Exit centre stage (yet again)

David Owen is to withdraw from Bosnia. David Aaronovitch charts his career, so far
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The Independent Online
David Owen has always had a knack for headline departures. They started with the 1981 photo-drama of the Limehouse declaration, where he and the Gang of Four announced that they were leaving the Labour Party. In 1987 there followed the bitter parting of the ways with the newly formed Liberal Democrats and the strange, prolonged death of the rump Social Democratic Party. Yesterday's announcement of Owen's resignation as chairman of the international conference on the former Yugoslavia was timed to coincide with the major parliamentary debate on Bosnia. It stole the thunder of the politicians on display in Westminster. When the doctor dies it will almost certainly be in a hang-glider over the Antarctic.

Despite his two-year tenure as Foreign Secretary in the last Labour government (somewhere, it now feels, between the pre-Cambrian and Cretaceous periods), back in 1992 Lord Owen seemed an odd, even maladroit choice to head Europe's diplomacy in Bosnia. Like Groucho Marx, his enduring characteristic seemed to be a desire not to belong to any club that would have him as a member.

For two years, 1977 to 1979, the attractive young doctor exercised cabinet power at the Foreign Office. But it was at a time of acute domestic crisis, when Britain's influence was increasingly marginal. He sent gunboats to the Falklands and Peter Jay to Washington.

His impatience with the anti-European and anti-Nato stance of the Labour Party in the traumatic period after the 1979 election defeat propelled him to make common cause with Roy Jenkins, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams - first in the Council for Social Democracy and later in the new Social Democratic Party, where Owen played Tough to Williams's Tender. At first, with poll ratings in the mid-fifties, it looked as though the new alliance with the Liberal party would carry all before it. In the event, the 1983 general election was a huge disappointment for the new centre, which failed to break through.

If Lord Owen ever writes his memoirs, the period from 1982 to 1987 should be entitled "The Fractious Years". Assuming the leadership of the SDP from the more emollient and inclusive Roy Jenkins, Owen emerged as ranking with Michael Foot as one of the most unsuccessful party leaders of all time. Roy Jenkins once counselled him to reflect on why it was he sooner or later "quarrelled with everyone with whom he was closely politically associated". Denis Healey thought he knew why: "The good fairy gave him thick dark locks, matinee idol features and a lightning intellect. Unfortunately the bad fairy also made him a shit."

Certainly he was arrogant, his face too often wearing a petulant, "smacked arse" expression. But he was not wholly to blame. The truth was that in Roy, Shirley and Bill, (and, of course, the Liberal leader, David Steel), Owen was dealing with politicians who were considerably more ruthless and manipulative than he. Owen could see that Thatcherism had changed the shape of British politics and believed that the SDP should take account of it. But he found it hard to bend in his arguments and refused to match his opponents' tactics of caucusing and ear-bending before crucial debates. In the end, he was completely outmanoeuvred by the sinuous political skills of David Steel - the absolute opposite of the famous Spitting Image depiction. Opposing merger between the Liberals and the SDP after the 1987 election defeat, Owen committed public political suicide.

For many on the Labour right happily savouring the gradual resurrection of Labour, Owen's eventual fate was just. To them he had been a betrayer, who had left his friends and colleagues weakened in their battle with the left. Furthermore, if Labour itself was responsible for the debacle of 1983, Owen and the SDP took the rap for the Thatcher victory of 1987, the Lawson boom, the poll tax and the 1990 recession. But this too smacks of the short-term view. The full recovery of Labour under Tony Blair - as a realistic and modern contender for government - was probably made more - not less - likely by the defeat of 1987. And in his appreciation of how things had changed in Britain Owen anticipated developments, where Hattersley and others on Labour's right trailed them.

Now followed the courting and lionising of Owen, leading up to the1992 election. The Tories had grown rather fond of his pro-market views, but Labour felt that his support would mark their increased appeal for Middle England. So a rather odd pavan was danced as both sides angled for an Owen endorsement. In the end he quixotically backed John Major, but not the Conservative Party. Everybody expected Owen to get something nice as a reward.

Yugoslavia in 1992 was not something nice. It was imploding bloodily, as the different nationalities sought their mutually incompatible settlement. Europe needed a heavyweight figure to spearhead its diplomacy, in a region whose capacity to act as a catalyst for continental war was well understood. Owen was offered, and accepted, the worst job in international diplomacy. Whatever else, it was an exceptionally brave thing to do.

Thus began three years of shuttling between London, Geneva and the various capitals of the new republics. Three years of poring over maps with unsavoury characters in fatigues. Three years of early-morning radio and late-night television shows, explaining the Yugoslav crisis to drowsy presenters. And far from proving a handicap, his obstinacy and bloody-mindedness enabled him to engage in some effective work with the likes of Milosevic and Tudjman. He helped broker the vital peace between the Serbs and the Croats on their common borders. He also has been instrumental in trying to keep Kossovo and Macedonia (and thus Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey) from feeling the heat of the Bosnian inferno.

And he has had his failures. From the earliest stages the Bosnian government interpreted his neutrality as a shameful failure to protect an internationally recognised nation. So bad has his relationship become with the Americans that friends say he fears they will veto his appointment to any major international post.

Owen is not finished yet. He has done a hard stint and believes (rightly) that he is owed some thanks. If he cannot become Nato Secretary-General should Willy Claes be forced to step down, then he still covets the chairmanship of the BBC. With his inability to separate functions and his incapacity to take a back seat, he is spectacularly badly qualified for the job. Destiny, it seems, still calls.

The doctor's lifeline

1938: Born Plympton, Devon, son of GP and dentist. Educated Bradfield and Cambridge, followed by medical training at St Thomas' Hospital, London.

1961: joined Labour Party.

1966-70: Elected to Parliament, an anti-Wilson, pro-European Jenkinsite. Junior Navy Minister 1968 at the age of 30.

1970-74: Defied whip to vote for EEC entry. Promoted legislation that he later turned into 1975 Children's Act.

1974-79: After Heath lost to miners became Minister of Health and rising star. Promoted to Foreign Office as Minister of State and, months later, to Foreign Secretary on the sudden death of Tony Crosland. At 38, youngest Foreign Secretary since Eden. Failed to solve Rhodesian problem but forestalled Argentinian invasion of Falklands.

1979-83: disillusioned by Labour's leftward shift, joined Jenkins, Shirley Williams and William Rodgers to form Council for Social Democracy in 1981, resigning from Labour to form SDP with Limehouse Declaration amid hopes that SDP would "break the mould of British politics" - dashed at 1983 election.

1983-87: SDP leader with "tough but tender" policies - tough on economics, tender on social policy - but warred with partners in SDP/Liberal Alliance over Nato, nukes and much else. Hopes that 1987 election would provide the breakthrough foundered with disasterous "two Davids" campaign.

1987-92: When David Steel proposed merger, Owen resisted, splitting his second political party. Most of SDP joined Liberal Democrats, with Owen's rump party finally wound up after Monster Raving Loony Party outpolled it in 1990 Bootle by-election.

1992: Endorsed John Major. Speculation on his future ended by seat in Lords and appointment as mediator to former Yugoslavia.

Nicholas Timmins