“We knew it as the Ministry for Stealth and Total Obscurity”

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

Not many political careers are as distinguished as Lord David Owen’s – the longest serving Plymouth Member of Parliament – 26 years in total – Navy Minister; Health Minister; youngest Foreign Secretary since Anthony Eden when he was appointed aged 38 in 1977; and, arguably he is most famous for being a part of the “Gang of Four” that broke away from Labour to form the Social Democratic Party in the 1980s.

Though, even when he was standing up at the Despatch Box in the House of Commons and leading Britain’s foreign policy, his passport continued to read “medical practitioner”. This was his first career and love. Something he never ceased to be, despite the intensity and franticness of political life.

In the serene surroundings of Dartington Hall, Lord Owen and I began our conversation talking about his parents. It is no wonder that Lord Owen became both a doctor and a politician: “My parents were both Welsh but I was born in Plymouth. They came down from Wales in the early 30s and my father started in General Practice in Plympton. My mother was an independent councillor on Devon County Council – and by that time was fighting the merger of Plympton with Plymouth against the local MP!”
Growing up on the very edge of Dartmoor, it would become a defining place throughout his life. He would say that he has always had a lifelong identification with the place. “I absolutely adore Dartmoor. I went to school at Tavistock, in Mount House, so Dartmoor has been a very big part of my life. I adore it. I love its people. They are different.

“When I was young medical student, my father would ask if I wanted to come out with him on a night call or whatever. He would always go in first and ask if they minded his young medical student son coming in. It was usually an old farmer or whatever and they’d usually say yes.

“We always used to arrive at the same diagnosis but from very different routes!”

Before becoming a doctor however, being schooled on Dartmoor could have changed the direction of his whole life, with a career in the navy being a possibility. “Mount House was a feeder-school for the navy. It used to have this cadet entry. But when I was about 11 or 12 they cancelled that. I think once they cancelled that direct entry, I went to Bradfield College in Berkshire and I never really contemplated the navy after that.” It wasn’t until he was around 17, then, that he would finally settle on studying medicine at Cambridge, having briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer.

“I never regretted the decision to do medicine. I consider myself still a doctor! I was a medical practitioner the whole time I was Foreign Secretary. I am very annoyed that the General Medical Council stops me prescribing for myself! You don’t stop an architect designing a house! They have all the logic but emotionally – I still consider myself a doctor!

‘I joined the Labour Party after the election defeat of Hugh Gaitskell in 1959. I voted for the first time in that election. He remains one of the political figures I have great admiration for.”

The medical career would continue to take precedence, until a letter appeared out of the blue – or should I say red. “After I qualified, I was two weeks into being a doctor at the Royal Waterloo Hospital, wonderful job, and I got this letter from this woman who I had talked to at this Fabian Society about the pharmaceutical industry, asking if I would accept a nomination to be the Labour candidate for Torrington! At the time, I was a busy house physician who got two weekends off a month, so I wrote back asking what it entailed. To which they replied that coming down one weekend a month would be fine. I knew a lady that lived in Dolton, so I knew I could always stay there.

‘I clambered into the car, I seem to remember well past midnight, and drove down to the selection conference. I had a copy of the New Statesman – and read it avidly trying to think of what to say! I didn’t have the slightest feeling I would be selected and hey presto – they chose me! ‘My father thought the whole thing was very funny but my mother, who, remember, was a Devon County Councillor herself, was absolutely incandescent. She said: “David. No one is going to take you seriously. This is an absolutely massive error. You have just started your medical career and they’ll all know you’re a candidate. I beg you to tell nobody.” This seemed pretty good advice. For at least 18 months, practically nobody ever knew.”

Having never truly been involved in frontline politics before, the 1964 Torrington campaign and the people in and around Dartmoor provided the perfect situation for David to cut his political teeth. “You had to be quite brave to be Labour! You used to come into the village with a loudspeaker and you would see people’s curtains move – they were listening but they wouldn’t come out!

‘I used to do four meetings a night. I remember, the last meeting of  night I arrived in Dolton and I had no idea where the village hall was. There was a chap standing there in a white coat who was the local butcher directing everyone to my meeting saying “I don’t agree with the boy’s politics but he deserves a hearing!””

While continuing to practice medicine, he had to learn the local issues quickly and with minimal time. “I used to sit down with Sir Clive Bossom, who had a rural constituency, and he would coach me. I would come in at 11 o’clock, having been working late in the hospital, get something cheap to eat…he would brief me as to what was happening in agriculture.

‘I would then drive down to the market ring in Torrington and talk about agriculture. They were all very impressed. What they didn’t realise was that 24 hours ago I didn’t know any of this! It was fun and wasn’t very serious. I met some really lovely people. A lovely General Practitioner called Dr Jones in Okehampton was President of the Party. There was a postman who was very active in Chagford. Len Mulholland was my agent in Bideford. I learnt my socialism from them!”

Despite not winning the seat – though he wasn’t expecting to – the Labour Party won the 1964 election with a majority of four, to enter government for the first time in 13 years. David gave up being the potential candidate for Torrington and went back to medicine. Though, the hiatus from politics would be short-lived.

“My mother was going up to Devon County Council with a Plymouth City Councillor, she was driving him, and he said “Do you think David would stand as a candidate for…. Plymouth Sutton?” she said “I don’t know – you better ask him”, by which time she was a seemingly a bit more relaxed about me being a politician!”

David would put his name forward to be the candidate but didn’t think he would win. Especially as Labour members were telling him at the time that the future Speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd – another potential candidate for the seat – gave a much better speech. Luckily, his links to the area saved him as people voted for him because they knew his father.

“Harold Wilson came down and spoke at the Guildhall. Well, first of all he met me at the station and said “Good afternoon David” – put his arm around me. I had never met him before in my life. We walked down the road in animated discussion and the next day, people were saying “I didn’t know you knew Harold Wilson” and I said “I didn’t know I knew Harold Wilson!”

David would win the seat and the Labour Party would increase their majority from four to 96 seats. “I had no idea I was going to win. I lived dangerously from then on. My majority went down, but I ended up as the longest serving Member of Parliament in Plymouth’s history. It was a very interesting parliament, 1966-70, we had a very big Labour majority and no money!”

The Labour Party would go on to engage in one of the biggest social reform programmes in British History. Homosexual law reform, divorce law reform, abortion law reform. Though, this was obviously not universally welcomed across the country, as Lord Owen pointed out with an anecdote that summed up the times.

“There was this old railway man in the constituency. He was pretty reactionary in most of his views, to be honest. Homosexual law reform came up – it was quite a controversial thing at the time and this guy gets up during a general management committee and says, “Well David, I backed you on family allowance. I didn’t approve of that. I backed you on abortion. I didn’t approve of that. I even went along with divorce reform. But I draw the line at buggery!”

Though, as with many things in his career, David saw the more important side of this. “My advice to everyone is: do what you think is right. Don’t spend your whole time worrying if the votes are there or not…you can’t spend the whole time with your thumb-up trying to work out which was the wind is blowing.”

In 1970, the Conservative Party under Edward Heath would beat Labour in one of the major post-war election upsets. Though it would only last four years. Upon Labour’s return to power in 1974, David would find himself promoted to Minister of State for Health in 1974 as part of the Department for Health and Social Security.

“We knew it as the Ministry of Stealth and Total Obscurity.” He encouraged Britain to become ‘self-sufficient’ in blood products such as Factor VIII, a recommendation also promoted by the World Health Organisation. This was principally due to the risk of Hepatitis infection from high-risk blood donors overseas who were often paid and from ‘skid-row’ locations.

David has been outspoken that his policy of ‘Self-Sufficiency’ was not put into place and gave rise to the Tainted Blood Scandal which saw 5,000 British haemophiliacs infected with Hepatitis C. 1200 of those were also infected with HIV. It would later be described in the House of Lords as ‘the worst treatment disaster in the history of the National Health Service.’

In 1976 when James Callaghan became Prime Minister after Harold Wilson had stepped down, David was made a Minister at the Foreign Office but when Anthony Crosland died suddenly David replaced him and at aged 28 became the youngest Foreign Secretary since Anthony Eden in 1935. Labour would go on to lose to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in 1979 with Michael Foot elected leader of the Labour party 18 months later. A once-promising potential candidate for Prime Minister, the election of Foot would change the trajectory of Lord Owen’s career.

The election of the former MP for Plymouth Devonport as Labour party leader indicated that the party was likely to become more left-wing and in 1980 committed itself to withdrawing from the EEC without even so much as a referendum. Labour endorsed unilateral nuclear disarmament and introduced an electoral college, for leadership elections, with 40% of the college going to a block vote of the trade unions.

Early in 1981, Owen and three other senior moderate Labour politicians – Roy Jenkins, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams – announced their intention to break away from the Labour Party to form a ‘Council for Social Democracy. The announcement became known as the Limehouse Declaration and the four as the ‘Gang of Four, which then became the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

“It was very difficult for me to leave the Labour Party. I was adamant I was never going to stand on the 1983  manifesto (dubbed the longest suicide note in history). The arguments about defence, we had those before. The arguments about Europe, we had those before. Endless times. These were all legitimate battles and the right  usually got their way. You have to realise that you won’t always get your way. In politics, you mustn’t walk just because you lose an argument.

‘But this was much more different. With this electoral college coming in – essentially bypassing MPs – and not allowing MPs the freedom that they could owe their constituency their judgement – you knew you would not be able to change the Labour Party.

‘It was 16 years before the Party was transformed and eventually won the 1997 election. The electoral college was the key thing. We simply couldn’t live with that. As soon as I joined the SDP, I ceased to be a potential candidate for Prime Minister.”

The party never reached the heights that were expected of them in 1983 and after the 1987 election, the Liberal leader David Steel proposed a full merger of the Liberal and SDP parties which was supported by Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers for the SDP.

David rejected this notion outright, on the grounds that he and other Social Democrats wished to remain faithful to social democracy as it was practised within Western Europe, and it was unlikely that any merged party would be able to do this, even if it was under his leadership. Nevertheless, the majority of the SDP membership supported the merger.

The Liberal Party and SDP merged to form the Social and Liberal Democrats (SLD) in March 1988, renamed the Liberal Democrats in October 1989. At the request of two of the remaining SDP MPs, John Cartwright and Rosie Barnes, Owen continued to lead a much smaller continuing SDP, with three MPs in total.

In 1992, David would be elevated to the House of Lords as Baron Owen, of the City of Plymouth. Despite regularly being in the list of the best Prime Ministers the UK has never had, Lord Owen has no regrets.

“I have had a very interesting life. I have enjoyed politics very hugely. It’s a blood sport. You shouldn’t go into it if you’re going to get upset. I never took my bat home.”