Roy Jenkins and the making of the Sexual Offences Act

31 Jul 2017

Roy Jenkins: MP, Chancellor, Home Secretary, President of the European Commission, historian, connoisseur of claret, wartime intelligence officer - the list goes on. 


Jenkins, much like William Ewart Gladstone, the subject of his best received biography, dominated British politics. Jenkins’s effervescent personality, intellectualism and personal charm made him one of Britain’s most remarkable and best connected politicians, and perhaps the greatest Prime Minister we never had (for me, tied with Ken Clarke).


His Churchillian stamina and deep rooted conscience both created and defined his career and ultimately lost him the leadership of his party. His decision to support the Heath government in endorsing Britain’s entry to Europe demonstrated his commitment to conviction politics, even at the cost of the premiership.


Jenkins, the son of a Welsh coal miner and trade unionist, studied PPE at Oxford, even becoming Chancellor of the University in 1987 on Harold Macmillan’s death. Jenkins, much like Ted Heath, another contender for the Chancellorship, grew up in interwar Britain with working class origins. Both marked themselves out as independently-minded liberals, often at odds with their own parties. Both made a substantial contribution to the cause of LGBT rights in Britain: Jenkins as the reforming Home Secretary at the time of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, and Heath as a consistent supporter of an equal age of consent.


The question of creating a more ‘civilised’ Britain perplexed both men in the late 1960s. Whilst both were indicted with creating the ‘permissive society’ under the more socially conservative government of 1979-1990, this obscures the true motive behind both men’s politics. To both the aim was this: to use the powers available to the state to give greater freedom to the individual. With regard to sexuality both men saw it as a deeply private matter - a person’s sexuality was not a matter to be constrained or shaped by the law.


Whilst the Wilson cabinet believed it to be inappropriate for the government to legislate on homosexuality, Jenkins rigorously supported the private member bill by finding extra time for it to be debated. Without this extra parliamentary time, it is highly likely that the Sexual Offences bill would not have passed, simply because it would have timed out. In 1998, with Jenkins in the Lords, Heath voted against his party and indeed against its current leader, Theresa May, to support reducing the age of consent for homosexual acts to 16, equal to the equivalent heterosexual legislation.


In today’s highly-charged national debate on immigration, Heath and Jenkins both had a seminal impact on race relations in the late 1960s.


For Jenkins, the Home Secretary who facilitated the abolition of the death penalty, the legalisation of abortion and the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, an equally civilised act was to introduce the Race Relations Act. The Act outlawed discrimination in public places based on ‘race, colour or ethnic origins’. Jenkins created the highly influential Race Relations Board, the predecessor of today’s Equality and Human Rights Commission.


Heath’s battle with race relations is perhaps more well known that Jenkins’s but both are of equal importance in shaping modern Britain. Heath’s now much vilified decade as Conservative Party leader saw a substantial debate regarding race relations in Britain. As Leader of the Opposition in 1968, Heath was forced to deal with Enoch Powell, Shadow Defence Secretary, delivering the infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Powell’s concerns about unchecked mass immigration, undoubtedly appealing to existing racial hatred, split the Conservative Party. Powell rallied against Jenkins’s Race Relations legislation. For sections of the party, Powell’s critique of the Labour government had earned him some breathing space. Indeed, even Margaret Thatcher urged Heath to wait before sacking Powell. For Heath, the somewhat controlling but politically liberal leader, Powell had crossed the line. He sacked Powell with immediate effect denouncing the ‘inflammatory nature of his speech’ which would make the ‘difficult and delicate’ question of race relations more challenging.


Jenkins continued to embody British liberalism throughout the 1970s. His decision to form and then lead the Social Democratic Party in 1981 completed the rift between Roy Jenkins and the left of the Labour Party. Jenkins’ deep disillusion with the increasingly left-wing Labour Party, led by Michael Foot, who continued, rather nobly, to fend off the growing Bennite-infiltration of the party, led him to leave, unlike his Balliol contemporary Denis Healey.


Talk of Heath joining the SDP came to nothing but demonstrated the two men’s shared commitment to making Britain a more liberal and more civilised nation. With this month’s half centenary of the Sexual Offences Actm and next year’s half centenary of Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, it is important to remember these two rather extraordinary men, both of whom are now deeply out of sync with today’s incarnation of their parties.





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