The charismatic Dr Owen is back - but he won't stop the euro

Lord Healey used to liken Owen to `the Upas tree beneath whose shadow nothing grows'
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The Independent Culture
LIKE A matinee idol returning by popular demand, David Owen is back.

Today the forces of opposition to the single currency unleash their not- so-secret weapon, the last Labour foreign secretary before Robin Cook, the man who led the Social Democratic Party when it came closest to eclipsing the party he had left, and one of the most effortlessly charismatic politicians of his generation.

Lord Owen's role as the figurehead of the first sensible-looking organisation dedicated to campaigning against the euro is an event of genuine interest, which should help to raise the level of argument about whether Britain should join EMU.

He is not now, he firmly told Sir David Frost yesterday morning, a politician. There are those who would say that he never was, in the sense of making the necessary compromises and alliances that are the norm of a conventional political career. But Owen was the shooting star of the decade from 1977, when Jim Callaghan made him foreign secretary, until 1987, when he took a sledgehammer to the fragile structure of the alliance as a potent third force in British politics by refusing to accept a merger between the SDP and the Liberals. He was also one of the first big figures on the centre and left to see that opposition to Conservatism could not recover without recognising and accepting some of what Margaret Thatcher had achieved.

Which makes his entry into the lists of the single currency debate especially intriguing. For there must have been times when Owen will have idly wondered why it is that his old adversary within the SDP, Lord Jenkins, and not himself, has emerged as the Prime Minister's mentor, guide and friend. Has Tony Blair not inherited much of Owen's famously "tough but tender" approach to the welfare state? Has Blair not made the Labour Party fit for those famous virgin party members of the SDP to inhabit? Is the Third Way not perilously close to Owen's "social market?"

It would nevertheless be a serious mistake to write off Owen's emergence, six days after Tony Blair took on the Eurosceptic press, ratcheting up the Government's commitment to joining a successful euro, as some petulant response to the fact that the Prime Minister seems to be more Jenkins's Dauphin than Owen's. Not only did Owen go out of his way to be nice about Blair in his television interview yesterday - admitting tantalisingly that he had been "tempted" to join New Labour - but his attitude on the single currency is more consistent than it looks.

It will be said that opposition to the euro is an odd stance for one of the Gang of Four - for whom Labour's anti-EEC positioning, along with non-nuclear defence policy and the Bennite handover to the trade unions and activists, was the burning issue of the day - or for a man who performed with real distinction as the EU's man working alongside Cyrus Vance in the Balkans during the Major years.

Owen is not, as he was at pains to make clear yesterday, a narrow-minded nationalist, but a European. Nevertheless, he was never as communautaire as his three colleagues in the Gang. His memoirs make clear, by their disdain for the "federalist" officials in the Foreign Office, and the - equally, in his judgement, "federalist" - politicians with whom they felt most sympathy, including Jenkins and Edward Heath, that he had always deeply distrusted the "zealots" for the European Community.

He was therefore something of an odd man out among the Gang of Four in this respect. So, in limited ways, are his two colleagues in the cross- party alliance over which he presides. Lord Healey was at variance with many on the right of the Labour Party, (though not, it is fair to say, with Lord Callaghan or their mentor Hugh Gaitskell), but also with some of those leading politicians, who like him, saw front-line service in the Second World War and who were persuaded, like most Continental politicians, that only a measure of integration could guarantee that a European war would not be repeated. The Anzio beach-master Healey was not as reliably pro-European as - say - the tank commander William Whitelaw. And Lord Prior, as he acknowledged yesterday, effectively breaks with his comrades in patrician liberal Toryism by becoming the Conservative on Owen's "New Europe" platform.

With that consistency goes a certain forgivable disingenuousness. Owen and Healey, in other words, are a little more viscerally and permanently opposed to the integrationist consequences of monetary union than Owen, all sweet reason yesterday, was prepared to admit.

The main consequence of their campaign may well be to make the argument less purely economic and more political, as Tony Blair has always known it will partly be. Political not in the sense of sterile, backward-looking rhetoric about "a thousand years of history", but about how Britain best exercises influence as a modern medium-sized power.

Immediately, the Owenite proposition is that the United Kingdom can have the best of EU membership - membership of the internal market - without having to suffer what today's New Europe document is calling the "compulsory and irrevocable alignment of economic and social policies with continental Europe".

This magisterially ignores the exactly converse problem: that outside EMU, Britain will be less able to influence economic and social policies to which it will still be bound by EU membership; or to see enacted the economic and political reform that it rightly wants.

The second and larger question that has been mainly ignored by the New Europe document is whether Britain's global influence will be best enhanced by closer engagement with Europe, or by hankering after an obsolete view of the special relationship with the United States.

The purpose of the "New Europe" movement is to keep public opinion sufficiently hostile to prevent the Prime Minister risking a referendum. However, last week's Mori poll for The Times shows that those "persuadable" in favour of EMU - including some readers of the unremittingly hostile Sun - are growing in number. Now that the Prime Minister has shown he is ready to consider his enormous mandate a greater source of strength than the acquiescence of the Eurosceptic press, and to give a lead, others - as Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine have shown - will surely follow.

Owen was at his most benign and attractive in his breakfast television interview with Sir David yesterday. It was hard to remember what his new comrade Lord Healey used to say of him - in a term possibly borrowed from Lord Jenkins - that he was like the "Upas tree beneath whose shadow nothing grows".

Lord Owen will fight a good fight, but the probability must be that he will find himself on the wrong side of history once again.