pre-election boom. Jenkins was then elected deputy leader of the party and was widely regarded as Wilson's heir apparent. In fact the party was moving to the left and he grew increasingly disaffected with what he regarded as Wilson's pusillanimous leadership. He resigned as deputy leader in 1972 when the party called for a referendum over Britain's membership of the European Economic Community. Europe was always a key issue for Jenkins.

With Labour in government again, he was Home Secretary between 1974 and 1976, although disappointed not to become Foreign Secretary. Again, he was becoming disillusioned with the party's drift to the left. He did badly in the leadership election in 1976 and withdrew from the race after finishing third on the first ballot. He then left to become president of the European Commission.

His call for a realignment in the British party system eventually led to the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981. The SDP attracted a number of disillusioned right-wing Labour MPs and for a time the party promised to break the mould of British politics. He re-entered the House of Commons in 1982 when he won Glasgow Hillhead at a by-election. After losing his seat in 1987 he entered the House of Lords as Jenkins of Hillhead and became chancellor of Oxford University. After the general election in 1997 Tony Blair appointed him as chairman of a commission on the voting system. The commission reported in 1998, favouring a form of proportional representation, but the Labour government ignored all its recommendations.

Jenkins had a life outside politics. He was a fine essayist and reviewer. He was also an accomplished biographer and wrote studies of Baldwin, Asquith, Churchill, and Gladstone.


Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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