Playing It Cool

Asquith

by Roy Jenkins
Chilmark, 572 pp., $7.95

The distinctive position which Roy Jenkins holds in the Labor Party makes him singularly suitable to be the biographer of Asquith. The son of an M.P. who began life as a miner, Jenkins made his name as a writer on Edwardian politics by his account of the curbing of the House of Lords by the Liberals and by his biography of Dilke. He also made it by fighting a brilliant battle in Parliament to reform the law on obscenity in literature against R. A. Butler and the Home Office and finally got his private member’s Bill passed—a change which enabled Lady Chatterley’s Lover at last to be sold publicly. When the Labor Government was formed Harold Wilson put him in the hot seat of the Ministry of Aviation where he had to liquidate part of the British aircraft industry, which was producing aircraft that had apparently every merit except that no other country would buy them and the cost of producing them was crippling the country’s economy. The suppleness and firmness with which he has handled the problem have made him talked of as one of the outstanding successes in Wilson’s team, marked out for promotion. He is not everyone’s image of a Labor politician. Liberal measures such as the reform of the obscenity laws, no less than the reform of those relating to homosexuality, are unfortunately thought by some of the Party’s stalwarts to be time-wasting and vote-losing measures, and those who introduce them to be dilettantes. Roy Jenkins enjoys refuting this title and at the same time giving it credence. His political acumen and mastery in debate are anything but dilettante and characteristic of the skilled professional; but debonair, dégagé, a Gaitskellite who is the reverse of the committed idealogue, a sociable figure with friends on both sides of the House, he is a pragmatist who despises mudslinging or bursts of temper, methods of political fighting which he regards as beneath him. He plays it cool, and as a Balliol man himself is not unlikely one of the young politicians whom, over fifty years ago, Asquith gathered round him.

Asquith was indeed their epitome. The son of a small woolen manufacturer, he had not gone to a public school but was one of the many triumphant successes of Jowett’s Balliol. A Balliol fellowship enabled him to get started at the Bar, thence into politics as a Liberal. His intellectual power as a debater and the stability which he showed as a politician, as much as anything else, induced Gladstone to make him Home Secretary in his last fatal administration. Stability was not a quality which either Rosebery or Harcourt exhibited, who were the contenders for the leadership of the party when Gladstone retired, and during the unhappy years in the wilderness from 1895-1905, Asquith emerged as the man most likely to unite and lead the Liberal Party. Although he had to serve under Campbell-Bannerman for two years when the …

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