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EDITIONS
 Sunday, 5 January, 2003, 15:51 GMT
Lord Jenkins' political legacy
Lord Jenkins
Lord Jenkins missed out on becoming prime minister

Roy Jenkins was one of the long list of "nearly" politicians who litter the House of Lords.

Like his fellow SDP creators David Owen and Shirley Williams, he was once tipped as a future leader of the Labour Party.

And for more than two decades he was a central figure in the Labour Party and Labour governments.

But for many in the party his achievements - as a liberalising home secretary, the original "Iron Chancellor" and a pioneering European Commissioner - will always be overshadowed by his decision to create the Social Democratic Party.

For them, he deliberately set out to destroy their party and, as a result, contributed directly to Margaret Thatcher's lengthy reign.

His contemporary, Denis Healey, has even gone so far as to claim that without Jenkins there would have been no Thatcher.

And there is no doubt that his "treachery", as many party loyalists saw it, had a huge and lasting impact on the Labour Party.

Wilderness

Many of his former colleagues never forgave him for pledging to "elbow Labour out of the way" and defeat the Tories.

They claim he helped condemn Labour to more years in the political wilderness than was necessary.

And they insist that, like them, he should have stayed in the party and argued for reform from within.

Margaret Thatcher
Lord Jenkins has been blamed for the rise of Thatcher
What had become clear during the 1976 leadership election - when he was forced out after the first round - was that Jenkins was never likely to be elected leader.

His right wing platform would always have ensured that the unions and many constituency parties would never have backed him.

So, after a time as European Commissioner, he finally broke away from the Labour Party and, along with the other "Gang of Four" defectors, created the SDP.

New Labour

Once again, he appeared on the verge of real power as, in the heady days at the birth of the new party, there was a real feeling that the new party was "breaking the mould" of British politics, as its leaders liked to claim.

But it had a short and, ultimately, unsuccessful lifespan.

In a display of his occasional intellectual snobbery he declared the prime minister had a second class mind

His supporters, however, would claim that, had the Labour Party followed Jenkins and elected him leader in 1976, he would have transformed it into an election winner.

They also claim that New Labour under Tony Blair is, to all intents and purposes, the party Roy Jenkins wanted to create.

And, to the continuing anger of many Labour members, Tony Blair constantly turned to him for advice during his leadership, treating him as a political mentor.

His influence on New Labour has, therefore, been immense and he thoroughly relished his role as elder statesman.

Some would even go so far as to claim he helped transform the political landscape after 1981.

Writing legacy

None the less, he more recently became disillusioned and irritated with Tony Blair for refusing to adopt his plans for electoral reform and joining the single currency.

In a display of his occasional intellectual snobbery he declared the prime minister had a second class mind.

And he could be extremely grand and dismissive of those he felt were not up to his intellectual level.

It is his parallel career as a historian and biographer that will probably provide his true legacy.

He has written some of the most incisive and readable works on big political figures such as Gladstone and, most recently, Winston Churchill.

And, while he may have failed in his ambition of leading his country, he will be remembered as a highly influential politician whose impact will long be felt.


Key stories

A political life

IN PICTURES

TALKING POINT
See also:

05 Jan 03 | Politics
25 Jan 01 | Talking Politics
05 Jan 03 | Politics

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