Lord Jenkins of Putney
(Filed: 29/01/2004)
 

The Lord Jenkins of Putney, who died on Monday aged 95, was a Minister for the Arts, Labour MP for Putney and former assistant general secretary of the actors' union, Equity; he was also a seasoned campaigner in the anti-nuclear movement, helping to form the H-bomb committee in 1954 which eventually grew into the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, of which he was a vice-president for many years.

His tall, striking appearance - he had a carefully cultivated ginger beard - made him a conspicuous figure at CND demonstrations, as well as in the Commons. His flamboyance, coupled with his role in Equity, often led people to believe he was an actor rather than a trades union leader.

Hugh Gater Jenkins was born of Welsh parents at Enfield, Middlesex, on July 27 1908 (his father was a dairyman), and was educated at Enfield Grammar School. His first job was as an insurance collector for the Prudential, and he soon became active in his trade union and in the Labour Party.

Before the war Jenkins volunteered for the Royal Observer Corps, and was commissioned into RAF Fighter Command. In 1945 he was sent to Burma to run the Forces Radio Service in Rangoon. There he identified himself so passionately with the Burmese people that he took to wearing native dress and calling himself Uyan Kin. This did not commend him to his superiors, and he was dispatched home.

Rather than return to the Prudential, on demobilisation Jenkins decided to work for the trades union movement, finding a job with the National Union of Bank Employees at a quarter of the salary he might otherwise have received. He soon became research and publicity officer, and editor of their journal Bank Officer.

In 1950 Jenkins moved to Equity - an outfit that was more to his taste - becoming Assistant General Secretary in 1957, a post in which he remained until 1964. He spent 15 years in search of a Labour constituency before being adopted for Putney in preparation for the 1964 election.

Jenkins's CND activities and Left-wing views made him highly suspect at Transport House, particularly when he took his constituency party's banner on the Aldermaston March. There were attempts to have his nomination suspended, but nothing came of them, and to his - and everyone else's - surprise he won this predominantly middle-class constituency. He held it until 1979, a tribute to his diligence and personal charm.

Having become an MP, Jenkins remained with Equity as political liaison officer, and in the Commons he concentrated on the arts, becoming chairman of the back-bench films and communications group. He was something of a rarity on the Left, being more of a pragmatist than an ideologue.

He did not, for example, support Labour's opposition to commercial television, and he joined a non-profit-making part of a Yorkshire Television consortium, seeing it as a realistic way of developing the arts, particularly theatre.

Jenkins campaigned persistently in the Commons against the exploitation of children in television commercials; he also pressed for a ban on girl dancers being recruited to go to the Middle East.

As Minister for the Arts, from 1974 to 1976, he abolished museum entrance charges; but he angered writers by prevaricating over the introduction of payments to authors for the use of library books.

He loudly proclaimed his intention to democratise the arts establishment (what he referred to as the "Snobocracy"), provoking the anger of the arts world to no particular purpose. He enraged artists and wealthy collectors by opposing the exemption of works of art from the proposed Wealth Tax. But in his book The Culture Gap (1979), Jenkins exhibited the strong belief that he was the best friend in politics that the world of the arts had ever had.

His brief ministerial career came to an end in 1976, when James Callaghan succeeded to the premiership and purged his government of most Left-wingers.

Jenkins was created a life peer in 1981, on the recommendation of the former Labour leader Michael Foot, and became highly active in the House of Lords. So skilfully did he exploit the informal procedures of the Upper House that a limit had to be imposed on the number of questions a peer could ask each day. He was a vice-president of CND from 1981, and continued to campaign on its behalf. He circumvented the government's ban on the publication of Spycatcher by reading lengthy extracts from it to ensure it was on public record in Hansard.

Hugh Jenkins wrote a number of radio plays in the 1980s, as well as essays, pamphlets and contributions to newspapers.

In 1936 he married Marie Crosbie. She died in 1989, and he married, secondly, in 1991, Helena Maria Pavlidis.