David Owen, 1977-79
Labour, under Callaghan
As befits the man who was once youngest foreign secretary since Eden, David Owen has the happy distinction of being the first person in this series to be both still alive and active in politics, as the ‘independent social democrat’ Lord Owen.
After Bradfield College, Owen read medicine at Sidney Sussex, Oxford. He started work as a doctor at St Thomas’s hospital, London, in 1962. By then he had become an active member of the Labour Party and the Fabian Society, entering the Commons in 1966. He became a junior minister in Defence in 1968, and was a junior spokesman until he resigned, along with Roy Jenkins, in 1972, over Wilson’s opposition to Britain’s imminent membership of the EEC.
When Labour returned to power in 1974, Owen was given a junior post in the Department of Health and Social Security. When Callaghan won the leadership in 1976, Owen was number two to Tony Crosland in the Foreign Office. Crosland’s death, ten months later, saw Owen given what was, at the time, one of the most surprising promotions in modern political history.
As foreign secretary, Owen (seen here at Heathrow in 1977, with the prime minister and Callaghan’s press secretary, Tom McCafffrey) prepared the ground for a solution to the Rhodesia crisis, which would be manifest under his successor, Lord Carrington; he also began the process that would lead to independence from South Africa for Namibia. He also backed the Tanzanian invasion of Uganda, which saw the end of the bloody dictatorship of Idi Amin. He also became noted for his combative tone.
As Labour foreign secretaries often do, Owen would earn the opprobrium of the left for his support for NATO and America in general. It was an opprobrium the combative Owen would return in spades. When, in 1980, following Labour’s defeat the previous year, Michael Foot won the leadership, the party moved sharply to the left. It became committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament, immediate withdrawal from the EEC (without a referendum) and nationalisation of the banks.
Roy Jenkins had left British politics in 1976. In November 1979, he gave his famous Dimbleby lecture Home Thoughts From Abroad. In it, Jenkins envisioned ‘breaking the mould of British politics’. At that time, Owen was still a member of the shadow cabinet, committed to carrying on the fight within Labour. In his memoirs, he recalls seeing Jenkins’ speech as ‘a diversion’. Nor was he ever a friend of Jenkins: indeed, their relationship was often cool, at best. He had, however, struck up a friendship with a fellow member of the shadow cabinet, and a fellow moderate, Bill Rodgers.
Owen had always been deeply uneasy about the idea of splitting from the Labour Party, fearing that it would only help the Conservatives. On the other hand, Labour’s remorseless move to the left made him even less happy inside the party. At a special conference in Wembley in May 1980, Owen was violently heckled, and the conference effectively repudiated the record of the Wilson and Callaghan governments. The following month, Owen was appalled to see Callaghan agree to the creation of an electoral college to elect the leader.
Even so, Owen may have remained in the Labour tent had Healey won the leadership. He didn’t.
A friend and colleague of Bill Rodgers’ was Shirley Williams. After Foot’s election, the three of them were in open opposition to their party leadership. Back in June, Owen had learned that John Silkin, a left wing member of the shadow cabinet, was pushing for Labour to adopt a policy of immediate withdrawal from the EEC. Owen told Rodgers, and following a meeting at Williams’ London home, the three issued a declaration stating their opposition to any such policy. That was followed by a letter to the Guardian and the Daily Mirror in August, stating their support for the policies of the last government, for NATO and EEC membership. By the time Foot became leader, Owen, who had been the most reluctant of the three to contemplate breaking from Labour, now became the most inclined to envision that very thing.
The three still dallied, however. For each, it would involve a break with a lifelong allegiance. Furthermore, the Gang of Three (as the press dubbed them, after the post-Mao Gang of Four in China) were unsure of Jenkins: all three regarded themselves as well to the left of him. Rodgers and Williams made tentative contact with Jenkins in 1979, but little had come of it. But now, it was Owen who made the decisive move. In truth, if they were going to break away, there was little sense in the Gang of Three doing so without Jenkins. The Gang of Four was born.
Its birth was announced outside Owen’s London home. The Limehouse Declaration led to the creation of the Council for Social Democracy and called for ‘a realignment of British politics’. Shortly after, in March 1981, the Social Democratic Party was formed.
It began life under collective leadership: Owen was its chair in the Commons. Ultimately, 28 Labour MPs defected to the SDP. In the year that followed, the party had some spectacular successes. Jenkins, having lost narrowly to Labour in Warrington, won a by-election in the formerly Conservative seat of Glasgow Hillheads; Williams took Crosby, also from the Tories. Thatcher was the most unpopular prime minister in polling history; the same opinion polls had the SDP and Liberals in the lead, with over 50% at their peak.
The party had swiftly done a deal with the Liberals, something Owen was uneasy about. On Radio 4 earlier this year, he repeated his conviction that the party would have better to have had a period of independence, so as to establish its separate identity. Jenkins disagreed, and most of the party went with him. Owen remained uneasy, and challenged Jenkins for the leadership in 1982: he lost, but his 45% share of the vote showed that he had a substantial following, and that many members were uneasy about the Alliance, and perhaps uneasy about Jenkins too.
In the 1983 election, the Alliance polled an impressive 25%, the highest share of the popular vote for any third party since 1923. However, in terms of seats the result was even worse than that of 1929. That year, the Liberals had won 24% of the popular vote, but only 59 seats. In 1983, the Alliance won a mere 23 seats: the SDP had just six of them.
Jenkins resigned, and Owen succeeded him as leader (the other two members of the Gang of Four had lost their seats). With Owen as leader, any possibility of a merger with the Liberals was postponed. As leader, Owen kept a high profile, so much so that Spitting Image, the satirical puppet show, depicted the Liberal leader David Steel popping up like a jack-in-the-box in Owen’s pocket. There were two by-election victories. With Labour still well to the left, Owen positioned the Alliance very much to the centre, and its popular support remained largely and two other SDP MPs limped on as a separate party. However, in May 1990, in the Bootle by-election, an SDP came behind the Monster Raving Loony Party. Owen threw in the towel.
In 1992, Owen advised voters to vote Liberal Democrat, in seats in which the party had a chance of winning. Otherwise, they should vote Conservative. Perhaps in gratitude, Owen was given a peerage. He went on to be a notably unsuccessful mediator in the former Yugoslavia. He refused to support Blair’s Labour, because of Blair’s support for British membership of the Euro. Owen was always every much his own man. By 2014, he had given money to Miliband’s Labour. In 2016, he supported Brexit.
David Owen was the youngest foreign secretary since Eden. Margaret Thatcher was something of an admirer, feeling that his natural home was in the Conservative Party and, more tellingly, that his considerable abilities were being wasted. That might, in the end, become his epitaph.
And now, Spitting Image.