Interview with Lord Owen


Try to name the current coalition front bench. Better still, do your best impressions of a few ministers and see if anyone can guess them. Go on, have a go at ‘doing an Andrew Lansley’. No? Well, it hasn’t always been like this. Our politicians used to be interesting. Lord David Owen was one of them.

David Owen belongs to that generation of politicians who were around in that fuzzy period after the war but before us. Some of you may have heard of him, a few might even know the rough outlines of his career, but, sadly, to most, he is just another irrelevant historical figure – one of those odd characters who crop up in textbooks and documentaries, but are strangely still alive. Most of these people are too old to do anything newsworthy, but not only is Lord Owen still very much involved in politics, he is no less charismatic now than he was at the zenith of his career.

The former Foreign Secretary tore up British politics in the early 80’s, as one of the ‘Gang of Four’ who left Labour to create the Social Democratic Party (later merging with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats). An instinctive iconoclast, his bravado and self-assurance were legendary; the satirical show Spitting Image once imagined him leaving the SDP to form the David Owen Party for all those who support Social Davidowenism. He went on play a controversial role in the peace negotiations between the warring sides in the Former Yugoslavia and now serves as a crossbench peer in the House of Lords.

And he hasn’t mellowed with age. During the BBC election coverage last year, a short interview with him conducted by Jeremy Paxman provided the most acerbic two minutes of the entire broadcast (a taster: “you must think I’m an idiot to ask me that question”). Last week, during a visit to the Oxford Union, in between charming the Bursar and upbraiding his fellow speaker for their naïveté, he took some time out to share the fruits of his vast experience. Evidently still passionate about politics and equally enthusiastic in pointing out exactly where the current crop of ministers are going wrong, the past master at ad hominem now speaks the truth to the man. The easiest man in politics to caricature is now the one providing caricatures of our leaders.

Lord Owen, reclining in a suitably old-looking chair, looking rather like a caricature of himself and surrounded on all sides by ancient tomes, stares purposefully into the middle distance and launches into his analysis of contemporary politics. The travails of his progeny, the Lib Dems, and in particular of the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, are never far from his mind. Clegg “needs to have the backing of a full government department. He’s not well briefed, he doesn’t understand many of these issues and he needs more support. He needs a big department – where there are economists and lawyers – so when he goes into meetings with Cameron, he is as well-briefed as him.” Owen is clearly still in the loop: the Constitution Unit, a respected think-tank, subsequently published a study which argued that the deputy prime minister’s office is indeed ineffective, under-resourced and over-stretched.

Praise does not come naturally to Lord Owen; heavy-handed criticism and scathing condemnation slip off the tongue far more easily. Clegg may escape his wrath, but there is no shortage of alternative targets. First on the list: the House of Lords. “An awful place” according to Lord Owen. “It was better in the old days, when we had hereditary peers. We now have a patronage House of Lords par excellence, even Lloyd George would blush. Blair packed with his people, you can see them there – that person was a friend, that person paid a cheque – and now Cameron and the Lib Dems are doing the same”.

David Cameron recurs often during our conversation. While justly bemoaning the “endless presentism” of modern-day politicians, he rather loses track of his point as soon as he mentions the prime minister’s name.  “If you’re prime minister, you don’t go on interviews every day…He’s just like Blair: constant comments. If he wants to last as a politician, he will ration these things…He’s got to learn pretty fast”. The subsequent brief pause in the conversation represents an invitation to offer a separate, entirely unrelated, critique: “He behaved very badly to Clegg. Allowing the ‘No to AV campaign’ to make such a personal attack on him was not fair. Of course he could have stopped it.”

The policies, no less than the personalities, of the current government are ruthlessly dissected. Before his stellar career as a politician, Lord Owen was Dr. Owen. He thus feels particularly strongly about the coalition’s putative health reforms. Though change is certainly necessary – “there is no status quo for the NHS” – evolution, not revolution, is called for. “Medicine is about the individual relationship between the doctor or nurse and the patient. You can’t organise this on purely commercial principles. Bring in the disciplines of private sector and of good management…go on slowly, making these evolutionary changes. We know what is best practice and what is cost-effective.”

He rejects out of hand the notion that the government’s plans are merely continuing the gradual reforms of the previous government: “This is an absolutely massive piece of legislation. One of the most senior people in the NHS said you can see it from space. It’s far bigger than the 1948 Act which introduced the NHS.” Owen offers a stark vision of what the Health and Social Care Bill could lead to. “It’s a dog’s breakfast. It’s conceptually flawed. I hope it will be withdrawn…The government is stepping away from even providing a comprehensive health service…this is not just about GP consortia, there is a stepping back from very idea of a NHS”. The spectre of Cameron looms again over the conversation. “This man actually convinced us that he did believe in the health service, that he was not going to go on with the Blairite reforms. The effect will be very, very bad. It’s bad politics, bad economics, bad health care. He will have it wrung round his neck.”

Still very much a performer, an orator, a caricature; Lord Owen plays a role brilliantly. There is, though, no detectable element of dogmatism or arrogance within him. He mercifully adapted his interview style to the interviewer (I doubt he would have advised Paxman to “make sure the tape recorder is on”) and was generally even-handed in his appraisals: Cameron is “very intelligent”, Miliband needed to show “more passion and emotion” but had “done very well” and Clegg has been “outflanked by the knowledge and seriousness” of the prime minister. He came across as thoroughly reasonable and decent, but offering a caricature makes for a more interesting article.

Caricaturable politicians make for more interesting politics. Lord Owen hasn’t ruled out a return to front bench politics. The satirists are counting on it.

Sean Scoltock