Lord Owen was Britain’s youngest ever Foreign Secretary – before quitting Labour to form his own party. He’s been a peacekeeper in the Balkans, a businessman, a doctor, an author and one of Britain’s best-known politicians.
In the latest edition of Free Exchange (recorded before the election was called), he talks to Robert Colvile about why Europe failed, why it was so important to keep UKIP out of the referendum campaign, what we can expect from the Brexit negotiations, and what moderate Labour MPs should do about Corbyn. We also discuss his new book on Churchill and the war Cabinet, the role of ambition and luck in political careers – and why Enoch Powell was wrong about how they end.
Lord Owen on… the Brexit negotiations (5 mins 20)
“I believe the Government is entitled to keep its cards close to its chest. You cannot enter into an international treaty negotiation and expect the House of Commons to dictate the terms under which you will or will not settle. You have to vest that authority in, normally, the Foreign Secretary. And then you come back, of course. But the choice, accept or reject, is not ‘amend or vote it down and go back again’. These are quite ludicrous positions. I don’t know why they were given the time of day, frankly.”
Lord Owen on… why we should have voted down Maastricht (12 mins 30)
“I believe really Nigel Lawson is the only one of us, all of us around in senior politics, who spotted the moment when it all went wrong – and that was on the Single European Act. He sent Margaret Thatcher two memos in November 1986 which were deeply perceptive and pleaded with her: ‘Do not commit in the act to any wording which has European monetary union in, because they will use it.’ Which is exactly what they did.
“That is the whole European method – you squeeze in a little commitment, saying it means nothing, and you build on it. It’s the whole Monnet style. And we consistently underestimate it. We keep trying to pretend that they are not aiming at a European state. They are… And they believe in crisis, so it doesn’t and has never troubled them that there would be a crisis in the Eurozone. I think many of them were clever enough to realise it.”
Lord Owen on… saving the NHS (14 mins)
“I’m a social democrat. I believe in the social market. Where’s the social policy in allowing unemployment among under-25s in Spain to be up near 60 per cent, in Greece, in Portugal? What’s the socialism of that?
“I want a Labour government to return to Aneurin Bevan’s National Health Service, and I can do that now because I’ve no longer got European competition law, and TTIP, and all the other things that were deliberate obstacles to being able to return back.”
Lord Owen on… Labour’s situation (18 mins)
“They should not leave, those Labour people who are unhappy. They shouldn’t leave. It’s very different [from the SDP]. We were just about able to scrape 28 Labour MPs and one Conservative. But they’ve got well over 100 – at one stage, on the Trident vote, they had 170. So they’ve got a very substantial section of the parliamentary party. They must stick together, and fight it out, with the very good prospect that Jeremy Corbyn will probably – and in my view very rightly – shift some of the policies to the left. Don’t write off the Labour Party. They can get back.”
Lord Owen on… the mood in Europe (19 mins)
“I think they’re demoralised, actually. I don’t think they’re hubristic. I think they know the thing’s not working, and they don’t know what to do…. But can these people negotiate a treaty? Have they got the decision-making capacity? They’ve known what they ought to be doing about Greece, and they’ve been completely unable to make the decision. It’s a dysfunctional structure. It’s far too large. You’ve only got to look at them all, sitting around. There’s a very real fear I have that they can’t negotiate a settlement with us now.”
Lord Owen on… Blair and Cameron (23 mins 30 secs)
“Complete disasters. Absolute, total disasters. I can’t imagine anything worse. Leave aside Iraq and Libya, which were their signature tunes – both utter failures, with this complete inability to understand that what happens after an invasion is more important than what happens during it. Complete mess on foreign policy. Complete mess on the NHS – both of them, in my view, have been arch-destroyers of the National Health Service. We have to learn. These people keep on lecturing us about apprenticeships. They’ve never had an apprenticeship – never served in government before.”
Lord Owen on… forming the SDP 28 mins 30 secs
“The day I decided to leave the Labour Party was the day I knew I could never become Prime Minister. If you’ve been Foreign Secretary, there’s only one other place, really, you want to go. I don’t see any embarrassment in saying I’d like to have been Prime Minister. Of course I’d like to have been Prime Minister.
“But the choice for me in 1981 was not a normal choice. I would not have fought on the 1983 manifesto in Plymouth. I have too much respect for my own Labour supporters to believe they would have voted for me. So my only choice was whether to form a new party, or pack my sticks.”
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