Breaking the mould

David Owen, Human Rights and the Remaking of British Foreign Policy by David Grealy (Bloomsbury, 2022)

Angus Reilly

It can be a challenge to locate the SDP in the broader trends of British political history. Studied retrospectively, it appears an adventurous casualty in the sclerotic course of the modernisation of the Labour Party, brought down by the unyielding binary framework of first-past-the-post.

One of the SDP’s defining qualities, and perhaps one of its greatest flaws, was its dominance by a few individuals. From the 1983 election onwards, as Ivor Crewe and Anthony King argue, David Owen was the SDP, and the SDP was David Owen. As leader, his singularity of purpose and headstrong charisma magnified the influence of the alliance with the Liberals beyond the traditional place of the third party, and his trajectory personified the rise and fall of the effort to “break the mould” of the two-party system. David Marquand, in The Progressive Dilemma, titled his chapter on Owen’s career ‘Progressive as Meteor’, for its fiery but ultimately evanescent intensity, and he still endures as part of the iconography of the 1980s.

A source of Owen’s prominence has been the roles in international politics that bookended the tenure of the SDP. Appointed Foreign Secretary in 1977, he was one of the youngest holders of the position, and from 1992 to 1995 he served as the EU’s representative in the former Yugoslavia. Through his actions and extensive publications, Owen has demonstrated himself to be one of the most internationally-minded British politicians of the post-war period. David Grealy’s new book interprets the intersections of British social democracy and international politics through the prism of Owen’s sustained engagement with human rights in his political career, building an important contribution to the history of British foreign policy beyond the tired themes of decline and European tribulations.

The subject of human rights in international history has been, traditionally, focused on the United States, with work by scholars like Barbara Keys and Samuel Moyn chronicling how those issues emerged into the public consciousness in the 1970s. David Owen serves as a counterweight to that, expanding the scope of study across the Atlantic through to the end of the century. Grealy argues that Owen, and other ministers such as Frank Judd and Judith Hart, “viewed human rights as indivisible, comprising civil and political and [Grealy’s emphasis] social and economic rights,” channelling both the principles of social democracy and the imperatives of British foreign policy in that turbulent era.

Fortunately for scholars of his career, Owen has demonstrated an eager loquaciousness on the subjects that interest him. As well as Human Rights (1978), his publications include two other books related to his ministerial tenure, two memoirs, four political books from his time with the SDP, two volumes of edited papers, three history books, three books on illness and political leadership, three books on more recent British politics, and even a 400-page volume of his favourite poetry.

Owen’s extensive writing suggests an enthusiastic autodidacticism in his approach to politics. Grealy traces the origins of Owen’s human rights advocacy in the influence of Mervyn Stockwood, a vicar in Cambridge and later Bishop of Southwark, who was an active member of the CND and the anti-apartheid movement. Grealy provides an astute analysis of Stockwood’s impact on Owen, but his experience as a doctor before entering Parliament in 1966 was also formative. Owen’s father was a GP and his mother a dentist, so he emerged from a world of medicine and medical research that offered a political education isolated from the traditional programme followed by young Labourites in the 1960s. Every election campaign in his relatively marginal Plymouth seat would bring nervous searches through the job section of the journal of the British Medical Association, and his consistent use of the honorific ‘Dr.’ throughout his political career reflected his different worldview.

Much of Grealy’s book focuses on Owen’s tenure as Foreign Secretary. Appointed at the age of only 38, Owen aspired to upend what he saw as the sterile, Euro-federalist, mandarin mentality of the Foreign Office. His removal of the old-hand Peter Ramsbotham as ambassador in Washington and his replacement with the younger economist – and James Callaghan’s son-in-law – Peter Jay caused uproar in the FCO but permitted closer alignment with the Carter administration’s new enthusiasm for human rights. Grealy is particularly strong on the interminable dilemma of public support for human rights contrasted with the provision of weapons and equipment to autocratic states – in Owen’s case, to El Salvador and the Shah’s regime in Iran.

From Owen’s more holistic interpretation of human rights, with a strong social and economic dimension, the Thatcher government prioritised the civil, political and religious rights that could be weaponised against the Soviet Union and integrated with Reagan’s bellicose posture. In the third major episode of his career, Owen played a main role in one of the first great crises of the post-Cold War world. As a peace negotiator in the disintegrating Yugoslavia – alongside Cyrus Vance, the former US Secretary of State – he had the impossible task of corralling the warring parties to the negotiating table, but, without the sufficient backing of the Europeans and Americans to enforce an agreement, the initiative squandered. The failure of the Vance-Owen Peace Plan is an understudied moment in the emergence of a new form of humanitarianism; from it, Grealy writes, “Owen can clearly be situated within a broader interventionist milieu in which it is possible to observe the development of a protean ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) ethic.”

It was David Owen’s support for leave in the 2016 referendum that originally drew me to study him. I could not square his life in progressive politics with his decision to back a campaign characterised predominantly as an exercise in right-wing rebellion. In the course of writing his biography, I have read mountains of archival material and talked to people who have known Owen throughout his life – trust me, no one holds a grudge quite like a former member of the SDP – to try to understand this man of paradoxes.

With the amalgam of his Euroscepticism, political ephemerality and vigorous self-confidence, Owen is a nomad in modern British history. His enthusiasm for human rights is one such facet to that, and David Grealy has delivered a study that reorients their place back to the heart of questions about Britain’s role in the world.

Angus Reilly is writing a book about Henry Kissinger’s experiences in World War II and a biography of David Owen.