“Roy Jenkins was probably the best Prime Minister Britain never had”, contends John Campbell in his recent biography of the erstwhile Labour statesman, Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life. With a half-century parliamentary span, matched only by William Gladstone and Winston Churchill, Campbell evokes a career which left an indelible mark on British politics, equalled by only a handful of 10 Downing Street incumbents. Concurrently, as his biographer is keen to demonstrate, Jenkins was notable for more than his political achievements, with bestselling biographies of Asquith, Gladstone and Churchill marking a highly distinguished academic career that culminated in his Chancellorship of Oxford University from 1987. He died in 2003.
Born to a Welsh miner-turned-politician in 1920, Jenkins came to epitomise the social-climbing fop, lampooned as an effete dandy and loathed for his adherence to what many saw as a stale liberal establishment. Retaining his private life for “non-departmental” pursuits, such as tennis, attending dining clubs, and visiting country houses, his quip that he had re-read Marcel Proust’s entire oeuvre upon being appointed to the Home Office saw him denigrated as out of touch. Yet, it is his efficiency, particularly during his time in the Home Office, that emerges most powerfully from Campbell’s biography. A giant of post-war politics in all but name, his reputation as an “Establishment Whig” should not overshadow his trailblazing support for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the criminalisation of racial discrimination, and the reformation of police regulation. Perhaps his crowning achievement, irrespective of current opinion, was leading Britain into the European Community, though it was one that would mark an unbridgeable rift between himself and his Labour roots. A failed attempt at establishing a new centrist party during the 1980s ushered his entry to the Liberal Democrats, for whom he operated as a venerable statesman until his death.
Establishing close parallels between his rise in politics and his entry into the nation’s literary elite, Campbell excavates numerous revelations from the correspondence of a noted man of letters. Some are remarkable, revealing a statesman more “at home” in the company of the Literary Club set than among the overtly-political Labour dining circles. Others are more salacious; his affairs with Caroline Gilmour and Leslie Bonham Carter betraying the commonplace-nature of “guilt-free adultery” within this elite coterie. Indeed, his unconventional, if successful, approach to married life took cues from the “sexual irregularities” that his popular biographies famously refused to brush over. Such details here complement a narrative that is already engrossing, with its 700-plus pages posing an undertaking far more engaging than might be anticipated; a testament to the compelling quality of Campbell’s prose. By situating both Jenkins and the ruling class to which he belonged in the framework of their own almost blithe eccentricity, certain failings and pretensions are rendered slightly more understandable than they might have been to contemporary critics. Yet, in spite of a wealth of evident affection for his subject and having also been a card-carrying member of Jenkins’s Social Democrat Party during the 1980s, Campbell’s periodically reverential tone never becomes nauseatingly so. Neither author nor subject, for that matter, could be accused of mistaking hagiography for biography.
Shortlisted alongside Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life for the Costa Book Award for Biography can be found some familiar competition, most tellingly in the form of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, which has already claimed the Samuel Johnson Prize from within Campbell’s grasp. Awards aside, however, he has produced an outstanding political biography, of which the author in Jenkins would surely have taken pride.