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David Owen

David Anthony Llewellyn Owen, Baron Owen of Plymouth, CH PC FKC (born 2 July 1938) is a British politician, Chancellor of the University of Liverpool and one of the founders of the British Social Democratic Party (SDP). He led the SDP from 1983 to 1987 and the re-formed SDP from 1988 to 1990. He is also known for becoming the youngest person in over forty years to hold the post of British Foreign Secretary (from 1977 to 1979) and as one of the authors of the failed Vance-Owen and Owen-Stoltenberg peace plans offered during the Bosnian War. He has been a controversial figure for much of his career, inspiring great devotion among close followers but also disaffection due to perceived arrogance. He sits in the House of Lords as a crossbencher.

Biography

Owen had long been regarded as a serial resigner. He had quit as Labour's spokesman on defence in 1972 in protest at the Labour leader Harold Wilson's attitude to the EEC; he left the Labour Shadow cabinet over the same issue later; and over unilateral disarmament in November 1980 when Michael Foot became Labour leader. He resigned from the Labour Party when it rejected "one member, one vote" in February 1981. He resigned as Leader of the Social Democratic Party which he had helped to found when the party's rank-and-file membership voted to merge with the Liberal Party.

Early life

Owen was born in 1938 in the town of Plympton, beside Plymouth in Devon, England. After schooling at Mount House School, Tavistock and Bradfield College, Berkshire, he was admitted to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge in 1956 to study medicine. He began clinical training at St Thomas' Hospital (King's College London) in October 1959.

The Suez Crisis

Owen was deeply affected by the 'Suez crisis' of 1956, when Anthony Eden's Conservative government launched a military operation to retrieve the Suez Canal from the Nasser's decicion to nationalise it. At the time he was working on a labouring job that summer, aged 18, before going to Cambridge.

'In 1956, when the Suez crisis broke, there was Gaitskell on television and in the House of Commons criticising Eden, and here were these men working alongside me, who should have been his natural supporters, furious with him. 'The Daily Mirror' backed Gaitskell, but these men were tearing up their Daily Mirrors every day in the little hut where we had our tea and sandwiches during our break.... My working mates were solidly in favour of Eden. It was not only that they taught me how people like them think; they also opened my eyes to how I should think myself. From then on I never identified with the liberal - with a small 'l'- establishment. Through that experience I became suspicious of a kind of automatic sogginess which you come across in many aspects of British life, the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war apostles at Cambridge. I suppose it underlay the appeasement years. Its modern equivalent is a resigned attitude to Britain's continuous post-war economic decline.'

In fact Owen disagreed with them as the nationalisation was a 'confiscation' rather than an 'invasion', nevertheless the whole affair convinced him that 'politicians... able to stand up for Britain's interests even in the age of Imperial decline' and 'brought home' to him the 'robustness about the British people's character which is often underestimated by... the chattering classes'.[Kenneth Harris, Personally Speaking Pan Books, 1987]

Medicine and politics

In 1960, Owen joined the Vauxhall branch of the Labour Party and the Fabian Society. He qualified as a doctor in 1962 and began work at St Thomas's Hospital. In 1964, he contested the Torrington seat as the Labour candidate against the Conservative incumbent, losing in what was a traditional Conservative-Liberal marginal. He was neurology and psychiatric registrar at St Thomas's Hospital for two years, then Research Fellow on the Medica Unit doing research into Parkinsonian trauma and neuropharmacology.

Member of Parliament

At the next general election, in 1966, Owen returned to his home town and was elected Labour Member of Parliament (MP) for the Plymouth Sutton constituency. In the February 1974 general election he became Labour MP for the adjacent Plymouth Devonport constituency, winning it from the Conservative incumbent Dame Joan Vickers by a slim margin (fewer than 500 votes). He managed to hold on to it in the 1979 general election, again by a narrow margin (1001 votes). From 1981, however, his involvement with the SDP meant he developed a large personal following in the constituency and thereafter he was re-elected (as an SDP candidate) with safe margins. He remained as MP for Plymouth Devonport until his elevation to a peerage in 1992.

From 1968 to 1970, Owen served as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Navy in Harold Wilson's first government. After Labour's defeat in the 1970 General Election, he became the party's Junior Defence Spokesman until 1972 when he resigned with Roy Jenkins over Labour's opposition to the European Community. On Labour's return to government in March 1974, he became Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health before being promoted to Minister of State for Health in July 1974.

In Government

In September 1976, Owen was appointed by the new Prime Minister of five months, James Callaghan, as a Minister of State at the Foreign Office and was consequently admitted to the Privy Council of the United Kingdom. Five months later, however, the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Crosland died suddenly and Owen was appointed his successor. Aged thirty-eight, he became the youngest Foreign Secretary since Anthony Eden in 1935 and was seen as the youthful dynamic face of Labour's next generation.

As Foreign Secretary, Owen was identified with the Anglo/American plan for what was then Rhodesia which formed the basis for the Lancaster House Agreement, negotiated by his Tory successor, Lord Carrington in December 1979. The Contact Group sponsored UN Resolution in 1978 on which Namibia moved to independence twelve years later. He wrote a book entitled Human Rights and championed that cause in Africa and in the Soviet Union. He has admitted to at one stage contemplating the assassination of Idi Amin while Foreign Secretary but settled instead to backing with money for arms purchases to President Nyerere of Tanzania in his armed attack on Uganda which lead to the exile of Amin to Saudi Arabia.

However, 18 months after Labour lost power in 1979, the staunchly left-wing politician Michael Foot was elected party leader, despite vocal opposition from Labour Party moderates (including Owen), sparking a crisis over the party's future.

Social Democratic Party and Liberal-SDP Alliance

Michael Foot's election as Labour party leader indicated that the party was likely to become more rather than less left-wing and in 1980 committed itself to withdrawing from the EEC without even a referendum (as Labour had carried out in 1975). Also, 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". The council they formed became the Social Democratic Party (SDP), with a collective leadership.

Twenty-eight other Labour MPs and one Conservative MP (Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler) joined the new party. In late 1981, it formed the SDP-Liberal Alliance with the Liberal Party to strengthen both parties' chances in the UK's "first past the post" electoral system. In 1982, uneasy about the Alliance, Owen challenged Jenkins for the leadership of the SDP, but was defeated by 26,256 votes to 20,864. In the following year's General Election, the Alliance gained 25% of the vote, only slightly behind the Labour Party, but because of the "first past the post" system, it won only 23 out of 650 seats. Although elected, Jenkins resigned the SDP leadership and Owen succeeded to it without a contest among the 6 SDP MPs.

SDP leadership

Owen is widely regarded as having been, at the very least, a competent Party Leader. He had high popularity ratings throughout his leadership as did the SDP/Liberal Alliance. He succeeded in keeping the Party in the public eye and in maintaining its independence from the Liberals for the length of the 1983 Parliament. Moreover under him the SDP increased its representation from 6 to 8 seats via by-election victories with Mike Hancock, Portsmouth South (1984) and Rosie Barnes, Woolwich (1987).

However the progress of the SDP/Liberal Alliance as a whole was hampered with policy splits between the two parties, first over the miners' strike (1984-5) where Owen and most of the SDP favoured a fairly tough line but the Liberals preferred compromise and negotiation. More significantly the Alliance had a dispute over the future of Britain's independent nuclear deterrent. Here Owen and the SDP favoured replacing of Polaris with Trident as a matter of some import, where most Liberals were either indifferent to the issue or committed disarmers. The SDP favoured a radical 'Social Market Economy', while the Liberals mostly favoured a more interventionist, corporate style approach. The cumulative affect of these divisions was to make the Alliance appear less credible as a potential government in the eyes of the electorate.

Moreover, Owen, unlike Jenkins faced an increasingly moderate Labour Party under Neil Kinnock and a dynamic Conservative government. The 1987 general election was as disappointing for the Alliance as the 1983 election and it lost one seat. Nevertheless, it won over 23% of the vote, the second largest third force vote in British politics since 1929.

Full parties' merger

In 1987 immediately after the election, the Liberal leader David Steel openly suggested a full merger of the Liberal and SDP parties and was supported for the SDP by Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers. Owen rejected this notion outright, on the grounds that he and other Social Democrats wished to remain faithful to social democracy as it was practiced 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 idea. The Liberal and SDP parties merged to form the Social and Liberal Democrats (SLD), soon renamed as the Liberal Democrats. At the request of two of the remaining SDP MPs, John Cartwright and Rosie Barnes, Owen continued to lead a much smaller re-formed SDP with three MPs in total. The party polled well at its first election, its candidate coming a close second in the 1989 Richmond by-election, but thereafter a string of poor and ultimately disastrous by-election results followed, including coming behind the Official Monster Raving Loony Party in the Bootle by-election of May 1990, prompting Owen to wind up the party in 1990. Some branches, however, continued to function using the SDP name- notably Bridlington which continues in 2006.

Retirement from the House of Commons

After winding up the re-formed SDP, Owen announced his intent to stand down as an MP at the next General Election. He then served the remainder of his term as an independent MP and after the 1992 General Election was made a life peer with the title Baron Owen, of the City of Plymouth. As a member of the House of Lords, he is called "Lord Owen" and sits as a crossbencher.

During the April 1992 election campaign, Owen in the The Mail on Sunday advised voters to vote Liberal Democrat where they had a chance of victory and otherwise to vote Conservative rather than let Neil Kinnock become Prime Minister. He maintained his long standing position that he would never join the Conservative Party, although the memoirs of at least three of John Major's cabinet ministers refer to Major being quite keen to appoint Owen to his cabinet, but threats of resignation from within the Cabinet prevented him from doing so. When asked in a conversation with Woodrow Wyatt on 18 December, 1988 whether she would have Owen in her government if approached by him, Margaret Thatcher replied: "Well, not straight away. I don't think I would do it straight away. He was very good on the Northern Ireland terrorist business. He's wasting his life now. It's so tragic. He's got real ability and it ought to be used". In another conversation with Wyatt on 4 June, 1990 Thatcher said Owen's natural home was the Conservative Party.

In May 2005, he was approached two days before the General Election by someone very close to Tony Blair to endorse Labour. He declined, because though he did not want a Conservative government, he wanted the Liberal Democrats to do sufficiently well to ensure a greatly reduced Labour majority.

In September 2007, it was widely reported in the British press that Lord Owen had met with the new Prime Minister Gordon Brown and afterwards had refused to rule out supporting Labour at the next general election.

Subsequent international role

In August 1992, Owen was British Prime Minister John Major's choice to succeed Lord Carrington as the EU co-chairman of the Conference for the Former Yugoslavia, along with Cyrus Vance, the former U.S. Secretary of State as the UN co-chairman.

Private Eye, the British satirical magazine, playfully alluded towards Owen's legendary tendency towards self-destruction. "It's a lost cause", says the bubble emanating from Major's mouth. "I'm your man", says the bubble from Owen's mouth. The Labour Shadow Foreign Minister, Jack Cunningham, greeted Major's appointment of Owen in the British House of Commons by saying that the Prime Minister's choice "was regarded as somewhat eccentric by [MPs] and myself - he [Owen] is known for many qualities, but not as a mediator. Indeed he has Balkanised a few political parties himself" [Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia [2001] Brendan Simms p137]

Owen became a joint author of the Vance-Owen Peace Plan [VOPP], in January 1993 which made a heroic effort to move away from the presumption of ethnic partition. [Balkan Tragedy (1995) Susan L. Woodward p304]. According to America¹s last Ambassador to Yugoslavia the Bosnian Government were ready to accept the VOPP but unfortunately the Clinton Administration delayed in its support for the Plan thus missing a chance to get it launched. [Origins of the Catastrophe (1999) Warren Zimmermann p222]. The VOPP was eventually agreed in Athens in May 1993 under intense pressure by all parties including Bosnian Serb leader Karadžić [but then rejected later by the Bosnian-Serb Assembly meeting in Pale, after Karadžić insisted that the Assembly had the right to ratify the agreement]. After Vance's withdrawal, Owen and Thorvald Stoltenberg brokered the EU Action Plan of December 1993. They both helped the Contact Group of the US/UK/France/Germany and Russia to present its plan in the summer of 1994.

In early 1994, the European Parliament had voted by 160 votes to 90, with 2 abstentions, for Owen's dismissal but he was unanimously supported by the 15 EU Member State governments. There was a perception in America that Owen was "not fulfilling his function as an impartial negotiator.." [Unfinest Hour, p167]. Owen was made a Companion of Honour for his services in the former Yugoslavia in 1994.

In January 1995 Lord Owen wrote to President François Mitterrand as President of the EU to say that he wished to step down before the end of the French Presidency. At the end of May 1995, he was succeeded by the former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt. "Had I been younger, I would probably have resigned when the Americans ditched the Vance-Owen Peace Plan" [Unfinest Hour p157-8].

He testified as a witness of the court in the trial of former Yugoslavian president [Slobodan Milošević].

Owen is currently the Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, a post he has held for over ten years.

Europe

Owen is a strong supporter of Britain's membership of the EU, but also opposes many of the more dramatic proposals for integration. As chairman of New Europe, was the co-leader of the 'no to the euro' campaign with Business for Sterling, which ceased when the UK Government declared in 2005 that euro membership was off the agenda following the defeat of the EU Constitution in referendums in France and the Netherlands. He has also called for a referendum before Britain's ratification of the Lisbon treaty, and expressed concerns about proposals for the creation of a European 'Rapid Reaction Force'. He is a self-described Anti-Federalist.

Personal life

He married Deborah Owen (née Schabert), an American literary agent, in 1968. They have two sons and one daughter, Tristan, Gareth and Lucy.

Notes

Further reading

  • David Owen, The Politics of Defence (Jonathan Cape and Taplinger Pub. Co, 1972)
  • David Owen, Human Rights (Jonathan Cape and W.W. Norton & Company, 1978)
  • David Owen, Face the Future (Jonathan Cape and Praeger, 1981)
  • David Owen, A Future That Will Work (Viking 1984, Praeger, 1985)
  • David Owen to Kenneth Harris, Personally Speaking (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987)
  • David Owen, ''Our NHS" (Pan Books, 1988)
  • David Owen, Time to Declare (Michael Joseph, 1992)
  • David Owen, Balkan Odyssey (Victor Gollancz, Harcourt Brace 1995)
  • David Owen, The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair and the Intoxication of Power (Politico's, 2007)
  • David Owen, In Sickness and in Power: Illness in Heads of Government During the Last 100 Years (Methuen, 2008)

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