Address by the Vice-Chancellor at the Memorial Service for Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, OM

Supplement (1) to Gazette No. 4651 

Wednesday, 5 March 2003

At the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, 1 March 2003

One day early in my personal acquaintance with Roy Jenkins, a little time before I became Vice-Chancellor, I met Jennifer Jenkins. Roy had been quite ill that summer and I enquired after his health. `Oh, he is much better now, thank you', she replied, `The doctor has told him he must lose weight.' And, after a faint pause, she added crisply: `I do wish he had told him that he must eat less, for Roy doesn't see the connection between the two things'. This vignette presaged what I soon learned from numerous weekend lunches at East Hendred. Les plaisirs de la table were a natural medium for Roy—not in any silly sense, but because these pleasures were provided by the company. In these mellow late years of his life, that company represented the extraordinary breadth of his acquaintance and friendships over a long political career. And as conversations flowed on, he was a most attractive, indeed endearing figure, full of personal warmth, steady in friendship, rich in detailed memories of events and people, perfectly clear about his likes and dislikes, discussing issues of the day or of the past with intelligence and wit. I quickly discovered that one of the sights most characteristic of Roy in my eye was of him genially making a point, smiling broadly, in a crescendo of emphasis, with his right hand held down by his side making a movement much as if he were about to roll a pair of dice.

We are gathered to remember Roy Jenkins as our Chancellor. But it is not possible to remember and understand him without remembering his enormous political achievements. After all, it was the exceptional stature derived from his political career that brought him to our Chancellorship, even though some more practical skills of politics ensured his success in that particular election. In a real sense, Roy Jenkins had politics in the blood. His father was a South Wales trade union official and local Labour politician, who eventually was elected to Parliament for Pontypool and gained junior ministerial office at the end of the War. His childhood and adolescence were awash with politics, the house often full of politicians of different sorts, car journeys with his father on union business, and later diligent listening to debates in the House of Commons. His father was clearly a man of high principle and integrity; no doubt this too shaped what Roy Jenkins was to become. It was his father who insisted that he follow the classic path of the time as a grammar school boy headed to Oxford, where he entered Balliol in 1938.

It is not that Roy Jenkins deliberately turned his back on South Wales; indeed, he was a regular and faithful visitor as long as his mother lived. But going to Balliol put him onto a different stage and most importantly a different political stage, on another classic path of the time through the Oxford Union, the Labour Club (where, in a premonitory manner, he took a leading role in splitting the Club from the socialist Left), meeting future Labour Party friends and acquaintances, and Fabian summer schools. It was at one of the latter that he met Jennifer Morris, introduced by the impeccably Fabian credentials of the daughter of the G.D.H. Coles. In his words, `at any rate, when the School came to an end on the seventh morning, we left together and have been so for the subsequent half-century'.

He graduated in 1941 with a First in PPE. To the end of his life, he spoke of this in rather muted terms, almost as if it had been somehow not quite deserved; certainly, he remembered with clarity what strikes me as the unnecessarily disparaging words with which the Master of Balliol, Sandy Lindsay, greeted the result. He had, of course, spent really too much time on politics. And, at the end of the War, it is clear that he simply craved a seat in Parliament to the point that, at a by-election in 1948, he took a seat for Southwark that was due to disappear at the next election. He transferred to the safe seat of Stechford, Birmingham, which he held until 1976.

It is perhaps not too great a simplification to see Roy Jenkins' political career as divided into three phases: first, his time at the Home Office (1965–7), as Chancellor of the Exchequer (1967–70), and at the Home Office again (1974–6); second, his four years as President of the European Commission from 1977; and third, the creation of the SDP in the 1980s. Each of these phases represented rather different aspects of his political temperament and of the nature of his achievement. At the end of his autobiography, Roy Jenkins wondered whether he had been politically a Whig or a Radical and seemed to lean towards the latter. Perhaps it would be truer to say that his time in the offices of state between 1965 and 1976 showed him to be a reformer in the Whig tradition, while the subsequent years spent at the edge of established politics trying to shift the paradigm revealed him to be a Radical.

At all events, his first period at the Home Office was an extraordinarily magic moment for people of my generation. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that he single-handedly changed Britain, but he certainly captured decisively the desire of so many of us for renovation. Either by the legislation that he introduced or by the private members' bills that he supported, he swept away significant portions of the repressive world of the 1950s. This was the time of the reform of the police, the introduction of parole and suspended sentences, the abolition of flogging in prison, improved legal aid, advances in racial equality, the liberalisation of the law on homosexuality and legalisation of abortion. One is struck not simply by his command of the House through oratory at difficult moments (he wrote his speeches himself), but also by his industry and his sheer toughness. These attributes carried him through his time at the Exchequer where, in contrast to that bright spring of the Home Office reforms, he had to provide a determined and protracted defence of sterling and to attack the recalcitrant trade deficit. It was a quite different task and it is a measure of his ability that he could largely succeed in this too. Finally, his second term at the Home Office was again different in character, dominated by problems of terrorism, the campaign of bombings, hunger strikes, and calls for the return of hanging. It was a grim time and once again his steadfastness of purpose and principle and his energy carried him through. However, one cannot help feeling on reading what his autobiography says about this time that the joys of office were wearing thin.

If they were wearing thin, it was doubtless in part at least because of his personal difficulties with Harold Wilson, whose deputy he had become and whose heir apparent he seemed to be; but above all, it must have been because of the European question. For Roy Jenkins, the adherence to the European Community was a matter of principle, not simply of common sense or of affection. He was deeply opposed to the idea of a referendum on the admission gained by Edward Heath and, when one was called, chaired a cross-party campaign committee for a yes vote. It was at this point that he could no longer expect to be Prime Minister. Later in life, he became quite serene about this. Of course, he would have liked to have been Prime Minister but he did not regret it in a deep way. He thought that he had not been ruthless enough when the opportunity presented itself. Certainly, that was true in the sense that he was inhibited by a sense of loyalty or respect of promises made; but equally, he was not a man who could have lived with what he once called `humiliating compromises'. His politics were the politics of principle.

It is not surprising therefore that he escaped to the Presidency of the European Commission in 1977, shortly after being awarded the Charlemagne Prize. His achievements there may seem more remote, but they were real. It was Roy Jenkins who reactivated the move towards a European monetary union. He did so by the traditional political skills of personal persuasion, in this case of Helmut Schmidt who was brought to support the European Monetary System (EMS). It was the politician in Roy Jenkins too which meant that under his Presidency the Commission started to regain a political role rather than being a body of technocrats and thus to change the character of the Commission's role in European integration.

It was while at Brussels that in 1979 in a Dimbleby Lecture he set in train the process that led to the creation of the SDP. Faced with the inward turn of the two major parties and their drift towards their respective extremities, he called for the `radical centre' of social democrats to reformulate British politics. In 1981, the SDP was formed and the sensational success of narrow defeat in the safe Labour seat of Warrington confirmed Roy Jenkins' extraordinary skills as a politician, as well as his boldness and courage. Shirley Williams soon gained Crosby and he captured Glasgow Hillhead. In reality, even in the Alliance with the Liberals, this new force was never strong enough to change British politics directly and the Falklands War in 1982 confirmed the dominance of Mrs Thatcher. Its legacy was in the self-reformed Labour Party of the 1990s.

This, then, was the man who in 1987 defeated Edward Heath and Robert Blake in the election for the Chancellor of this University. He did so by quite classic methods of electoral organisation, which he used later to point out with no little satisfaction. He was a man of the stature that befits a Chancellor. His stature was not simply the product of a long distinguished career in high political office. He was above all a man distinguished by his integrity, by his commitment to liberal principles, by a devotion to individual rights, by his humanity. He was an internationalist devoted to Europe and fascinated by America, a man who always looked outwards unlike too many of his contemporaries in British politics. In a speech in 1972, he said that `in place of the politics of envy, we must put the politics of compassion; in place of the politics of cupidity, the politics of justice; in place of the politics of opportunism, the politics of principle'. That is a fair summary of the man. He was a civilised man both in the sense of cultured and also in the sense that he did not separate liberal intent from civilisation. He also brought with him a distinct intellectual reputation, principally as a political biographer. Such judgements are of course personal, but in my view his two best—Gladstone and Churchill—were written after he became Chancellor. He was not a researcher in our academic sense. Most of that was done and published by others. I do not think that he ever claimed that kind of originality; what he did bring was the instinctive understanding of one politician by another and the particularly illuminating emphasis that that gives. Of course, he was not without that vanity which both authors and politicians share in their sensitivity to their audience. I remember lunching with him at Brooks's one day. A rather haw-hawing sort of fellow came up before lunch and said `I say, aren't you the chap who wrote that book on Churchill people are talking about? Haven't read it of course'. As the man left the room, Roy growled, not too sotto voce, `bloody fool'. After lunch, moved no doubt by some obscure sense of a breach to be repaired, the same man passed by us and said, `but I did read the book on Gladstone which I thought jolly good'. Roy turned to me with a twinkle in his eye and said, `well, perhaps he isn't entirely devoid of judgement after all'.

Roy Jenkins was devoted to Oxford and it was that devotion which made him so much more than a dutiful Chancellor. The Chancellorship is, within limits, what an individual Chancellor chooses to make of it. Those limits are that the Chancellor has no power within the University. Roy Jenkins both said this clearly and understood it. He reminded people that the last Chancellor to try to exercise any power directly was Curzon who simply provoked revolt. But he also understood that if the Chancellor is without power, he is not without function. From the outset, he was a most active Chancellor: in his Romanes Lecture for 1996, entitled The Chancellorship of Oxford: a Contemporary View with a Little History (though in reality as so often the case with him, there was rather a lot of history), he calculated that he spent about a quarter of his working time on the University, fulfilling about fifty engagements a year in Oxford and another thirty or forty elsewhere. Incidentally, this was a typical example of his characteristic predilection for quantifying, listing, ordering, classifying and ranking people and events. His presence was discreet but ready and willing. He was always available to open a new building and to make speeches at events in colleges or the University. Most of us knew that he had a somewhat idiosyncratic geography of Oxford, where architecture and history merged in some obscure way with value and things got hazier as he went north. But his speeches were invariably elegant and witty, supportive and often unexpected. Always, his love of the place was evident. Of course, as he pointed out, the fact that the Chancellor is also Visitor to five colleges gave him responsibilities and activities which were not strictly those of the University Chancellor. Among these, his most taxing was the adjudication of a dispute in Somerville concerning the move from single-sex status. He went into this somewhat glumly but soon found enthusiasm and, aided perhaps by memories of representing the airline pilots some thirty or more years previously in industrial relations enquiries, achieved a satisfactory outcome.

In his earlier years as Chancellor, he was actively engaged in the fundraising campaign of the University and in representing the University to the outside world. I still meet people in China who speak with awe of the sight of Chancellor Jenkins and Vice-Chancellor North in quasi-royal progress in Beijing. He created the Chancellor's Court of Benefactors and presided over it with panache. As President of the Oxford Society, he vigorously supported the reforming Celia Goodhart through some difficult moments. He always travelled to the biennial Oxford Reunion in New York; and on his last occasion provided a wonderful sparky double act of two old professionals with President Clinton. Indeed, he had a great liking for New York, where he frequently stayed at the Knickerbocker Club. Misled by some inattention to the cultural reference in the name, I set off to see him there once, expecting to find some quite jazzy joint (to his subsequent intense amusement), only to discover him ensconced in one of those frozen marble silences that are typical of some New York clubs and grappling with a surly elderly barman who would not heed his repeated injunctions to put his red wine into a large glass.

More particularly, however, Roy Jenkins had a sharp sense of the values that universities stand for; he understood that they are both one of the great heartbeats of a civilised society and that they need protecting. It was Roy Jenkins who inserted into the last Education Act in its passage through the Lords the clause that prevents public funding from being subject to criteria for the admission of students. This was not and is not a parochial concern of this University, but a cause for all universities. Indeed, he was wont to say that the ancient universities along with the House of Lords, the established Church and the Monarchy are `a few islands of countervailing liberal urbanity in a sea of brashly selfish materialism with little sense of continuity'.

Of course, just as individual Chancellors have addressed their office in different ways, so do individual Vice-Chancellors presumably relate to their Chancellor in their own ways. In my period of office, we have had to navigate some rather troubled seas. I kept in close touch with Roy Jenkins, partly simply to ensure that, as far as I was able, he should not be surprised on opening his newspaper at breakfast. On quite a number of significant occasions, however, I sought his advice. His wisdom and experience were a formidable resource, freely given but never pressed upon me. A Vice-Chancellor does not have many people to discuss difficult moments with. Roy Jenkins' sense of balance and timing in matters internal and external to the University was impeccable. He would restrain rashness or argue against over-caution as circumstances presented themselves. It has from time to time been suggested that he prevented so-and-so from happening or made such-and-such happen. In reality, I do not think that he had that power and was too wise to test whether or not he had it. Senior members of government, whatever their real respect for his distinction, are perfectly capable (indeed, ought to be perfectly capable) of making their own decisions. Certainly, he stood up for us. But what he gave me, as presumably he gave my predecessors, was access to his range of experience and sound advice about what it is like to be in a government department, about the imperatives of politics, about what language works and what does not, about how to sense the direction of travel. I cannot imagine a more supportive Chancellor or one more loyal in friendship. Indeed, I must say that I miss him sorely.

Colin Lucas