The father of the permissive society

Should we speak ill of the dead?

Should we – as Christian charity directs us – ‘never speak ill of the dead’? Or are we entitled, for the sake of historical accuracy, to assess a person’s character, with all the negative bits left in – ‘warts and all’, as the infamous Cromwell directed his portrait painter?

The case of the late politician Roy Jenkins (pictured) poses an interesting dilemma here.

The London literati and political world has been agog with gossip about the revelation that Roy Jenkins – dubbed ‘The Father of the Permissive Society’ because he presided over the introduction of abortion and easier divorce and the legalisation of homosexual acts in private – had a passionate gay affair at Oxford, in 1938, with the late Anthony Crosland, another gifted and radical political figure. (The account of the relationship, citing emotionally ardent letters between the two, has emerged in a new biography by John Campbell.)

Pictures of the two men among the dreaming spires evoked Brideshead Revisited, after Evelyn Waugh’s novel which described a youthful (though chaste), and idyllic, infatuation between two young men. Tony Crosland was a brilliant socialist intellectual in Harold Wilson’s administration who became famous for swearing to destroy the grammar schools in Britain (and I mean, literally, swearing – he vowed “I’ll close down every f****** grammar school in the country”). He was terrifically handsome as an undergraduate in a Jeremy Irons kind of way;  and Roy Jenkins was then a fresh-faced lad, and perhaps easily impressed, from a modest family in Wales.

Later, both men married, and Jenkins was known for his several affairs with women, also recounted in the text. Tony Crosland subsequently married the writer Susan Barnes.

There is some divided opinion as to whether all this should have been disclosed – Crosland’s widow is dead, but Jenkins’ is still alive, although very old. Yet Roy Jenkins wasn’t always esteemed by those who knew him in his W8 neighbourhood (probably the poshest post-code in Britain). One near-neighbour told me: “I did not like Jenkins: complacent and corrupt – handing out public offices to the husbands of his mistresses.  

“And his so-called ‘reforms’ were simply a projection of his own lax values onto the wider population which, because it lacked the cynicism or sophistication of those in his own circle, led to the breakdown of marriages which we see today – two million children now living in one-parent families, most of them with single mothers and no man in the home.”

In the conservative media it was indeed noted that “father of the permissive society” was all too accurate.

And yet, let us balance the scales.

At a political level, Jenkins was regarded as an excellent Chancellor of the Exchequer – he balanced the books. He was also kind to Ireland. He ensured the return of Roger Casement’s remains; he also enabled the remains of William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw) to be transferred from Wandsworth Prison to Galway’s Bohermore Cemetary, at the request of Joyce’s daughter.

Should a man’s whole life be disclosed or should we respect the dead charitably? A fine dilemma. On the whole, when public men make public decisions, it is surely justified to examine the record of their lives. But perhaps it is charitable to allow some time to pass before that occurs.

The missing airplane

I think the whole world has been gripped by the continuing  mystery of what occurred to Flight MH 370 – the Malaysian Airlines flight which disappeared, apparently, into thin air.

Although land, sea and air searches have fanned out over an area totalling 30 million square miles, and 26 countries have joined the rescue search, the episode has been baffling every expert since March 8.

One of the most touching aspects of the occurance has been the joining-together of many disparate groups in prayers for the 239 passengers and crew. At airports in Malaysia – and in China, too – notices of prayers were immediately put up where distraught relatives awaited news. Whatever the outcome of the mystery, the prayers are a comfort to the families: prayer isn’t always answered in the way you want it to be, but it does help you get through.


Conversation at a dinner party

Suave-looking man in his thirties says: “I think all states should be secular. There should be no religion in public life.”

Me (who enjoys an argument): “Tell that to the Danes and the Swedes. Their monarchies are formally Lutheran, and the Danish Queen opens parliament with Lutheran prayers.”

Him: “Well, monarchs are civilians. I don’t mind them. What I object to is the clergy. The clergy should have no public roles whatsoever. You cannot trust a member of the clergy.”

Me: “Really? Can you trust a banker?”

Embarrassed silence, followed by embarrassed laughs. The gentleman in question is a banker.