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Hypocrite or hero? Jury still out on Roy Jenkins

During the so-called "swinging sixties" Roy Jenkins turned the usually dull office of Home Secretary into a hotbed (quite possibly the appropriate word in this context) of controversy.

Liberalisation of the laws on abortion and homosexuality, and the abolition of theatre censorship were his legacy. Undoubtedly this made Britain a much more permissive society. So the ongoing revelations about his various affairs, particularly those with the wives of two of his friends, and his gay association with his colleague Tony Crosland, surely show that he was no hypocrite, but simply practised what he preached.

Or perhaps he should indeed be accused of hypocrisy, in that he betrayed people, and also in that these various affairs and flings were kept secret. There was always something slippery, an elusive smoothness, about Jenkins. On homosexuality and abortion he did not introduce the legislation himself but instead gave government support to private member's bills from, respectively, Leo Abse and David Steel.

He was also a man of considerable self-delight, and something of a vainglorious egotist. His very large biography of Winston Churchill was once described as a notable account of the author's own political career and ideas, interrupted by the occasional and unfortunate need to refer to the book's actual subject.

Meanwhile there can be no denying the magnitude of the social revolution he presided over in the 1960s. It was all a bit much for his senior collegues, and rivals, the two great "old Labour" statesmen Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan.

Wilson was at heart a Yorkshire puritan of the old school. He disapproved of the world which Jenkins inhabited: one of elegant dinner parties and loose sexuality. Callaghan was even more puritanical. He certainly disapproved of the social and sexual changes introduced by his colleague, and feared that British society would become undermined by the glibness of divorce, the breakdown of marriage, and a general absence of social and sexual restraint. He foresaw broken homes and much misery.

Wilson and Callaghan both climbed to the top of the greasy pole of power, whereas Jenkins couldn't. Jenkins never had a Labour power base and he knew that many, perhaps most, in the party would never accept him as its leader.

So it was no surprise when he quit the party, as one the founders of the new SDP. Both Wilson and Callaghan had been far more acceptable to ordinary Labour Party members and I suspect, to the British people. Many regarded Jenkins as a Welsh miner's son who had carefully reinvented himself with a posh accent, as if he was really a toff.

In some ways he was a bit like his contemporary Iain Macleod in the Tory party: uneasy with his own party's residual values, too liberal for his colleagues, and too clever by half. (Actually Wilson was probably far cleverer than Jenkins, but unlike Jenkins, he disguised his intellectualism, whereas Jenkins flaunted his.)

All that said, Jenkins certainly had a louche charm. When he campaigned in the Hillhead constituency of Glasgow in the SDP interest in the famous by-election of 1982 he surprised many hard-bitten Scottish observers with his easy and friendly style. He did not overdo the man of the people act, honestly preferring to drink claret (if available) rather than pints of heavy when he visited local pubs.

His legacy was undoubtedly the permissive society. Almost 50 years on, it is still not possible to conduct a wide-ranging audit on the effects of all the consequent societal change. Social conservatives like Callaghan have in some respects been proved right. Yet the best analysis I ever heard came from a much loved Church of Scotland minister, the Rev Campbell Maclean. His view was that the coming of the new liberalism should be welcomed by Christians. It could create a kinder and gentler society. And crucially, where people rightly objected to excessive licence or the selfish abuse of new freedoms, they would stand out as Christians all the more.

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