Roy Jenkins was probably the best Prime Minister Britain never had. But though he never reached 10 Downing Street, he left a more enduring mark on British society than most of those who did. His career spans the full half-century from Attlee to Tony Blair during which he helped transform almost every area of national life and politics.
First, as a radical Home Secretary in the 1960s he drove through the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the legalisation of abortion, abolished theatre censorship and introduced the first legislation to outlaw discrimination on grounds of both race and gender. Attacked by conservatives as the godfather of the permissive society, he was a pioneering champion of gay rights, racial equality and feminism. He also reformed the police and criminal trials and introduced the independent police complaints commission.
Second, he was an early and consistent advocate of European unity who played a decisive role in achieving British membership first of the Common Market and then of the European Union. From 1977 to 1980 he served as the first (and so far only) British president of the European Commission. Public opinion today is swinging against Europe; but for the past forty years participation in Europe was seen by all parties as an unquestioned benefit, and no-one had more influence than Jenkins in that historic redirection of British policy.
Third, in 1981, when both the Conservative and Labour parties had moved sharply to the right and left respectively he founded the centrist Social Democratic Party (SDP) which failed in its immediate ambition of breaking the mould of British politics – largely because the Falklands war transformed Mrs Thatcher’s popularity - but merged with the Liberals to form the Liberal Democrats and paved the way for Tony Blair’s creation of New Labour.
On top of all this, Jenkins was a compulsive writer whose twenty-three books included best-selling biographies of Asquith, Gladstone and Churchill. As Chancellor of Oxford University he was the embodiment of the liberal establishment with a genius for friendship who knew and cultivated everyone who mattered in the overlapping worlds of politics, literature, diplomacy and academia; he also had many close women friends and enjoyed an unconventional private life. His biography is the story of an exceptionally well-filled and well-rounded life.