Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A very good book, but more than that, a very interesting and inspiring subject – much more so than I realised.

Two things in particular: first he was someone whose politics were remarkably similar to my own; and second he had the concept of living life to the full, “a life well lived,” which is something I never quite worked out for myself, but aspire to.

I remember Roy Jenkins from my own childhood. Not very well, but I knew who he was. I clearly remember the SDP and thought he was the stuffy old one who looked a bit out of place next to the glamour of the much younger David Owen and David Steel. Later when I studied politics properly, he cropped up as a big name in Harold Wilson’s first period in office (Home Secretary, then Chancellor), but I didn’t know the detail, and he seemed to peak way back in the sixties, and then wander off to Europe before returning to split Labour and melt away into obscurity.


Many Labour people called him a traitor for this, something that didn’t seem to bother him. In this I agree with Jenkins, and it’s exactly this sort of talk that puts me off party politics. It suggests the key loyalty is to party above all else, not to one’s own ideas or to the good of the country. Jenkins was attempting (rather optimistically, especially given the UK’s electoral system) to realign politics around the idea of radical centrist party that would include Liberals, moderate Labour people like himself and moderate Tories left stranded by Thatcher’s veering off to the right.

He was also committed to government and sensible policy, not high-minded opposition:

It was the left’s opposition-mindedness that exasperated Jenkins. He was already, by temperament and conviction, a man of government, interested in winning and using power, not in emotional satisfaction of protest

Sound familiar?

This was from the 1950s, but could have been about the 60s, 70s, 80s or any time in the last two years.

Again, I’m totally with Jenkins.

He was a true reforming Home Secretary, liberalising laws that told people what to do, fighting Tories (and old Labour) for a lot of it, but absolutely committed to the idea that people should make up their own minds and be allowed to live their own lives:

Let us be on the side of those who want people to be free to live their own lives, to make their own mistakes, and to decide, in an adult way and provided they do not infringe the rights of others, the code by which they wish to live

Even as late as 2000, he was trying to persuade Tony Blair of this same vision … he failed

The above quote continues …

and on the side of experiment and brightness, of better buildings and better food, of better music (jazz as well as Bach) and better books, of fuller lives and greater freedom. In the long run these things will be more important than the most perfect of economic policies

A nice vision, if a tad vague (and slightly narrow in musical taste), but I’m still with Jenkins.

The reason I include this review in this blog is that Jenkins was an effective leader – he got more done than the majority of politicians of his era, although less than he could have done.

What he got right:

  1. Focus: he focused only on trying to achieve a small number of key achievements
  2. Support: he had a strong support group of friends and family that he relied on to keep him resilient and positive when faced with obstacles and opposition
  3. He listened to everyone and took his time to build his views: he had friends across the political spectrum and had lots of conversations to help him take in a range of opinions and to test his own thinking. He was more interested in facts and what worked than ideology and partisan tribalism

He also had a well-rounded life (hence the title) that included huge amounts of reading and writing, a life of long lunches and red wine, great conversations and strong friendships (across the political divides), a small amount of tennis and running, and a string of mistresses.

If he had a lot of time to read and write, it was because there was literally nothing he was required to do except eat, drink and talk

Hats off. Sounds perfect to me.

Another great quote that hits home right now – given our impotent left and foul-mouthed populist right, is this one:

I am in favour of courage but not of treating it as a substitute for wisdom, as I fear we are currently in danger of doing


Courage on its own can be destructive if it’s not tied to wisdom.

The best summation of his views is this:

Roy Jenkins was the first leading politician to appreciate that a liberalised social democracy must be based on two tenets: what Peter Mandelson called as aspirational society (individuals must be allowed to regulate their personal lives without interference from the state); and that a post-imperial country like Britain could only be influential in the world as part of a wider grouping (the EU) … Jenkins was the prime mover in a form of social democracy which, being internationalist, is peculiarly suited to the age of globalisation and, being liberal, will prove to have more staying power than the statism of Lionel Jospin or the corporatist socialism of Gerhard Schroeder

(That was from an obituary written by Vernon Bogdanor in The Observer)

I certainly agree with the first part, but I’m not entirely with him on the second. I think the UK can be a great EU power and be a force for positive change within the EU, but it’s not the only role the UK could play in the world – there are other options. In this regard, I’m not quite with Roy.

A good read, a great politician with ideas I really like, and an impressive life full of books, booze, friends, conversations, women, tennis and politics … a recipe for a life well lived in my book.


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