Shifting Tides of British Politics: Lord David Owen at The Cambridge Union

Alex Manzoor 16 October 2019
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The biography of Lord David Owen reads more like a history of British politics in the second half of the twentieth century with him in a seminal position rising to be Foreign Secretary at the incredibly young age of 38. Although he never occupied the office of Prime Minister, he has certainly had as much of an influence on the politics of the United Kingdom. Talking to him about his time at Cambridge, where he read medicine at Sidney Sussex, and his wide variety of interests at university, from literature lectures by EM Forster to church services, it became clear that his ability to be knowledgeable about so many different subjects was evident before he entered politics.

On the subject of his apparent shift from being an advocate of EEC membership in 1972, and leaving Harold Wilson’s shadow cabinet over the issue, to his decision to campaign to leave the EU in 2016, Lord Owen described in detail his evolving opinions on Britain’s relationship to the EU and how he started out being “very keen on Europe” when he first ran to be an MP, someone who was not a federalist but believed “we could keep it in control”. His support for the project collapsed in the 1990s, specifically due to Maastricht and the Euro which was for him a “sticking point” as he believed it was an openly federalist policy, the ideology behind which he was opposed to. He argued that he was vindicated on his opposition to the Euro by the 2008 financial collapse when it appeared “clear that the Eurozone was not working”.

The calm and perhaps well-rehearsed way Lord Owen described his views on EU membership through the years largely centre around the issue of “control” and the principle of federalism in a way typical of those who advocated for Brexit in 2016. However, his voice takes on an angrier and more frustrated edge when he describes the way in which the EU treated Greece with “ruthless austerity” and a general attitude of “to hell with them”. The example of Greece proved to him that there was nothing “social about the European market”.

The example of Greece proved to him that there was nothing “social about the European market”.

His dismay at the lack of EU “solidarity” towards Greece highlights the left-political tradition he emerged from which he still very much holds as central to his political philosophy: “I used to be almost the creator of the term social market and used to use it more than anybody”.

Nowhere are Lord Owen’s centre-left politics more clearly articulated than around the issue of the NHS which, as a Doctor and former Health Minister, was clearly an issue close to his heart. He is passionately “absolutely, totally against the Health and Social Care Act which was introduced by David Cameron… and I want it completely repealed and go back to basically Aneurin Bevan’s health service”. He fundamentally holds to the principle that in health there is “no market” and the Conservative attempt to bring the market into the health service, has been “utterly disastrous” and “proved to be so”. On the issue of health, if not Brexit, he is clearly at one with the modern Labour Party, preferring their policies on these questions “by far”.

However, Lord Owen is most famous not for his relatively successful career in the Labour Party, but for his splitting with the Party along with three other Labour moderates to form the ultimately electorally unsuccessful breakaway Social Democratic Party. His views on the Labour Party now, despite his aforementioned praise on issues like the NHS, are critical but for different reasons:

“I never thought, in all my problems with the Labour Party, that you would ever have a problem that they were anti-Semitic. I must say this has been shocking and surprising” and the party has “got to do something about it”.

As he speaks it is clear that despite having left the party decades ago, he still feels affected by the crisis of anti-Semitism that the Labour faces. When It comes to blame, he places the responsibility largely at Corbyn’s feet, arguing “it is a problem because Corbyn is very pro-Palestine and therefore anti-Israel”. However, he does accept that it is “more than that” and suggests that it is also in part a fear of a “Jewish conspiracy” amongst members of the “Trotskyist elements in the Labour Party”. Lord Owen is clear he wants to see “trots… in the Labour Party” removed, which was “the very thing we set up the SDP to do”. In his opinion, these elements go all the way up to the leadership; in a memorable phrase, he declares of Corbyn and McDonnell: “it’s hard to say who’s the trot!”

As we get discussing the differences and similarities between the SDP split in 1981 he helped lead and the Independent Group, later Change UK, split in 2018, it becomes clear that Lord Owen values strongly held political principles deeply and is willing to be much more generous to those who simply disagree with him on principle than those who play political games. This attitude is demonstrated in his admiration of the Change UK defectors “for putting political principle before their political future” and even though he disagrees with the “fundamentally federalist” Liberal Democratic Party many of the defectors have now fled towards, he respects federalism as a “perfectly legitimate position” whilst merely stating that he “just happens to disagree with it”.

…he respects federalism as a “perfectly legitimate position” whilst merely stating that he “just happens to disagree with it”.

In contrast, perhaps due to his closeness to the events, when describing the SDP split and failure, he is far less understanding, claiming he “regrets deeply we didn’t stay with what we announced” and attributes the fall of the party to the fact that “we lost our identity” as a party on the left and ended up as a centrist party. He blames Roy Jenkins — fellow Labour defector — completely for this, claiming with a clenched fist that Jenkins had “arranged a lot of this with David Steel”, the Liberal leader, and that “we didn’t understand it at the time”. When the SDP merged with the Liberals, against Owen’s wishes, he struggled on with a Rump of the old party. His disappointment at the heady events of those years is still palpable — he colourfully describes attempts to stop him using the SDP trademark, by the newly formed Liberal Democrats, as “bullshit”.

Shifting away from the period of his decline as a figure on the frontlines of British politics to the present day, he does not appear overly excited about the fact that his original breakaway SDP has been revamped post-2018 with an explicitly pro-leave attitude and centre-left economic message. In response to the fact that they have increased their membership figures at an extremely rapid rate, he replies with an audible sigh, “I’d love to believe that they could do it, but I don’t think so.”

As a medical doctor, he has written extensively on the influence of power on the minds of individuals who wield it, specifically the idea of ‘Hubris Syndrome’ which he has written a book about. When discussing whether contemporary politicians like Cameron and Macron were suffering from ‘Hubris Syndrome’, Lord Owen rejected the idea in the former but was more hesitant about the latter. On Cameron, his answer was combined with a witty denunciation of the former PM as being a “modern Flashman”, someone who is “just cocky” and a “perfect example of the Etonian attitude to the world” of us and them. He was far more reluctant to pass judgement on Macron, saying vaguely “I think he is learning”. Some of this reluctance could be due to the fact that Macron’s mentor, former French PM Michel Rocard, is “one of [his] closest friends” with whom he “agreed on almost everything except federalism”. Lord Owen then described a phone call to Macron, which he said was like “talking to Michel Rocard over all these forty years”, humorously adding that in the call, Macron used “exactly the same French nuances, skirting around the issues”.

He ends on a warning that although his old friend Rocard always believed that “we were stopping them being federalist… I think we’ll find there will be lots of problems getting the French to be federalist”.

“But good luck” he quickly adds, with a knowing chuckle.

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