In conversation with... David Owen

Written by Iain Dale on 19 February 2010 in Interview
Foreign secretary in Callaghan's Labour government, leader of the breakaway SDP and Balkan statesman, David Owen's career has been unorthodox but often seen as unfulfilled. He opens up to Iain Dale

DO: I am a voice. I very rarely vote in the House of Lords and I focus entirely on international affairs. It would be unwise to pretend you have very great influence. I don't consider myself part of the legislative process. I mainly vote on matters of conscience or moral issues.

Someone described you as a pro-European, eurosceptic. Is that accurate?

I have never been a federalist. I accepted Hugh Gaitskell's assessment that if we were to reach a stage where we were heading for a federal state in which we were like California or New York, then that was not the sort of Europe I would wish to join. There is undoubtedly a continuing momentum towards ever greater unity and the aim of many of those is ever greater integration. I don't object to ever greater unity. Ever greater integration I do object to, because there are limits at many different aspects of community activity and we have to be much more aware of those limits.

I don't believe that is a eurosceptic stance. I never accept that I'm a eurosceptic. I came back into politics with the New Europe think tank because I wanted to make sure that we didn't get pushed into the euro. And, thank goodness, we aren't in it. If we were dealing with our own economic problems today without being able to depreciate, we'd be in a situation like Greece, Ireland and Spain. Thank goodness we're not in this vice.

You got involved in politics at quite a young age. Is there any part of you that regrets not being able to continue a medical career because of that?

I have never once ceased to be a doctor. When I was foreign secretary and issuing passports, I still called myself medical practitioner. And in the last five or six years I have been writing a book on illness and heads of governments. I really have gone back to medicine. Last May I wrote an article with Jonathan Davidson, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University in the US, in Brain Magazine, which is a very respectable international neurology journal, and we were submitted to peer review. It was actually an immensely interesting and enjoyable experience. There is no doubt they greatly improve the paper. There was a great interchange of ideas about the ‘hubris syndrome' and whether this is an acquired personality disorder, which I and Jonathan Davidson believe it is. It's been a wonderful thing for me in my seventies to be writing in learned journals, just like I did when I was 24 or 25.

When you look at the three political parties and compare them to when you were at your height in politics, what do you think the differences are between now and the ‘70s and ‘80s?

I always believed that politics thrives on an ideological debate and we've almost reached the point where having moved from too much ideology, which I think was the legacy really of the ‘60s and ‘70s, to too little ideology. I would not object if the debate became rather more ideological.

Couldn't you almost blame the SDP in part for that? The SDP was formed because the Labour Party had become very ideological, and indeed the Conservative Party also. That was the main selling point of the SDP - that it wasn't ideological.

That is a valid point. We certainly contributed to the death of ideology. But if you look at some of the SDP ideas - it was a Social Democratic Party - there is a very definite ideological strand within it.

When you look at the Liberal Democrats now, do you think that the social democratic side triumphed in the end?

The jury's out. There is no doubt that the combination of Vince Cable, Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg has made the party seem much happier with a social market economy. I used to have arguments both within the SDP and certainly with the Liberal Democrats about using the term. I feel it is still a problem for the modern Liberal Democrats. It is foolish for me to say that those people who took a different view from me and stayed with the idea of merging the parties haven't had an influence - people like Vince Cable and Chris Huhne. I do not want the death of ideology. I don't want too much ideology and a lot of the decisions you take in government are pragmatic. They are a matter of trying to weigh up facts and the evidence. But you go into politics and you become a minister rather than a civil servant because you have a view about society. There are things you want to do and I think that must be a driving force about politics. The clash of ideas about how to control market forces is one which needs to be had.

How should the Lib Dems define themselves?

In this election the jury is out on a lot of things, not least - it's going to be very important for the Liberal Democrats - for how they define themselves in the economic future. If they are seen to be principled but tough-minded about the economy, then people will be prepared to vote for them. They will be prepared to take the risk of not being exactly sure what sort of government will emerge. If they think that they haven't made that step to be an economic governing force, they will hold back. Vince Cable, in personal terms, has done a lot for the Liberal Democrats but he's supported by others. Nick Clegg in his economic language is very Jo Grimond. I see more Jo Grimond in Nick Clegg than in almost all the previous leaders.

Peers don't have a vote but if you could, you would vote for Nick Clegg.

I rather resent the fact you have to give up being able to vote as a peer. I actually have great confidence in the British electorate. They got every election right in my lifetime and that has kicked me out of government twice. It's quite a hard thing to say, but it was right we were kicked out in 1970 and it was right that we were kicked out in 1979. The British electorate have a pretty good sniff for this. It is pretty clear to me they've not decided which way to go. It's amazing that Labour can be in contention after what's happened to them. This is because the country has not yet made their mind up about the Conservatives but it's also the nature of the electoral system we have. The hurdle is absurdly high - grossly, unfairly high - for the Conservatives to pass. This is beginning to dawn on people, especially when you begin to grapple with the fact that the Tories could have a 10 per cent lead and still not win.

You sound as if you'd prefer a hung Parliament. Wouldn't that be a dangerous outcome in these economic circumstances, where you need a clear lead and a strong government?

I've actually not quite made up my own mind. I want to see more of the Liberal Democrats and we'll hear more about them. I welcome the fact that they again participate in these debates. This could be the making of them. The mere fact that this is taking place is probably worth one or two per cent for them.

But now I am absolutely convinced that people must not be forced off voting for rather small parties, Liberal Democrats or others, by fear. There are no problems with a hung Parliament. In any rational world it means that the electorate has taken one choice - and the powers exist in British politics to take account of what the voters have said. But fact is they don't want to do it. They somehow have managed to convince themselves - I'm not sure if they have convinced the British people - that a hung Parliament can only have one outcome, which is a minority government. And this whole absurdity of one is enough.

We cannot in 2010 go through what we did in the first six months of 1974 - hang on for another election, not taking any unpopular decisions. Nor can we do what we went on to do by never really having enough MPs to govern properly. We had the IMF coming in and making a discipline framework for decisions. So anyone who believes, any party leader who can go up and defend handling a hung Parliament in the same way as we handled it in ‘74 is riding for a fall.

Haven't the Lib Dems got to decide at some point whether they want a formal coalition or, a bit like the Lib-Lab pact, whether they might allow a government to continue by individual votes?

Theoretically that option exists. But the nature of the economic crisis, the nature of the economic choices in front of us are unpopular choices that are going to be there for at least a year, probably two or three. And therefore it seems pretty clear that the more structured, the more reliable, the more long-lasting the relationship, the better it is for the national interest. We have a right to ask the candidates in this particular instance: do you accept a four-year term? There is an argument for whichever party has won the election - combination of votes cast and MPs won - opening up to a possibility of a multi-party government even if they have got a majority of five, 10, arguably even 15 to 20.

Which Blair had intended to do in ‘97...

Very few people realise how extensive the deal envisaged by Blair and Ashdown was. In fairness to Paddy Ashdown, there was never any doubt he had abandoned equidistance and after the long period of Conservative rule he was undoubtedly clear that Liberals would go with the Labour Party. That was a perfectly legitimate choice. This time Nick Clegg seems to be saying: "I have gone back to equidistance." But he is obviously trying to strive for something a little bit more, a little bit more clarity, but not to be boxed in. These are issues for him.

What did you make of the reports that Margaret Thatcher and John Major both wanted you in their cabinets? Were you horrified?

No, not at all. How could I have been?

What's the truth behind Gordon Brown asking you to become a GOAT (member of a Government of All Talents)?

He asked me to come to see him. As far as I was concerned, the conversation would have remained private. I saw him on the Wednesday, he saw Margaret Thatcher on the Thursday and I was in Chicago on the Friday. I was at a board meeting and I started getting rung up by people who had been briefed on the Sunday papers, saying: "I gather you are going to join the Labour Party." I said no such thing. It then transpired that No 10 had rather foolishly leaked the conversation. They should have rung me up and said: "This story we can't hold," and we would have reached a joint statement, because it was a perfectly amicable meeting. But I was obviously being asked to get involved in the health service.

You could see his reasoning before the meeting - David Owen is unsafe in terms of the Labour Party still on most issues, but nobody in the Labour Party doubts his commitment to the health service, which was true. But this was in a period when, in 2007, I genuinely wanted Gordon Brown to be prime minister. I argued that Blair should have stepped down in an article in The Sunday Times in January 2004. So I had high hopes for Gordon Brown. But too many of my friends had told me he was not going to be a very successful prime minister. They talked about this indecision. But above all I wasn't really ready to come into the health service. I was out of date. If you go away for nearly three years in the Balkans you lose touch. So when I came back I never went on Question Time or Any Questions - I am not an instant pundit on every damn thing under the sun.

You say you will have no influence over the next election. Do you think if you had played things differently in 1988-9, you might have still been on the domestic political scene as a figure of influence?

I don't think so. I did my best to keep the SDP alive after ‘87 but my view was overridden by the parliamentary party being only five MPs. I believe we had to have an amicable divorce. I knew that there were people in the Social Democratic Party that genuinely wanted to merge. My agreement with David Steel was only up until ‘87. After the 1987 election I always knew that people would want to merge for perfectly reputable and legitimate reasons. I was never going to oppose that. But it wasn't for me. One of the reasons was I didn't think I would win my own seat as a Liberal Democrat.

There were some fairly bitter words spoken at that time, particularly against you personally. Have those wounds healed?

Yes, by and large. Certainly the original gang of three - Shirley [Williams], Bill [Rodgers] and I - have resolvedour problems.

Shirley Williams was quite kind about you in her autobiography...

It's not just for show. When I was chancellor of Liverpool University it was a happy day when I gave an honorary degree to Shirley and Bill, both with their Liverpool connections. Shirley has been on holiday in my house in Greece. I am sure I was right. We should have had an amicable divorce. The majority probably would have merged but we would have kept a lot of people in politics if we had done it in a proper, civilised way. The party that believed in rationality ought to have been able to find an amicable divorce. We would have been smaller. The SDP would have continued. We wouldn't have had 50 per cent of the seats at the next election but had we stayed together as an SDP-Liberal alliance with a single leader, probably from the Liberal Democrats, we would have held the balance in 1992. And in my view, John Major was someone you could have negotiated with.

But David Steel effectively bounced you, didn't he?

Not really. I know it suited people to think that.

I always thought it was his revenge for the Spitting Image sketch! You must have smiled when you first saw that...

I did but I often said to myself, it must be awful to have that. I know if it was being done to me I wouldn't have liked it. I think Spitting Image was a ghastly thing to happen for him and he handled it with great dignity. David was always quite clear and democratically correct. His job was to look after the best interests of the Liberal Party. The best interests of the Liberal Party, as far as he could judge, were to merge. It was in the worst interests of the SDP to merge and that has been shown by history. We snuffed ourselves out. What was extraordinary was the method of merging was a legal one, not allowing an amicable divorce but effectively saying we couldn't exist. Fortunately Parliament saved us because it recognised us as SDP MPs. But I never really believed that we could survive. We were a think tank really from ‘87 to ‘90. We had some quite good ideas that have been absorbed by all political parties since. But we were not going to survive. We weren't of critical mass.

I have had a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting life since I gave up the House of Commons in 1992. Yugoslavia was bloody awful penance really, but it was challenging and I have been in international business since then and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Apparently Jack Cunningham greeted your appointment in the Balkans saying that: "The prime minister's choice was regarded as somewhat eccentric by MPs and myself. David Owen is known for many qualities but not as a mediator. Indeed he has Balkanised a few political parties himself."

It surprised people that I stayed on in the Balkans even when the Americans ditched the Vance-Owen peace plan. I could have resigned, and I nearly did. When you are in politics, you do it for a purpose. All my resignations, and there have been quite a number of them, have been for a purpose. In those days, the only people who would have been happy would have been in Washington. I was actually being supported pretty well by the European governments. So I stuck at it for nearly three years. I was happy to go at any time but the European governments wanted me to stay. In a way, we held the ring until they made up their minds to use force. I never changed my mind. At various times I put it to the European ministers that you will only get a negotiation when you allow us to enforce this particular settlement. But they were never ready to do it. So it was a tough assignment, but challenging.

When you read profiles of yourself, particularly in the mid-80s and later, the one word that was always used was 'arrogant'. I have always thought that was a good thing for a politician to be, to a degree. Did that ever irritate you or do you recognise an element of truth in it?

There is an element of truth in pretty much all criticism. People who just ignore criticism and say, ‘I never read newspapers,' aren't being honest. I was impatient. I was in a hurry - you have to curb it as far as possible. But I was always quite good at listening to people and taking account of their views. Sometimes people criticised me for being too much of a compromiser, surprisingly. But on fundamental issues I would fight my corner. And I used to enjoy the clash of opinions. I liked the House of Commons. I liked the debates. But underneath I knew you had to forge agreements, you had to work across political parties

You've said you don't think Gordon Brown suffers from hubris but he suffers from self-doubt. How do you justify that?

Look at his nails, they are bitten down. He and Blair are very different. Blair sailed through with supreme confidence on reading one piece of paper. Brown reads everything. He's a hugely complicated man. He's much better read, a more knowledgeable person than Blair. They are just very different. Blair was always a classic case for hubris, and it took time to develop in him, as I don't think he had it in the early years. Brown is a tortured soul, in some respects, in good ways. He agonises over issues but this has made him very indecisive. He finds decisions difficult. Not just calling elections - quite a lot of decisions he doesn't find easy to make. A prime minister has to have a certain amount of decisiveness in their nature. Things are coming at them fairly fast. They have to be able to make decisions and then move on and not be haunted by them.

The problem with the Blair/Brown presidency, as I call it, was that it completely distorted the structure of British government. Not only did the cabinet matter very little, the civil service got used to funnelling domestic stuff through the Treasury and everything else through No 10. These two would then argue between themselves, broadly speaking as friends. But Brown's biggest job was to stay in contention and not be sacked. The only way we managed to do that was by mastering his subject. And sadly for all of us, Blair and Brown got into a competitive expenditure race. Expenditure went out of control after about 2000. That was largely because Brown wanted to stay popular, ahead of Blair, so that Blair could never dare sack him. It's an extraordinary period. Let's hope we never have that again. It ought not to be possible. That is one of the other things we need to look at - what are the constitutional checks on personal power and two people in this case, not one, carving out the structures of government in a totally damaging manner?

What kind of prime minister would you have been?

I don't think you can really tell until you do the job.

You got on quite well with Margaret Thatcher, didn't you?

I didn't personally get on very well with her. I didn't really know her in that sense. I believed that some of the things she was doing were absolutely essential to Britain's recovery, particularly economic recovery, and I supported them. I believed that the defeat of Arthur Scargill was an essential element - it wouldn't have been the same to have had the usual cobbled-up compromise anymore. That had to be a defeat because he ignored the pithead ballot. But just say Kinnock had made a speech at the start of the miners' strike and said: "I am the son of a miner. The issue here is the pithead ballot - that is the miners' democracy and no leader of the Labour Party can support a strike unless there has been a pithead ballot." If he had said that and stuck to it, he would have made his mark on British politics and I suspect the electoral cycle would have allowed him to be prime minister. You get one major thing like that wrong. The other things you change - he changed his mind on Europe, he changed his mind on nuclear. But what they really judge you on is a few big tests and he destroyed himself on the miners' strike. He had a perfectly legitimate position which was the pithead ballot and he did choose it for a while. He was knocked off it. He should never have allowed himself to be. I would never have allowed myself to be knocked off some of the basic things which I held a view on. And I wasn't actually. They tried to knock me off it when I was leader of the SDP. They tried to knock me off it on defence. They very nearly succeeded because they had David Steel, Shirley Williams, Bill Rogers and Roy Jenkins - which was a formidable combination. But I refused to let them.

I wasn't going to go into the ‘87 election not having a proper defence policy. I hadn't left the Labour Party to be put in that position by anybody.

Do you feel any sense of unfulfilment in your political career?

No. My political career is over. My political career was over on the Sunday of the 1987 election. Once Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, Bill Rogers and David Steel came out in favour of a merger, I knew in my heart I couldn't block it. And in a way, I knew it was quite illegitimate to try and block it. What I hoped was that we were adult enough to try and settle this dispute amicably and allow four parties. But, by then, they had become, quite wrongly in my view, fixated on the fact that a merger would solve all their problems. Well, it didn't. Here we are - we are now discussing the Liberal Democrats as a possible serious force, for the first time really. They have not been a serious force all this time. Labour dominated the scene. I do think that it would be silly for me to go to my grave thinking the Liberal Democrats are the same ones that I wouldn't join and possibly might have even been asked to lead in 1987. It's just silly. How long ago was that? Twenty-three years ago. I am out of politics and I have been firmly out of domestic politics ever since, really.

Tags: David Owen, In conversation, Issue 21

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