The Outing of Roy Jenkins

We now know that the Home Secretary behind the legalisation of homosexuality had himself been in a relationship with another man. How does that change our view of that seminal reform?

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In Britain, the politics often gets left out of the story of the Sixties. The American narrative of that decade requires rock and roll, flower power and the like to share the stage with JFK, MLK and Roe v Wade. In France a political event – the protests of 1968 – defines the period. By contrast in Britain we seldom look beyond Minis and the Beatles.

If we did, however, we’d see that the social and cultural changes we fixate on stand alongside a series of massively important political reforms. And those were to a remarkable extent the work of two men. As Education Secretary, Tony Crosland began the expansion of higher education and the spread of comprehensive schooling. Roy Jenkins’ time as Home Secretary has been branded by some of his critics as a “cultural revolution.” It involved major reforms of the police and criminal trials, the ending of the use of the birch in prisons, the end of theatre censorship, relaxing divorce laws and banning discrimination on grounds of sex or race. However, what it is best known for was that Jenkins gave government support to private members bills to legalise homosexuality and abortion so that they could pass. These two men have been largely forgotten by my generation but they transformed the country we live in.

Thanks to a new biography of Jenkins by John Campbell serialised in the Daily Mail, we now know that they were lovers. Their relationship appears to have lasted for several years both during and after their time at Oxford Uni. It came to an end with Jenkins’ engagement to Jennifer Morris who he would stay married to (despite numerous affairs) till his death. According to Campbell this appears to have been a painful turn of events for Crosland, who made several rather pathetic attempts to win Jenkins back.

So how does it change our perspective on the Sexual Offences Act 1967 to know that without this legislation, the driving force behind it might have faced prosecution? The Daily Mail seems clear what its angle is. They’ve chosen extracts from Campbell’s book that emphasise Jenkins’ urbane hedonism and how that put him at odds with ordinary Britons. In this reading his homosexuality is just another example of his moral laxity.

This reading is not only offensive but also rather thin. Jenkins’ lifestyle may have been indulgent but he was hardly Jordan Belfort. Nor was laxity necessarily a feature of his policies: he presided over a period of austerity as Chancellor. And most of the reforms that seemed radical at the time – not least the legalisation of homosexuality – have become ‘common sense’ measures taken for granted by members of all classes.

A more plausible interpretation might be that we would need to redefine Jenkins’ relations to the gay rights struggle. Before Campbell’s revelation he would have been considered in modern parlance a ‘straight ally.’ Now that label seems far less apt. Nonetheless, I’m not sure that the alternative of seeing Jenkins as a member of the LGBT community asserting his rights’ (albeit from within the closet) makes more sense. For starters, my instinct is that Jenkins would not have identified as gay or bisexual. He lived in a time when ideas of sexual identity were much less nuanced and gradated than they are today. So given that apart from Crosland, Jenkins’ other relationships all seem to have been with women, I guess he would have seen the relationship as a ‘phase’ in an otherwise heterosexual life. More generally, identity just wasn’t that important a notion for Jenkins. He was the white man who introduced the sex and race discrimination acts after all. And despite his roots in a Welsh mining town, he was much less attached to the notion of the working class than most of his Labour contemporaries. I’m not sure he’d have felt a much greater affinity with the gay rights cause if he had thought of himself as part of the gay community.

Where I do think his personal experience may have been relevant is in his sense of the hypocrisy of the British establishment. One of the few moments of genuine anger in Jenkins’ autobiography is when he discusses how the political and social elites he moved among embraced the homosexuality of many of their members but did nothing to change laws that made life a misery for gay men from less privileged circles. The Crosland-Jenkins relationship provides a rather striking example of this. According to Campbell in 1942:

Crosland soon came to realise there was no way he was going to get Roy back, and he poured out his heart in a letter to Roy’s  parents, to whom he had become close over the years.

‘Roy came under the spell of the first nice girl he met,’ he explained, ‘which was a revolutionary break in our friendship since he omitted to mention the matter at all to me, although we were corresponding  regularly. This I was not easily able either to forget or forgive.

‘I was both jealous and  bitter, and despite two or three visits to Pontypool we were never able to re-introduce any genuine harmony into our relationship.’

But he was reconciled to the situation. ‘Many of the high hopes are gone, many bold gay plans for the future are dead, and somewhere a spark has been put out.

‘But it may well be that the new state of affairs is more healthy than the old.

‘We shall become two normal people on conventionally friendly terms.’

That Crosland would be so open with two people born in the nineteenth century about his feelings for another man gives a pretty clear indication of the dissonance between the views of the British establishment and the cruel laws they allowed to stand.

Talkin Bout Their Generation: the Insufferable Sixties

Baby Boomers should stop subjecting the rest of us to their solipsism

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Two American anniversaries: the one you’ve heard about and the one that matters

As you have likely noticed yesterday was the 50th assassination of John F. Kennedy. He is still a subject of massive fascination and a sizable industry. The most obvious aspect of this is the continuing obsession with the imagined conspiracy that killed him but it’s far from being the only one. For example, an article in the New Republic accused the up market Vanity Fair of having “an absurd preoccupation with the Kennedys” and noted that:

Since Michelle Obama became first lady, Jackie has merited more attention—20 mentions to Michelle’s 19. Since August 2008, when John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, searching for “Kennedy” in VF in Nexis yields twice as many results as searching for “Palin.” The “politics” section of VanityFair.com has a header for “The Kennedys”—an entire digital section devoted to political figures who are, save a few, no longer alive. Surely readers looking for political coverage would rather find, oh, say, a tab marked, “Presidential election 2012”?

When the American public are polled about who they think the greatest president is JFK is invariably near the top and a recent poll named him as the most popular president of the past sixty years. This stands in contrast to surveys of scholars who tend to give JFK a rather more middling rating.

The focus on the 50th anniversary of the JFK anniversary is all the more striking given that Tuesday was the 150th anniversary of a milestone in the presidency of the man who usually tops those scholar lists. On the 19th November 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. This was probably the most important speech ever in American history and followed the decisive battle of the Civil War. Yet somehow this was overshadowed by the death of a mediocre president who happened to be rather handsome. I would suggest that this disparity can be explained by the fact that JFK was a figure from the Sixties, a period with an outsize role in our collective imagination.

Sixties Mania

Our obsession with the Sixties manifests itself in many ways. There is, for example, the adulation that attaches itself to Mad Men or the latest 1000 pages of Robert Caro’s oil tanker length biography of LBJ. We could also observe that while Vietnam remains a cultural touchstone, the war in Korea is largely forgotten. Or we could point to the massive followings still enjoyed by the Rolling Stones, the Who or Bob Dylan.

It seems to me that what has happened is that now Baby Boomers – now firmly ensconced at the top of the media and cultural institutions – have been treating the events that were especially interesting and formative for them as being so for the world in general. And in the process they have managed to convince many of the rest of us that the Sixties were particularly significant.

Was the Sixties all that?

Stepping back and looking at the 20th century as a whole, the Sixties don’t seem that seminal.

If we look at the arena of politics and international relations, then important things did happen in the boomers formative years: the revolution in Cuba, the 1968 uprisings and Vietnam. However, these seem less significant than say the Depression, World War II, the beginning of the Cold War, the consolidation of postwar European democracy, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of China.

In terms of economics, the Sixties looks like a time of stasis between the emergence of Keynesian social democracy and it’s displacement by deregulation and deindustrialisation that began with the OPEC crisis in 1973.

And while it might have been a time of cultural tumult, it was intellectually arid. As Tony Judt observes in his masterful history of Postwar Europe, the Sixties was almost wholly devoid of great thinkers or movements. It produced no Durkheim, no Einstein nor a Wittgenstein.

Even in the changes in sexual politics were not as dramatic as often imagined. Phillip Larkin said that “Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three …..between the end of the “Chatterley” ban and the Beatles’ first LP.” However, an alternative narrative would be that the boomers rebelled against the sexual mores of their parents by embracing those of their grandparents.

What WAS unique about the Sixties was the boomers sense of their own importance. To again quote Judt:

Moments of great cultural significance are often appreciated only in retrospect. The Sixties were different: the transcendent importance contemporaries attached to their own own times – was one of the special features of the age. A significant part of the Sixties was spent in the words of The Who: ‘talking about My Generation’

I can’t be alone in thinking that it’s time for the generations that came before and after the boomers to tell them to see beyond their own formative years: if they can’t see that Gettysburg 1863 was more significant than Dallas 1963, they really need to learn to get some perspective.