roy jenkins

Radio | Roy Jenkins: Father of the Permissive Society?

Contributors to Wales Arts Review have over the years looked from time to time at the attempts of the culture to embrace its heroes. Television raised Ken Follett – an author I have enjoyed immensely – to a status that he would never have claimed for himself. Television’s attempt to capture Philip Pullman for Wales was risible. Hundreds of thousands of pounds were thrown at Roald Dahl in a cheery-happy sanitisation.

So to the political heroes. Abse, Bevan, Jenkins, Lloyd George: no four parliamentarians together did as much to create the social state of which we are the beneficiaries. All four in their different ways disappoint cultural expectations of sobriety, plainness or marital fidelity. They did not have caravans in the Gower or praise the lovely beach at Mwnt. They relished the Riviera and Italy. They did not settle down with a pint of Brains, preferring fine clarets. Abse was a dandy in absurdly flamboyant dress. He was proud to be acclaimed as one of Britain’s ten best-dressed men. Jenkins flaunted himself in the company of Jacqueline Onassis and her sister Lee Radziwill. They were hedonists in the sense that they regarded pleasure as a part of being human. They pursued by day their political goals of righteousness. But their nights were never consumed by politicking and pamphleteering. They were great men, but as to whether they were good men, who cares? That is what makes them interesting.

The BBC has given Roy Jenkins this season a reappraisal of seriousness. The fifty-six minute long documentary is part of the extensive programming to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967. It is ideal for the medium, blending voices from both present and past. Peter Hitchens and Polly Toynbee offer interpretations that sometimes overlap and sometimes diverge. The now Sir John Chilcot was a young Private Secretary in 1967. David Steel and Dick Taverne are the parliamentarians from the time. The makers blend in news coverage of the era sparingly, principally to report the Labour victories of 1964 and 1966. From a later age Margaret Thatcher, Norman Tebbit and John Selwyn Gummer voice their disapproval of the legacy of the 1960s. Mrs Thatcher, as the programme records, voted for many of the measures of reform.

The programme starts with the base of Jenkins’ personal conviction. His strand of Labour thinking wanted better homes and better buildings but also better books and better lives. The voice itself speaks long before Labour is in office, that people should be “free to live their own lives and make their own mistakes.” The social liberalism was all in the family heritage. Arthur Jenkins was a cultured and cosmopolitan father who had been at Ruskin College and learned French through living in France. At university Jenkins’ fellow-student Anthony Crosland made small effort to conceal his bisexuality. Jenkins was a vocal figure who started with the Obscene Publications Act. He appeared as witness after E.M. Forster for the defence in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial.

On his appointment at the age of 45 Jenkins was the youngest Home Secretary since Churchill in 1910. The Home Office had a reputation. In an interview used for the documentary Jenkins acknowledges it to be “difficult and dangerous” but “I’m not looking for a political graveyard.” No politician succeeds without a streak of ruthlessness. He engineers the removal of a prime blockage to reform in the person of the Department’s Permanent Secretary. Jenkins is moved by the tears he has caused in Sir Charles Cunningham. The tears, he later learns, are those of rage.

Jenkins’ predecessor, R.A. Butler, supported the implementation of the Wolfenden Report but knew he could never get reform through parliament. But the culture of the 1960s was shifting. The film Victim, in the programme’s telling, played a huge cultural role. The Ken Loach drama for television, Up the Junction, had a similar effect on abortion. The programme does not make mention of it but British cinema had already had an abortion scene of ghastliness in 1960 in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

At the helm Labour, always a party of divergent instinct, had a premier who was the opposite to that of 2017. Wilson was deep in experience, flexible in principle and high in guile. Jenkins’ tactic was to meld private members’ bills with his Department’s drafting skills and the Minister’s political skills in winning parliamentary time. On abortion reform Jenkins had a personal rapport with David Steel, then aged only 29. This was not the case, recorded by the Cabinet minutes, with Lord Longford, Lord Privy Seal, who warned Wilson that making time for legislation would compromise the government. Jenkins played the card of medical opinion and authority. The powerful figure of Richard Crossman swung it for Jenkins. “Strategy not rhetoric has won the day,” was the verdict.

None of the reforming legislation was in Labour’s manifesto. John Campbell the historian describes that the new cohort, which made the 98-seat majority, diluted the bloc of Trade Union MP’s hostile to social reform. The programme records the harshness of a different age. Dick Taverne recounts a coarse comment on homosexuality from a Miner-MP. Anthony Lester attempts to become an MP for a north London constituency and fails. He is, he is told, a “Fabian n*****-lover”. Jenkins moves to the Treasury and Callaghan is at the Home Office at the time of the Race Relations Act. By now it is 1968 and Powell has seized a large measure of working-class loyalty. As a result the police are granted exclusion from the legislation. This is uncorrected for decades until action by the Blair government.

Jenkins’ tactic for abolition of theatre censorship is done via Lord Annan. He initiates a debate in the Lords where the Whips, knowing the Home Secretary’s interest, facilitate time. The Sexual Offences Bill is being commemorated this month. It has not been emphasised that a reforming Labour government still found it politically impossible to apply the law to Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The documentary ends with an assessment of Jenkins. Peter Hitchens compares Jenkins’ cultural impact in hyperbolic terms to that of Mao Tse-Tung. Polly Toynbee says that if Jenkins had not been there Britain would not be what it is today. The comparison is made with Mrs Thatcher to her detriment. Hitchens: “You have to give it to Roy Jenkins. He had a plan from the start which he laid out many years before he enacted it.” Dick Taverne ends with his verdict: “No Labour Prime Minister stands above him in terms of achievement and stature.”

The BBC’s enemies are many; I fear for the best of its output. This is a fine piece of work, exemplary in research, editing and presentation.


This programme is available on the BBC iPlayer.