Saturday, 21 June 2014

Prescient Roy Jenkins

I have just finished John Campbell's very detailed and highly readable biography of Roy Jenkins.  Campbell admits to being a Jenkins fan, but even so appears to give a "warts and all" account.*

The published extracts in the Daily Mail  and  reviews in other newspapers  made great play of Jenkins's various sexual peccadilloes, but theses are a very minor part of the book: indeed hardly mentioned after the early chapters.  Clearly newspaper editors and reviewers were motivated by "what sells papers" rather than balance.

However, without claiming any sort of balance, I was particularly struck by the following:

1. (pp126/7). In an article for Tribune  in 1951 Jenkins advocated  the taxation of wealth.  By today's standards his proposed rates were draconian, ranging from 50% on "private fortunes" of £20 000  (approximately £1m at today's values) to 95% for £100 000 (£4m or so today ) and above.

The work recently published by the French economist Thomas Picketty  shows Jenkins was on the right lines. Vince Cable's proposed "mansion tax" is a timid step in the right direction.  More boldly, but still relatively modest, I should like, in addition, to see an end to the exemption from taxation of capital gains on principal private residences.

2.  (p638, in a footnote)  Jenkins is described as an "unapologetic Keynesian."  Whilst conceding that "crude Keynesianism" might have some limitations, "it was a great advance on crude pre-Keynesianism."  Jenkins hoped that  "the world economy [would not be] ruined by [Keynes's] denigrators. "

Well, Osborne and Co have had a good try.  As proof of the pudding, Obama's "stimulus bill" in the US, modest as it was, promoted a mild recovery there some three years ago, whilst Osborne's expansionary fiscal contraction has delayed Britain's faltering recovery until now.

3.  The final chapter of the book goes into some detail on Jenkins's attempts, with Paddy Ashdown, to promote a "project" which we Liberals understood to be  "realignment" of the left.  It is pretty clear, however,  that Jenkins, having brought the SDP out of the Labour party, now wanted to take the Liberal Democrats back into it, a rather more complete absorption than I suspect most Liberals, and I hope, Ashdown,  had in mind.

Tony Blair's succession to the Labour leadership was thought to enhance the possibility of the implementation of the project, and there was even speculation of a few Liberal Democrat seats in the cabinet, and PR, even if Labour  won an overall majority.  As it happened, Labour's majority was so overwhelming that Blair lost interest in the project, and in PR.

There's a challenge to counter-factual historians here.  Would the Labour governments of 1979 to 2010 been less disappointing  (to put it mildly) if Blair had kept his word? Would the rolling back of our welfare state under Cameron and Osborne, and the dire  effects of "expansionary fiscal contraction,"  have been avoided?

Over to you, Liberal History Group.

*  Campbell points out that Jenkins rarely wrote for the Guardian: they didn't pay enough!

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