Roy Jenkins was born in Abersychan, Monmouthshire, on 11th November, 1920. His father was Arthur Jenkins, president of the South Wales Miners' Federation and the Labour Party MP for Pontypool. Jenkins was educated at Abersychan Grammar School and Balliol College, Oxford, where he won a first in 1941.
According to John Campbell, the author of Roy Jenkins (2014), Jenkins had a homosexual relationship with Anthony Crosland, while at Oxford. The book claims that they had a "homosexual fling" and quotes Jenkins as telling Crosland that they had “an intense friendship of a kind that neither of us are ever likely to experience again”. They shared their time “in complete mutual absorption and complete mutual loyalty… wrapped up in our own two interwoven lives”.
During the Second World War Jenkins served in the Royal Artillery and for a while he worked as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park. In 1945 he married Jennifer Morris. Philip Johnston has argued: "Their homoerotic partnership (with Crosland) was broken by two events: the outbreak of war and Roy’s realisation that he preferred women, after meeting his future wife Jennifer, to whom he was married for 58 years. He would later become something of a Lothario, boasting many affairs, including with the wives of two of his closest friends."
A member of the Labour Party, Jenkins was elected to the House of Commons in 1948. At first he represented Central Southwark but at the 1950 General Election moved to Stechford, Birmingham. This was a time when the Conservative Party held power but Jenkins gradually became a leading figure in the shadow cabinet.
After the Labour Party won the 1964 GeneraI Election the new prime minister, Harold Wilson, appointed Jenkins as aviation minister. The following year, Jenkins became home secretary. While in this post he encouraged the passing of private members' bills that legalized homosexuality and abortion. He also abolished theatre censorship. As a result the Daily Telegraph called him the “father of permissiveness”.
Denis Healey later argued: "In my view, Roy Jenkins's best period in office was as Home Secretary in the Cabinet of 1966; he then succeeded in stamping his liberal humanism on a department not notorious for that quality. He was not well suited to the politics of class and ideology which played so large a role in the Labour Party. His natural environment was the Edwardian age on which he wrote so well. He saw politics very much like Trollope, as the interplay of personalities seeking preferment, rather than, like me, as a conflict of principles and programmes about social and economic change."
In 1967 Jenkins became chancellor of the exchequer, the second most important post in the Cabinet. Over the next three years his main strategy was to get the balance of payments in the black. By the time of the 1970 General Election he had acquired the nickname of "Surplus Jenkins".
The Conservative Party won the 1970 election. When the new House of Commons assembled Jenkins was elected deputy leader of the Labour Party. At the 1971 Party Conference he argued strongly for Britain to join the European Community. Jenkins lost the vote by five-to-one and he upset the party when he defied a three-line whip to vote with the Conservatives on this issue.
The Labour Party won the 1974 General Election and Jenkins once again became home secretary. He was responsible for two important pieces of legislation, the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) and the Race Relations Act (1976). He also led the successful "yes" campaign in the referendum on membership of the European Economic Community. When Harold Wilson resigned in 1976 Jenkins stood for the leadership of the party. However, he came only third behind James Callaghan and Michael Foot.
In 1977 Jenkins left the House of Commons to become president of the European Commission in Brussels. In this post he began to advocate the idea of European monetary union. This was considered to be too radical at the time and the result was the introduction of the European monetary system. However, he had laid the foundations for what was later to become the single currency in 2002.
The political views of Jenkins were unpopular in the Labour Party and in 1981 he joined Shirley Williams, David Owen and William Rodgers in setting up the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Jenkins became leader of the new party and in 1982 he returned to the House of Commons as MP for Glasgow Hillhead.
At the 1983 General Election the SDP-Liberal Alliance achieved 25% of the popular vote. However, the SDP won only 6 seats. After the election Jenkins resigned as leader and was replaced by David Owen. In the 1987 General Election Jenkins lost his seat at Glasglow Hillhead. Created Lord Jenkins of Hillhead he became the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords.
In retirement Jenkins concentrated on writing and published several books including an autobiography, A Life At The Centre (1991) and two best-selling biographies, Gladstone (1995) and Churchill (2001).
Roy Jenkins died on 5th January, 2003.