Roy Harris Jenkins (born 1920), British Labour politician and author, was a leading member of the cabinet before becoming president of the European Community and later a founder of the Social Democratic Party.
Roy Jenkins was born on November 11, 1920, the son of Arthur Jenkins, a Welsh miner who became an officer of his union and later a Labour member of Parliament. Roy was educated at Abersychan Grammar School and Balliol College, Oxford, where he took first class honors in politics, philosophy, and economics in 1941, having already been active in student politics and debate. He served in the Royal Artillery from 1942 to 1946, rising to captain in 1944.
Even before he was demobilized Jenkins entered politics, contesting the seat for Solihull unsuccessfully in the general election of 1945. He filled in the years 1946 to 1948 working for the Industrial and Commercial Financial Corporation. In 1948 Jenkins obtained his seat in Parliament after winning a by-election for Central Southwark; from 1950 to 1976 he sat for Stechford, Birmingham. He held office only briefly under Prime Minister Clement Attlee, in 1949-1950 as parliamentary private secretary to the secretary for Commonwealth relations. He early showed his interest in European union, serving as a United Kingdom delegate to the Council of Europe from 1955 to 1957. He belonged to the moderate side of the Labour Party; and was Fabian Society chairman from 1957 to 1958.
When the Labour Party was out of power, Jenkins occasionally held directorships or consultantships for various businesses; he also served on the boards of the Society of Authors and the British Film Institute. He was himself an author of some repute, publishing a history of the parliamentary crisis of 1911, Mr. Balfour's Poodle, in 1954; biographies of Sir Charles Dilke (1958) and Herbert Asquith (1964); and numerous books on politics—15 titles in all, plus his autobiography (1991). His wife, Jennifer Morris, whom he married in 1945, was active in the historical preservation movement and was chairwoman of the Historic Buildings Council from 1975 to 1984. They had two sons and one daughter.
When Labour returned to power in 1964, Jenkins entered Harold Wilson's cabinet as minister for aviation. Hitherto known as a party intellectual and debater, he showed himself in office to be an excellent administrator and was promoted in 1965 to home secretary, roughly equivalent to being U.S. attorney general and HUD secretary. Both as a backbencher and as home secretary Jenkins was instrumental in ending capital punishment and literary censorship and easing divorce and abortion laws. He moved up to chancellor of the exchequer in 1967. Here he distinguished himself by devaluing the pound—a measure he had supported earlier—and courageously retrenching spending and raising taxes. In the controversy over wage and price control which divided the Labour Party in 1969, Jenkins supported Prime Minister Wilson. In the general election of 1970, Labour was defeated, despite an economic upturn to which Jenkins' measures may have contributed. He lost his office but became deputy leader of the party in opposition.
Seemingly on the way to the party leadership and perhaps the prime ministry, Jenkins' career was sidetracked by his commitment to Europe and the Common Market, which Britain joined in 1972. When the Labour Party insisted on holding a referendum on British entry, Jenkins resigned as deputy leader. The referendum was held in 1975, after Labour had regained power. Though again holding cabinet office, Jenkins, as president of "Britain in Europe," led the pro-Common Market campaign, which triumphed.
When Labour returned to office in the general elections of 1974, Jenkins joined Harold Wilson's second ministry, once again as home secretary. Wilson's abrupt decision to retire in March 1976 opened a contest for the succession. Jenkins was a candidate, but he proved to have little support in the party. In the first ballot of the Labour members of Parliament, Jenkins came in third; he eventually dropped out, his votes mostly going to the winner, James Callaghan. Jenkins continued as home secretary, but he was glad to accept election, when Britain's turn came round, as president of the European Commission, the executive branch of the Common Market. A devoted Europeanist, Jenkins served as "President of Europe" from 1977 to 1981, holding a position of much prestige though limited power. Honors poured in on him from many countries.
Returning to British politics in 1981, Jenkins was dismayed by the leftward drift of his Labour Party, again out of office, and the absence of a credible opposition to Margaret Thatcher's Tory government. He became the senior leader in the formation of a centrist third party, the Social Democratic Party, drawing support mainly from disillusioned Labourites and agreeing to cooperate for electoral purposes with the small Liberal Party as the "Alliance." Jenkins contested the Warrington seat, unsuccessfully but credibly, in 1981. He was elected for Glasgow Hillhead in 1982 and became the first leader of the Social Democratic Party in Parliament. But in the general election of 1983, Margaret Thatcher, fresh from her Falklands victory, overwhelmed all opposition. Jenkins kept his seat, but he was ousted from the leadership of his small parliamentary party by the younger David Owen. Seven years after its founding, the new party collapsed without getting near power.
Soon after his parliamentary career ended, Jenkins, the coal miner's son, was elected chancellor of Oxford University and was named a peer. He also continued to write, and to proselytize for internationalist views.
Further Reading on Roy Harris Jenkins
As one would expect from a professional writer, Jenkins's autobiography, A Life at the Center: Memoirs of a Radical Reformer (1993), was a cut above most political memoirs. A Jenkins biography, Roy Jenkins, was published in 1983 just as the S.D.P. experiment was under way. Jenkins also was discussed in general works on the history or politics of the period, of which the best is Alfred F. Havighurst, Britain in Transition (1979).