Geoffrey Howe was the last member of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s first cabinet who was still there at the end — the bitter end — of her third and last cabinet. Indeed, it was his words that toppled her government. Howe died last week at 88.
Several obituaries in the British press made much of the manner of his parting — which led swiftly and directly to Thatcher’s fall from power. This is how the Economist put it (“What Geoffrey Howe’s career revealed about power — and Thatcherism,” Oct. 11, 2015):
Nothing in Geoffrey Howe’s ministerial career became him like leaving it. Browbeaten and humiliated one too many times by Margaret Thatcher, he stepped down as deputy prime minister and — as a colleague later put it — “wielded the dagger of Brutus” by lambasting her in the House of Commons.
As someone who covered British politics and economic affairs in Britain and who admired both Thatcher and Howe, I agree with that summary — with the exception of the first sentence. There was nothing becoming about Howe’s leave-taking. Despite moments of humor and uplift, his 20-minute speech in the Commons on Nov. 13, 1990 was a spiteful and vindictive performance — and strangely out of character coming from the normally restrained, plodding, and even-tempered Howe. It was almost as if Forrest Gump had delivered a cross between Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” and John Belushi’s grossly funny “Guess what I am?” joke about zits in the National Lampoon’s Animal House.
Thatcher did not respond well to the attack — then or later. Just nine days after Howe’s broadside, she was forced to relinquish her leadership of the party and the government. Totally discomposed, she left #10 Downing Street in tears. It seems that she went into the dementia of her later years still blaming Howe and fellow Tories for their “betrayal” early in her third term. She should have realized that it was time for her to go — regardless of the fuse that was lit by Howe’s unexpected outburst. Her colleagues and the British people had tired of her leadership.
How much better it would have been for Thatcher if she had shown some of Churchill’s humor and magnanimity when he was voted out of office in the closing days of World War II! Churchill described his defeat at the hands of the Labour Party’s Clement Attlee with these words:
On the night of 10 May 1940, at the outset of the Battle of Britain, I acquired the chief power in the State, which henceforth I wielded in ever-growing measure for five years and three months of world war, at the end of which time, all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct in their affairs.
For his part, in speaking to Charles Moore — the most widely acclaimed of Thatcher biographers — Howe acidly recalled that “Unlike most men, she hadn’t appeared to learn that you don’t rebuke officers in front of other ranks.” Even so, Howe recovered from his case of badly hurt feelings. He delivered one of the finest tributes to Thatcher on her 80th birthday at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hyde Park, London, on 13 October 2005, saying: “Her real triumph was to have transformed not one party but two, so that when Labour did eventually return, the great bulk of Thatcherism was accepted as irreversible.”
Whether that remark registered with Mrs. Thatcher is doubtful. By this time she had stopped reading because of almost instant memory loss and — as her daughter Carol revealed — she had to tell her mother repeatedly that Denis Thatcher — her husband of 52 years — was long dead.
For readers interested in recent British history (and gossip), I will make some additional comments about the changing relationship between Thatcher and Howe as it played out — with an emphasis on what remains relevant to the unresolved issues of today (including immigration, serial crises within the European Union over currencies, and the upcoming British referendum on whether to remain a part of the EU).
When she was first elected in 1979, Thatcher said that she would need two full five-year terms to turn Britain around. She got all that — plus the unneeded agony of the eleventh year of her premiership. Constantly at her side along the way, Howe served as Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1979 to 1983; as foreign secretary from 1983 to 1989; and as leader of the House of Commons and deputy prime minister from 1989 to 1990. In terms of real importance if not prestige, this was a decidedly high-to-low trajectory for Howe — and how he was perceived by Thatcher.
It wasn’t Thatcher who came up with the phrase, “There is no alternative.” That was Howe. Shunning any ecstatic appeals to emotion, he argued the case for a return to free enterprise on the grounds that it worked — while it had been amply demonstrated over the past several decades of British history that central planning and socialism did not work. In contrast, there was a strong moral underpinning and fervor to all of Thatcher’s speech-making and policy-making — as two sides of the same coin in condemning governmental coercion while celebrating individual freedom and initiative. As the Daily Express put it in an editorial:
Mrs. Thatcher so patently believes in hard work, the rewards of success, the pursuit of excellence that the people are coming increasingly to accept that she has the recipe for the nation’s needs.
The duo did their best work together in Thatcher’s first term — combining her passion and urgency with his quiet logic and dogged persistence. Howe’s 1981 budget marked a major departure from the “dash for growth” policies adopted by previous British governments (whether Tory or Labour) in trying to spend their way out of hard times. The defiantly tough 1981 budget — which cut spending and reduced borrowing in the face of a world recession — “created a climate of realism,” the CEO of one of Britain’s leading chemical companies told me when I was working on a Business Week cover story on Thatcherism in 1983. “What I praise them for is the tremendous guts with which they stuck to their guns back in 1981 when everything was looking bad and they refused then to reflate and go for a bunch of job-producing policies.”
Could 364 economists be wrong? That is the number (including two Nobel laureates in economics) who signed a joint letter to The Times protesting the 1981 budget as an act of folly that would only deepen the recession. The economists put themselves into a position resembling that of Moliere’s doctor who maintained that a sick man could not get better contrary to medical rules. With no thanks to conventional Keynesian economics, it was at this point that Britain’s economy — as the traditional “sick man of Europe” — began a sustained and impressive productivity-led recovery.
After the Tory landslide victory of 1983 — which came on the heels of Thatcher and Britain’s triumph in sending the British Navy halfway around the world to defeat Argentina in the Falklands war — Thatcher reshuffled her cabinet and rewarded Howe with the Foreign Office.
Howe’s diplomatic style — as described in the Telegraph obituary — “was one of patient and lawyerly negotiation leading to incremental advance and carefully crafted compromise.” “Among his achievements,” as the Telegraph noted, “was the agreement with China’s Communist government on the future of Hong Kong, which included a promise from Beijing, thus far mostly honored, to allow its inhabitants to retain their way of life for at least a further half century.”
At the same time, there was no way that Howe would ever be to Thatcher what Henry Kissinger was to Richard Nixon in playing a critical role in masterminding foreign policy at the highest level. Here Thatcher was her own foreign secretary, accustomed to dealing with the likes of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev as an equal — with little or no regard for the mandarins in the Foreign Office. The biographer Charles Moore paints this picture of Thatcher’s dismissive treatment of Howe at a brain-storming session on the Soviet Union held at Chequers, the prime minister’s weekend retreat place in the Chiltern Hills:
One person whose view was not sought was poor Geoffrey Howe. When he made as if to speak, Mrs. Thatcher forestalled him: “Don’t worry, Geoffrey. We know exactly what you’re going to say.”
As foreign secretary, Howe had a magnificent country retreat place of his own — Chevening House, a 115-room mansion in Kent — which he may have loved too much. It became a bone of contention between him and Thatcher in his third and last move to the position of leader of the House of Commons. In her memoirs, she wrote that Howe was “displeased” with the move — seeing it rightly as demotion — and insisted on two sweeteners as his price for staying in the cabinet: first, that he be given another country retreat home; and second, that he be given the additional, if meaningless, title of deputy prime minister. “In practical terms,” she wrote of the title, “(that) just meant that Geoffrey sat on my immediate left at cabinet meetings — a position he may well have come to regret.”
With all of the personal bile that had been building up between them, it was the issue of further integration with Europe — and, more particularly, her willingness, or unwillingness, to embrace the concept of a single European currency — that led to their final rupture.
After Howe had wrongly asserted in a television interview that the British government “did not oppose the principle of a single currency,” Thatcher replied to a question in Parliament by saying: “This government believes in the pound sterling.” She then went on to utter three of the most famous words in her career regarding further integration with Europe: “No. No. No.” That was not just verbal overkill. She was vigorously objecting to each of the three main planks of the most ardent Europhiles: “No” to a European Parliament designed to act like the U.S. House of Representatives; “No” to a European Council of Ministers as its Senate; and “No” to a strengthened European Executive function.
All of that set the stage for Howe’s verbal onslaught in which he condemned her for her “disengagement” from — and outright hostility to — the cause of greater European integration. He accused her of exaggerating fears of a centralized European “super-state” and depriving Britain of its ability to play a constructive role in shaping its own future as an enthusiastic participant in the shaping of a more integrated Europe. For those who want to view it, the speech is easily accessible on YouTube.
So who was right on the issue of further integration with Europe?
The British voters themselves will decide which way they want to go in a referendum to be held sometime before the end of 2017. It will be an up or down vote on whether to remain part of the European Union.
Thatcher was accustomed to getting the last word. She deserves as much for her far-sightedness on the issue of European integration. As she pointed out on many occasions, it is impossible to have democratic debate and democratic accountability in a super-state with a multiplicity of languages and national identities. The growth of regulations and rules from the Euro-elite in Brussels is truly alarming. And how long will rich states within the EU be able or willing or able to prop up poorer states? Why should they even try?
However, out of deference to Howe, I concur with Prime Minister David Cameron’s summing up of his valuable contribution that he made to his country: He was “the quiet hero of the first Thatcher government.” What’s more, he displayed great “courage and resolve” in helping to save the floundering British economy.
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