Wednesday 22-10-2014 - 14:37
At 90 years of age, Stanley Jenkins is the National Union of Students’ oldest surviving president. He was at the helm of the student movement during a critical post-war period when NUS’ work was dominated by the Cold War, a time when its leaders served a far more international role than those of today.
Since leaving NUS, Jenkins has served 28 years with the Foreign Office including postings to Kuala Lumpur, Burma, Cyprus and Oman, followed by 32 years (and counting) of active retirement. He reveals his fascinating life story to Spotlight.
By the time Stanley Jenkins enrolled onto a building technology course at Cardiff Technical College in 1946, he had already accumulated more stories to tell than most do in a lifetime.
During World War Two, Jenkins recruited and trained West African troops before leading them through India into Burma. At the end of the war, he led a company of troops back to the Gold Coast (now Ghana) before being demobbed onto the streets of Liverpool with no money, no home and no way of knowing whether his six brothers had survived the war.
Miraculously, all six did survive, but sadly his parents had died. He was invited by an aunt to stay in his birthplace of Brecon in South Wales, and was expected to join his family firm of builders. Instead, he opted to study, and, after securing a Further Education Training Grant for £236 per annum, he started a four-year course at Cardiff Technical College.
The higher education sector had all but closed down during the war, and consequently Jenkins’ generation of students was much older than those of subsequent and previous years.
As unrest grew over what the older students considered ‘petty’ legal restrictions, Jenkins, in his second year, took action by lobbying his MP George Thomas, and was successful in having many regulations changed. Jenkins recalls: “This picked me out as a student who could get things done, and I was nominated as Welsh Vice President of NUS.” And so began his journey in student politics.
Stanley Jenkins was a landmark president on many levels; he was the first full-time paid president, and also the only president to this day to come from a technical college.
But one factor that perhaps marked him out above others was his political neutrality. He explains: “I found myself in NUS as probably the only non-communist with a largely communistdominated executive. I wasn’t very interested in politics, but everything they were saying countered my impressions.”
Jenkins considers the reversal of the trend towards communism to be his greatest achievement as president. “The student movement was in real danger of communist subversion at the time I was elected,” he says. “By the end, that trend had been reversed. It was like a train – in my time it ran into the buffers, and we were the buffers.”
Jenkins’ presidency was dominated by the Cold War, as the battle for communist control of the British student movement was at its height. He travelled behind the Iron Curtain to Eastern Europe once a month for meetings of the executive committee of the International Union of Students.
As a staunch opponent of the communist regime, these trips were not without threat, and Jenkins was often the sole passenger on planes to Prague. “It was very lonely and very dangerous,” he recalls. “Surveillance teams shadowed me everywhere I went.”
Prior to becoming president, Jenkins was sent to Prague for the first time in 1949, following the Czech coup d’état to report on the oppression of students. “I reported overnight to a full congress of a council of NUS at Oxford, and I was not complimentary about what I found in Prague,” he recalls. “That speech – I’m told I spoke for an hour and a half – got me the presidency.”
Although Jenkins’ ultimate aim was to steer NUS away from its communist leaning, he initially viewed its involvement with the International Union of Students as crucial.
He explains: “In spite of all that I was reporting, I took the line that we should remain members of the international union and try to reform it from within. That proved to be hopelessly wrong, and eventually we came to the conclusion that we must disaffiliate, and that’s what we did in 1951.”
Jenkins spoke out against an intimidating audience of 500 delegates in Prague; an opposition organised by Alexandr Shelepin, who was later head of the KGB. “They shouted me down but I refused to leave the rostrum,” Jenkins remembers. “I insisted on going through to the end of the speech. I might have been very foolish or very brave.”
Shelepin was somewhat of an arch-rival for Jenkins during this period. “He was my main adversary in the Cold War,” Jenkins says. “He represented the Soviet Bloc and I represented the West.
I had many, many meetings with him behind closed doors, arguing the toss about the wording for the main resolutions. He was Stalin’s right-hand man, he was the head of the youth and student movements, and he was the man who called me an ‘arch-fascist imperialist beast’!”
He recalls another incident in Prague: “One night, strolling alone, I found myself on Charles Bridge with my supervisors standing on both ends of the bridge. I really thought at that time that was the end of me, I was going to be tossed into the river!”
NUS ultimately disaffiliated from the International Union of Students in 1951 as a result of a national referendum, and Jenkins’ speech in support of the motion was to be his last act as president.
He recalls: “Before the national referendum I said: ‘You are not voting on whether you want me as president, you are voting on whether we stay in the international union. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, I will resign.’ So I resigned.”
The referendum was passed and Jenkins stepped aside as promised, to be replaced by his good friend and colleague John Thompson, also an anti-communist. “He finished off what I had started,” says Jenkins.
Although international work dominated Jenkins’ presidency, NUS did play an important domestic role as well. He says: “We were very concerned about the cost of education, and we were running campaigns mainly to secure free education for all and expansion of university places.
We did secure free education for all and we were very proud of it, but we were totally preoccupied by the Cold War.”
NUS itself changed drastically during Jenkins’ tenure. “The presidency became a full-time job in my time,” he explains. “We had established new departments covering travel, vocational work, cultural activities and even the NUS bookshop.
“We were much older than subsequent generations. We were ex-servicemen. I was 26 when I was demobbed, I was 29 when I became president, and subsequently younger generations took over and most of those departments failed.”
While still a student, Jenkins went on a debating tour of India, Pakistan and Ceylon. In three months he took part in over 100 debates, often confronted by audiences of up to 6,000. “It was the first mission back to India after independence,” he remembers.
“The British Council wanted to sound out the Indians to see how they would react to a British return, and we were the guinea pigs. But we had a wonderful reception.
“The highlight of the tour was to have breakfast with Pandit Nehru in Delhi, followed by lunch with the Governor General Rajagopalachari, tea with the Viceroy and dinner with the Vice Chancellor,” he continues. “We had fantastic debates.”
A low point of the tour came when Jenkins was falsely accused of involvement in the killing of some students in Calcutta. “I wanted to get to the rostrum to explain that I had nothing to do with it, and they wouldn’t let me have the floor, so I asked if I could see my passport,” he explains.
“Eventually when my passport was returned to me I could prove that I was not even in India at the time, but I’d been denigrated for having instigated this riot.”
As president, Jenkins met a string of high-profile leaders of nations. He had lunch with President Auriol of France at the Élysée Palace; he met with Queen Juliana of Holland; when he visited Bulgaria, he was met on the platform of Sofia railway station by the entire Bulgarian cabinet.
“We were recognised by politicians at the highest level,” Jenkins says. “When we went to all these countries we were received by prime ministers and foreign secretaries. After the war, students were regarded as very important, which isn’t the same today.”
When his time with NUS was drawing to a close, Jenkins, not aligned with any political party, found people knocking on his door. “Because I wasn’t affiliated I was approached by all three political parties to see when I was retiring,” he says.
“We had a lot of publicity. We were headlines in the newspapers because it was the Cold War; every speech I made was reported worldwide. I was approached to see if I was interested in a political career. But I wasn’t, I was tired. I was absolutely worn out.”
Rather than pursue a political career, Jenkins took a job with the Foreign Office, a career that started with a telephone call from Sir Ivison MacAdam, the man who founded NUS in 1922.
“I was sitting in my office in Endsleigh Street when the phone rang, and Sir Ivison Macadam asked if I would be interested in an appointment with the Royal Institute of International Affairs,” Jenkins remembers. “He invited me for an interview and said he was retiring, and his post was up for grabs. So I applied, I was shortlisted, and two of us went for an appointment.
I was not successful – the chap who got the job had cabinet office experience – but within days I had a letter from the Foreign Office inviting me to apply for an appointment, which I did, and after interviews and boarding I was offered an appointment. That’s how I came to be with the Foreign Office for the next 28 years.”
Jenkins was first posted to Singapore in 1952, where he spent two three-year spells before being posted to Kuala Lumpur, where he worked on the defence treaty for the independence of Malaya.
It was on this posting that Jenkins met and married his wife. After another brief mission to Singapore, he was posted to Burma’s capital Rangoon as First Secretary in the British Embassy.
Here he served an eventful three years, during which time the military coup took place. “I was living in a house next to Prime Minister Ne Win, who took over control, and I had dinner with Prime Minister U Nu the night before he was arrested and detained following the coup,” he recalls.
Although Jenkins stresses that he and his family were in no danger in Burma, one incident caused considerable alarm. “My daughter was bitten by a rabid dog and it was a Sunday, everything was closed,” he remembers.
“I didn’t know whether this was like a snake bite, whether you’ve got minutes or hours, and I drove to the Pastor Institute in Rangoon, about six miles away, and found it closed. The American Embassy had a resident nurse and she was able to provide the first shot of serum, but she said we must catch the dog.
“The dog had gone though my fence into Ne Win’s compound, and I had to go with my cook boy to the guard on the gate and say I wanted to go in and catch the dog. He wouldn’t let me in, so I walked past the guard and he aimed his rifle, but we went in and my cook boy caught the dog. That was a horrific experience, but I defied Ne Win’s guard!”
After leaving Burma, Jenkins fulfilled postings in Cyprus and Oman, and spent a further decade working for the Foreign Office in London before finally retiring in 1978.
Today he remains highly active; he lives in and maintains a beautiful thatched cottage in West Sussex, which features a stunning tennis court and a mesmerising collection of artefacts from all over the world.
The experience of being a student leader was invaluable in preparing Jenkins for his career with the Foreign Office. “It gave me the political training I had lacked, and it gave me an insight into international diplomacy,” he says. “It was enormously helpful.”
In the six decades since Jenkins was NUS President, the student movement agenda has shifted hugely. “There’s an enormous expansion in numbers,” says Jenkins.
“In my time there were 105,000 members, but now it’s millions. And today, the international dimension has gone almost completely, whereas in my time it was dominant.”
Jenkins has followed the recent tuition fees saga with great interest. “I think it’s excessive,” he says. “I think it’s been pushed too far. I think eventually they might have reached this stage, but I would have given it a ten-year period. I think it’s right that students should eventually pay for the advantages they have been given, but to impose it all in one block, it’s totally unfair.”
Jenkins strongly believes that the student voice should be well tempered. “I think it is very important that the voice of students should be heard – they have a legitimate point of view, and provided it’s exercised sensibly it can be important,” he says.
“When I started off in NUS, we were totally barred from anything, we were young communists. In the end I was invited to Downing Street, I met Clement Attlee. We were being listened to. A moderate voice will always be heard, an extreme voice won’t be.
“It is important to be recognised as reliable and sensible,” he continues. “If demonstrations are not regarded in that light, then I would avoid demonstrations. I would prefer to see Internet petitions, polls, lobby of MPs, anything which is recognised as sensible and acceptable. But avoid extremes.”
On 25 November 2010, Stanley Jenkins celebrated his 90th birthday. A wonderful party was attended by a whole host of his family, friends and former colleagues, including his four daughters and two of his brothers, aged 94 and 92.
But at 90, Jenkins shows no signs of slowing down; he is as fit and active as ever. We wish him many more healthy and happy years to come.