The Tab talks to Lord David Owen

Owen shares his thoughts on Brexit, Corbyn and foreign policy


During his visit to the Cambridge Union, we asked Lord Owen, former Foreign Secretary, SDP leader and Cambridge alumnus, to share his thoughts on the current political crisis, and his outlook for post-Brexit Britain.

What is your opinion of the leadership shown by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, particularly on the issue of Brexit?

Corbyn is part of the Labour Party which existed in 1981 – one of the reasons that I left – because they wanted to bring the country out of Europe, without even the referendum which Labour had given the country in 1975.

There was also the problem of nuclear weapons. In 2017, I was amazed to find the manifesto accepting the continuation of nuclear weapons. He’s shown more flexibility to his right wing than ever Michael Foot did.

Corbyn is moving on Europe, not because of conviction, but because he wants to keep the party together. He still wants to come out, but he’s got the policy that if he wins the next election he will negotiate entry because he wants to join both the single market and customs union. I think we have one referendum, we take the result and we carry it out.

The vision of Brexit for a lot of people is Britain as a world player, yet with the growing rift between the US in its current stance and the EU, do you think that the Brexit vision of the UK aligning with both is still a possible outcome? For example, could a trade deal with the US, involving the lowering of food standards, jeopardise a deal with the EU?

I think we would have had real danger that we wouldn’t have been able to cope with as Europeans had we not had the creation of NATO. American troops in Europe could change. But the British government has increased defence spending by 0.5%, which is difficult to do but an important task.

We’ll be sending a message back to America-that we do value NATO, we do value American troops. You have Macron saying we need European defence for whatever that may be, in order to deal with Russia and perhaps the USA – that's a very odd statement for a French President to make.

I think that we will find it easier to have good friendships continuing with France and Germany, particularly in areas of security and overall foreign policy, if we keep that partnership together. We are 'two-plus-one'. Running a threesome just doesn’t seem to work.

I was the EU negotiator in the Balkans for nearly three years. They behaved well to me, they supported me, but they don’t like wielding power. The one other country in Europe that is happy with power and that has proper armed forces is France. We are both permanent members of the security council. When we work together we can have considerable influence in the security council. I think that will go on irrespective.

You see, I’ve spent quite a lot of my years as a person without being a member of the European Union, so I don’t instinctively question that Britain can’t have an independent foreign policy. We’ve had one and we will have one in the future.

You were the foreign secretary under Callaghan, a period often remembered as one of strife and division. Do you think that the UK now is more divided than ever?

Firstly, I think right up until January of 1979 Callaghan brought not only the Labour party but the country together. He took on the IMF – a very difficult issue- and got an agreement inside his cabinet and the Labour Party. I think he was a unifying figure.

Brexit is completely different to any past crisis because parliament cannot make up its mind. Right or wrong, under Thatcher, Wilson, Callaghan, by and large Parliament governed. It took decisions- you might not like it, but it was a period when you knew you had a government. We haven’t even had a government for the past three years.

This is a House of Commons that is dead, locked in the sense it cannot make decisions. We’ve got to have a General Election. Postponing this nightmare which has gone on for three years is going to pose huge problems for this country.

You’ve had a referendum, don’t come back with a second referendum, and don’t sit on your hands pretending to be governing the country. I’ve never seen it before, its absolutely depressing.

You’d agree with Boris Johnson’s stance on another General Election now?

Well its not Boris Johnson’s stance, I just believe in a General Election. I think that this parliament can’t make up its mind, whoever is prime minister. A Parliament that cannot decide on a key fundamental issue for three years needs a General Election.

Image by Gordon Joly: copyright. This interview took place during Lord Owen's visit to the Cambridge Union.