As plain Hugh Jenkins, Lord Jenkins of Putney, who has died aged 95, was appointed minister for the arts by Harold Wilson in 1974, then sacked by his successor, James Callaghan, in 1976 for being too leftwing. While in office, he abolished museum charges, sought to shift the emphasis of subsidy away from minority interests, like opera and ballet, in favour of improving majority pursuits such as film and television, and tackled the thorny issue of authors’ public lending rights.
Always a leftwing fundamentalist, he was a genial, witty, obsessive, whose views were as craggy and unalterable in old age as they had been in 1964, when he unexpectedly became the first Labour MP for Wandsworth, Putney – in the wake of a considerable Labour party rift over his lifelong commitment to nuclear disarmament. But his idealism belied the breadth of his experience.
Born in Enfield, Middlesex, the son of a dairyman and a butcher’s daughter, Jenkins attended Enfield grammar school (whose snobbery he recalled in his 1983 radio play, Solo Boy). He worked for the Prudential Assurance for the 10 years up to 1940, becoming active in its staff association. In 1936, he married the warm and lovely Marie Crosbie, always called “Mairie”.
In 1941, he joined the RAF, becoming an air traffic controller and flight lieutenant, mainly based in Nottingham. At the end of the war, he refused an invitation to attend a selection conference for Peterborough, instead spending most of his military leave fighting the 1945 election for a new generation of Labour candidates, among them George Brown, Philip Noel-Baker and Geoffrey de Freitas. Midlands miners loved him when he told them that they had been “the real heroes of the war”.
Still in uniform, he was then seconded to the government of Burma and put in charge of English language programmes on Rangoon Radio. He gave airtime to Aung San, the leader of Burma’s nationalists, which put him in the black book of British intelligence, and may well have undermined his attempts to get a job with the BBC when he returned to England in 1947.
Instead, Jenkins became London organiser of the struggling National Union of Bank Employees. He and Marie settled in Croydon, south London, where she was elected to the local council. He could not resist an offer to fight Iain Macleod for hopeless Enfield West in 1950, but missed out on the 1951 election, largely because he had not long been in a new job, as assistant secretary of the actors’ union, Equity. In 1955, he fought Mitcham, forming the pioneering Mitcham Hydrogen Bomb Campaign Committee, and lost again.
He was, none the less, chairman of the tiny Victory For Socialism group – the successor to Keep Left – when it played a crucial role in 1956 as the funnel for leftwing opposition to the Suez invasion. It organised a meeting in Trafalgar Square, at which Hugh Gaitskell forcefully attacked Anthony Eden’s plan, which the Labour leader had only belatedly twigged. This sparked Labour’s wholehearted resistance to Suez.
By this time, however, Jenkins himself felt that, politically, he was a forgotten man – too middle-aged and too leftwing to win a safe Labour seat in parliament. In 1961, he settled for the London County Council, as member for Stoke Newington and Hackney North.
Meanwhile, in Putney, where he and Marie had moved, he became embroiled in a bitter right-left struggle. He had been selected as Labour candidate for the Putney seat just before the 1963 Aldermaston march, on which Putney Young Socialists had a banner. Rightwingers tried to have his candidacy vetoed on the grounds that he had been anti-nuclear long before CND had started in 1957. Labour’s national executive committee investigated, but decided to let Jenkins stand after Richard Crossman and Anthony Greenwood spoke up for him. To his utter astonishment, he won Putney by 1,307 votes in the 1964 election that brought Harold Wilson and Labour to power.
Once in parliament, Jenkins became active in the Tribune group, campaigning against nuclear weapons and the Vietnam war. As a Putney MP, he was also against aircraft noise and the threat of the proposed London motorway box. He pressed for protection for child actors appearing in television commercials, and against unlicensed agencies sending dancers to the Arab world.
More progress came with another unexpected break in 1973. Wilson promoted Jenkins to be opposition arts spokesman after sacking Andrew Faulds, who had derided pro-Zionist Labour MPs as speaking as though they were in the Israeli Knesset. Jenkins’s performance was strong, and, on Labour’s return to power in March 1974, he found himself named as arts minister.
He abolished museum charges straightaway and trebled the grant to area museum councils. In 1975, he demanded an extra £5m for the Arts Council. His promise of an early public lending rights bill, however, gave him most trouble; undermined by civil servants, and under-supported by senior colleagues, he became the target of frustrated and furious authors.
In the event, Jenkins’s attempt to democratise the Arts Council was blocked by his boss, the education secretary Fred Mulley. Jenkins backed the principle of handing over funds for the Arts Council to distribute, accepting that politicians should never exercise artistic judgments. However, when he wrote about his arts ministry days in The Culture Gap (1979), the cabinet secretary, Sir John Hunt, tried to have excluded his withering criticism of his civil servants and his clashes with his boss, Fred Mulley. It was only in that book that he revealed how many of his comrades, including leftwingers, he considered to be philistines.
When he lost Putney to David Mellor by 2,630 votes in 1979, Jenkins was over 70, but not ready to retire. He became chair of CND and, from 1981, its vice president; that year he was also back at Westminster as a life peer, quickly becoming chairman of the Lords CND group.
In the Lords, he was the first to respond to the call to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece, though most of his efforts were devoted to campaigning against the nuclear holocaust he increasingly considered inevitable. In 1982, he argued for the removal of US nuclear bases from Britain; by 1983, he was sure that the arrival of cruise missiles would lead to early human extinction. He could only recover his normal cheerfulness by asking questions about whether there was space in the government’s nuclear bunkers for TUC leaders.
In the late 1980s, he called for a body to monitor the security services, in the wake of the Spycatcher scandal. In 1993, he backed the intelligence services bill to provide such a supervisory body, recounting his own clashes with MI5 and M16, which had blocked his passport at one stage and, presumably, been responsible for bugging his telephone and burgling his flat.
Two years after Marie died in 1989, Jenkins married his second wife, Helena. This relationship ended in separation and, in 1994, her death. He left no children.
Bruce Kent writes: When Hugh Jenkins became chair of CND in 1979, neither he nor I, the new general secretary of a very small organisation, knew that during his two years in office, thanks to cruise missiles, the Trident programme, and the absurdities of Protect And Survive, CND would experience an astonishing rebirth.
As chair, he was hands-off rather than hands-on, more interested in getting the message over than in the mechanics of administration. The issue was what mattered. As he said in The CND Story: “Opposition to the bomb is really the only thing that matters. Everything else … is secondary and is carried out under the shadow of the death of civilisation.”
As a peer, Hugh used his platform tirelessly. He was always on the phone to tell me that he had oral or written questions coming up, and wanted to know what the appropriate one was for the moment. His fellow peers knew that he had always done his homework. So did the civil servants who had to produce an answer.
Always a flexible agnostic, he was proud of his early start as a bolshie, north London choirboy, who fought both vicar and choirmaster over a promised, but unpaid, solo bonus; that episode became one of his best BBC radio plays. So also did his experience at Rangoon Radio. On Christmas Day 1945, he left the studio in charge of a Burmese independence activist, who played Colonel Bogey before the King’s speech, and Mad Dogs And Englishmen immediately afterwards.
We have a little iron handle on the outside wall of our flat, put there to help Hugh up the steps when he was well enough to make Sunday lunch. It will long be a reminder of a kind, determined, humorous man, as low on ego as he was high on concern for humanity.
• Hugh Gater Jenkins, Lord Jenkins of Putney, politician and campaigner, born July 27 1908; died January 26 2004