Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, who died yesterday, will be remembered as the man who led the breakaway SDP and split the Labour Party.

Colin Tapping reflects on a career spanning five decades and his legacy to modern British politics.

APPEARANCES deceive. A polished accent, Oxford education, supreme intellect and a love of claret suggest Roy Jenkins was ill-at-ease in the Labour movement.

In fact, it was his natural home. Where else was there to go for a young man with political ambitions, brought up in a working class family in the Welsh Valleys, and the son of a miner who became a Labour MP?

What made appear uncomfortable in his surroundings was his ability to rise above the internecine warfare which so dominated the post-war Labour Party.

He was his own man, untainted by factionalism and untamed by the trade union barons who ruled the roost. This, sometimes erroneously, singled him out as 'moderate' and 'right-wing'.

In fact, on most issues Jenkins was a radical. As Home Secretary in Harold Wilson's first administration he set in place some of the most sweeping social and legal reforms of the last century. And later as Chancellor of the Exchequer he skillfully repaired some of Labour's reputation for economic mismanagement.

He was at the very heart of the party, yet still seemed aloof and an outsider.

Like many of his generation of politicians who served during the Second World War before entering Parliament, he was an ardent European. He was convinced that closer ties between the nations of European was the only way to avoid military conflicts on the continent.

The European issue, more than any other, distinguished him from most of his Labour colleagues, who were staunchly anti-European.

He found his relations increasingly strained with many Labour backbenchers over their hostility to Britain's planned entry into the European Community.

In 1972 he resigned as Deputy Leader and quit the Shadow Cabinet on a point of principle over the Common Market, but in November 1973 returned to the Shadow Cabinet.

Labour scraped into power in 1974 and Roy Jenkins was once more back in the Home Office until he resigned in September 1976, before heading to Brussels as President of the European Commission the following year.

From there, he watched with increasing distaste the activities of Labour and the unions - wedded to each other but increasingly at odds as Jim Callaghan tried to curb pay settlements and keep the economy under control.

After Labour's election defeat in 1979, and with his term as EC President due to expire shortly, Jenkins decided to act. In November 1979 he delivered the Richard Dimbleby lecture on BBC television, and used it to launch his vision of mould-breaking politics for Britain.

At first it was thought he might move directly to the Liberals. But after talks with that party's then leader, David Steel, he came out firmly for a separate party, co-operating with the Liberals.

In 1981, the "Gang of Four" - Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers - formalised their break with the party by setting up their Council for Social Democracy under their Limehouse Declaration. The SDP was born.

Around ten per cent of Labour MPs defected to the new force of British politics. And later that year Jenkins tried unsuccessfully to join them in the Commons by fighting the by-election at Labour-held Warrington.

Victory finally came at the Glasgow Hillhead by-election in March 1982.

Jenkins forged ever-stronger links with the Liberals and in 1983 the two parties fought the General Election as the Alliance, achieving more than 25 per cent of the vote for their 23 seats.

But the cut and thrust of the hustings did not suit Jenkins' urbane style and soon after he stepped down, Dr Owen taking over as leader.

Relations in the Alliance became increasingly brittle under the new regime and fractured after the 1987 General Election set-back in which Roy Jenkins lost his Glasgow seat to Labour.

The SDP disappeared as a significant force, almost as quickly as it emerged, and Jenkins soon led the majority of his supporters into the arms of the Liberals.

Ironically, with Britain's social democratic experiment dead in the water, Jenkins came to have more affinity with the policies of New Labour under Tony Blair than he did with the Old Labour governments of which he was a central figure.

As Tony Benn observed yesterday: "As a founder of the SDP he was probably the grandfather of New Labour. This was Roy Jenkins's idea of what Labour should be."

To the older generation of Labour politicians who had endured the bitterness of the SDP breakaway, he remained a traitor. The new generation saw him as a kindred spirit, a guiding light.

In later years, although still a member of the Liberal Democrats, he became an ally and mentor of Tony Blair, prompting the Prime Minister's reaction to the death of the elder statesman: "I will miss him deeply. Roy Jenkins was one of the most remarkable people ever to grace British politics."

Finally, after more than half-a-century in frontline politics, Jenkins had seen the Labour Party fashioned in the way he wanted to see it.