David Owen – remember him?

William Rodgers, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins & David Owen with funds from SDP supporters, Feb 1981

Some of us were members of the SDP and recall still the various reasons why this new political party was created – not least to combat the anti-European mood which then gripped Labour (the Conservatives were largely fine on the issue. The irony…)

Six years later, Owen refused to accept the will of his own Party to merge with the Liberals. He pretended for a while that the majority who joined the merged party had somehow ‘left’ the SDP and he could therefore continue as Leader of the much reduced force. He finally killed it off when it was overtaken by the Monster Raving Loony Party in a by-election in Bootle.

Since then he has floated around the political scene, with sporadic not terribly perceptive interventions on Radio 4 as a ‘former Foreign Secretary’ and the occasional advice to his imagined followers to vote this or that way in General Elections.

So it comes as no surprise that he is reduced to appearing in the Sun urging people to trash their future by voting for Brexit.

His arguments are thin to say the least. For example this insight:

There can be only one defence organisation that we can sign up to, and that must be NATO.

Ever smaller amounts are being spent by EU countries on defence.

The biggest problem is the whole pretence of the EU. There are a lot of promises, but very little delivery, and hopeless mistakes are being made.

Some might query the relevance of NATO to this debate and others might eagerly scroll down to see what ‘hopeless mistakes’ he is referring to (probably the euro, but it’s not wholly clear).

Even the Sun seems underwhelmed.

The full article is here.



* Chris White is a member of the Liberal Democrat Voice Editorial Team, a Liberal Democrat Councillor from St Albans and Deputy Leader of the LGA Liberal Democrat Group.

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  • Dr David (Lord) Owen is best remembered as the tough guy politician who built a personality cult around himself, persuaded the most devoted of his followers to put their careers on the line for him, and then left them high and dry. He is a man with a history of causing maximum damage wherever he treads.

    Owen started out in the SDP as the guy who would give the party a “radical cutting edge”, in contradistinction to the more cautious and emollient Roy Jenkins. Then, once he was installed as leader (without a contest, as it happens), he arrogated to himself almost dictatorial powers to make policy on the hoof, and dragged the party in an authoritarian and economically conservative direction.

    Owen was obsessed with military might. He was even in favour of forcing people to join the Army (though he avoided having to do that himself by going to Cambridge to study medicine). And he once declared that he would be perfectly happy to press the button if need be. Roy Jenkins famously said of him: “He (Owen) talks about weapons systems the way other men talk about good wine.”

    His “arguments” against Britain remaining a member of the EU are fatuous in the extreme. The UK is a member of NATO, as are France, Germany and Italy. There are no rivals to NATO, as far as I am aware. Defense spending is decided by national parliaments, not the EU. And what is this “very little delivery”? Free trade? A single market? Free movement? No major wars in 60 years? Give me more very little delivery, please.

  • ” urging people to trash their future by voting for Brexit. ”

    What is the basis of this claim?

    David Owen was opposed to joining the Euro.

    I would have thought anybody who questioned the sense of joining the Euro has something valid to contribute to the current debate, in contrast anybody who supported joining the Euro probably has little to offer.
    Were you a join the Euro or we are DOOMED( urging people to trash their future by voting for Brexit) supporter, or did you oppose it.

    Just asking!

  • David Woodbridge 26th Feb '16 - 5:26pm

    “So it comes as no surprise that he is reduced to appearing in the Sun urging people to trash their future by voting for Brexit.”

    No, he’s writing in the newspaper with the largest print circulation in this country to try to take his argument to a wide audience – something Tim Farron, commendably, also did a few months ago (October 2015, on the topic of taking children out of school during term time). Was he ‘reducing himself’, too?

    “Some might query the relevance of NATO to this debate and others might eagerly scroll down to see what ‘hopeless mistakes’ he is referring to (probably the euro, but it’s not wholly clear).”

    From the link you posted, I don’t think you read Owen’s actual article. It’s here: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/politics/6954770/Lord-Owen-EU-has-tested-us-to-breaking-point-Now-its-time-to-leave.html

  • David Allen 26th Feb '16 - 5:57pm

    Sesenco has it right. Owen wrote a book about hubris, a subject on which he was expert. Like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and George Galloway, his defining political characteristic has always been an exaggerated sense of self-worth.

    Now, why should so many politicians with these particular character flaws be drawn instinctively toward the romantic, nostalgic ideal of a Britain standing alone and proud? A welcoming Brexit home for the politician who aspires to be a very big fish – in a small and shrinking pond?

  • When someone of Owens background and political pedigree argues for exit – he should at least be listened to. As someone who has decided to vote for exit I object to the way the party establishment and this forum seems to be taking it for granted that Liberals must all be for remaining in what I believe to be a very undemocratic organisation.

  • ADRIAN sanders 26th Feb '16 - 6:38pm

    The 1989 Richmond (Yorks) by-election killed off the Owenite rump as serious challengers for the third party crown. It was probably the most important by-election the Party has ever fought. By pure chance, or was it design on the part of the Tories appointing the sitting MP Leon Brittan to the EU Commission, a by-election would be held in one of the few seats in the country where the continuing SDP stood a chance of success due to their well known local candidate. He came a very good second. We might not have won, or even close to winning, but what we did prevented David Owen’s separatist party from inheriting the Liberal/SDP Alliance position as the third party in British politics. Our entire history would have been very different had those of us who could, not have spent time sleeping on the floors of local members and working all the hours in support of Barbara Pearce and the newly merged party. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richmond_(Yorks)_by-election,_1989 Of course had we not worked so hard William Hague might not have entered Parliament! But that was a small price to pay for what was really at stake.

  • Christopher Haigh 26th Feb '16 - 7:33pm

    @David, I don’t know why you can believe the EU is not a democratic institution unless you are bemoaning the fact it is not governed by the UK conservative party ! The EU has representation from each member state on its policy making body (the commission) and its executive body (the council), and citizen representation on its supervisory and legislative body (the parliament). I can’t see much wrong with the democratic set up the EU myself.

  • Chris Rennard 26th Feb '16 - 7:46pm

    Sesenco and others are right about the character of David Owen who has a nerve talking about referendums. When Owen was SDP Leader, his party held a ballot of its membership (about merger with the Liberal Party) and Owen decided to do the opposite of what the members had decided in this vote.

    Adrian Sanders is right to highlight the importance of parliamentary by-elections such as Richmond in 1989 to the survival of the Liberal Democrats in the very difficult aftermath of Owen betraying the democratic ‘one member one vote principles’ on which the SDP was founded. I worked in a series of four parliamentary by-elections in this period (Epping Forest, Richmond, Mid-Staffordshire and Bootle) in which Owen’s political party set out to sabotage the result of democratic votes by party members to form the Lib Dems.

    Some of us had to work hard in those campaigns to avoid Owen and his handful of devotees from acting as permanent ‘wreckers’. The strength of David Owen’s political judgement in forming his own party in opposition to the Lib Dems was most thoroughly exposed in Bootle in May 1990. Liberal opponents of merger also stood against us, splitting the previous Alliance vote three ways. It was a very challenging campaign for us in a very weak area (no Councillors) and where we generally polled about half of our national average share (the polls then gave us about 8%).

    The ‘Owenite SDP’ had to pack up after this result: Lab 26,737, Con 3,220, Lib Dem 3,179, Green 1,269, Liberal 474, Monster Raving Loony 418, David Owen’s SDP 155. The Sun’s coverage was headed “Owen’s in Sutch a state because he can’t beat the Loonies”.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Feb '16 - 11:22pm

    John Marriott 26th Feb ’16 – 6:01pm Please see the memoirs of Prime Minister Jim Callaghan.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Feb '16 - 11:28pm

    Chris Rennard 26th Feb ’16 – 7:46pm And David Sainsbury withdrew funding for SDP2.

  • Dr David Hill
    “He knows better than most.”
    He doesn’t know how business operates in Asia and other parts of the world. It’s all fine and dandy to talk about global trade but to access some markets isn’t easy and range of British goods is limited.
    Basically what Minford is saying is let’s become the 51st state of America.

  • Richard Underhill 27th Feb '16 - 10:56am

    Professor Minford refers to “The importance of being unimportant”. This completely blows away Nigel Farage’s argument about Iceland signing a trade agreement with China. Farage’s point is that even a country which is smaller than the UK can sign a trade agreement.
    Professor Minford’s point is that the interests of small countries are different from large countries.
    Iceland does not grow much rice or build many nuclear power stations. What Farage is saying is true but misleading. It is also irrelevant to the UK.

  • The China Iceland free trade deal took six years to negotiate.
    The Chinese want the fish and an Icelandic company is digging for geothermal energy in Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi.

  • Richard Whelan 27th Feb '16 - 1:40pm

    Tell me if I am wrong because I was only 4.5 years old at the time, but didn’t David Owen leave the Labour party, and form the SDP, because under Michael Foot’s leadership Labour was in favour of withdrawing from the then European Community which he opposed. Why is he now in favour of something which he opposed for much of his political life?

  • Chris Rennard 27th Feb '16 - 3:53pm

    @Richard Whelan Good question, but he was also obsessive about nuclear weaponry and was really seeking his own party to lead. He got his way eventually with the SDP (tick) party, but with no sense of electoral strategy and only massive self-confidence to rely on, his party collapsed. I attended his last public meeting as a party leader attended by about 25 people (mostly other party activists like me) in a part of the Bootle constituency that previously had been part of Crosby and where I had been for a public meeting with over 1,000 people as part of Shirley Williams’ by-election campaign team in 1981.

  • I did feel at the time that there was a very dark side to David Owen. His love of weapons systems was one aspect of this. Another was the toxic effect that he had on those around him.

    As I explain above, Owen became Leader of the SDP by appealing to the left of the party, but once in office promptly moved the party to the right. Does anyone remember the Limehouse Group? They were a faction within the SDP who described themselves as “socialists” and wanted to keep the party on the left. At the time of merger, about half the Limehouse Group took the rational decision to back the new party, but the other half followed Owen into the wilderness. They were blinded by the intense personal loyalty that Owen sometimes inspires.

    Owen has a way of making people feel that they matter to him, such that they will do quite reckless things. But it is always non-reciprocal. Their faith is never repaid. I personally think that John Cartwright and Rosie Barnes deserved far better than the fate to which Owen consigned them.

    My memory tells me that the other three members of the Gang of Four left Labour primarily because of Labour’s economic policy and anti-Europeanism. In Owen’s case, it was Labour’s unilateralism. “How could I get up and shave in the morning with a defense policy like that?” I recall him telling a radio interviewer.

  • Bill le Breton 27th Feb '16 - 4:54pm

    I was fortunate enough to see Dr Owen operate at close quarters a number of times. My conclusion was that his hit rate at getting on the right side of issues was about 9 out of ten right. The problem was that this hit hit rate made it very difficult to get him to change his mind on the one out of ten issues.

    Brexit???? Is that his one out of ten or his 9 out of ten side?

    A final point that might reinforce any assessment of him? Who got NHS reform right – or the need or otherwise for NHS reform right – in 2010/11? Owen or Clegg?

  • Leekliberal 27th Feb '16 - 6:37pm

    Sesenco says ‘Owen has a way of making people feel that they matter to him, such that they will do quite reckless things. But it is always non-reciprocal. Their faith is never repaid.’

    How true! One of his hand-maidens in the right-wing ‘continuing SDP’ was Polly Toynbee, now a belligerent left-wing critic of the LIb Dems. She had clearly fallen under the spell of Dr Death!

  • john Stevens 28th Feb '16 - 2:34am

    At last the hitherto much-contested critique that Owen in 1982 believed in a “better yesterday” is proven correct.

  • Just a quick offthread point
    John Stevens
    Often wanting a “better yesterday” is quite relevant. Many of us (I think) believe that things in the 70s were heading in the right direction politically. More power to people at a local level, a recognition that there needed to be more money spread down the chain, early recognition of several key environmental problems, education on a broader canvas than just instrumental education for economic purposes.

    There was, at the end of the 70s, a very wrong turn in our politics, and the strange thing is, with Corbynism (also criticised for the same tendency, “of not answering today’s problems”) it has attracted many young people, who can see that progress from now will, in many ways be geared to understanding that wrong turning, and building back to that.

    Onthread, I don’t see that the politics of Owen, in many respects, is taking us where we need to be!

  • Tony Greaves 28th Feb '16 - 2:05pm

    On the Health and Social Care Bill, Owen was a serious distraction who did real harm to the cause of stopping the Bill. His personal arrogance in appearing like a genie from the lamp in a place he was rarely seen and trying to take the leading role from the front row of the Crossbenches, and dictating tactics to all and sundry who knew no better, was a disaster. But it was typical of the man.

  • David Allen 28th Feb '16 - 4:13pm

    Sesenco “Owen became Leader of the SDP by appealing to the left of the party, but once in office promptly moved the party to the right.”

    Spot on once again. Owen called himself “radical” and “socialist”, and castigated his opponent Jenkins for ditching the S-word. It turned out, once he got elected, that his “radicalism” amounted to admiration for Thatcher’s “radicalism”.

    Owen was thus the first of three, or arguably more, recent British leaders to campaign from the left and then lead from the right.

    Blair at least had the decency to signal a rightward shift when he campaigned for his party’s leadership, though not the violent rightward lurch he actually made once in charge.

    Clegg, in place of Owen’s dramatically mendacious words, campaigned for the leadership with silly grins, an “I’m-a-bit-young-and-naive-but-my-heart’s-in-the-right-place” act, and evasive platitudes. However, the headline phrase “Big Permanent Tax Cuts”, which Clegg produced in his first conference speech as leader long before the Coalition was formed, clearly shows that his intention straight from the outset was to lurch rightward.

    More than three leaders?

    Well, “Hug-a-Hoodie” Cameron, of course, soon changed from “Greenest government ever” to “Green crap”. Salmond and Sturgeon also tend to turn a radical bark into a rather soft bite.

    So – Perhaps then, one day, we can look forward to Geronimo Corbyn screaming “Nuke them all”?

    I guess that’s where this trend breaks down, largely because Corbyn is more like a secular monk than a practical politician, and he actually has fixed convictions, for good or ill. John Mc Donnell, on the other hand… Yes, I can just see him as a future Iron Chancellor!

  • Bill le Breton 28th Feb '16 - 5:19pm

    it is good to have your insight Tony, but would he have signed off the White Paper?

  • Tony Greaves 28th Feb '16 - 8:33pm

    Who knows if he was a Government Minister at the time?

    It is true that, taking what he says at face value, at the time of the Health and Social Care Bill he was still on the right side on one issue in UK politics. But he was by then a voice coming in from the wilderness (where he had been for years).


  • Unlike our current Leader he does at least act like a thoughtful grown-up.

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