Roy Jenkins in Moscow: a Brexit story

Seeking solace from Brexit, one could turn to the life of Roy Jenkins (1920-2003). As Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jenkins was among the most distinguished Labour politicians to campaign for British membership of the Common Market in the 1960s and 1970s. He served as President of the European Commission between 1977 and 1981. Then, as Labour defector and founder member of the SDP in the early eighties, he was a major figure in the slow but temporary reorientation of British progressive politics towards the nexus of Europe and electability.

Jenkins opposed the principle of referendums. But having lost the argument that a vote be held in 1975 to confirm Britain’s accession to the European Economic Community, he campaigned vigorously in favour. No doubt he would have done the same had he still been alive today, even at the age of 95.


But even Jenkins, the most tireless of pro-Europeans, showed that a mix of frustrations and enthusiasms has to be reconciled into a single yes-no judgement. He combined a relaxed attitude to sovereignty with a less willing acceptance of bureaucracy, inefficiency, and waste.

In his very wide-ranging career, the Soviet Union played little part. But it fits into this story. Jenkins was a natural bon vivant, with a famous love of the best restaurants, the finest claret, and the most glamorous company. He slotted uneasily into the rhythms of Soviet life. On 14 October 1977, he was flying from Tokyo back towards Brussels. En route, the plane stopped in Moscow to refuel. Jenkins and his colleagues were met by a delegation from COMECON, the Eastern Bloc trade organization.

Flag of Comecon (the Eastern Bloc Council of Economic Mutual Assistance)
Flag of Comecon (the Eastern Bloc Council of Economic Mutual Assistance)

His Commission group travelled citywards from ‘a disagreeable airport’ with the ‘three fairly unprepossessing-looking gentlemen’ who had met them, to ‘a gloomy basement’, where the food must have been bad, because they ‘only toyed with the five-course meal’ and were panicking about missing their onward plane, not least ‘as we didn’t trust the competence of our hosts’. Jenkins refused to acknowledge COMECON as an EEC-equivalent with which substantive trade negotiations could be held, so they all spent the meal ‘talking about Siberian geography and climatology’. It was not quite cocktails with Jackie Kennedy.

But Jenkins saw that the Soviet Union had something in common with other modern societies, even if it was the dark side of modernity. Take an argument he laid out in 1953, when he was already in the House of Commons. ‘If it is thought that the most difficult task of modern socialists’, he wrote, ‘is not so much the undermining of capitalism (which is happening in any event) as the prevention of its development into a horrid managerialism, of which the hallmarks will be the centralization of power and the existence of grossly privileged groups, the Soviet system has little to its credit beyond that of being somewhat ahead in the race to beastliness.’ Sixty years on, you could transpose such a description to the EU and vote ‘Leave’ because of it — or ‘Remain’ in spite of it.

Jenkins was an optimist and a political survivor. He would not have seen Brexit as the end of Britain, though he would infinitely have preferred the pre-Brexit status quo. He would have made a case for ‘Remain’ based on ideals and pragmatism alike. But the breadth of his observations suggests that supranational unions with good intentions can adopt malign forms. People surely voted ‘Remain’ for as many different reasons as others voted ‘Leave’. No doubt some of these reasons were more honourable than others. Perhaps there’s some solace in that: that Britain might not be split down the middle, after all, but divided, as usual, in countless complicated ways that might yet yield to coalitions.


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