The Foreign Secretaries (26): Sir Geoffrey Howe


Sir Geoffrey Howe, 1983-89

Conservative, under Thatcher

Sir Geoffrey Howe, after four turbulent years at the helm of the Thatcherite monetarist revolution, went to the Foreign Office. After years of being bullied and hectored, and just a little more than a year after he had been humiliatingly demoted, his disagreements with Thatcher, primarily over Europe, led to his resignation and Thatcher’s downfall.

You can read about his earlier career and his time as chancellor here.

74002As foreign secretary, Howe was both far-sighted and characteristically dogged. On most matters, he and Thatcher were broadly in agreement. Both sought to restore Britain’s somewhat battered international reputation, something the Iron Lady undoubtedly helped achieve. Like Thatcher, Howe was strongly pro-American: he had a good relationship the Reagan’s secretary of state, George Schultz (he is pictured above with George H Bush). Like them, he was also strongly supportive of the nascent opposition in the communist states, notably Poland’s Solidarity.

He was always a more interesting figure than his public image, as ‘Mogadon man’ portrayed (Mogadon was a powerful sedative). In a wine cellar in Prague, he entertained the Czech delegation by singing Cwm Rhondda (he was Welsh); meanwhile, his officials slipped out and met with opposition figures on the Charles Bridge. When one slipped him a note comparing the Gypsy fiddler to an old movie star, Howe thought he looked more like Nigel Lawson.


He was never Thatcher’s poodle, something she perhaps failed to recognise fully until he turned on her. He had harboured hopes of the leadership himself, though with characteristic grace he would come to wonder, in his later years, whether he had really had the stuff of leadership in him. In style, he was certainly very different from Thatcher: her default mode often seemed to be confrontation, his was conciliation if possible. He was very closely involved in the negotiations which would see Hong Kong return to Chinese rule. He moved away from Thatcher’s instinctive support for apartheid South Africa, and pressure was successfully applied to the South African regime to dismantle apartheid. Like Thatcher and Reagan, he saw Gorbachev’s Soviet Union as something different: he and Douglas Hurd played a significant role in persuading Thatcher that, in her famous phrase, Gorbachev was someone she could do business with.


The issue that would see him resign was Europe. By the late ‘eighties, both Howe and his successor in number eleven, Nigel Lawson, had become convinced that the way to hold down inflation was to stabilise the value of sterling. Back in 1985, Howe had played his part in Thatcher’s greatest achievement in Europe: the creation of the single market in the European Community. With that, the Exchange Rate Mechanism was created, whereby European currencies would align themselves to the value of the all-powerful Deutschmark.

For Howe, the ERM also had implications for British foreign policy. The single market looked towards both ‘ever-closer union’ and the ultimate goal of a single European currency. The drivers of this process were really France and Germany, in the form of Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl. For Howe, there was a danger that Britain would, once more, be isolated in the face of a great European initiative, as it had been at the time of the EEC’s foundation in 1957. By contrast, Britain had been at forefront in the creation of the single market. He did not want to squander that position.

The Margaret Thatcher of 1987 was, arguably, a somewhat different animal to the one Howe had known before. In the first place, the 1987 election victory, her third win and second landslide, left her seemingly untouchable and undoubtedly emboldened. The steadying hand of Willie Whitelaw had gone, and her relationship with Howe was increasingly strained. She was now surrounded by true believers, and the radical Thatcher was increasingly superseding the more cautious, political one who had often been evident before: the Poll Tax was the prime example of that.

Her wider cabinet had forestalled a plan to move towards a measure of privatisation of the health service by leaking the plan and killing it stone dead. Now, Howe and Lawson moved to push Thatcher into accepting some kind of path towards future ERM membership, at a European summit in Madrid. They succeeded, but only by threatening to resign. Knowing that, at a time when her unpopularity in the country left her in her most vulnerable position since before the Falkland’s, she backed down.

She took her revenge a month later, in the August 1988 reshuffle. Howe had been assured by the chief whip, David Waddington, that his position as foreign secretary was secure: thus, he didn’t make any attempt to mobilise supporters to forestall any attempt to unseat him. Instead, Howe was given the empty honorific title of deputy prime minister, made leader of the House and lord president of council: it was a humiliating demotion, and everyone knew it.  She rubbed salt into the words by forcing him out of the country house that had come with the Foreign Office, Chevening. Later, Howe would come to think he should have resigned there and then, and challenged Thatcher (seen below with her cabinet in 1990, flanked by Howe and Lawson).


Had he done so, she would probably have won. However, by the time Howe came to resign, her position was further eroded. She was deeply unpopular: local Tories reported that voters were telling that they might think of voting Tory were it not for ‘that bloody woman’. Labour were well ahead in the polls. The poll tax was proving to be a political disaster. Then, Nigel Lawson resigned over a combination of disagreements about the ERM, the influence of her special adviser Alan Walters and, more generally, her increasingly lofty disdain for her colleagues.

Howe was now frozen out. When the new chancellor, John Major, persuaded Thatcher to accept membership, she didn’t see fit to tell him: he learned about it from the queen. It’s not hard to imagine that years or resentment at being hectored and even humiliated didn’t play their part. Likewise, his wife had never liked Thatcher, and felt a similar resentment at the treatment Howe had been subject to for so long, and the ingratitude she had shown in demoting him so brusquely.


The last straw was Europe. Returning from a Rome summit, Thatcher famously got up in the Commons and ripped into the president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors: ‘No, no, no!’ (you can read about it, here). Thatcher, who had taken Howe’s loyalty for granted for so long, was surprised by his resignation. But that was as nothing when compared to the speech he gave to a packed house.


The primary reason Howe was nicknamed ‘Mogadon Man’ was his flat, quietly spoken and frankly dull public speaking. It was the contrast between that manner and the incendiary content of the speech that helped make the speech so devastating. Similarly, it was the fact that it was oh-so-loyal and so easily put upon Howe that was now calling for her head:

The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties, with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long.

Thatcher was visibly shocked; the House electrified. To her, this was ‘treachery’, and she never forgave him. The king over the water, Michael Heseltine, took up the challenge. The rest, as they say is history.

In the short term, Howe had won. He retired in 1992, going to the House of Lords. However, the aftermath of Thatcher’s defenestration was to split the Tory Party down the middle, and see the issue of Europe become the lodestar for the Tory righty henceforth. In one sense, Howe was the accidental father of the Conservative Europhobia that rendered the party unelectable under New Labour, and then gave us the 2016 referendum.


He remains one of nine men to have been both foreign secretary and chancellor since 1906. He was also one of the key authors of the Thatcherism that would transform British life in the ‘eighties. Perhaps most of all though, and ironically for so uninspiring an orator, he gave the most significant parliamentary speech of his generation, and brought down one of the great prime ministers. ‘I didn’t think Geoffrey would ever make a speech like that’, Thatcher was overheard saying as he sat down. One suspects nobody else had it expected it either.




2 thoughts on “The Foreign Secretaries (26): Sir Geoffrey Howe

  1. Nine in modern times have been Chancellor and Foreign Secretary – Hammond, Major, Howe, Callaghan, Butler, Lloyd, Macmillan, Simon, and Austen Chamberlain. Were there others beofre? I think Canning may have been both.


  2. I really enjoyed this – I always look forward to the potted biographies of key statesmen being published on the blog, and now we are firmly into the period I remember from my youth, they are great fun as well as insightful.


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