Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 2003

Roy Jenkins (1920 – 2003)

by Antony Grey

It was our great good fortune that Roy Jenkins was home secretary during the most intensive period of parliamentary lobbying to repeal the laws that criminalised all male homosexual behaviour.

Although his time at the Home Office lasted less than two years (1965-7), Jenkins was the most actively reformist home secretary of the mid-twentieth century, modernising the criminal justice system and lending his active support to private members’ bills liberalising the homosexuality and abortion laws.

It is thanks to him that the Wilson cabinet was persuaded to guarantee enough government parliamentary time to allow these reforms to reach the statute book.

His Conservative predecessor, the suavely chameleon-like R. A. Butler, who was home secretary when the Wolfenden Report appeared in 1958, paid lip service to the report’s principles but did nothing to hasten its implementation. While doubting whether we would have included such draconian laws in a penal code for the first colonists of the moon, he did not think it opportune to remove them from ours.

Roy Jenkins had no such doubts. He considered the then existing law had no place in a civilised country and should be changed as quickly as possible.

By the time he became home secretary, the reform campaign led by Lord Arran in the Lords and Leo Abse in the Commons was well under way. While Jenkins could not adopt the bill as a government measure, he gave all possible Home Office support short of that. When technical objections arose to some of the draft clauses, he offered the help of government draftsmen. (This proved a mixed blessing, because the reform campaigners thus lost effective control over the contents of the bill, which became a government measure in all but name.)

Roy Jenkins’s sponsorship of modestly liberalising reforms led to his being bitterly attacked by such predictable critics as Mary Whitehouse for being the begetter of the “permissive sixties”, and they laid the blame for all subsequent social ills at his door. He was, in fact, a deeply civilised and cultured man who believed that freedom of personal choice was an essential ingredient of the civilised society by which he set such store.

I occasionally met Jenkins both when he was home secretary and in later years, and always found him personally affable and ready to be of help behind the scenes in practical ways. Gay people should remember him with gratitude.

Since this article was written, Lord Jenkins’s post as chancellor of Oxford University has been awarded to the European Union commissioner 58-year-old Chris Patten. – Ed.
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Created : Sunday, 2003-05-11 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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