Lord David Owen looks different to how I remember him as a boy. But then he is older. And a bit more silver-haired. And I tend to remember him better in the form of his latex avatar off the 1980’s satirical puppet show ‘Spitting Image’, so that would explain a lot of the disparity.
In my defence I was too young to really remember David Owen in his pomp (I was probably too young to be watching Spitting Image, but that’s another matter entirely). He trained as a medical doctor and practiced as a neurologist and psychiatric registrar. He served as Foreign Secretary in James Callaghan’s Labour government between 1977 and 1979 – the youngest Foreign Secretary in over 40 years – and was one of the “Gang of Four” who in 1981 broke with the Labour party to form the Social Democratic Party.
And yet say his name and all I can picture is a rakish foam rubber puppet with a simulacrum of Liberal leader David Steel in his top pocket, acting as the Sooty to his Matthew Corbett (see below). What the hell is wrong with me, quite frankly?
The real David Owen was at the Art Centre speaking about his latest book: “Cabinet’s Finest Hour – The Hidden Agenda of May 1940”. He still cuts a rather raffish figure at nearly 79 years of age and spoke compelling about the historical events that inspired this volume:
Eight months after Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, with America and Russia yet to join the fray, the UK found herself in a parlous position. Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, proposed approaching Italy’s fascist leader Mussolini as a conduit for negotiating peace with Hitler. Over 9 secret meetings the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, needed to persuade and cajole the rest of the coalition cabinet away from Halifax’s suggested appeasement and towards a lengthy and potentially costly war where victory was far from certain.
During his talk Lord Owen didn’t stint from crediting the resources that made this book possible. The minutes and other classified documents from the War Cabinet meetings are now available under the “30 Year Rule” and many of these are published in full in the book. He was also quick to credit other tomes that provided succour to his work such as Andrew Roberts’ Lord Halifax biography “Holy Fox” and John Lukacs’ “Five Days in London – May 1940”. This generosity extended to many of the figures referenced. Halifax is often portrayed as “The Arch-Appeaser” but Owens was at pains to offer a more nuance aspect of the man.
This extended to the newly appointed Prime Minister of the time. While not being one of Churchill’s greatest apologists Owen was at great pains to stress how, despite his bullish reputation, Churchill was shown to have patiently sought consensus and accord in these once-classified records. He patiently wooed his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, with conciliation and flattery and once he had the rump of the War Cabinet on his side ensured that the cross-party coalition during the war years was as wide and as inclusive a church as possible.
“As the years pass I become more convinced that collective decision-making is the mark of a great democracy”.
These were Owen’s words during the Q & A second half of his hour on stage. He thought that the coalition cabinet of the Second World War was the high watermark and that a true governmental cabinet should be a crucible of opinions and ideas rather than human shield for a Prime Minister without ideological anchor or political principle.
I can’t claim to agree with some of the opinions that David Owen espoused on stage, but even the ones I balked at he were argued evenly and without rancour.
He’s been accused of being a contrarian in the past, and by some a nearly man, but he’s definitely no-one’s puppet.
David Owen’s books – including Cabinet’s Finest Hour – The Hidden Agenda of May 1940 and The Health of the Nation – NHS in Peril – are available from all good book retailers and the House of Commons Library if you know the right people.