Biography & Memoir Roy Campbell: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell | Book Review Roundup | The Omnivore

Published on April 1st, 2014


Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell

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Blurb: Roy Jenkins was probably the best Prime Minister Britain never had. But though he never reached 10 Downing Street, he left a more enduring mark on British society than most of those who did. His career spans the full half-century from Attlee to Tony Blair during which he helped transform almost every area of national life and politics. First, as a radical Home Secretary in the 1960s he drove through the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the legalisation of abortion, abolished theatre censorship and introduced the first legislation to outlaw discrimination on grounds of both race and gender. Attacked by conservatives as the godfather of the permissive society, he was a pioneering champion of gay rights, racial equality and feminism. He also reformed the police and criminal trials and introduced the independent police complaints commission. Second, he was an early and consistent advocate of European unity who played a decisive role in achieving British membership first of the Common Market and then of the European Union. From 1977 to 1980 he served as the first (and so far only) British president of the European Commission. Public opinion today is swinging against Europe; but for the past forty years participation in Europe was seen by all parties as an unquestioned benefit, and no-one had more influence than Jenkins in that historic redirection of British policy. Third, in 1981, when both the Conservative and Labour parties had moved sharply to the right and left respectively he founded the centrist Social Democratic Party (SDP) which failed in its immediate ambition of breaking the mould of British politics – largely because the Falklands war transformed Mrs Thatcher’s popularity – but merged with the Liberals to form the Liberal Democrats and paved the way for Tony Blair’s creation of New Labour. On top of all this, Jenkins was a compulsive writer whose twenty-three books included best-selling biographies of Asquith, Gladstone and Churchill. As Chancellor of Oxford University he was the embodiment of the liberal establishment with a genius for friendship who knew and cultivated everyone who mattered in the overlapping worlds of politics, literature, diplomacy and academia; he also had many close women friends and enjoyed an unconventional private life. His biography is the story of an exceptionally well-filled and well-rounded life

(Jonathan Cape 2014)

Rachel Sylvester, The Times 

“John Campbell’s wonderful account of this “Well-Rounded Life” is so interesting and readable because it puts its subject in a context that goes way beyond politics… what this book draws out so cleverly is that he was also the embodiment of the liberal establishment, a curious mixture of tradition and modernity whose life encapsulates a fascinating age.”

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Chris Mullin, The Observer 

“This is an official biography, but not a hagiography. Despite owning up to having been “an enthusiastic foot soldier of the SDP” and a lifelong admirer of his subject, Campbell, a professional to his fingertips, has left no stone unturned and the result is an objective and compelling account of a remarkable life. Although he never met his subject, Campbell has had the co-operation of friends and family and access to a trove of hitherto private papers and correspondence which are especially illuminating about Jenkins’s early life.”

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Alan Johnson, The Guardian 

“The sexual revelations in this book have understandably attracted all the pre-publication publicity. Campbell, however, sets out masterfully the full range of Jenkins’s achievements… The highest praise I can give to John Campbell’s biography is that Roy Jenkins would have been proud to have been its author.”

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Peter Oborne, The Telegraph 

“John Campbell’s captivating biography establishes his subject as one of the most significant political figures since the Second World War, while making an important parallel case for Jenkins’ literary significance… I read every single one of the 749 pages of this long book with relish and fascination. It is a splendid tribute to one of the greatest British politicians and writers (not necessarily in that order) of the last century.”

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Matthew Engel, Financial Times 

“John Campbell, already biographer of Thatcher, Edward Heath and Aneurin Bevan, has produced a volume that looks forbidding but reads magnificently – a riveting and vital contribution to an understanding of postwar British politics. Campbell starts from a position of self-confessed hero-worship but towards the end seems to be getting rather irritated with his subject, and not just because Jenkins’ own popular political biographies involved less painstaking research than his own. His post-political life, crowned with the chancellorship of Oxford university, was grand, comfortable, satisfying and more than a mite smug; a reference to Toad escapes Campbell’s pen somewhere past page 700. The subtitle is a bit double-edged too. Personally, the further I read, the more I admired Jenkins and the less I liked him.”

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Dominic Sandbrook, The Sunday Times 

“When I read the first part of Charles Moore’s life of Thatcher last year, I thought it was the best political biography I had ever read. But Campbell’s book is so engrossing, so finely judged, that it runs it very close. Oddly, though, I finished it admiring Jenkins less than I did at the beginning. His political talents are not in doubt, but there was always something of the spoilt child about him. From cradle to grave, he led what Campbell calls “an extraordinarily pampered life”.”

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Philip Ziegler, The Spectator 

“John Campbell makes no bones about the fact that he is a fan of Jenkins… Campbell is far too sensible a man and good a biographer, however, to allow his book to degenerate into a paean of praise. Jenkins’s frailties are unsparingly exposed, his occasional failures recorded, his more extravagant pretensions ridiculed. The fact that, at the end of this long and thoughtful book, one ends up admiring and liking Jenkins more rather than less is a tribute to Campbell’s skills as a biographer but more to Jenkins’s own personality and achievements.”

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Charles Moore, The Telegraph 

“John Campbell is an excellent biographer. He has a strong narrative grasp and knows how to use evidence. His books are not showy, but if you test their propositions, you almost always find them fair. This has the curious effect of working against his own preferences. He does not like Margaret Thatcher much, but this means that his two-volume life of her tends in her favour. The evidence he presents shows how remarkable she was. In the case of Roy Jenkins, it is the same effect the other way round.”

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Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday 

“[A] splendidly thorough biography. It stands as a portrait not only of an individual but of a ruling class: Roy was, says Campbell, the embodiment of Britain’s liberal establishment – ‘that calmly (or complacently) superior elite’ – in the second half of the 20th century.”

Simon Heffer, Literary Review 

“Campbell admits to an admiration for Jenkins — there is nothing wrong with that — and is commendably sharp with his subject during moments of error and misjudgement. He also sees the ridiculous side of Jenkins, which is just as well. Having said that, there is no lightness of touch in the book and one struggles to spot anything resembling a joke in a work of well over 800 pages… Campbell — unintentionally, I suspect — succeeds in making the case that Jenkins was a not entirely serious figure, one who attracted the support of others who were not entirely serious either.”

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