Owen, David (1 of 1). The History of Parliament Oral History Project
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Interviewee's home, London
Owen, David, 1938- (speaker, male)
Greenwood, Mike, 1959- (speaker, male)
Part 1: Born in Plymouth, parents both Welsh. Father was a doctor, mother a dentist. Father a GP in Plympton, now merged into Plymouth. Mother was Rural District Councillor then County Councillor, then Alderman –as an Independent. Far more independents then [02.20]. Brought up in a political family –but not party political. Father had voted in favour of National Health Service –against the BMA line. Father’s part of practice was still a rural area on edge of city. Sailed from early age [05.00] important part of his life. School in Tavistock –he might have entered the Navy as a 13 year old if they hadn’t abolished early entry. On very first day in Parliament he was asked by Gerry Reynolds (Ministry of Defence) to be his PPS and two years later became Minister for the Navy [07.35]. Speaks about Selection conference for Plymouth Sutton constituency –Betty Boothroyd made a better speech but the selectors voted for him because they knew his father [08.20]. Father voted “round the clock” –for different parties. Mother possibly voted Liberal, if at all –prized her independence. Family interest in amateur dramatics. Lifelong identification with Dartmoor -became a ‘not-an-incher” about developments on the moor. Mentions being adopted in 1962 as candidate for Torrington, which included part of the moor. Importance of keeping in touch with constituency -“not a carpet-bagger” and finds it hard to understand how few MPs have real links with their constituencies [14.00]. Close link with constituency “has saved his political life” at times when his majorities were v low. 1962-68 went on working at St Thomas’ Hospital as a serving MP –working day in Parliament was different then with not a lot happening in the mornings. “Nowadays they’ve more or less driven someone who continues their professional career out of politics” [15.25]. It was a broader-based House with people from all walks of life and backgrounds when he joined; increasingly, only lawyers could continue a career alongside politics. Talks about Parliament’s growing love affair with Public Relations. “I wafted into politics by accident” [17.07]. Awareness of political issues at home e.g. comprehensive education, mental handicap services. Joined Labour Party 1959 having voted Labour. Heard Gaitskell on radio saying “too many armchair socialists” –spurred on to join party in Vauxhall [19.40]. Attended Victory for Socialism –left wing organization –heard Ralph Milliband speak. Idle medical student – interested in many things as a student. At Cambridge had joined the Union but thought debates too mannered -“awful”. His training ground was via a friendship with “Red Vicar” Mervyn Stockwood (later Bishop of Southall) at Great St Mary’s church [21.20]. First political meeting was to hear Aneurin Bevan speaking on behalf of Michael Foot in Plymouth in 1950 election [22.00]. Refers to maternal grandfather, a Welsh churchman –strong influence on his life. Mentions that his father was away for many years during the war. At this meeting he was passed, as a boy, over the heads of the audience to stand at the front. Grandfather was a supporter of Bevan. Welsh Liberal and local government roots. Went to Fabian Society Summer School. Had written pamphlet on pharmaceutical Industry at Medical School –was approached to put himself up for selection in Torrington. Drove down after hospital duty, got selected, told parents –mother not impressed, thought it would damage medical career. Did not tell his employers at Hospital for another 18 months [28.45]. Obligations in constituency not onerous –weekend visits. London friend of his had a cottage near constituency where he could stay. Feudal England. For Election in 1964 he took three weeks unpaid leave; family and girlfriends came down, scratch canvassing team put together, fought good campaign and saved deposit [31.30]. Four meetings a night. Fun. Gaitskell speech of 1960 –on nuclear disarmament “fight to save the party I love” – he began to love labour party [34.00]. Describes going into little villages campaigning with loudspeaker. Flyposting over Brewery adverts [35.10]. He understood the Liberals –by campaigning against them in West Country (tells story about Mark Bonham Carter). Torrington seat was eventually won by a farmer. Tells story of previous Conservative member turning up as a dangerously ill patient in his hospital, [the names get confused here. He uses the name Peter Mills to describe the Conservative MP –later it becomes apparent that he’s referring to Percy Brown; Peter Mills was the farmer who subsequently won the seat] [39.30]. Election a great experience, then he went back and carried on at the St Thomas’ Hospital –became Neurology Registrar. Labour party organiser –Paul Carmody in Bristol-spotted talent. 1965 he realised there would soon be another election. Friend of parents tipped them off about likely vacancy in Plymouth constituency. He had already been shortlisted for Falmouth –deterred by the extra distance and so withdrew. Tells story about the selection conferences for the two constituencies and how his decision was misinterpreted by Labour party organiser [44.30]. Got selected but didn’t realise constituency was winnable. Harold Wilson came down to Plymouth to show support in campaign [48.00]. Shocked to be told he was likely to win. He knew few MPS, had only visited House of Commons once –for Churchill’s funeral; didn’t have time, had girlfriends and work in hospital. Fighting Plymouth Sutton; had full-time agent, Alf Sweetland –family still friends. Found Labour party people a decent lot. Refers to earlier sexual scandal where party had stood by the agent -an example of enlightenment [51.20]. Better organized in constituency. Door to door canvassing, introduction to working class Toryism [52.10]. Started an identification with the Plymouth Dockyard, believed in Defence. Talks about Wilson subsequently asking him to be Minister for the Navy –despite being a plotter against Wilson –a political calculation 53.50. Ability to plot –just like in Medicine. To this day still a Doctor [55.35] –was written in his passport, not MP. Talks about the subsequent defeat of Labour in 1970 –his wife was more aware of Labour loss of popularity than he was [57.30]. Held onto seat –just. 1964 First impressions of Parliament. Signed in, then asked to meet with Gerry Reynolds at MoD –didn’t know where it was. Suddenly he was a PPS –with a mentor and a set of influential friends –members of a Dining Club-(Jenkins, Crosland) –didn’t realise that he’d joined the Campaign for Democratic Socialism –right wing and pro-Common Market -“bloody close to Federalists”; not quite sure of the politics –on the left on some issues and not a federalist. [01.01.00]. Found himself speaking on a lorry with Iain Macleod –surprised to find himself mixing with Tories [1.01.30]. Callaghan as Chancellor and George Brown –subverting economic plan to avoid “Stop Go Economics” as promised in the Manifesto. Realised he would need to learn about Economics –read books to teach himself, regarded it as a “Natural Science” based on human behaviour [1.04.00]. [goes off mic here] Refers to his experience of life-and-death responsibilities as a young doctor –independent decision maker. Tells story of saving a young child [1.05.45]. You grow up v fast. Learning about politics all the time –Gerry Reynolds, Enoch Powell (opposition Defence Spokesman). Still doing medical research working with a more brilliant man than he-David Marsden –might have influenced him to go into politics. Drove down to the constituency every week; still a bachelor. Fortnightly surgeries always full [1.10.35] –part of normal life, dealing with local matters –get good respect. People underestimate the intimacy of the House of Commons –you could bump into powerful figures and progress a constituent’s case [1.11.30]. Harold Wilson would sit and talk to people over lunch. Changed after 1997. The day they started guillotining every bill caused massive change [1.12.55]. Hard to imagine now the “deep purpose” of holding bills up to scrutiny. Private Member’s Bills were one way of giving young MPS their head e.g Abortion law reform, Homosexual law reform, Divorce Law reform. 1966-70 A Reforming Parliament despite lack of money to spend [1.14.00]. Close friends with Jack Ashley, David Marquand, John Mackintosh –converted him to Devolution. [Thunder off]. Had no room –a golf locker; shared a secretary paid for out of salary probably –not paid more than as a junior house doctor. Got Mortgage on house from Rowland Hill Building Society –for Post Office workers – entitled to it as an MP. Nobody else would give mortgage on decrepit house; had lived on house boat before. Renovated house himself. Didn’t need constituency home because family home was v near. Roots deep in Plymouth –has represented every part of city over time. Talks about slim majorities and impact of Boundary changes [1.18.25]. Challenged Michael Foot to fight him in Plymouth. Role of ideology in politics –not enough these days [1.19.45]. Blair’s career will prove to be great historical tragedy for politics –New Labour mantras were contrary to Labour roots –consciously non –ideological. Politics is a serious trade –you need to learn as an apprentice –as he did under Healey, Castle, Crosland [1.21.35]. You can’t just shoot in as a Minister -there’s a learning curve. Valued wisdom of older Trades Union MPs; solidarity, discipline and trust important –“parties matter” [1.24.00]. Mentions Kenneth Robinson who asked him to be a Governor of Charing Cross Hospital –involved for 2 years –important investment of time. Took interest in naval strategy -useful for Falklands [had sent Task Force of his own to “warn off “ Argentina in 1977]. Supported Thatcher throughout the war. Politics an unpredictable career – sometimes luck rather than merit. He left because he thought he could only go backwards [1.26.55]. Wanted to go into business, after “three years’ penance for my sins, in Former Yugoslavia”. Lot of respect for Parliament and its system. Doesn’t personally like House of Lords v much [1.28.06], but uses it as it suits him. Doesn’t vote much –“mimicking” House of Commons is not sensible use of time - “ritualistic nonsense” of unnecessary votes. They’ve put too many former MPs there [1.28.45]. Sensible to have a Revising Chamber. Not an expert on detail e.g. of Tax Bills now. Maintains interest in Foreign Policy. More impact from writing an article than from making a speech in the Lords [1.30.00]. Wonderful library. Interested in relationship between illness and heads of Government. [pause in interview 1.30.50] Importance of independence and ability to say “no”. Talks about his wife’s career in parallel with his own–periodically funding each other. [1.33.25] Disgraceful humbug and deceit that MPs were sent to prison for abusing expenses system when it was done by successive Prime Ministers. Long standing Culture of not paying proper salaries and compensating with allowances. Disgracefully poor MP pay for years. Clegg, Cameron ,Brown behaved disgracefully [1.35.00]. Public’s poor view of politicians is related to lying –got to do something about this [1.35.15]. Patronage is lying –House of Lords is stuffed with people who’ve paid money to political parties or are friends of Prime Ministers – political elite has allowed disgraceful things to happen [1.36.30]. Fall-off in standards of leadership –country has rumbled it. 1972 Resigned a Opposition spokesman on Defence. When is it a matter of resignation rather than disagreement? 1972 issue was over Europe. Didn’t like way it was fudged. Decided to resign with Roy Jenkins over referendum issue [1.40.45]. (Goes into involved detail of the issue-how it became a party political issue). Quotes Callaghan “In politics everything depends on where you sit” (i.e. how safe was your seat) [1.43.25]. Quotes advice from Healey “Shut up –say nothing” –meant he could come back later. Resignation from Labour Party [1.56.00] never broke his attachment -once had an anonymous leaflet through the post reminding him of standing for Torrington and suggesting he “came back” to Labour – he wept. An important resignation –related to constituency [1.48.00] Tells story of being pressured at successive Labour Conferences to accept unilateral nuclear disarmament, to come out of Europe and to take “clap trap of state ownership” –could have put up with two but not three of them [1.48.50], plus way Parliamentary party elected a leader via electoral college weighted towards unions –“corrupt system”. Relates it to more recent Labour leadership. Describes how Benn had ensured that left wing policies became included in party Manifesto. [1.50.45]. Tempted to pull out of politics altogether at the time. When he left he knew he’d never be leader or PM. If he’d known that he’d have to spend all his time subsequently debating about whether to join the Liberals, he wouldn’t have gone [1.52.50]. Regrets that Healey didn’t fight against Foot for leadership. The “ifs” of history. Everyone in politics has to stomach things you disagree with –but there was too much dishonesty then. [1.54.45] [interruption as wife comes in] Tells story of 1983 election. Lost a lot of friends. Michael Foot visited Plymouth during election. –wanted to visit local estates –horrified to see that people there were supporting Owen. Labour disowned in constituencies by own Labour people. By 1988 Labour came to its senses. Talks about the 1983 campaign –fought against the Labour party. Lucky it was a defence constituency –and he was solid on Defence [2.00.00]. Individual MPs can count. Now he’s back with Labour again [2.01.40]. “Breaking the mould of British politics” –David Marquand’s phrase –talks about Marquand – a lot of us have gone full circle and come back to Labour [2.03.10]. Had sent a message via Alistair Campbell to Kinnock offering a “deal” in 1992 election to endorse Labour; not accepted. Blair asked him to come back. Votes for Labour where he can (can’t vote in General Election as a Lord). “I’m not really a party political animal but I am ideological” [2.05.33] e.g. regarding the NHS. Architect of Internal Market in NHS –“you have to go near to the wrong policy in order to get the right one”. Third resignation –over SDP/Liberal Democrats merger [2.07.25] -goes into detail; Euro federalist issue was important; decisive factor was where he sat in Plymouth –Lib Dems have no standing there – you have to go back to the Civil War to understand why (misunderstands extraneous reference to Sabbath Day Fight –episode during siege of Plymouth, not about Sunday Trading!). Describes at length the historical context of Liberalism in 1930s [2.11.00]. Plymouth a mixture of working class Toryism and Labour -Liberals aren’t trusted. Importance of personality in politics [2.15.00] –matters hugely everywhere –why he’s writing about personality and hubris –refers to many people involved in the financial crash. [2.16.15] Talks about theory of Hubris syndrome affecting leaders –an acquired personality disorder –the trigger is power. Gives example of Neville Chamberlain, Lloyd George, Thatcher, Blair and Bush. Did research on Beta blockers as a young doctor –believes they may have an impact on decision making in politics (speculates that Blair might have been on Beta blockers) [2.20.15]. Cites the harm this can do in reference to aftermath of Baghdad invasion –Bush’s “Mission accomplished” posture. Hopes that his Hubris Syndrome theory will be his legacy to Politics [2.24.00]. He’s hubristic too! Daedalus Trust. Interested in what stops people going over the edge –“toe holders”; role of Court Jester in challenging hubris. Personally he’s always heading for the edge. Wife has scolded him for it in the past (wife joins conversation at this point) [2.27.00]. [2.28.20] Enoch Powell quote about inevitability of failure –it’s how people judge politics –absurd. Cites Jack Ashley as having had a fulfilling career without being a Minister. House of Commons still provides a place where you can have substantial influence without holding office [2.29.30]. Became less ambitious after having been Foreign Secretary for a year. Regrets about own career? [2.31.25] Bogged down by issue of whether SDP could have recreated the Labour party around itself –nearly called themselves New Labour at the time! German SPD party under Helmut Kohl was role model. Reflects on what might have been different. On balance it was right to try to create a new party [2.34.45]. Today we’re witnessing a v different, continental-style Liberal party. Reflects on the Proportional Representation issue of the time and assesses different forms of PR now. Working with other MPs in Plymouth [2.38.10]. A great Devolutionist since 1967. Still wants STV (Single Transferable Vote system). Attracted by Fixed-term Parliaments. Talks about the power of Dissolution of Parliament for a leader. Greatly in favour of paid-up members of a party electing their leader, rather than parliamentary party [2.42.10] –but still far better than “fraudulent” Electoral College process. Worried about disengagement of public from politics; public financing of parties should not shut out formation of new parties or make it impossible for independents to stand. Refers to George Galloway not standing again in Bethnal Green -can’t dismiss Respect party or UKIP. Refers to likelihood of Lords Reform (“bogus”) being killed off in Commons –it’s all really about horse-trading over Boundary changes. British public generally gets it right at election time [2.46.00] Politics has to have fundamental values e.g. there should have been a proper investigation after Suez –Eden lied to the Commons [2.47.40]. He wrote in 2004 that Blair should have stood down –you can’t make error after error in wartime , or lie about Intelligence - it’s Contempt [2.48.45]. Until recently there was a belief that if you lied to Parliament you had to go – we should restore that [refers to current issue over Jeremy Hunt and BSkyB]. Carrington was right to go after Falklands invasion. Cyrus Vance resigned over Iranian hostages disaster. Resignation is an essential tool of politics [2.51.25]. Optimistic about current state of Politics in Britain –Yes, strangely e.g Libya intervention; being able to adjust to outcome of 2010 election; Parliament is showing itself to be flexible -House of Lords Reform will be seen as phoney; parliamentary role in Murdoch enquiry has been important. Globally, he sees weak parliaments; likes German system, but we hold our own. We’ve allowed journalistic profession to be too influential. But overall the main issue is Europe - believes British people will say No [2.55.00]. We don’t need to be worried about our democracy –it adjusts. Looking at Commons from a distance he sees more diversity now. Essence is – get the constituency business right.
Life story interview with Lord David Owen (1938-), former Labour and Social Democratic Member of Parliament.