Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins is the political columnist of the Guardian and the author of The Battle of Downing Street.

Socialism without Socialism

Peter Jenkins, 20 March 1986

Mrs Thatcher’s two election victories have prompted a debate on the left at the bottom of which lurks the question: is socialism dead? There are several prongs to the case put forward by the ‘new revisionists’ who, in contrast to the Gaitskell-Croslandite revisionists of the past, are not right-wingers seeking to save the Labour Party from socialism but, for the most part, Marxists who have found it necessary to make a fundamental reappraisal of the socialist project. Their writings appear chiefly in Marxism Today, the Communist Party’s maverick intellectual journal, and the most celebrated of the ‘new revisionists’ is Eric Hobsbawm, whose Marx Memorial Lecture ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ became their seminal text.

What’s going on?

Peter Jenkins, 21 November 1985

Accompanied by a growing pile of political books, I spent most of September and half of October travelling from pillar to post and from party conference to party conference – from Blackpool to Torquay to Dundee to Bournemouth and back to where we began in Blackpool. For years now I have set out on this dismal pilgrimage filled with hope and health and holiday sun, only to return filled with alcohol, tobacco fumes and hot air. The conference season is an annual ritual, a ceremonial enactment of the entire political liturgy, including the beatification of leaders and the veneration of relics, all of it carried out in front of the altar of the television cameras.

At an international conference I attended the other day someone spoke of European civilisation as the civilisation of Christendom, the Renaissance and the Welfare State. A somewhat flowery way of putting it, perhaps: but then it can certainly be argued that the Welfare State is the principal flower in the post-war blossoming of Western Europe. Moreover, the speaker presumably intended to place the modern Welfare State among the greatest achievements of European civilisation, an order transcending frontiers.


Peter Jenkins, 20 December 1984

‘Yalta’ is not a word that often comes to mind. Ask someone on the bus or try it on the children. Yalta? For anyone living in the eastern part of Europe, the meeting of the Big Three at a small resort in the Crimea, in February 1945, is the seminal event of modern times, a calamity almost on a par with the Fall. Not that that part of Europe had lacked calamities, but they had hitherto seemed part of a European experience – the European experience: Yalta has, in effect, resulted in its expulsion from Europe. What is more, there was, and is today, an awful finality about it.’

Post-Bourgeois Man

Peter Jenkins, 1 October 1981

He has come a long way. Born the Hon. Anthony Wedgwood Benn, he inevitably became by public-school nickname ‘Wedgie’ and later, by his own socialist deed-poll, plain ‘Tony Benn’. Today he is more often referred to simply as Benn – a hard word spat out like ‘Lenin’.

Signs of the ‘Times’

Peter Jenkins, 22 January 1981

We live in a society which has learnt to take trade-unionism for granted. We extend to it the kind of tolerance which we give to the Churches in the name of religious freedom, even when the priesthood has grown corrupt and the ritual debased. We are all trade-unionists now. We speak the language of trade-unionism; our manners are trade-union manners. We are scarcely able to blink when hospital consultants engage in what they please to call ‘industrial action’, as if that euphemism were sufficient to justify the extortions of their professional power. Middle-class professionals – bank managers, for example – hire trade-union mercenaries – Mr Clive Jenkins, for example – in the same way as they hire tax accountants. Trade-unionism is an approved form of behaviour: group venality, providing it is called trade-unionism, is therefore permissible. We do try to draw a line where life and death is involved, but the hypocrisies involved in ‘industrial action’ by hospital staffs, ambulance men and the like are cloaked in a vocabulary of brotherhood and solidarity drawn from a more heroic age. We try to draw another line, or some of us are inclined to, where creative activity is involved. It is in itself shocking that we are likely to be more shocked if a concert or play is prevented than if an entire motor-car factory is stopped. We understand well enough when a miner stops mining, but less well when an electrician pulls the plug on a film unit or a scene-shifter won’t shift. These, perhaps, are the last bastions of our resistance to the trade-union ethic.

The British Disease

Peter Jenkins, 21 August 1980

The ‘trade-union problem’ has dominated British politics for the last two decades. It has been the downfall of three governments – Wilson’s in 1970, Heath’s in 1974 and Callaghan’s in 1979. During that time, full employment and free collective bargaining became at last incompatible, and the former was in effect abandoned in 1968. As the union problem grew more acute, the relative decline of the British economy accelerated – although which was chiefly responsible for the other is less obvious. Successive governments attempted to intervene in collective bargaining with incomes policies, or to regulate the industrial relations system at law, but at the end of two decades both strategies were in disrepute. The problem seemed more intractable than ever.

News of the World’s End

Peter Jenkins, 15 May 1980

Any conventional account of the last decade would include these among its headlines:

My Life with Harold Wilson

Peter Jenkins, 20 December 1979

Harold Wilson and Roy Jenkins enter Europe

Staying in power

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 7 January 1988

In November, Norman Tebbit spoke to the Financial Times of a ‘long revolution’, lasting perhaps twenty years. Nevertheless, he said, ‘when you’ve run through health and...

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