From Solidarity 3/21, 11 January 2003
By John Chamberlin
There were three of Roy Jenkins, at least. The first Roy Jenkins was the son of a South Wales mining union official who moved out of his class up a ladder of labour movement positions.
Jenkins senior became an MP, and then Parliamentary Private Secretary to Prime Minister Clement Attlee. Roy, his son, went to Oxford and became a fully paid-up bourgeois.
The second Roy Jenkins was the reforming Home Secretary of the mid 1960s. That Jenkins facilitated Private Member's Bills that revolutionised the law on homosexuality and abortion.
The legalisation of abortion meant for many thousands of women a step out of the horrible choice between an unwanted pregnancy and an unsafe back street abortion.
The treatment of male homosexuals before the 1967 Act was a shameful throwback to the dark ages. Much remained to do for gay liberation after 1967, but the removal of male homosexual activity from the list of things for which people would automatically be prosecuted and jailed was a giant step forward.
In the same period, such things as the savage traditional legal discrimination against bastards, "illegitimate" children, were abandoned.
The third Roy Jenkins was the smug labour-movement-based bourgeois academic and politician, convinced that capitalism was the best thing possible, and needed only a decent liberal reform here and there. To this Jenkins, the socialism to which the Labour Party nominally adhered, and which millions of workers took seriously, was a daydream. It should be formally banished out of the labour movement.
Jenkins became a member of the right-wing sect around Labour Party leader, Hugh Gaitskell. They controlled the Labour Party until Gaitskell's unexpected death in 1963. Harold Wilson, who had been part of the Bevanite left in the 1950s, then became leader.
Wilson paid lip service to the Party's best traditions. In government (1964-70 and 1974-76; Jim Callaghan succeeded him as Prime Minister, 1976-79) he acted according to its worst traditions, running capitalism as best he could, according to its own rules and needs.
Jenkins served in Government under Wilson. In 1977, impatient with the manoeuvres and chicanery which Wilson adopted to deal with a labour movement largely hostile to the European Union, he abandoned Westminster for Europe.
He came back to British politics at the end of that decade. Thatcher had won the June 1979 election; the Labour Party, reacting to the failures of the Labour government, was in turmoil, and the left was on the offensive. Jenkins now proclaimed the need for a political "realignment": essentially, the replacement of the trade union-based Labour Party by a new Liberal party.
Routed in the Labour Party, most survivors of the Gaitskell group followed Jenkins' lead. In 1981, 23 Labour MPs split from the Labour Party to form their own Social Democratic Party.
It was a great help to Thatcher, but it would be Parliamentary cretinism to explain Thatcher's ultimate victory over the labour movement in terms of that split.
The left that won the Labour party in the early 1980s was politically incoherent and organisationally chaotic. It lacked an organised base in the unions. Left wing leaders like Ken Livingston and David Blunkett sold out when they won power locally.
Above all, the worst slump for 50 years, bringing mass unemployment, undercut labour militancy.
Even so, the SDP did help Thatcher consolidate and win her second general election, in 1983. The ruling class was grateful to Jenkins and his friends. So was Prime Minister Blair, who justly regards Jenkins as a pioneer of the New Labour Party.
Roy Jenkins never gave socialists reason to think he was anything but an inveterate enemy. On that there was nothing unique or exceptional to Jenkins. His achievements as a liberalising Home Secretary were exceptional. He deserves to be remembered for that.