Roy Jenkins made Britain a far less civilised country
By Neil Clark
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 09/01/2003
In his Guardian obituary of Lord Jenkins, David Marquand listed four "achievements" of his hero on which, to him, "the verdict of history seems plain". As Home Secretary, "Jenkins did more than any other person to make Britain a more civilised country to live in". As leader of the Labour Europeans, he played an "indispensable part" in taking Britain into what is now the European Union; and, as president of the European Commission, he played an "equally indispensable part' in paving the way for the single currency. Finally, by forming the SDP, and "breaking the mould" of British politics, Jenkins created New Labour.
As an Old Labour Euro-sceptic, I believe the last three "achievements" that Marquand lists were ones we could have well done without. But what of Marquand's first claim: that Jenkins made Britain a more civilised country to live in?
As an up-and-coming Labour backbencher, Jenkins had written, in the late 1950s, a tract entitled Is Britain Civilised?, in which he attacked Britain's "archaic" laws on censorship, homosexuality, divorce and abortion, as well as arguing for the abolition of capital punishment and changes to the country's "Victorian" criminal justice system.
At that time, Jenkins's "progressive" views on social reform were still in the minority in the Labour Party, dominated as it was by its socially conservative, working-class ethos. But by 1964, when Labour eventually regained power, much had changed. A group of middle-class, mainly Oxbridge-educated "intellectuals" had risen to prominence in the party and, for these "modernisers", led by Jenkins and his Oxford friend Tony Crosland, the main aim was the social, rather than the economic, transformation of Britain.
Although their views had little support among the British public at large, this group was able to push through its liberalising agenda when Jenkins became Home Secretary in 1965. Already, earlier that year, the death penalty had been suspended. Now it was full steam ahead to give support to private members' Bills to decriminalise abortion and homosexuality, relax censorship and make divorce easier.
Jenkins's impact at the Home Office did not end there. He also embarked on the most radical programme of penal reform since the Second World War. His Criminal Justice Act of 1967 said very little about the victims of crime, but plenty about the perpetrators. The Act introduced the parole system of early release of offenders serving sentences of three years or more, established the Parole Board and introduced the system of suspended sentences.
In two years, Jenkins had succeeded in transforming the criminal justice system from one whose raison d'etre had been to deter wrong-doing to one designed to be as "civilised" as possible to the criminal.
Jenkins was of course convinced that the "permissive society" was the "civilised society". In this, he - alas - got it all terribly wrong. What underpins civilised society is not permissiveness, but self-restraint, a phrase detested by libertines of both Left and Right. What Jenkins failed to see was how the freedoms he espoused would lead to the degeneration of British society and the selfish, me-first libertinism of today.
Jenkins was never a socialist, but in my view he was not much of a liberal either. Classical liberalism always understood that liberal freedom is dependent on moral self-restraint. Without it, freedom becomes licence - which itself is a threat to freedom, as it acknowledges no obligation to others. Before the Jenkins-sponsored social reforms made their impact, Britain was a country famous for the self-restraint of its people. "Letting it all out", extreme displays of emotion, and shouting and swearing in the street were all considered unacceptable. For Jenkins, the taboos that existed in 1950s Britain were intolerable. But the net result was a society remarkable for its civility.
More than 30 years on, the damaging impact of Jenkins's reforms on the society we live in is all too clear to see. One marriage in three now ends in divorce. Almost 40 per cent of children are now born out of wedlock, the highest figure in Europe. Since the 1967 Abortion Act, more than six million unborn children have been aborted.
The legalisation of homosexuality has not been the end of the chapter, but merely the beginning, with an aggressive "gay rights" lobby demanding more and more concessions. The policy of early release of prisoners has had a catastrophic effect on the safety of the general public: 14 per cent of violent criminals freed early are convicted of fresh violence within two years of their release.
As The Sunday Telegraph's Alasdair Palmer states: "Scores of men, women and children have been assaulted, raped and murdered as a result of the policy of releasing dangerous criminals before their sentences are completed" - a policy initiated and endorsed by Jenkins.
In addition to this tally, we must add the hundreds of innocent lives lost as a result of the abolition of capital punishment, which Jenkins zealously campaigned for and whose reintroduction he so resolutely opposed as Home Secretary in 1974.
Dividing his time between the palaces of Westminster, the delightful Oxfordshire village of East Hendred and the high table of the Oxford colleges, Jenkins did not, of course, see too much of the social debris that his "civilising" reforms had caused. Had he seen at first hand what the "permissive society" amounts to in practice on a "sink" council estate, he might have modified his views.
It is, though, unfair to blame one man for all of Britain's modern ills. Others, too, must take their share of responsibility for the nation we have become, not least the economic freedom junkies of the 1980s. Nevertheless, the Britain of 2003 is very much the Britain that Jenkins always wanted. The self-restraint and taboos of the 1950s have all gone. The "archaic" laws against which Jenkins railed have been abolished.
On the day of Jenkins's death, I looked at the other stories listed on the Teletext index. They were: "Man accused of bodies-in-bin probe", "Gun killers will be caught, pledge police", "Man faces charges over abbey axe attack", "Man charged with taxi driver murder" and "Freedom for hostage in 11-day siege".
If David Marquand believes the Britain of 2003 to be a "civilised country", it would be interesting to hear his definition of an uncivilised one.
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