Interview: Geoffrey Howe

By Ashley Coates

“I said to him, we need to do this as if we are running as a relay team and we have to hand over the baton, Hong Kong is the baton and we must be careful not to drop it.”

Margaret Thatcher’s longest serving cabinet minister is well-known for the resignation speech many cite as having prompted her downfall but the majority of his ministerial career bears the hallmarks of a constructive working relationship that Howe characterises as having been “like a marriage”.

He first worked with Thatcher while she was Secretary of State for Education under Ted Heath and attributes the longevity of their careers to shared ideals and a mutual appreciation of the other’s abilities.

Howe became Chancellor of Exchequer during a time of extreme economic uncertainty in Britain, overseeing the radical 1981 Budget that some credit with having brought Britain out of the gloom of the 1970s and cementing the monetarist policies that remained central to successive Budgets thereafter.

Lord Howe contested the seat for his hometown of Port Talbot twice before being successfully elected to Parliament. Prior to that, he served in the Royal Signal Corps, conducting operations in East Africa.

On his first day at Cambridge, the representative of the university’s Conservative Association knocked on his door and successfully recruited him to the Conservative Party “not because of strong political commitment but because of an interest in taking part in politics”. Lord Howe’s advice to anyone interested in a career in politics is to find a fall-back profession first, in his case law, which he took up after leaving Cambridge.

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How great a role did politics play in your childhood?

I became interested in politics partly through my friendship with a school friend called Robert Sheaf. We decided that he was going to go into the Navy and I was going to go into politics and he did go into the Navy and then he became a Liberal.

We were both interested in the school debating society and also in history and politics which was almost inevitable given that I witnessed the German bombing in 1940. I enlisted in the Home Guard and enjoyed that and it became clear that I was going to need to be in the Army and enlisted fully in 1944.

Also the whole framework of studying Greek and Latin history stimulated an interest in politics. My father was a lawyer, he himself was never involved as a political activist but he was intensely interested in what I was interested in.

To go from school to Army to Kenya put you in a situation where you became more aware of political issues. Then whilst training for the Royal Signals I was based in Exeter with colleagues from all over the country. We had a Scot from Glasgow and Jackie from Falmouth and I shared a room with a man from Cardiff.

It gave a very comprehensive appraisal of the country. Jackie from Falmouth and I were in Trafalgar Square on VE Day. I heard Churchill speak there and I saw Churchill driving through Trafalgar Square. We both went to Cambridge after we had been through the Army, he went on to become a geography teacher and wrote geography textbooks.

When we met in London for VE Day we were treated like soldiers because we were in our uniform, and enjoyed all of that enormously. He wrote a letter to his parents, which I have quoted in my book, in his PS to his parents he wrote “Geoffrey is quite a decent guy, even though he is a public school boy”.

This awareness of politics was something that translated into a more active interest at Cambridge…

On my first day at Cambridge I had the Conservative Association college representative knocking on my door asking if I would like to join the Conservative Party to which I said yes, not because of strong political commitment but because of an interest in taking part in politics.

You’ve described your relationship with Thatcher as being like a marriage, how did that marriage manifest itself on a practical level?

We were more-or-less contemporaries, although she was at Oxford, I was at Cambridge, we came to meet in the Conservative Lawyers Association. At the time we were in the shadow cabinet together we were asked to work together by Ted Heath.

We were often asked to cool down Keith Joseph as well as working together on the legal side of the education system. At my 80th birthday, Margaret was there and people noted that she was and I reminded them that we had worked together for 18 years and that they ought to concentrate on the marriage rather than the divorce.

So until the tail-end I guess working with her was quite pleasant.

It was yes, to some extent quite often we were critical of Francis Pym who was a more left-wing figure on certain issues and Jim Prior who was more on the right, we made it a bit more balanced, certainly on economic policy. Another other interesting thing about Margaret, incidentally,  when you looked at the people at her 80th birthday, was the tremendous number of international figures that turned up.

She was able to have a worldwide appeal, by being the first woman Prime Minister. Going with her to a Tokyo summit, seeing her speaking as one of the heads of government at a Japanese press conference, it was packed with Japanese women who had come to see this female phenomenon.

It must have been like being around a superstar?

Yes but not always like working with a superstar.

You were Margaret Thatcher’s longest serving cabinet minister, why do you think you were able to stay in government while others came and went?

Because we had known each other, and indeed we had worked together, for common objectives for such a long time. I think that we found ourselves day-to-day close to each other, from the first time we met.

We found ourselves obliged to work together on the legal side of the education system.  I was advising Thatcher, as Secretary of State for Education so it became quite natural for us to be working alongside each other. The European objective became the most common objective in all our time together.

We were working towards liberalising Europe, and defending and promoting Britain’s interests – and were very much together in that.  But I was surprised, on one occasion when I went to see her in 1990 – it was then that I was moved from Foreign Secretary to being Leader of the House. But fortunately that did work well.

What was it in the end that tipped the balance for you and led to your resignation?

My anxiety that she wasn’t considering the European issue seriously. “No, no, no” was her refrain, I didn’t feel that I was going to bring her down or anything like that, it wasn’t designed to achieve that. I felt I couldn’t go on wearing two hats.

It is not easy now to recall or define the cause or causes of our falling apart. Simply growth of several differences in our analysis or prediction, and agreed perception that was indeed adrift. But, as I began my resignation letter on 1st November 1990, I said, “I do so with very great regret…it has been a privilege and an honour for me to have contributed to that success”

The upcoming transition of Hong Kong was something you had to deal with as Foreign Secretary. What was your experience of dealing with the Chinese during this period?

It was fascinating, and surprisingly so, because they were so comprehensive and forthcoming, Deng Xiaoping was really the figure who was the leader during the crucial period. I remember he said to me that he knew Hong Kong would continue to be successful because the American government had told him that American companies would continue to invest in Hong Kong and he could rely on that.

I said, “well the British already invest in Hong Kong but people don’t invest in places because they are told to, they invest because it attracts them and it is a good place that as it is” and I said that it’s a magnet. His understanding of that was completely comprehensive, he had been in France in the 1930s and he was very responsive and intelligent and so were his successors, I found them completely candid and comprehensive.

They loved metaphors, just as I used the magnetic metaphor, we were doing all this at the time of the Los Angeles Olympics and I said to him, “we need to see this as if we are running as a relay team and we have to hand over the baton, Hong Kong is the baton and we must be careful not to drop it”. So that kind of dialogue went very well.

That explains how it went so smoothly, to an extent.

Yes we recognised that we had objectives and so did other people. The Queen on her state visit there, on her return banquet at lunchtime, she was sitting opposite Deng Xiaoping, I was sitting next to him and he was looking slightly restless before we started eating and she said, “I think Mr Deng looks like he needs a cigarette, could you tell him so from me?”, and I did and he didn’t, it was like a dog with two tails. It was a very good demonstration of intelligent people working towards objectives.

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in a career in politics and government?

Well that they should foster and enjoy it but above all to establish a career not dependent on politics, they need to have financial independence.

So securing a profession.

Yes but by all means they can do them at the same time, but you do need that, because I did, I was thrown out in 1966, and immediately I was back to my practice. I’ve always said that you need an independent existence, that’s a negative aspect but it also gives you a positive input you can make, I was able to make that through the legal work I had done, the work I did with the Bow Group and of course my African experience with the Royal Signals.

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