THE JENKINS PRIZE

by Chris R. Morgan

Jenkins

If one is interested in the life of Paul Raymond, one could very possibly do better than to watch The Look of Love, a 2013 film by Michael Winterbottom. True, it does feature a protagonist named Paul Raymond (played by Steve Coogan). True also that this Paul Raymond possesses the very same business and publicity savvy that allowed the real Paul Raymond to ascend from producing vaguely legal traveling semi-nude cabaret shows to becoming “the richest man in Britain” as the publisher of such skin magazines as Men Only and Escort as well as the same zest for unconventional living that facilitated his (mostly personal) decline. It is certainly not unhelpful that the film’s narrative source was a book based on the once very real Paul Raymond and everyone with whom he crossed paths. But to watch it for these reasons would mean to give vitality to a singular dullness. If these are one’s particular narrative demands, they are perhaps better met from the raw immediacy of, say, Daily Mail reports over time. And while this is all well and good, the rest of us have deeper veins to mine from within it.

No one would be remiss in concluding that our times in general, and this year in particular, offer few if any lessons on subtlety. Whether imbibing in art or acting in society, it seems a vast majority have lost patience for it, assuming such a patience was ever there to begin with. One who desires it seeks it out with perversity. It is a fetish, and one takes risks to get at it as one would do with any of its categorical siblings. Indeed, one may find it in places where none was intended to be found. On the surface, The Look of Love is a film about smut with little regard to the broader social context, which would be fine if the film itself was more interesting. One significant concession is made, however, with mention of the 1968 act of parliament that relieved the Lord Chamberlain’s Office of its task as the United Kingdom’s theatre censor after more than 200 years. It shows Raymond being given considerable leeway in pursuing his particular brand of sexual industrialism, to be sure, but propels the film to regions beyond its stated purpose. It is not certain if this move was Winterbottom’s intention—his jettisoning of the pomo wit of 24 Hour Party People in favor of an earnest, and earnestly saccharine, recounting of the facts suggest it was not—but if there is pervasive trouble in understanding how modern Britain had come to be an institutional fact, we are one excuse fewer in not seeking to make it less so. In fact, this stroke of subtlety is quite appropriate to the comparative subtlety of the film’s unseen subject.

Reckoning with the cosmopolitan arc of Britain during the new Elizabethan era inevitably leads to first coming to terms with Thatcher appeal. Whether from an adversarial or sympathetic standpoint, her place as a chief architect of modern Britain is fixed in most minds. It is a fixation as difficult to judge as it is to celebrate, rooted in a sensory effect that has in the ascent a cast of limerence and in the descent a cast of substance habit. It is felt in her womanhood, her humble origins, her forceful and humor-deprived style of deliberation and governance, her aggressive—almost American—indifference to culture, her lack of self-awareness as a national healer, and in her hyper self-awareness as a social irritant. Yet it’s worth remembering that what Thatcher wanted and what she got are at variance. “Thatcher’s vision of society is often described as very backward-looking,” John Gray wrote, “and in a way it was … an ideal version of Britain in the 1950s, a cohesive society based on strong institutions.” Thatcher policies garnered nothing of the sort. Her lasting achievement was destroying “the culture of deference in Britain.” Her policies themselves seem less revolutionary and more like final blows in a process already under way, knocking down what someone who came before had set up.

Serving as a foil to Thatcher requires competition, whether it is with Reagan, punks, Michael Foot, or the Queen. Yet all of them, in my estimation, fell in earlier brackets to the deft contrasts provided by Roy Jenkins. He was Labour, a consummate insider, congenial and charming, cosmopolitan and continental, and Welsh. Thatcher ushered in nearly two decades of power for her party, of which she was its leader for more than half that time, he had a good six years as a cabinet member in the ‘60s and ‘70s before nearly destroying his party in the ‘80s. Jenkins, on the surface would not seem a foil but a full adversary. Nothing would offend Thatcher’s vision of a modest but strenuous Britain more than Jenkins’s worldliness. And yet the ultimate, and overlooked, contrast is that Jenkins diligently codified his vision while Thatcher entrenched it. In a way I am reminded of Michael Oakeshott, who wrote that “our political observation has been educated to detect a despot who, in Lincoln’s words, belongs to ‘the family of the lion or the tribe of the eagle.’ Suspecting a tyranny, we look for a Strafford and find only a Cripps, we look for a Cromwell and find only Clem Attlee—and we are reassured.”

Political action is always a delicate balance of vision and timing, with realists and LBJ fetishists paying more heed to the latter. Roy Jenkins, however, serves as an extreme example of the many ways in how vision and timing come together; first as natural dance partners, second as Edward Albee spouses, and third as seemingly destined atomic compounds. Jenkins had grown up in the Labour tradition. His father was a coalminer who had been educated at the Sorbonne, became a union leader, and then a Member of Parliament who had worked with Clement Attlee. Jenkins had been elected in 1948 at the age of 27. Why he remained within the party as long as he did, and why Labour tolerated him and his ilk in turn, remains puzzling. His dissention from the Labour principles of a socialized nation in favor of international engagement, mixed economy, individual liberty, cultural tolerance, and the emergent middle class was early in his career under the guidance of Hugh Gaitskill. His earliest individual demonstration of these principles was his sponsorship of the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, a fairly modest law that imposed as many new restrictions as it repealed. Six years later, in what was perhaps the most fateful political decision in Britain since World War II, Harold Wilson appointed Jenkins to the Home Office, with a full agenda and a strategy to implement it.

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“My basic position is a libertarian position,” Jenkins said in 1966. “The view that the onus of proof is very much on those who want to restrict individual liberty.” Between 1965 and 1967, The Who released My Generation, the Beatles released Revolver, and Pink Floyd released Piper at the Gates of Dawn. By the end of that time, abortion was legal, as was homosexuality. Flogging had been suspended. Abolishing theatre censorship, racial discrimination protections, and no-fault divorce reform were soon to follow. Before Thatcher no bête noir was so avidly shared across the political spectrum. The right bemoaned his “cultural revolution” of the “permissive society” while the left disdained his continued slide toward austerity as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Yet the dents they’ve respectively made against any of his accomplishments have been slight. Thatcher brought out Section 28 but Cameron legalized gay marriage. Jenkins’s commitments split Labour clean down the middle in the ‘80s but brought it back together in the ‘90s. In the 2010s Corbyn’s  hoped-for suffocation of “New Labour” turned into promoting Jenkins’s pet project, the European Union, which may yet live even after it has been rejected by voters. Even if the outcomes of his multicultural policies are satirized in programs like W1A, multiculturalism itself is accepted as an enduring reality.

For an American, on the other hand, there is more to process. He or she understands legislation as rooted in the crafting of compromises and social reform as what happens after they backfire cataclysmically. Today’s process of reform is thankfully more peaceful, coming in the form of edicts from the Supreme Court that can neither be fully enforced nor successfully inveighed against. The notion that an elected official can carry out an agenda bent towards totally reshaping the society he was elected to help govern, and in so brief a time period, is a matter of curiosity at least. Some will assume outright a kind of legislative Lycurgus by way of John Oliver speaking truth to … his boss; but attention to method is key. Neither the abortion law nor the homosexuality law, for instance, were simple decrees from his office, but private member’s bills from backbenchers he came to rely on. In these respective cases they came from future Liberal Democratic leader David Steel and noted eccentric Leo Abse. “[I]n an astonishingly short 23 months at the Home Office,” Andrew Adonis writes, “Jenkins implemented his programme through careful prior preparation, bold leadership and brilliant political strategy.”

What practical benefit this will offer reform-friendly Americans beyond despairing procedural contrast is unclear. It should, however, help revive the greater legacy of Roy Jenkins after being weighed down by his failures: his obsession with becoming Prime Minister, his obsession with the European Union after becoming Prime Minister was no longer an option, his founding of the Social Democrats once he returned. We can, on the one hand, appreciate the principle propelling him. Or principle of a kind, as it had since been revealed that his private life was perhaps more permissive than the laws he helped to pass. On the other hand there is a sense of craft he put into his work, the years of planning and the deftness of execution. And on the third hand there are the results themselves and the variations in how they are responded to, for good and ill. Vision, timing, and outcome; put together it is more than governance but interactive art of the most monumental kind. In this light, “permissive society” is as much an aesthetic statement as it was a partisan criticism; whereas Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” declaration is merely a vague thematic echo. Paul Raymond, in film and in life, is his creation, like Damien Hirst’s shark or Tracey Emin’s bed. If there is an appropriate tribute, it would be to marshal Jenkinsian-level political grace to permit the granting of a retrospective Turner Prize. Failing that, I humbly propose another.

The Jenkins Prize for Excellence in the Reform Arts would serve as a tribute to its namesake’s mastery of legislation and to those who would perpetuate it the world over. The recipient guidelines are simple: they must come from liberal democracies and they must be of rather than above said liberal democracies. For instance, leaders in the style of Kemal Ataturk, Douglas MacArthur, Earl Warren, and Lee Kwan Yew would not qualify. Éamon de Valera, Shigeru Yoshida, Aneurin Bevan, and Pierre Trudeau, on the other hand, would. So, too, would lower state officials: Jean Lesage or René Lévesque in Quebec, or Pat Brown in California. And as the outcomes of their policies must be far-reaching, they will be judged on a time table similar to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, perhaps extended by a decade or two. If instituted, the prize, while not doing Jenkins the fullest justice, will go some way into showing the value of high elegance, surgical grace, and ample patience in the process of social upheaval.

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