Swindon LitFest crowd gets a peek into Churchill’s Cabinet room… and Lord David Owen’s mind

6 May
Lord David Owen © Calyx Picture Agency

Lord Owen, photo (c) Calyx Picture Agency

Over the past few years, the Swindon Festival of Literature has coincided with an important political event of one kind or another, and there’s always a political heavyweight on hand with whom to discuss the big issues of the day.

In 2015, we commiserated with Alan Johnson, whose Labour Party had lost the general election in the same week that his beloved Queens Park Rangers were relegated.

In 2016, Ken Livingstone provided some post-Corbyn, pre-Brexit insight, flying the (red) flag for backing Remain in the referendum. And there was a message of foreboding from Sir Vince Cable, who warned that older voters might drive an exit from the European Union, at the expense of the young.

Friday evening’s hour with Lord David Owen came the day after the Conservatives did very well in the Shire Hall elections – at the expense of Labour and especially of UKIP, who seem to have disappeared from the political agenda altogether – and just over a month before the nation heads to the polls for its second general election in as many years.

Lord Owen was at the Arts Centre to talk about his new book – and very good it sounds too: Cabinet’s Finest Hour goes behind closed doors in Churchill’s War Cabinet to show how close Britain came to seeking a negotiated peace with Hitler.

There’s nothing new under the sun here – the minutes of the nine secret War Cabinet meetings were released under the Thirty Year Rule, and Owen was quick to credit Andrew Roberts’ biography of Lord Halifax, Holy Fox, and Five Days in London by John Lukacs. In fact, we were urged to buy them.

And as he leaned over the Festival lectern, and calmly gave us his take on what happened in those rooms, it was clear that every politician charged with taking the difficult decision over whether to go into a costly war there was no certainty of winning would be given their credit by Owen.

We were reminded that Neville Chamberlain, the man we now think of as the appeaser, has become vilified over the years. The horrors of the trenches were still fresh in the memories of the British people, and doing a deal with Hitler was a popular option among the masses.

Meanwhile, Labour leader and deputy Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood resisted pressures to hold talks with Mussolini – a strategy proposed by Lord Halifax and favoured by Chamberlain. Without them, Churchill would have lost the argument, and Halifax’s negotiation with the fascists would have been sought.

So wartime Churchill was no one-man army, but a politician of consensus. It is no coincidence, Owen told his audience, that the book cover features Churchill and Attlee walking together. “As the years pass I become more convinced that collective decision making is the mark of a great democracy.”

Clearly, Owen is a fan of government by consensus across the political spectrum. In the 1980s, our First Past the Post electoral system robbed his SDP-Liberal Alliance of seats – 23 of the 650 seats from a 25 percent share of the national vote.

And when prime ministers – rather than Cabinet – wield all the power, disaster looms: “Under Tony Blair’s ‘sofa government’… we went to war with no plan of what we would do once the military had taken Baghdad.” Similarly, David Cameron’s Brexit gamble was ill-considered: “… and I speak as a Brexiteer: there was no plan, no study into the consequences of leaving the EU.”

So where, politically, is Lord Owen, founder of the breakaway SDP, now? As the Facebook relationship status option says, ‘it’s complicated’.

He’s a member of a House of Lords he only joined (he says – it’s hard to tell if he’s joking) “for the car park and the library.

“Look around: he’s given £100,000, he’s given a million, she’s the mistress of X. It’s been used by prime Ministers as a form of patronage, and it stinks.”

He’s a man who is “… more left wing now than when I started” but who believes “Theresa May is a woman of substance. She did six years in the most difficult job of all.”

And a man dismissive of his former centrist colleagues: “Theresa May is holding this election because without a strong majority the Liberal Democrats and former civil servants in the House of Lords would put the kibosh on Brexit.”

Today he sits in the Lords as an independent social democrat. “I got what I always wanted,” he raises an eyebrow and a wry smile crosses his face. “A party of one.”

Words: Peter Davison

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