Historical Oracle Meets...Lord David Owen, Youngest Ever Foreign Secretary
Updated: Feb 26
Not many political careers are as distinguished at Lord David Owen’s: the longest serving Plymouth Member of Parliament – 26 years in total; Navy Minister; Health Minister; youngest Foreign Secretary since Anthony Eden when he was appointed aged 38 in 1977; and, arguably what he is most famous for, being a part of the ‘Gang of Four’ that broke away from Labour to form the Social Democratic Party in the 1980s.
Though, even when he was standing up at the Despatch Box in the House of Commons and leading Britain’s foreign policy, his passport continued to read ‘medical practitioner’. This was his first career and love. Something he never ceased to be, despite the intensity and franticness of political life.
In the serene surroundings of Dartington Hall, Lord Owen and I started off our conversation talking about his parents. It is no wonder that Lord Owen became both a doctor and a politician:
“My parents were both Welsh but I was born in Plymouth. They came down from Wales in the early 30s and my father started in General Practice in Plympton.
“My mother was an independent councillor on Devon County Council – and by that time was fighting the merger of Plympton with Plymouth against the local MP!”
Growing up on the very edge of Dartmoor, it would become a defining place throughout his life. He would say that he has always had a lifelong identification with the place.
“I absolutely adore Dartmoor. I went to school at Tavistock, in Mount House…Dartmoor has been a very big part of my life. I adore it. I love its people. They are different.
“When I was young medical student, my father would ask if I wanted to come out with him on a night call or whatever. He would always go in first and ask if they minded his young medical student son coming in. It was usually an old farmer or whatever and they’d usually say yes.
“We always used to arrive at the same diagnosis but from very different routes!”
Before becoming a doctor, however, being schooled on Dartmoor could have changed the direction of his whole life, with a career in the navy being a possibility:
“Mount House was a feeder school for the navy. It used to have this cadet entry. But when I was about 11 or 12 they cancelled that. I think once they cancelled that direct entry, I went to Bradfield College in Berkshire and I never really contemplated the navy after that.”
It wasn’t until he was around 17, then, that he would finally settle on studying medicine at Cambridge, having toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer briefly.
“I never regretted [the decision to do medicine]. I consider myself still a doctor! I was a medical practitioner the whole time I was Foreign Secretary.
“I am very annoyed that the General Medical Council stops me prescribing for myself! You don’t stop an architect designing a house! They have all the logic but emotionally – I still consider myself a doctor!”
It was in 1959 that Lord Owen would take his first proper foray into politics when he joined the Labour Party. Though it took a little time as the Vauxhall association office always seemed to be closed.
“[I joined] after the election defeat of Hugh Gaitskell in 1959. I voted for the first time in that election. He remains one of the political figures I have great admiration for.”
The medical career would continue to take precedence, until a letter appeared out of the blue – or should I say red.
“After I qualified, I was two weeks into being a doctor at the Royal Waterloo Hospital, wonderful job, and I got this letter from this woman who I had talked to at this Fabian Society about the pharmaceutical industry, asking if I would accept a nomination to be the Labour candidate for Torrington!
“At the time, I was a busy house physician who got two weekends off a month, so I wrote back asking what it entailed. To which they replied that coming down one weekend a month would be fine. I knew a lady that lived in the Dolton, so I knew I could always stay there.
“I clambered into the car, I seem to remember well past midnight, and drove down to the selection conference. I had a copy of the New Statesman – and read it avidly trying to think of what to say! I didn’t have the slightest feeling I would be selected and hey presto – they chose me!
“My father thought the whole thing was very funny but my mother, who remember was a Devon County Councillor herself, was absolutely incandescent. She said: ‘David. No one is going to take you seriously. This is an absolutely massive error. You have just started your medical career and they’ll all know you’re a candidate. I beg you to tell nobody.’ This seemed pretty good advice. For at least 18 months, practically nobody ever knew.”
Having never truly been involved in frontline politics before, the 1964 Torrington campaign and the people in and around Dartmoor, provided the perfect situation for David to cut his political teeth.
“You had to be quite brave to be Labour! You used to come into the village with a loudspeaker and you would see people’s curtains move – they were listening but they wouldn’t come out!
“I used to do four meetings a night. I remember, the last meeting of [one particular] night I arrived in Dolton and I had no idea where the village hall was. There was a chap standing there in a white coat and it was the local butcher directing everyone to my meeting saying ‘I don’t agree with the boy’s politics but he deserves a hearing!’”
While continuing to practice medicine, he had to learn the local issues quickly and with minimal time.
“I used to sit down with Sir Clive Bossom, who had a rural constituency, and he would coach me.
“I would come in at 11 o’clock, having been working late in the hospital, get something cheap to eat…he would brief me as to what was happening in agriculture.
“I would then drive down to the market ring in Torrington and talk about agriculture. They were all very impressed. What they didn’t realise was that 24 hours ago I didn’t know any of this!
“It was fun and wasn’t very serious. I met some really lovely people. A lovely General Practitioner called Dr Jones in Okehampton was President of the Party. There was a postman who was very active in Chagford. Len Mulholland was my agent in Bideford. I learnt my socialism from them!”
Despite not winning the seat – though he wasn’t expecting to – the Labour Party won the 1964 election with a majority of 4, to enter government for the first time in 13 years.
David would give up being the potential candidate for Torrington and went back to medicine. Though, the hiatus from politics would be short-lived.
“My mother was going up to Devon County Council with a Plymouth City Councillor, she was driving him, and he said ‘Do you think David would stand as a candidate for…Plymouth Sutton?’, she said “I don’t know – you better ask him’, by which time she was a seemingly a bit more relaxed about me being a politician!”
David would put name his name forward to be the candidate but didn’t think he would win. Especially as Labour members were telling him at the time that Betty Boothroyd – another potential candidate for the seat – gave a much better speech.
Luckily, his links to the area saved him as people voted for him because they knew his dad.
“Harold Wilson came down and spoke at the Guildhall. Well, first all he met me at the station and said ‘Good Afternoon David’ – put his arm around me. I had never met him before in my life. We walked down the road in animated discussion and the next day, people were saying ‘I didn’t know you knew Harold Wilson’ and I said ‘I didn’t know I knew Harold Wilson!’
“As the train was moving out of the station [after his visit, Wilson’s] Parliamentary Private Secretary…Peter Shore…leant out the train and said ‘We’ll see you in Westminster, David.’ I said ‘What do you mean?’ – ‘Well, you do realise you’re going to win? You’re going to be an MP in a week’s time – you better get used to it!’ – by this point the train was moving out of the station!”
He was right. David would win the seat and the Labour Party would increase their majority from 4 to 96 seats.
“I had no idea I was going to win. I lived dangerously from then on. My majority went down to 400, 700 etc. But I ended up as the longest serving Member of Parliament in Plymouth’s history.
“It was a very interesting parliament, 1966-70, we had a very big Labour majority and no money!
The Labour Party would go on to engage in one of the biggest social reform programmes in British History. Homosexual law reform, divorce law reform, abortion law reform. Though, this was obviously not universally welcomed across the country, as Lord Owen pointed out with an anecdote that summed up the times.
“There was this old railway man in the constituency. He was pretty reactionary in most of his views, to be honest. Homosexual law reform came up…it was quite a controversial thing [at the time] and this guy gets up during a general management committee and says: “Well David, I backed you on family allowance. I didn’t approve of that. I backed you on abortion. I didn’t approve of that. I even went along with divorce reform. But I draw the line at buggery!”
Though, as with many things in his career, David saw the more important side of this:
“My advice to everyone is: do what you think is right. Don’t spend your whole time worrying if the votes are there or not…you can’t spend the whole time with your thumb-up trying to work out which was the wind is blowing.”
In 1970, the Conservative Party under Edward Heath would beat Labour in one of the major post-war election upsets. Though it would only last four years.
Upon Labour’s return to power in 1974, David would find himself promoted to Minister of State for Health in 1974 as part of the Department for Health and Social Security.
“We knew it as the Ministry of Stealth and Total Obscurity.”
He encouraged Britain to become ‘self-sufficient’ in blood products such as Factor VIII, a recommendation also promoted by the World Health Organisation. This was principally due to the risk of Hepatitis infection from high-risk blood donors overseas who were often paid and from ‘skid-row’ locations.
David has been outspoken that his policy of "Self-Sufficiency" was not put into place and gave rise to the Tainted Blood Scandal which saw 5,000 British Haemophiliacs infected with Hepatitis C. 1200 of those were also infected with HIV. It would later be described in the House of Lords as "the worst treatment disaster in the history of the National Health Service".
Once James Callaghan became Prime Minister when Harold Wilson stepped down, David was made a Minister at the Foreign Office. Though, after the Anthony Crosland died suddenly, David replaced him and became the youngest Foreign Secretary, aged 28, since Anthony Eden in 1935.
Labour would go on to lose to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in 1979, with Michael Foot being elected Leader of the Labour Party 18 months later. A once promising potential candidate for Prime Minister, the election of Foot would change the trajection of Lord Owen’s career.
Michael Foot's election as Labour party leader indicated that the party was likely to become more left-wing, and in 1980 committed itself to withdrawing from the EEC without even a referendum.
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. Although Owen was one of the founding members of the party, he was not always enthusiastic about creating a schism on the centre-left, saying he felt haunted by the possibility that, if the Labour Party had split, the Centre Left would never again have formed the Government in Britain.
“It was very difficult for me to leave the Labour Party. I was adamant I was never going to stand on the 1983 [Labour Party] manifesto (dubbed the longest suicide note in history).
“The arguments about defence, we had those before. The arguments about Europe, we had those before. Endless times. These were all legitimate battles and the right [of the Party] usually got their way. You have to realise that you won’t always get your way. In politics, you mustn’t walk just because you lose an argument.
“But this was much more different. With this electoral college coming in – essentially bypassing MPs – and not allowing MPs the freedom that they could owe their constituency their judgement – you knew you would not be able to change the Labour Party. It was 16 years before the Party was transformed and eventually won the 1997 election. The electoral college was the key thing. We simply couldn’t live with that.
“As soon as I joined the SDP, I ceased to be a potential candidate to be Prime Minister.”
The party never reached the heights that was expected of them in 1983 and after the 1987 election, the Liberal leader David Steel proposed a full merger of the Liberal and SDP parties and was supported for the SDP by Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers.
David rejected this notion outright, on the grounds that he and other Social Democrats wished to remain faithful to social democracy as it was practised 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 merger.
The Liberal Party and SDP merged to form the Social and Liberal Democrats (SLD) in March 1988, renamed the Liberal Democrats in October 1989.
In 1992, David would be elevated to the House of Lords as Baron Owen, of the City of Plymouth. Despite regularly being in the list of the best Prime Ministers the UK has never had, Lord Owen has no regrets:
“I have had a very interesting life. I have enjoyed politics very hugely. It’s a blood sport. You shouldn’t go into it if you’re going to get upset. I never took my bat home.”