Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, 82, a biographer, essayist and historian who had been a British cabinet minister and European Commission president, died Jan. 5 at his home in Oxfordshire, England. He had a heart ailment.
Lord Jenkins was a former deputy leader of Britain's Labor Party before breaking with the party over its anti-European stances. He went on to become a prominent founder of Britain's Social Democratic Party in 1981. He later became a Liberal Democrat (following an SDP-Liberal Party merger).
In 1987, Lord Jenkins (the former Roy Jenkins) was named a life peer and entered the House of Lords. In 1997, when Labor returned to power under Prime Minister Tony Blair, Lord Jenkins was identified as a leading adviser to the "New Labor" leader, who had helped lead Labor back to the old parliamentarian's political beliefs.
Upon learning of Lord Jenkins's death, Blair hailed him as "one of the most remarkable people ever to grace British politics." He also recalled Lord Jenkins as a man with "extraordinary insight and a naturally unprejudiced mind."
Lord Jenkins, who was elected to the House of Commons in 1948, was named minister of aviation in 1964. He served as home secretary from 1965 to 1967 and served three years as chancellor of the exchequer. From 1970 to 1974, when Labor was in opposition, he was the party's deputy leader under Harold Wilson.
Lord Jenkins again served as home secretary from 1974 to 1976, when he retired from Parliament. After serving as European Commission president from 1977 to 1981, he again served in the Commons from 1982 until losing his seat in 1987.
The former scholar gained a reputation as a courageously reformist cabinet minister, a gifted essayist, author and journalist, and one of the most brilliant figures of his political generation. But despite his roots as the son of a Welsh miner, a large element always suspected that Lord Jenkins was not really one of them.
He was somehow too brilliant, loved Oxford University too much and was too obviously fond of the high social life of fine wines, interesting company and glittering parties.
In the realm of policy, he could be critical of labor unions and of the increasing radicalization of the Labor Party. He also was a prominent champion of the European ideal, something Labor rank and file regarded with mistrust.
So, he never reached the top of the greasy pole to become party leader and prime minister. Lord Jenkins also attributed his failure to reach the top to a lack of "obsessive ruthlessness" needed by a prime minister.
He made his political mark as head of the Home Office, where he introduced historic and sweeping reforms, including the decriminalization of homosexuality and abortion, penal reform and the liberalization of divorce laws. As chancellor, he was a respected centrist figure at the treasury in the difficult period following the historic devaluation of the pound.
As European Commission chief in Brussels (the only Briton to hold the post), he presided over the establishment of the European Monetary System, a forerunner of the euro.
Upon his return from Brussels, he became one of the "Gang of Four" prominent politicians, with Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and David Owen, who broke with the Labor Party and founded the SDP. Lord Jenkins became leader of the SDP and formed an alliance with the Liberals that saw them gain a quarter of the popular votes and 23 seats in the 1983 general election.
The SDP, and the divisions it caused in the ranks of Labor voters, became a leading factor in Labor's failure to win general elections from the 1970s until Blair led them to power in 1997 and in the historic electoral successes of Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
After Lord Jenkins was defeated for reelection and entering the Lords in 1987, he devoted himself to writing. In addition to volumes of essays, he wrote engaging, learned and critically and popularly well-received biographies of three prime ministers, William Gladstone (Liberal), Clement Attlee (Labor) and Winston Churchill (Conservative).
His other books included "The Chancellors," an informed series of profiles of modern chancellors of the exchequer focusing on their years leading the treasury.
He was elected chancellor of Oxford University in 1987 and in 1993 was appointed to the Order of Merit, among his nation's highest awards.
Roy Harris Jenkins was born in Abersychan, Wales, and served in the British army during World War II. He graduated from Oxford's Balliol College with a first class honors degree in philosophy, politics and economics.