Mrs Thatcher’s Admirer

Ian Aitken

  • Time to declare by David Owen
    Joseph, 822 pp, £20.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 7181 3514 8

Denis Healey, a politician who long ago established that the hobnailed boot can be wielded with just as much delicacy and skill as the épée, once said of David Owen that the Good Fairy who attended his birth had generously bestowed upon him the three qualities of charm, intelligence and good looks. He is then reported to have added: ‘What a pity that the Bad Fairy made him a shit.’

This is a pretty cruel thing to say of anyone, even someone you regard as a traitor to your party. Moreover, this reviewer wishes to place it on record (not least for the libel lawyers) that in his personal dealings with Dr Owen he has experienced nothing but courtesy and friendliness. But after reading this vast autobiography it is not difficult to see why so many of the great man’s political associates share Denis Healey’s view.

In the case of Mr Healey himself, the hostility is hardly surprising. He is frequently mentioned by Dr Owen, but the references are an extraordinary mix of admiration for his supposed forthrightness and withering contempt for his alleged cowardice and shilly-shallying. Sometimes the two contradictory views are muddled together in a single paragraph in such a way that the reader is left to conclude that the Good Doctor imagines that Mr Healey will be so grateful for the former that he will forgive the latter. If that was his assumption, he sadly misunderstands human nature. Withering contempt, one of Owen’s most common attitudes to his fellow politicians, isn’t something many people find easy to forgive, even coming from someone who claims to be a friend really.

Indeed, a lengthened version of the deliberately ambiguous title of the book might be rendered thus: ‘Time to declare my withering contempt for practically everybody in politics except Mrs Thatcher, and most of all for the Liberals.’ For the awful thing about Dr Owen’s eight hundred-odd pages of rambling reminiscence is that almost its only connecting theme (apart from the author’s unwavering determination to put country before party) is the clay-footed awfulness of those pesky Liberals, whom he holds responsible for wrecking his lovely Social Democratic Party within weeks of its foundation. It is not, alas, a theme which grips the reader’s attention for long, so that reading the book becomes a dreadful chore which few but a professional reviewer or an angry Liberal in search of counter-weapons could be expected to complete. But anyone who has completed it, as I have, comes to understand exactly what Denis Healey meant about the Bad Fairy. Surely no one who loathes his colleagues, or most of them, so cordially can possibly be other than a shit? It is inconceivable, is it not, that all the others are shits and Dr Owen alone is pure?

One has to add, however, that there are at least two people who would answer ‘no’ to both these questions without a moment’s hesitation. The first, of course, is Dr Owen himself, whose absence of self-doubt is almost as awesome as Mrs Thatcher’s. The other, I am left to assume, is the wholly admirable Debbie Owen, who personifies (and I am quite serious here) all three of the Platonic virtues of Truth, Goodness and Beauty. One of the redeeming features of Dr Owen’s book is that he fully understands how lucky he has been in having her alongside him almost from the start of his political career, and appreciates the measureless debt he owes her.

Whether he has done anything towards repaying that debt with this book is, however, another matter entirely. For it contains some toe-curlingly embarrassing details of their personal life, including the publication of the kind of sloppy love letters which should never be seen by anyone but the recipient, at least until the grave has closed over both parties. Moreover, the letters which appear in the book are almost exclusively David’s to Debbie. This may imply that Mrs Owen vetoed the publication of her compositions, thus demonstrating a seemly New England reticence which is alien to the Celtic Doctor. A more likely explanation, I fear, is that Debbie kept David’s while David chucked Debbie’s away.

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