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Subject: Roy Jenkins, helped start Centrist British Party

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Date Posted: January 08, 2003 3:59:02 EDT

Roy Jenkins, a Welsh miner's son who became a Socialist cabinet minister and president of the European Commission in Brussels and then tried to break the mold of British politics by creating a new governing party of the center, died yesterday at his home in Oxfordshire, his family said. He was 82.

A lifetime of public service left Lord Jenkins covered with honors. Made a life peer in 1987, taking the title Baron Jenkins of Hillhead, he was elected chancellor of Oxford University the same year. In 1993, Queen Elizabeth II appointed him to the Order of Merit, an exclusive body of just 24 distinguished practitioners of the arts and sciences.

In Lord Jenkins's later years, the New Labor Party of Prime Minister Tony Blair espoused many of the moderate policies Lord Jenkins favored but which the Labor Party of his day would not accept.

He was a man of intellectual distinction, who graduated from Oxford with the highest honors, worked during World War II as a top secret code breaker and published more than 20 books, including studies of Asquith, Gladstone and Truman and most recently, Churchill (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001).

But despite many successes, Lord Jenkins never achieved his principal goals. Called by some Britons "the best prime minister we never had," he was frequently urged to challenge Harold Wilson directly for the Labor Party leadership. But he held back, sensing he was not a person the party of his day could accept as leader.

Neither did the Social Democratic Party, which Lord Jenkins founded in 1981 with David (later Lord) Owen, Shirley Williams and William Rodgers, ever become the natural governing party of the center, as intended, by fusing leftist Conservatives, rightist Laborites and the small Liberal Party.

In the end it was Lord Jenkins's inability to replace Britain's electoral system with one based on proportional representation that prevented him from breaking the mold of British politics and creating a new centrist majority.

Roy Harris Jenkins was born Nov. 11, 1920, in Abersychan, a mining town in South Wales, the son of an unusual coal miner. Although the father, Arthur Jenkins, had been down the in pits, he had also been briefly imprisoned for union activism, had studied in Paris and Oxford, had become a Labor member of Parliament and had served as parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Clement Attlee.

From Abersychan grammar school, Roy Jenkins also went on to Oxford University, winning a place at Balliol College. At Oxford he met Jennifer Morris, a Cambridge graduate, who became his wife of more than 50 years. They had two sons and one daughter. His wife and children survive him.

In 1948 he entered Parliament as the Labor member for Southwark, in South London, and quickly fell under the spell of Hugh Gaitskill, the party's rightish leader. Redistricting forced him to switch seats in 1951 to the Birmingham division of Stechford, which he represented for over 25 years.

During these years of opposition, Mr. Jenkins consolidated his reputation as a diligent backbencher, emerging as an avid supporter of British membership of the European Common Market, a cause unpopular with most of his party.

Mr. Gaitskill's sudden death in 1963 and his replacement by the left-leaning Mr. Wilson appalled Mr. Jenkins, and he came close to leaving politics altogether when he was offered the editorship of The Economist. In his autobiography, Lord Jenkins speaks of his "revulsion for the prospect of a Wilson leadership" and says there was "neither friendship nor trust" between them.

Despite this relationship, Mr. Jenkins became minister of aviation when Labor was returned to power in the 1964 election. In 1965 he became home secretary, responsible for law and order. He showed himself a notable social reformer by legalizing abortion and homosexuality, easing divorce and ending theater censorship.

After Britain's mounting economic problems forced Labor to devalue the pound in November 1967, Mr. Jenkins replaced James Callaghan at the treasury as chancellor of the exchequer and took on the task of turning the stricken economy around and making the new exchange rate stick.

He succeeded in saving the pound through what he called "two years of hard slog," introducing vast cuts in public spending, increasing taxes and winding up Britain's last imperial commitments by closing its military bases east of Suez.

Though admired, his austerity budgets contributed to Labor's surprise defeat in the 1970 election. The opposition years that followed were marked for Mr. Jenkins by growing disillusionment with Labor's leftist drift, and especially its hostility to Common Market membership and support for unilateral nuclear disarmament.

He resigned as deputy leader after the party demanded a national referendum on the Common Market entry terms that had been agreed upon by Edward Heath's Conservative government, and he joined the Labor rebels in refusing to vote against membership.

After Labor returned to power in 1974, Mr. Jenkins went back to the Home Office, where he enacted a strict Prevention of Terrorism Act to counter a surge of violence by the Irish Republican Army.

But his energies went mainly into leading a cross-party pro-European movement that secured a substantial majority for staying in the Common Market in the 1975 referendum. This campaign helped convince him that a new centrist majority, capable of governing the country, could be assembled in Britain.

In 1976 Prime Minister Wilson offered him the presidency of the European Commission, which it was Britain's turn to fill. But before he could take up the appointment, Mr. Wilson unexpectedly resigned and Mr. Jenkins finally tried to win the party leadership. He came in third, behind Michael Foot and Mr. Callaghan, who became prime minister.

Mr. Jenkins assumed the European Commission presidency in 1977.

After four years in Brussels, Mr. Jenkins returned home in 1981 to find British politics polarized between an unelectable Labor Party controlled by the hard left and an ultra-right Conservative government dominated by Mrs. Thatcher.

He immediately set about creating the Social Democratic Party, which attracted considerable public support. It quickly scored an impressive number of by-election victories, with Mr. Jenkins returning to Parliament in March 1982.

But these early successes were deceptive. Victory in the Falklands bolstered the Conservatives. The economy was reviving. The Social Democrats' ideology often seemed confused and their middle-class, intellectual image held little appeal for working-class voters.

The Conservatives emerged victorious in the 1983 elections. But with 26 percent of the vote, the Social Democrat-Liberal alliance was only a whisker behind Labor's 27.6 percent share.

Mr. Jenkins resigned the party leadership and was succeeded by Lord Owen. Despite his claim to be the real author of Mr. Blair's 1997 electoral victory, Lord Jenkins was snubbed at the end of his life by the man he had helped bring to power.

Asked by New Labor to examine the case for changing Britain's electoral system, Lord Jenkins duly produced an elegant report in late 1998. But by then Mr. Blair's enthusiasm for electoral reform had cooled and the report sank without trace.

Britain's electoral system survived Lord Jenkins.

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