David Owen

There are two ways of proving that time is relative. You can either measure the speed of light in a vacuum, as Einstein did, or you can place a dog and a politician in a restaurant and observe how the three entities age differently. In the space-time continuum, one dog year is the equivalent to seven human years. A seven-year-old dog, therefore, is considered old. But a restaurant which can manage to stay open for just two human years is also considered old – just as a young man is, the moment he becomes an MP. This is what Harold Wilson was getting at when he said a week is a long time in politics.

Take Lord Owen, for instance. Were he to live to 105, mourners would still shake their heads at his funeral and say, ‘Could have sworn he was older.’ That’s what being a foreign secretary at the age of 38 does for you. Even now we think of him as an ermine-gowned elder statesman, a wraith from a lost generation, a lonely shadow in the political wilderness – and he’s only 60.

Lord Owen reflects upon this, surveying the grey and choppy waters of the Thames from an upright wooden chair in his drawing-room. His wide mouth spreads into a thin smile. Dimples appear. ‘Politically, I’m 75 to 80,’ he says. ‘I’m going to the funeral services of the Callaghan government.’

He has just returned from one of his regular business trips to Moscow where Middlesex Holdings, the company of which he has been chairman since 1995, has interests in the steel industry. When the conversation turns from this to his memories of an earlier visit to Russia, at the height of the Cold War, I shiver involuntarily. Owen is so ancient, politically, he can reminisce about signing a treaty (intended to prevent the accidental outbreak of nuclear war) under the steady eye of Comrade Brezhnev. Brezhnev! ‘The Kremlinologists in the West asked me to give a surreptitious medical assessment of him. He had developed a speech defect and they wanted me to try to work out if he had had a stroke, or if he had cancer of the larynx.’

Nowadays there is something of the stuffed osprey about Owen’s looks (feathery eyebrows form a severe ‘V’ above a beaky nose), and he is not as intimidatingly handsome as once he was (less the young Frank Sinatra, more the older Stanley Baxter). The hair that he always seemed to be caught combing off-camera is still thick, but now he complains that whenever he washes it he finds clumps in the sink afterwards – ‘I’m moulting!’

Although Owen still constructs his sentences with ornate precision – ‘up with this we will not put’ is a favourite phrase – he also still sounds rather bored and disdainful when talking. Not that we hear much from him these days. He speaks once or twice a year on international affairs in the House of Lords, but since the end of his three-year term as EU peace negotiator to Bosnia in 1995, he has eschewed the spotlight. Now, though, he has found a cause for which he is prepared to come in from the cold. He thinks it will be a mistake for Britain to join the single currency – and he’s leading a campaign to explain why. The Eurosceptics are delighted: Owen is not Conservative, not anti-Europe (in fact very pro), and not widely felt to be bonkers.

‘A small group of us from different backgrounds and age groups are going through a very interesting exercise at the moment. We’re trying to work out a common text to set out the arguments against the single currency. We’re doing two versions: one short and populist, the other longer and more elitist. The simple version is proving much harder to write.’ Owen’s message is that it’s fine for the British people to vote for currency union as long as they are made fully aware that this will probably end up as political union, that is, a single social welfare and tax system, as well as a single defence and foreign policy. But politicians in Britain who want a United States of Europe are, he believes, operating by stealth, denying this is their ambition while edging constantly towards it.

It could be argued, though, that Owen has made far too many enemies in his political life to be of benefit to any cause he espouses. Left-wingers have hated him ever since he, along with Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers – the Gang of Four – left the Labour Party in 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP). They objected to Michael Foot’s policy to disarm unilaterally, renationalise, tax heavily and leave the EEC, and Owen hoped his new centrist party would ‘break the mould of British politics’. (The SDP’s statement of principles became known as the Limehouse Declaration, for ever placing Owen as its leader in the minds of the general public.)

Although polls showed that, at its peak, 50 per cent of the population supported the SDP, the 1983 election proved a disappointment, and the 1987 election, in which ‘the two Davids’, Owen and Steel, formed an uncomfortable alliance, was even worse. Steel, then leader of the Liberal Party, proposed merger; Owen resisted. The other members of the Gang of Four and most members of the SDP chose merger and formed the Social and Liberal Democratic Party, but Owen stayed firm. The rump SDP suffered an eerily prolonged death. It was finally wound up after the Monster Raving Loony Party out-polled it in the 1990 Bootle by-election.

In her memoirs, Lady Castle reflected the view of many when she described Owen as arrogant. Lord Jenkins compared him to the upas-tree, which destroys life around it. Lord Healey called him Lord Owen of Split and added: ‘The good fairy gave him thick dark locks, matinŽe idol features and a frightening intellect. Unfortunately the bad fairy also made him a shit.’

Conservatives, on the other hand, have always had a soft spot for Owen, not least because he did so much to keep them in power in the Eighties. Margaret Thatcher, it is said, admired his pro-Nato, pro-market views so much she wanted to offer him a Cabinet post – but he couldn’t bring himself to become a Tory. Major was also a fan, giving Owen a peerage when he left the House of Commons in 1992. He had planned to offer Owen the Governorship of Hong Kong as well – until Chris Patten lost his seat in the election that year.

The right-wing historian Andrew Roberts is another who sticks up for Lord Owen. He wrote recently that Owen’s vanity and ego are probably no greater than many other men of his talents, but they are perceived as gargantuan. Owen thinks he knows why this perception might have arisen. ‘Well, if you break away from a large political party you make yourself a lot of enemies. And if you say what you think, unvarnished, you cause yourself problems. You should never ignore criticism, though. There is always some truth behind it.’

Lord Callaghan recalls in his memoirs that Owen went as white as a sheet when asked if he wanted to be Foreign Secretary (after the sudden death of Tony Crosland). In the two years Owen did the job, he proved to be reasonably successful – forestalling the Argentine invasion of the Falklands and paving the way for Rhodesian independence.

For several years Owen had a recurring dream that he was operating on patients before he was properly qualified as a doctor. An obvious interpretation of this would be that he was suffering impostor syndrome at being promoted so young in politics. He doesn’t agree. Instead he takes the Freudian view that the dream was reassuring, because when he woke up from it he would realise that, in reality, he was qualified. ‘I had been in politics for quite a while – 11 years – and I’d already had two ministerial jobs – Navy, and Health. I suppose it’s an arrogant thing to say, but I wasn’t daunted on my first day as I went up in that slow lift to my room in the Foreign Office. I was at the peak of my powers in terms of intellect and energy and drive.’

You suspect he doesn’t mean that he has been in decline ever since, but it is still a strangely sad and disturbing comment. In his own memoirs (Time To Declare, 1991), Owen reveals that his natural self-confidence had been dented slightly while at Bradfield, his school in Berkshire. He wasn’t especially happy there and was teased ‘in a most unpleasant way’. His nickname was Dahlia, after his initials (David Anthony Llewellyn Owen), but he used to fight those who called him by it and, he solemnly writes, he never went through a homosexual phase.

His time studying medicine at Cambridge University was more rewarding, not least because he fell in love and discovered a passion for reading and writing poetry, something he still devotes much time to today. Indeed, he says one of things he is most proud of is editing Seven Ages, an anthology of poetry published in 1992. After graduating, he worked for six years as a neurologist and psychiatrist at St Thomas’s Hospital, Westminster, before becoming Labour MP for Plymouth Sutton in 1966.

His political epiphany had come some years earlier when he heard Harold Macmillan’s claim that Britain had never had it so good. Owen looked around him, found that he couldn’t agree and decided it was time to become a Labour supporter. But, tellingly, he wrote in his notebook that year: ‘There comes a time for action and taking one particular side whilst realising that no one side will ever answer to one’s every wish.’

Owen was born in Plympton, South Devon, on 2 July 1938, but most of his childhood was spent in Wales. While his father was away fighting in the War, he and his older sister went to live with his grandfather, a Welsh vicar. Although David Owen followed his father, John, into the medical profession, his mother, Molly, a Devon county councillor, was the dominating influence. She taught him that self-doubt was a sign of weakness. ‘I had the sort of mother who, if I came second in class, would say, “Why didn’t you come first?” If you made the cricket team, she would ask, “Why weren’t you made captain?” In a very nice way she assumed there was no such thing as a pinnacle of achievement. Also, I think it’s true to say that I lived dangerously in politics because I knew I could always go back to medicine if my political career came to an end.’

The Owen we watched on the news in the Eighties always looked peeved. Today he seems to have mellowed. He’s less crotchety. He doesn’t seem to be taking himself so seriously. When our photographer asks him to sit in a gloomy corner of the room he gives a running commentary: ‘I get it. This is the dark, saturnine Owen. Aged Heathcliffe. Decaying. The last hurrah…  I know what you lot get up to. Are you trying to get me to look like Oskar Lafontaine?’

It’s a delightfully off-beam assumption, which says much about the insular life that politicians lead: after all, who in this country knows what the German finance minister looks like? But Owen now seems more at ease with himself, and he even seems to have developed a sense of mischief. When asked what he thinks of Cool Britannia he sticks his finger down his throat and makes a retching noise. He dismisses the Observer as being pathetic and unreadable because of its slavish devotion to the Government. And he thinks Paddy Ashdown is making a complete arse of himself by toadying to Blair in the hope of being offered a job in the Cabinet or a seat on the European Commission.

Lord Owen enjoys, he says, the freedom of being a crossbencher – and when he adds that he now calls himself an Independent Social Democrat, he does so with a rueful grin. ‘I don’t want to be dragged into day-to-day political events,’ he says. ‘I want to ring-fence the single currency as the only political issue I’m involved in. I like having my distance and my independence. I’m in that rather rare position of having nothing more I want out of life: no job, no patronage.’

It sounds as if the doctor is coming down with tedium vitae. ‘No, I feel very content. I’ve always been happy. I’ve not lived an anguished life.’ Anyone who remembers his leadership of the SDP might find this an odd statement. ‘I have no resentment about the SDP,’ Owen now says, before going on to prove that he clearly does. ‘I think it’s a pity that people couldn’t have had more confidence in it. And I think it was a tragic shame that we lost our newness by linking ourselves too closely to the Liberals. But I haven’t had one moment of wanting to return to the House of Commons.’ He left it in 1992 and says his only real regret is that he didn’t leave on the Sunday after the 1987 election. ‘I probably did make a mistake. I should have said: “Fine. You go on and merge.” It’s just I knew merger would fail.’

His only consolation, he adds with a smile, is that there is now a Social Democrat in Number Ten. ‘Blair is one. Absolutely. Totally. Did you know one of the names we considered calling the SDP was New Labour?’ He says he talks to the Prime Minister occasionally but doesn’t know him well. ‘I relate to him, though. I can see where he is going with most things. I’m not very often surprised. But he’s young. There’s a big age gap and that’s bound to affect things.’ He declined to endorse Tony Blair in the last election because that would have meant being disloyal to John Major, who had been very supportive to him during the Bosnian peace negotiations. When asked, though, if he thinks he was the catalyst for Tony Blair, Owen pauses for about ten seconds. ‘The French have a saying: “For all the ifs in the world you can put Paris in a bottle.” I believe that Labour would not have changed as much as it did had it not seen its own voters in their thousands voting for the dreaded SDP. I think the painful shock of that was essential.’

At least Owen can take credit for one election victory: Margaret Thatcher’s in 1987. ‘I think you can’t deny it. If a major party is split it makes the other party more likely to win. But I’m not at all ashamed of that. I don’t think Labour was fit to govern in ’83, ’87 or ’92. But I think they were by ’97.’

The patrician certainty with which he says this makes you gasp and it reminds you that, at heart, he is still the doctor who knows what’s best for the patient. ‘New Labour is a refreshing change,’ he continues. ‘It is so skilled at not taking unpopular positions. Blair has got values, you know. People say he has no ideology but that’s not true. He is a Christian socialist. He’s not without moorings.’

Owen’s own mooring is the Church of Wales. Growing up in the valleys, his mentor and best friend was his blind grandfather, the clergyman. But for all his belief in a Christian God, Owen feels there is a far wider spiritual horizon. ‘I think religion is a much more personal and private thing. The Church is just a structure.’ He and Debbie, his wife of 30 years, have three grown-up children, Tristan, Gareth and Lucy. Last summer, he took Gareth, a medical student, up Mount Athos. ‘It was where I had gone when I first qualified as a doctor. We had a fantastic time walking, and it was like a spiritual experience. Rising at four and coming to monasteries in the evening. I spent several hours in the night sitting in these stalls in the Greek Orthodox Church. I don’t think it matters which building you go to.’

Partly because of his faith, partly because of his medical background, Lord Owen is not afraid of death, he says, although he does have an irrational fear of woods – the dark spaces between trees. He doesn’t really believe in personal security, he adds. Even though he was obliged to have a bodyguard when he was foreign secretary, he refused to go ex-directory. He divides his time between two houses – a redbrick Victorian rectory in Wiltshire and the one he is sitting in now, in Limehouse – and both are still listed in the phone book. The closest he has come to death was during his time in former Yugoslavia. ‘My helicopter was always being shot at. But I’m very philosophical about it.’

As the conflict in Bosnia rumbles on, you could be forgiven for assuming that Owen was a failure as a peace envoy. But even his enemies couldn’t argue it was for want of his trying: for three years he shuttled from country to country, convened meeting upon meeting, implemented cease-fire after cease-fire. He blamed the failure of the 1993 Vance Owen Peace Plan (VOPP), made in collaboration with the American envoy Cyrus Vance, on America’s lack of commitment. Some commentators said he was just too tactless, though, that he shouldn’t have accused President Clinton of having an inadequate grasp of Balkan history. Others claimed that the VOPP actually encouraged the vicious Croat-Muslim conflict that followed. Still others praised Owen’s heroism and integrity.

‘Yugoslavia was bloody,’ Owen now reflects. ‘But I did feel, having taken a lot out of politics, I had to put something back. People were surprised at how patient I was. I think that quality is greater now than when I was foreign secretary. Had I been younger I would have probably resigned when the Americans ditched the Vance-Owen plan.’

When Owen looks back on his own career he does not feel he has wasted his potential. He has no regrets, for instance, about not being given the job of Governor of Hong Kong. ‘Bosnia was a much more manly job to be given,’ he says with a grin. ‘Besides, Debbie wasn’t keen on going to Hong Kong because it would have disrupted her literary agency.’ When he accepted the job of envoy to Bosnia, Private Eye ran a cover which showed him shaking hands with John Major. The bubble coming out of Major’s mouth said, ‘I’m afraid it’s a lost cause.’ The bubble coming out of Owen’s said, ‘I’m your man.’ Doesn’t he think the retention of sterling is also a lost cause now?

‘Well, I don’t know, is the answer,’ Owen says eventually. ‘I don’t think any of us can be sure. I want to make it clear to people that you can be strongly committed to the European Union without being an enthusiast for the euro.’ He thinks there is a danger that the single currency will be just as divisive an issue for New Labour as it was for the Conservatives. ‘I fought for our membership of the EU long enough, and welcome the Labour conversion, but they are blind to some of the problems. Blair shouldn’t use such defensive language. He should be more self-confident. We are the fifth largest economy in the world. He can afford to keep his options on the euro open.’

Owen has some advice for William Hague too. ‘He should be more ruthless, not less. [Lord] Cranbourne behaved like an absolute shit and Hague was right to sack him. Too many people knock Hague. I think he’s better than he’s given credit for. I like his sense of humour. The best thing he can do is be patient. Nothing is going to change for him unless the economy turns down or Blair makes a massive error. The Liberals are helping him by lining up with Labour.’

Lady Owen (Debbie) runs her successful literary agency from the ground floor of this house and, as we’ve been talking, the telephone has been ringing constantly.  Upstairs, the only evidence is the reading material on the wooden coffee table: the New York Review of Books and Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters (hers presumably) alongside Britain’s Legacy to the Arabs by Anthony Parsons (his, you would imagine).

Debbie is American. Owen met her at a party in New York in 1968, fell in love immediately, and boldly asked her if she would show him round the city the next day. They were married within a few months. Touchingly, a number of the couple’s love letters are included in Owen’s autobiography. One of his ends: ‘Till then, if you’ve a clear sky in New York think of each one of the stars as being a kiss.’ He signs off another letter with the words: ‘I can’t see to write for my tears.’ I put it to him that all this soppy romanticism rather undermines his reputation as an even-tempered rationalist. ‘I can’t help it,’ he says. ‘I’m very Welsh, you see.’