Introduction to Lord Jenkins
Professor Ged Martin,
Director of Canadian Studies, University of Edinburgh
To summarize our speaker’s achievements is not a task which can be achieved in a few words, but it is an honour to make the attempt. Roy Jenkins was born in Wales in 1920. He was educated at University College, Cardiff, and at Balliol College, Oxford, where he took First Class Honours in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, proceeding to war service with the Royal Artillery in 1942. It was as Captain Jenkins that he married in 1945 (and it is a pleasure to welcome) Dame Jennifer Jenkins in her own right, who is one of our guests tonight. Roy Jenkins first entered Parliament in 1948. He was MP for the Stechford Division of Birmingham from 1950 until 1976, and later from 1982 to 1987 for the Hillhead Division of Glasgow He was Deputy Leader of the Labour Party from 1970 to 1972, resigning on an issue of principle. He has been a member of the House of Lords since 1987.
As a mere outline, that alone would be enough to draw the distinction between politician and statesman. At the risk of embarrassing our guest, I would, however go further, to point to striking parallels with the career of Winston Churchill, about whom he will speak tonight from personal recollection.
Roy Jenkins has held two of the great offices of State—Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary—which were also held by Churchill. With Churchill, he is one of a small number of public figures who have changed parties while sacrificing nothing of their public esteem—quite the reverse, in fact.
Like Churchill, he once lost a memorable by-election in Lancashire. Churchill was defeated in Northwest Manchester in 1908; Roy Jenkins carried the banner of the newly formed Social Democratic Party at Warrington in 1981: to defeat, yes, but polling so remarkably for the fledgling SDP that he was able to claim a defeat that tasted like victory. And, just as Churchill then moved north of the border to a seat at Dundee, so Roy Jenkins won Glasgow Hillhead for the Social Democrats at a further by-election in 1982.
Indeed, in two respects, Roy Jenkins may be said to have brought to reality projects which even in Churchillian vision were never more than a dream. As the first leader of the SDP, and later one of the major figures in its merger into the Liberal Democrats, he helped to create the non-socialist centre party which Winston Churchill himself had hoped to bring about at various points throughout his career. In the postwar years, Churchill conjured the vision of a united, democratic Europe. Roy Jenkins not only held firm to that vision, but saw it to reality, serving between 1975 and 1981 as President of the European Commission, the first British citizen to have held that office.
Beyond the realm of politics, the Churchillian parallel holds good because like Churchill—and perhaps, dare I say, with greater recognition among the scholarly community—Roy Jenkins is an accomplished biographer and historian. His lives of Dilke and of Asquith have brought alive two personalities who played their parts in the careers of the young Winston. He has also been the biographer of Baldwin (a subject which might not have appealed to Churchill); and he was the author of what he tided an “interim biography” of Mr. Attlee (a subject which perhaps Churchill might have disdained altogether).
My own favourite among Roy Jenkins’s books is the engagingly titled Mr. Balfour’s Poodle, a study of the House of Lords crisis of 1909-11 in which Churchill was a central actor, its title taken from the memorable jibe of a fellow Welshman, David Lloyd George. (Not least among Arthur Balfour’s claims to immortality was the fact that he was Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh.)
I suspect that among his many and massive achievements, Roy Jenkins himself may prize as the highest of them all the fact that he is Chancellor of the University of Oxford. It is in that role that my academic colleagues, Paul Addison and David Stafford, join me in particularly honouring our guest tonight.
I am sure that enough has been said to justify my asking you to extend a hearty welcome to Lord Jenkins of Hillhead.
The aspect of Churchill’s Scottish connections which I would like to deal with is the political one centered on the city of Dundee, the third largest the Scottish cities. (There only are four cities in Scotland: Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen. Everything else is a borough.)
Churchill was rather restless about constituencies, but that was very much a habit of the times. Gladstone, for instance, in the course of an almost exactly equal period in the House of Commons to Churchill, though two generations earlier, sat for Newark in the east Midlands, for Oxford University, for southwest Lancashire, for Greenwich, a metropolitan borough in London, and finally and most notably for Midlothian—the county centered around Edinburgh, including Edinburgh at the time. The county franchise was more limited than the borough franchise. If you qualified for the county franchise you had a vote there even if you lived in the city of Edinburgh. Churchill’s constituencies— Oldham, a Lancashire borough; Northwest Manchester; Dundee and Epping (which would later change its name to Woodford) were comparatively faithful compared with Gladstone’s range. But there were very few 19th century politicians who did not sit for a wide scatter of constituencies. Two exceptions were Joseph Chamberlain, who always sat for Birmingham, and David Lloyd George, who was always the member for Caernarvon Boroughs. They sat for both of these over substantial periods and were in the nature of symbols of the areas they represented. But their singularity was exceptional at that time.
It wasn’t Churchill’s restlessness which sent him to Dundee. He didn’t want to go there to begin with—he was quite happy to stay at Northwest Manchester, but he had no choice. Until 1918, if you became a member of the Cabinet you had to stand for reelection. It was a curious rule, half logical but only half. It is still the case that a so-called Office of Profit under the Crown disqualifies you from membership in the House of Commons. Indeed, the only way of getting out of the House of Commons (it was a burden for some people), was to apply for an Office of Profit under the Crown and thus to disqualify yourself. You cannot resign from the House of Commons except by this elaborate procedure.
But for some reason or other moving into the Cabinet meant until 1918 that you vacated your seat and had to be reelected. People headed for the Cabinet were often unopposed, but Churchill was a controversial figure. He had won Northwest Manchester fairly narrowly at the 1906 election. Two years later opinion was swinging against the Liberal government and he was defeated. Dundee became available, and there he went.
In those days it was easier for Englishmen to cross the Scottish border and sit in Parliament in Scotland. There is a story about Augustine Birrell accompanied by R.B. Haldane, who was a Scotsman but none the less a London barrister, climbing to the top of a hill in the Lammermuirs, behind the coast here in East Lothian. Looking across the Firth of Forth to the Fifeshire countryside, Haldane said, “what a splendid landscape.” Birrell, who was well known for his rather cynical wit, replied, “Yes, and what a grateful thought that there is not a single acre in sight which is not represented in Parliament by a London barrister.” Like Churchill, Birrell and Haldane were members of the Asquith cabinet; but even on a clear day you couldn’t quite see Dundee from that particular point. So it was not quite so unusual as it would be at the present time.
I accomplished a similar move seventy-three years after Churchill, though I had two advantages: first, I am a Welshman, and in Scotland it is better to be a Welshman than an Englishman. Second, I believe the Hillhead division of Glasgow was almost the only constituency in Scotland in which it would have been possible to come from outside and win the seat and then to have a rather senile love affair with it. I felt much closer to my Glasgow constituency than I had to either of my previous English ones.
Churchill didn’t have a totally easy time in Dundee, but he won four races up there before being defeated at the fifth. He was on very bad terms with D.C. Thompson, who owned the local press, the Dundee Courier. Thompson became so anti-Churchill that he gave orders that under no account was Churchill’s name to be mentioned in the paper; this went on even after Churchill ceased to be a member for Dundee. The Dundee Courier had to refer to him by the most elaborate circumlocutions; “a certain member of parliament sitting not very far from here”; “a Cabinet minister holding certain views.”
I was asked to speak about how Churchill was seen from across the floor of the House of Commons, and it is true that I sat in Parliament opposite him for sixteen and one-half years. Under the aegis of my father, who was a Member of Parliament, I heard two of his great 1940s speeches in the House as a very young adult. But although I sat in the Commons with him, I was not close to him. He was a remote deity to me in those days, so I will talk about his oratory and other performance slightly more in a historical than in a personal context.
His oratory was of course, a most powerful and crucial prop to the exercise of his leadership, particularly during the war years. It was always carefully prepared, which is surprising in some ways. He could hardly speak without the whole text carefully written out before him. Yet it was not other people’s oratory—it was characteristic of himself. There was a coherency, a constancy between his oratory and his writing. He made his own phrases; he did not have others to make phrases for him. Indeed, I think sometimes his phrases determined his thought. He devoted an extraordinary amount of time to the preparation of his speeches, even at the most crucial periods with other things pressing. His oratory was such an important function of his leadership that I think it would be impossible to say that the time was wasted. Yet it was surprising that he was always so very text-bound, because in conversation he was a spontaneous wit, with many of his famous phrases not prepared at all but coming out in response to a remark which he could not possibly have known was coming.
Churchill’s oratory was sometimes, as anybody’s is, somewhat uneven. Indeed right at the end there were two very markedly contrasted speeches. In November 1953, when he came back amazingly after his stroke, he made one of his very best late House of Commons speeches: witty visionary and commanding. He followed it about five months later with one of his very worst. It was pettily partisan, very surprising at that stage in his life. The following morning he rather touchingly said to that ever-present and ever-scribbling doctor Lord Moran, “Things didn’t go quite as well as I expected.” There were considerable touching, some almost childlike sides to Churchill’s character; as well, in my view, a richly comic streak, sometimes intentional, sometimes not. I believe that nearly all great men have elements of being figures of fun in them, and I had no doubt that Churchill was a great man. Among this new school of revisionists who are so anxious to denigrate him, I think that Ponting writes dreary obsessional nonsense; that Charmley argues a false case in a way that is nonetheless worth reading; and that Roberts, while he wrote a very good book about Lord Halifax, has been too keen on getting headlines rather than on putting some of Churchill’s remarks in the context of the time, which gives them a very different feel and meaning.
But while I reject, and as time goes on rather contemptuously reject, all these denigrations, I do not believe, nor I am sure do you, that Churchill should be treated too reverentially. He was too great a man to need uncritical reverence. There is much to laugh at as well as to admire about his many-faceted personality and character. This, together with his sometimes contradictory flows of petulance and generosity, are very well brought out in my view by the story of his relations with General de Gaulle.
When General de Gaulle arrived in England on 17 June 1940, the fact that he was more than just a two star general was entirely due to the impression he had made on Churchill on the two occasions he had encountered de Gaulle in the previous three weeks. Churchill thought he stood out as a great pillar against the chaos and the wavering of the Third Republic. As a result, de Gaulle was remarkably well treated by Churchill. He was allowed to broadcast to France on the second and third evenings of his exile here; he was given a subsidy straight away of £8,000,000 a year, the equivalent today of about $400,000,000. He received invitations to lunch at Downing Street, and to spend weekends at Chequers during the next ten desperate weeks when Britain stood alone.
De Gaulle as an Allied leader was therefore very much Churchill’s creation. At a certain level of consciousness, in my view, de Gaulle always knew this, and even felt persistent stirrings of fairly subterranean gratitude: But de Gaulle didn’t believe that gratitude was any basis for relations between the representatives of great powers, and was determined to behave as though defeated France, and he as its representative, was still a great power.
Eden, de Gaulle’s best friend among the Allied leaders, once said to the General: “Why is it that the Free French cause more than twice as much trouble as all the other Allies put together?” De Gaulle replied, “It is because France is a great power.” The premise was false, and even had it been true the conclusion would have not followed upon it. But de Gaulle’s was nonetheless a statement of his unshakable determination: to make himself a great statesman, to remake a great France. And of course he did succeed, by his stubbornness and his awkwardness, and by biting the hand which fed him with extraordinary nerve, in achieving those objectives. But he was pretty awkward to deal with.
In the summer of 1941 de Gaulle practically provoked a war within a war in Syria and Churchill was determined to give him a great dressing down for this. It didn’t work because de Gaulle was impervious and Churchill was not nearly cold enough. There’s a hilarious description of this occasion in Sir John Colville’s diaries.
One of Churchill’s troubles was his belief that he could speak French, which undermined him but in a rather paradoxical way. Churchill first believed the way to show his displeasure at de Gaulle was not to address him in atrocious French as was his habit, but to speak stiffly to him through an interpreter. At first Colville was commanded to do this but he was dismissed after about three sentences—Churchill said he wasn’t interpreting his phrases roughly enough. An official foreign office interpreter was sent for, but he too lasted only a short time. Finally Churchill plunged on alone in his own inimitable French. On one occasion he is reputed to have said (I believe this is true, though a lot of stories are apocryphal): “Si your m’obstaderez je vous liquiderai. “Now I don’t think he really ever wanted to liquidate de Gaulle. One, because de Gaulle was by then very popular in France, and two, because Churchill was sentimental and de Gaulle was part of the golden myth of 1940.
They plowed on alone for an hour and a half, Churchill wanting de Gaulle to pay him the compliment of looking as though he comprehended his French. When Colville came back in, the whole thing had dissolved into a completely hopeless position because they were sitting together on the sofa and de Gaulle was smoking one of Churchill’s cigars, which he had given him as a peace offering, while Churchill was still orating in his particular brand of French!
What I wish to do by way of conclusion is to pose the question of how I would place Churchill amongst the galaxy of fifty individuals who have occupied the office of Prime Minister for over now nearly 300 years. In this century I think undoubtedly he was preeminent. True, he was lucky in his timing—but where is the man or woman who has ever achieved great success without good timing? Lloyd George rivals him, having had a touch of political genius, as Churchill did, and having been at least as good a speaker—possibly better, because Lloyd George was more spontaneous as a platform orator. But other than his touch of political genius, his oratory, and a certain amount of political imagination, there was not much to Lloyd George beyond politics. The range of Churchill’s talents and interests—the writing, the painting, the zestful pleasure he achieved from life—in my view, puts him dearly ahead of Lloyd George.
In the 19th century, Palmerston certainly rivalled Churchill in his zestful pleasure in life. He reached the age of 81 in Downing Street; Churchill did not quite make 80-1/2. But Palmerston’s achievement was not remotely comparable with Churchill’s. Neither, I think, is his range outside politics again comparable.
Sir Robert Peel was an outstanding administrator and perhaps had more sense of direction of where he wanted the country to be in twenty-five years than Churchill had. He was a cold or at least a cool man, with none of Churchill’s exciting “rumbustiousness” (his word). Peel’s wit was spontaneous, comparable to Churchill’s, in combination with high political nerve. But overall his achievement was not comparable with Churchill’s.
Then there is Gladstone, I think the most formidable human being who has ever been Prime Minister. The flash of his eyes, the force of his energy, the range of his intellectual interests, were all even greater than those of Churchill. Gladstone invested everything he did with star quality. But Churchill, two generations later, repeated this star quality, independently of whether he acted well or wisely, by making everything he did exciting. Churchill’s writing was much better than Gladstone’s, but his speaking was probably not quite so compelling. In a religious age Gladstone had great theological knowledge and religious conviction, which Churchill lacked, but Gladstone never had to face the mortal threat to Britain which confronted Churchill in 1940-45, and his achievement was therefore less concrete, less definable than Churchill’s.
From the 18th century the obvious comparisons one is tempted to make are with Walpole, Chatham and the younger Pitt. But my 18th century history is much shakier—or perhaps I should say even shakier—than my 19th and 20th century history. Furthermore I’ve spoken quite long enough and I think I will leave those comparisons for another commentator.
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