It would be so much fun to say that Roy Jenkins remade Britain in his own degenerate image. The only problem is, it isn’t true

How glorious to make him a caricature of a decadent toff from ‘Brideshead Revisited’
  • @johnhenrywalsh

Readers of the Daily Mail must have enjoyed themselves over the past few days, flicking through the newspaper’s extracts from John Campbell’s biography of Roy Jenkins. For the benefit of younger readers, let me explain that Lord Jenkins of Hillhead was a British Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer who flourished in the 1960s and 1970s and was considered a colourful figure, with his Edwardian diction (complete with “Woy Jenkins” speech impediment), his fine biographies, his love of claret and his desertion of Labour in 1981 to help set up the Social Democratic Party.

Hardly any of his actual political life made it into the four long sections from the book that appeared in the Mail. The editors concentrated on his character, his sex life, his habits, his consumption of alcohol and food, and how he was too hedonistic to ever make prime minister. “The VERY permissive love life of the Father of Permissiveness,” bellowed the headline last Saturday, in that strangely camp, swishy, nosey, oh-ho-what-have-we-here? tone they use. “How Roy Jenkins, architect of the liberal society, had affairs with the wives of TWO close friends.” (TWO!! Of all the numbers of friends’ wives to choose to mess about with.) A few days later, they whacked the late politician, who died in 2003, with: “The Chateau Lafite socialist: how miner’s son Roy Jenkins swapped the Valleys for vintage claret and tennis parties with the aristocracy – to the disgust of many of his party.”

Was it disgust, or just amusement? Was it “many” of his party, or just a few malcontents who resented his fondness for enjoying himself and doing so as much as possible? I’m not sure a biographer, even one as even-handed as John Campbell, could say for certain. Reading the published extracts, you notice a considerable disconnect between the attitude to Jenkins displayed by his biographer and his critics’ attitude of scorching disapproval. It’s entertaining to imagine which bits they will enjoy (what a bastard!) and which ones, inconveniently, show him in a good light.

Jenkins was born to a mining family in Pontypool. It would suit the purposes of his detractors to say he “turned his back” on his humble beginnings and family tradition by refusing to go down the mines himself, the nasty little class traitor. Unfortunately, it’s not true. His dad Arthur, though a miner, rose to become a union official, a county councillor, an MP and PPS to Clement Attlee, and never expected his son to go near a mine. (Damn!)

It would be handy if his dad had been a rough, unpolished chap without education or manners, so that Roy could be said to have “turned his back” on him. Sadly, Arthur won a scholarship to Oxford, later used to entertain senior Labour colleagues and cabinet ministers for the weekend, and was keen on taxis and hotels, which is where Roy got it from. (Grrrr!)

It would be glorious to say that, at Oxford in 1938, Roy indulged himself with Balkan Sobranie fags, expansive Chateau Margaux claret and unbridled gay sex, so that, basically, he becomes a caricature of a louche, decadent toff from Brideshead Revisited. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite like that. He tried the posh fags and the claret (as many young students do, if they can get them) but he couldn’t afford to drink regularly until after the war. And his brief fling with the flamboyantly gay Tony Crosland (who Roy later said had seduced him “at least once”) was an experimental moment in his life, shortly before he met his wife, Jennifer, to whom he stayed married for 50 years. (God, how annoying!)

It would be ace to think that, as an MP, he shocked fellow MPs by his life of sybaritism and squire-like selfishness while sitting in a palatial dwelling in Notting Hill. But it’s not quite true. Bill Rodgers MP, came to lunch in 1956, noted he was being offered sherry and brandy and said: “It’s so different from the environment of most Labour supporters (as also 99 per cent of the population).” True – but not shocking. And Notting Hill in 1956 was about as glamorous as Tower Hamlets.

It would be splendid to call him “the architect of the permissive society”, the man who oversaw the legalisation of homosexuality and abortion, and suggest it was a reflection of his “permissive” life of love affairs, degeneracy and carelessness about other people. But his legal reforms were nothing to do with his lifestyle. They were designed to free people everywhere from being criminalised by their nature or their circumstances. He gave people in all walks of life legal “permission” to follow their sexual instincts and control their physical destiny.

Amazingly, even after four days of extracts focusing on salacity and wrongdoing, Lord Jenkins comes out among the good guys. (Bugger!)

Come on Egypt, it’s time to say sorry to the Israelites

I see that more apologies are being demanded for tragic unfoldings of history. The most recent is a coalition of Caribbean countries (Caricom) which is demanding that former slaving nations – among them Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and Holland – should pay reparations for the “enduring legacy” of the slave trade in islands with health and economic problems. They want a formal apology from current heads of state, financial damages (unspecified), more development aid money and the cancelling of debts.

It’s interesting that, to argue their case, the Caricom collective is using the same British law firm that won £20m for Kenyan people tortured by the British and others in the 1950s Mau Mau imbroglio. But where will the paper-trail of blame stop? Slavery didn’t originate in the West Indies. European slavers sailed to Africa, picked up slaves there and shipped them to the Caribbean to work in the sugar fields. Should Europe apologise to whichever African nations were thus abused?

And while we’re in the African continent, has Egypt apologised sufficiently for enslaving the Israelites for 400 years? Or is that a spurious factoid from the Bible? And who can we get to apologise for that?

The Wars of the Roses were 500 years ago, right?

There’s important stuff going on in the High Court today. A shadowy organisation called the Plantagenet Alliance will take sides against a bunch of archaeologists from Leicester University over which has the right to bury a skeleton in their county turf. Ever since they found the bony departed under a council car park in Leicester in 2012, this deeply silly debate has raged, simply to resurrect the Wars of the Roses between the houses of York and Lancaster (Leicester used to be Lancastrian.) Unbelievably, a two-day judicial review will start today over whether the burial licence should be revoked.

Surely, if you’re going to drag up the past like this, the answer is simple. Richard III was killed at Bosworth Field. The Lancastrians won the battle. It should be up to them how they dispose of the enemy’s remains. And can both sides now please go back to dressing up and playing jousting games on Sunday afternoons without bothering the law?