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.

Whatever the truth of this matter, the whole wooing and winning of Debbie is there in black and white, including the minor dirty trick Dr Owen played on a fellow MP to get rid of him (he mentioned the poor chap’s wife and kiddies in Debbie’s presence). But these passages in the early part of the book are the soul of discretion in comparison with an even earlier section about the schoolboy/undergraduate David’s first adolescent love affair. In this case, it isn’t letters which are published but execrable poems written by the poor girl, together with faithful records of those dreadful, interminable self-analytical conversations between boy and girl which most people blush to recall. To be sure, Dr Owen isn’t such a rotter as to publish the name of the now grown woman with whom he shared chaste nights on Beachy Head. But to no one’s great surprise she was tracked down and photographed by the untiring sleuths of the tabloid press within days of the book’s publication.

Once again, there are two possible explanations for this bizarre candour. It is possible that he discussed the whole business of revealing intimate details of his love life with his wife, who reluctantly gave her permission for full-frontal exposure of her husband’s profoundly emotional nature. It does, after all, make him look just a little more human, even if the desire to expose it all tends to tarnish this ‘just like you and me’ image. On the other hand, another explanation is possible which takes account of the fact that Mrs Owen is a top-rank literary agent. Not being an intimate of the family, I have no means of knowing whether I am on the right track, but it is clearly possible that the extremely expert Debbie read the two-foot thick manuscript of her husband’s book and decided that it was so boring it wouldn’t sell. And in this context, you have to appreciate that ‘unsaleability’ has nothing to do with sales in Waterstone’s or W. H. Smith’s: the real money is made for politicians writing their memoirs by selling them to Sunday newspapers for serialisation, with the hyper-rich Sunday Times as the ultimate target. Which means that there have to be some juicy bits which can be lifted out of an otherwise tedious text and plonked down on the front page of the umpteenth section of the relevant Sunday paper. And the awful truth is that there was nothing in Dr Owen’s memoirs to grip the attention of a politically uncommitted executive of a Sunday newspaper if they didn’t contain something about his love life as well as his thoroughly tedious hate life with David Steel and the Liberal party.

If that was the calculation, it certainly worked. The doctor’s early love affairs and his wooing of Debbie dominated the press reaction to his book. The loving details about his relationships with the other three members of the Gang of Four could be comfortably ignored, along with the agonising story of his battle against the Liberal Party’s alleged bid to take over his cosy little Social Democratic Party. The only trouble is that Dr Owen’s emotional ‘revelations’ have made him look not just rather silly but extremely sloppy. In the famous phrase about the death of Little Nell, it would require a man with a heart of stone to read these ricordi di amore without bursting into helpless laughter.

So let us forget the tear-stained love interest and turn to politics, for the ultimate test of a politician’s reminiscences is whether they assist us in understanding the events which marked the period which they cover. On that basis, Dr Owen’s book scores beta minus. But it scores rather better than that as an explanation of what makes Dr Owen tick. It contains, for instance, a lengthy account of an event in Owen’s life which he regards as formative. He has told the story before, notably in a rather peculiar book in the ‘as told to’ genre (i.e. it was ghost-written by a ghost who insisted on being identified), but the key facts are the same. Essentially, it involves the young Owen taking a job as a navvy during his university vacation in the autumn of 1956, and discovering that the good old British working chap is pretty patriotic and doesn’t take kindly to being shoved around by wogs like Colonel Nasser. He records that ‘whenever the Daily Mirror or the Daily Herald had reports of Labour MPs objecting to Britain using force against the Egyptians my workmates went wild ... Soon they saw even Hugh Gaitskell, Labour’s leader, as a backslider. The Gyppos had hit us, so we should hit them.’

Dr Owen concedes, in passing, that he disagreed with them about the Egyptian nationalisation of the Suez Canal. But he adds: ‘Suez taught me one vital political lesson – never automatically follow the assumptions of the small group that tends to dominate Labour and Liberal thinking on defence and foreign affairs. These people are afraid of exercising military power, and have been for decades. But they do not speak for public opinion in Britain.’ He then goes on to categorise various Labour politicians according to whether they matched up to the patriotic standards of his shovel-wielding mates, concluding that most Labour leaders except Denis Healey were OK, but clearly suggesting that the Labour Party as a whole wasn’t. It does not seem to have crossed his mind that Denis Healey is one of the few among the Labour politicians he names who actually risked his life on behalf of his country (Clem Attlee was another). Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson didn’t.

It isn’t quite clear what Owen means to conclude from this peculiar passage. But most intelligent readers would assume that he is saying that we ought to be much more belligerent in our foreign policy because that is the way working people actually think. It does not appear to have occurred to him that, if we followed that line of thought, we would still have capital punishment, and it would probably still be carried out in public. Moreover, we would not be members of the European Community – a matter, it seems, which is close to Dr Owen’s heart. He makes it plain more than once in the book that Labour’s hostility to Europe, along with the commitment to unilateral disarmament, was one of the basic reasons for the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

This is odd, by any standards, because Dr Owen has since gone out of his way to identify himself with Mrs Thatcher’s stand against political union in Europe – a concept which was quite clearly implicit in the original thinking behind the Treaty of Rome. It is even odder when one reads the passages in which Owen declares himself an unqualified admirer of Hugh Gaitskell, the Party leader who committed Labour to opposing British membership of the Common Market in 1962. Without a trace of irony, Owen writes: ‘When facing some of the more difficult choices of my career, I have asked myself how would Hugh Gaitskell have handled a similar situation.’ Perhaps Dr Owen subconsciously means that Hugh Gaitskell was a distinguished splitter of parties, and thus provided the guidelines for his own career. Not once amid the acres of copy devoted to condemning the fudge and mudge of Harold Wilson’s leadership does Owen acknowledge that there is something to be said for holding a political party together.

This puritanical approach to the nitty-gritty of day-to-day politics begins to set the teeth on edge when Owen condemns Wilson for being obsessed with plots against him, on almost the same page as he reveals how deeply he himself was involved in those all too real plots. Even he manages to notice the outrageous irony of the events which accompanied his promotion from the back benches to junior ministerial office. He records that he was dining with Robert MacLennan, then Labour MP for Caithness and later his stop-gap successor as leader of the SDP. The purpose of the dinner was to discuss how to get rid of Wilson, but it was interrupted by a message to call at Number 10 immediately. The simon-pure doctor abandoned his knife, fork and napkin (not to mention Mr MacLennan) and made his way up Whitehall, where the man he was plotting to bring down proceeded to offer him the post of Minister for the Navy. He accepted.

Dr Owen records that this was all the more incredible because ‘I had spoken sharp words to him two months before in the lift in the House of Commons.’ It does not appear to have entered his head that the really incredible bit of the story is not that Wilson offered him the job (par for the course, from a man who was skilled at buying-off potential trouble-makers), but that he who regarded Wilson as a cheapjack fudger and mudger was prepared to accept a job from him at all. One wonders what he eventually told MacLennan, and what the latter thought about it.

Nor does this puritanical politician seem to see any shabbiness in his own behaviour (along with that of the other members of the so-called Gang of Four who eventually founded the SDP) when he started the preparations for launching a new party under cover of an organisation calling itself Campaign for a Labour Victory. As one reads more and more about the arrangements for the launch one realises that this was an organisation which should properly have been called Campaign for a Labour Defeat.

And that, of course, is what all these eight hundred-odd pages are really about. It was, I think, Enoch Powell who once remarked that all political careers by their very nature end in failure. One is nevertheless entitled to ask what was achieved on the way to the inevitable failure. In Dr Owen’s case there is a simple but very substantial answer: he kept Mrs Thatcher in office for seven of the 12 years during which she held the premiereship. In this, of course, he shares responsibility with Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers. But there can be very little doubt that the existence of the SDP was the major factor in sustaining Thatcherism in defiance of the fact that the Tories were unable to achieve more than a fraction of the popular vote in either the 1983 or the 1987 General Elections. How odd it is that the SDP was among the loudest critics of the electoral distortions brought about by our first-past-the-post system when they, above all, were the ones who engineered that distortion.

But there it is – Dr Owen was one of the pillars on which Thatcherism rested. It is fortunate, then, that he makes it clear thoughout this book that he admires the lady – indeed, he goes further and pays her the ultimate compliment of declaring that she is the politician most like him, since she puts country and conviction before party loyalties. Coming from Dr Death, this is of some interest. Moreover, he also makes it pretty clear that he thinks Mrs T reciprocates these views. The Iron Lady, he records, stopped him and Debbie on their way out of some state function and urged Mrs Owen to get him to make up his mind between the wilderness and joining the Tory Party. To her credit, Debbie is recorded to have bridled. This pressure has apparently continued since Mrs T’s departure, including lunches with Kenneth Baker, dinner parties at Tristan Garel-Jones’s with the likes of Douglas Hurd, and a proper nosh-up with the brown sauce man in person – Mr Major. But everything has so far foundered on the inability of the Tories to promise Owen and his two remaining SDP colleagues, John Cartwright and Rosie Barnes, a clear run in their constituencies at the next election.

So there it is. Although the Sunday Times recently urged John Major to bring fresh blood into his Cabinet, and seriously proposed that David Owen should form part of the transfusion as Health Secretary, the great man looks like remaining on the outside looking in. He has already announced his intention of standing down in Plymouth Devonport next time, and doesn’t quite seem to have made up his mind what to do next. It clearly remains a possibility that he will eventually join the Major Cabinet. In the meantime, while he continues to insist that he won’t become a Tory, MPs continue to calculate that, if Mr Major decides to jettison a significant chunk of the original Thatcherite ‘reform’ package for the NHS, Owen might just be the man to command the withdrawal.

Would that be a good thing in the broad sweep of human history? It is customary, whenever anyone writes about the Doctor, to say what a terrible waste of talent it is to allow him to languish without office – indeed, I have written to this effect more than once myself. But is it true? After reading this book I reach the conclusion that it isn’t: that the world needs a rest from messianic politicians who are prepared to sacrifice almost everything on the altar of their own self-righteousness. We’ve had enough of that sort of thing for a while. It’s time for a spot of humility.