1980s >> 1980 >> no-912-august-1980

Roy Jenkins and his “new” Centre Party

The rise of the Labour Party towards the status of the Other Government of British Capitalism has been marked in many disreputable ways—among them their nurturing of an alternative aristocracy. Alternative, that is, to those High Tories who grew up in the comfortable assumption that they are fitted to rule through a superiority which cannot be made or bought or imitated because it is inborn. The components of this superiority typically include an education at Eton, followed by one of the more select colleges at Oxbridge like Balliol or Kings and perhaps what is known as service as an officer in a Guards regiment. Backed up by the ownership of a few thousand acres and a lucrative share portfolio, this is what raises the Tory aristocrats above upstarts like Peter Walker and Ted Heath who, although they are both rich and cunning, plainly lack the uncommon touch.


The Labour version of aristocrats have similar assumptions about their fitness to rule but the components are somewhat different. For them, it is advantageous to have been born in some humble Welsh mining village, to have gone to the local grammar school and won a place at university perhaps after a couple of trade union-sponsored years at Ruskin College. Then they are fitted to move into Parliament, and the government, and to set about organising the more efficient exploitation of the workers they have left behind in the valleys.


There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Occasionally some hard-handed worker from the docks or the gas works will embarrass the Tories by believing what they say about this being a classless society and insisting on becoming one of their propagandists. When the opposite happens, when a member of the landed gentry or some effete lover of the high life joins the Labour Party, the embarrassment is less acute—which says a lot about what Labour is in business for.


One exception who has caused the Labour Party considerable anguish is Roy Jenkins, who is now threatening to inflict upon the British working class yet another political party to compete for their vote on a programme compounded of platitudes, evasions and lies. Jenkins, we are told, is someone we should all be grateful for; his name can hardly be penned by Fleet Street hacks without being preceded by adjectives like urbane, elegant, cultivated . . . He is said to like duchesses and fine food and wine and was once derided by his arch rival on the Tory benches, Iain Macleod, as one whose “. . .  disdain for his political opponents is only matched by his contempt for his political friends”. But not all his friends; when Hugh Gaitskell was Labour leader, it was said that Jenkins was a regular guest at his Hampstead home where, with people like Crosland, Douglas Jay and Gordon Walker, policy was settled over generous drafts of wine.


Jenkins is one who was born into the alternative aristocracy, a Welshman whose father was a miners’ MP and Parliamentary Private Secretary to Clement Attlee. Unlike some Labour Members — for example Neil Kinnock — he has never made a profession (or should it be religion?) of his Welshness. For one thing, if he ever had a Welsh accent he must have worked hard at eliminating it. (Perhaps that is why he has trouble with his Rs; his supporters must tremble at the prospect that one day he will claim that his Centre Party is ‘‘wesponsbile, wadical, weforming”.)


From Abersychan Grammar School Jenkins went first to University College Cardiff and then to Oxford, where he was a very receptive scholar and became chairman of the Labour Club. His first government post of any weight was as Minister of Air, in 1964, followed by Home Secretary and then, when Callaghan resigned in 1967 over devaluation, Chancellor of the Exchequer. In all these jobs, he proved himself to have the qualities necessary to an administrator of capitalism.


First, flexibility: in a broadcast two days before the March 1966 election he commended Labour’s way of planning:


This government has not yet got the problem fully under control but George Brown’s constructive and determined approach offers much the biggest hope.


He then advised the electors:


In our short period of Labour government I believe we have earned a renewal of your support. I ask you to give us that support . . .  and to give it this time, by a clear and decisive majority.


Well the workers took this advice but very soon Jenkins seemed to think that it had been misguided, saying tartly to Crossman at the end of a Cabinet meeting in December 1966, “I’d give anything for evidence that we have a long term plan for any part of this Government’s policy, thank you very much Dick.” (Richard Crossman, Diary of a Cabinet Minister.)


Second, rigidity. As Chancellor, Jenkins won a reputation as the unbending advocate of the familiar, discredited proposition that the problems of the British capitalist class could best be solved by a drastic cut in working class living standards. Thus he was in favour of compulsory wage restraint and agreed to abandon the idea only on condition that the union-restricting laws set out in the infamous White Paper In Place of Strife would be introduced instead. In Cabinet in January 1968 Jenkins insisted on the reimposition of prescription charges, the abolition of which was an article of Labour Party faith, “. . . because the issue had become a matter of confidence with the bankers.” (Crossman). His performance in pushing through, in elegant speeches, Labour’s 1968 programme of public spending cuts, which embraced other historically cherished Labour objects like raising the school leaving age and publicly financed housing, was so valuable to the capitalist class that Harold Wilson felt moved to pay him this tribute: “My greatest asset was the firmness and determination of the Chancellor in the presentation of the balanced package.” (The Labour Government, 1964/70).


No doubt Jenkins carried out his hatchet job with all the civilised manners for which he is famous. Indeed, such was the nonchalance of this dedicated servant of British capitalism that he was suspected of being lazy. “I find it a little strange”, grumbled Crossman, “That on a Monday he can sit in his cottage and that he always finds time to dine out and take life easy. Moreover, he doesn’t know his Treasury briefs as well as Callaghan did.” It was just as well that Crossman kept this to himself for a while; by 1970 the Labour government, and Jenkins’ policies, were unpopular enough without the working class being additionally enraged by this lack of attention to Treasury write-ups.


After Labour’s defeat in 1970 there were signs that Jenkins was getting restless with his party. His friends may have been alarmed at further symptoms of a serious disturbance in his political balance. He began, even in his guarded moments, to do the unthinkable to admit that he was a failure, although he deftly converted this admission into a reason for giving him and his party another chance, on the grounds that they may have learned from his mistakes. In a typical speech to a Labour gathering in March 1972 he made these admissions:


. . .  the poverty and wretchedness in this country are a greater reproach to Mr. Heath, or indeed to myself, as a Minister in a recent Government . . .  In spite of half a century (sic) of effort, our society—and still more our world—is still disfigured by gross unfairness . . .
The poor are still poor. Property speculators—and others—are as relatively rich as were those with an accepted position at the top of the social structure.

(Observer, 12.3.72).


This sudden revelation that Labour government, and he also, had flopped did not persuade Jenkins to abandon his candidature. Nor did it stop him, when Labour came back in 1974, imposing another dose of his failure on the working class by again accepting the job of Home Secretary. It seemed however that he was unsettled in that job, feeling that his svelte talents should have been more gratefully rewarded. He did not applaud Callaghan’s election to the leadership. Callaghan did not go to university, was breezy and avuncular and shows little knowledge of wine or table napery. And Labour’s new leader also showed scant regard for Jenkins; according to Alan Watkins (Observer 15.6.80), “Mr. Callaghan made it clear . . . that in his opinion Jenkins’s career in British politics was over.” This warring, it should be remembered, happened in a party whose grass roots members delude themselves that it stands for working class unity for socialism.


In 1976, Jenkins showed what he thought of unity and of Labour’s crisis-ridden attempts to run capitalism. With the government reeling and listing in heavy waters, he was one of the first rats over the side, striking out for the calmer (and better paid) waters of the Presidency of the EEC. Labour’s irritation at this well-publicised evacuation was aggravated when they lost Jenkins’s seat at the subsequent by-election. Some politicians fail. Others lose a fight. Some make mistakes. Jenkins proved that he is indeed someone special: he did all three.


Should he then be trusted? From the ashes he rises and invites the working class to degrade themselves under yet another style of capitalism. His 1979 Dimbleby Lecture, in which he spelt out the case for a Centre Party—and for himself as leader—listed the objects which could be “assisted” by such a party: to control the scope of the state; to offer consumers more say; to make the “nation” more “confident” and “outward looking”; to have class divisions “fade” and that same “nation” achieve a “renewed sense of cohesion and common purpose”. These stale platitudes spouted from a man who is supposed to be one of capitalism’s great political thinkers. It is difficult to imagine how anyone, no matter how ignorant, could offer anything less original or efficacious.


Jenkins’ temerity in putting himself, and his proposed Centre Party, forward illuminates one of the persistent fallacies which help to keep capitalism in being. The working class are at present convinced that leadership is necessary. This belief sometimes demands one style of leader blunt, abrasive, overwhelming like Ernie Bevin. And sometimes it demands another type — suave, smooth, underwhelming like Jenkins. It is time the workers rid themselves of this baseless, debilitating theory; the style and the personality of a leader is of no consequence. All of them are powerless to control capitalism, which means that, whoever thinks they are in charge of the system, it will continue to have its dehumanising way with the people who support it and who are deceived by the wheedling of its leaders.


So choosing between Jenkins and his Centre Party and the rest is meaningless; it is like stating a preference for your own executioner. We would do better to keep our heads—and to trust ourselves.