Profile: A good guy once again: Lord Owen: The high-flyer who became the most hated man in the Commons is now tipped for a Nobel Peace prize.

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The Independent Online
GRAVE, embattled, but determined, Lord Owen stood outside his office this week in the London sunshine, a kind of hero. Though facing defeat - the self- styled Bosnian Serb parliament had just rejected the Vance-Owen peace plan - he remained urbane and confident. With Cyrus Vance, Owen has probably done as much as anyone could have to bring peace to Bosnia: their plan, as Owen told the Americans, is 'the only act in town', the best coalescing of the West's confused responses. And with Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian President, now on side, Owen may yet lay claim to having saved the lives of countless Bosnians and Western soldiers. He is already being talked of for a Nobel Peace prize.

This authoritative, heroic Lord Owen is the same David Owen who a couple of years ago ignominiously wound up the Social Democratic Party, his career apparently slithering away from him. This powerful diplomat formerly split two political parties. Lord Healey reportedly calls him 'Lord Owen of Split' and has previously likened him to the 'upas tree, in whose shade nothing grows'. Though great hopes are now invested in him, he has been possibly the most hated man in the recent history of the House of Commons. 'The good fairy gave the young doctor almost everything: thick dark locks, matinee idol features, a lightning intellect,' Denis Healey once said. 'Unfortunately, the bad fairy also made him a shit.'

His friends do not consider his current success at odds with his past. 'A useless party political leader, a great world leader,' is how Sue Slipman, a former SDP activist, sums him up. 'He was bad at political intrigue; he stamped on people. But he was always a toughie, which is exactly what was needed to crack Serb solidarity.' His oldest friend, Elisabeth Furse, a restaurant owner, believes, 'David is a loner, not worried about being loved, decisive and fearless. You can't buy him. And that means he was never jocular, never one of the boys.'

His enemies think of him as a man with an overweening ego, who never understood the British electoral system, and fundamentally untrustworthy. Roy Jenkins once advised him to reflect upon 'why he sooner or later quarrelled with everyone with whom he was politically closely associated'. And they dismiss him as intellectually inadequate. 'He 'ums' and 'ers' a lot,' says one, 'he is pretty inarticulate. But that gives the impression that whatever he says is the result of deep thought.'

Both views - there is little middle ground - contain elements of truth. Owen, like the hospital consultant he might have become, is dashing, adept at quick analysis, and rarely allows himself the luxury of self-doubt. His utter belief in himself can make him seem disdainful, but has also allowed him to drive his peace plan straight through gaps in the Clinton administration's policy, knocking aside powerful sentiment on Capitol Hill for arming the Bosnians. Initially stigmatised as 'little Chamberlains' in the American press, Owen and Vance are now seen as the West's best hope; this week the influential New York Times columnist Abe Rosenthal acknowledged that the cynics owed Owen an apology.

So, even without a Nobel prize, Owen can expect some significant job when this one is over. The only difficulty will be finding one.

DAVID OWEN was born 54 years ago in Plymouth. His father was a comfortably off Welsh doctor; his mother a dentist, who became an Independent county councillor. There was a strong tradition of church and chapel: at Cambridge, he seems to have done little but play rugby, drink beer and attend a church where the vicar, Mervyn Stockwood, was a great influence.

He was sent away to school at Bradfield College near Reading, where his form master in his first year, Clive Gimson, became his closest friend, 'as close as I have found it possible for two men to be,' Owen wrote in his memoirs. Their closeness lasted through the Foreign Secretaryship until Gimson's death. Elisabeth Furse, herself 82, believes that, 'David is an old man's man. He didn't know how to handle the young men in the SDP. But he respects and listens to older men. He is old- fashioned like that.' (Owen is considered to have a great and affectionate respect for Cyrus Vance.)

His memoirs contain an embarrassingly confessional chapter called 'First Love', featuring poems, letters, first kisses, and sessions on the floor in duffle coats. The intense self-absorption of this is revealing: he did not seem to realise that other people might find this not very well-written guff excruciating. But the reviewers' derision may also be instructive: Owen has always been dismissed by cultured people. His friend Ian Wright recalls the SDP's dominance by people who had at various times been through the Oxford University Labour club: 'Owen wasn't clubbable, didn't have that sort of clique, and they were snooty about his intellectual credentials.'

At university, Owen had found political debates 'awful and mannered'; he joined the Labour Party only when he arrived at St Thomas's Hospital as a medical student. His rise then, however, was rapid and apparently effortless: parliamentary candidate at 27, MP at 28, junior minister at 30, Foreign Secretary at 38. The death of his boss, Tony Crosland, plus James Callaghan's need to avoid upsetting the balance of the Cabinet, propelled him into the last and most glamorous of these positions - an astonishing, and probably unsettling, promotion. 'He felt he was too young; he was insecure; he insisted on having things explained,' says a close friend. 'In panic he was probably rude to a lot of people. The Foreign Office put it about that he was impossible to work with.'

In 1968, he married Debbie Schabert, an American with whom he had previously spent only 24 days; their partnership has proved enduring and influential. Debbie became a literary agent, with clients including Jeffrey Archer, Delia Smith, Georgette Heyer and Ellis Peters. Though she has never (largely because she is American) taken a prominent role in British politics, she has always been passionately interested. They have had three children: Tristan, the oldest, contracted leukaemia, which Owen hid from the public for years, despite the many nights that, even as Foreign Secretary, he slept at Great Ormond Street Hospital (his son recovered). It is widely believed that he turned down the job of UN High Commissioner for Refugees a couple of years ago because Debbie did not want to live in Geneva and their youngest child, Lucy, had just started at a new school.

Until recently, it looked as if Owen's career took a fatal nosedive as soon as he ceased to be Foreign Secretary. The SDP might have broken through at the 1983 general election; but not once the Argentines had invaded the Falklands. Thereafter the supposedly Nice Party was riven by in-fighting, principally between Owen and Jenkins over relations with the Liberals. Owen's allies concede that he probably failed to put the case against merger as clearly as he might have done; some also think he should have fought David Steel for leadership of the merged party in 1987. He probably would have won. But, as one friend notes, 'he didn't want to. He believed in clarity of policy and blamed the Liberals for lack of it in the 1987 manifesto.'

'He may be arrogant, but he isn't pompous or vain - he just throws on his suits,' says someone who worked with him closely for more than a year. In New York recently, he ate in the UN canteen every day, often on his own. But his unconcern also means that 'at a party he will speak to one person intently all evening about something he is terribly interested in, when perhaps he should be going round shaking everyone's hand. A number of people in the SDP voted for merger with the Liberals because they felt David Owen hadn't been nice to them at some point.'

It is a commonplace that Owen would have thrived in a presidential system; in Britain, teamwork and tactics are paramount. 'He doesn't play the game the way politicians are supposed to,' says John Cartwright, a former SDP MP. 'He answers questions straight.' Polly Toynbee recalls that he would start the day by announcing that a speech she had written for him was crap, conceding only after a row that it was fine. Some people, particularly those who did not think he had the right to call their work crap, took offence.

Owen's weaknesses are also his strengths: fixity of purpose and casual abrasiveness make him a relentless negotiator. (His friends, meanwhile, protest that he has mellowed: his assistant, Maggie Smart, says: 'I have worked for him for 15 years and have never seen him so willing to listen. His patience in this process has been remarkable.')

How to reward him? He has already turned down one UN job, and it is unlikely that the Secretary-Generalship, in which he would be interested, will be offered. Chairmanship of the BBC governors has been mooted, but friends doubt whether he would want that either. Perhaps he will have to look to the private sector.

More tantalisingly, one or two senior Tories have suggested they would like to see him in a government job, if, say, Douglas Hurd were to go. Owen would then have peregrinated all round the political spectrum - perhaps a curious fate for a politician who is driven by ideas. But John Major's position on the key issues for Owen - the social market, defence and Europe - are probably not very far from his own. Whether he could stomach joining the Tories is another question: he thinks of himself as a radical. His friends meanwhile deny that he sees himself as a Churchill, returning to the rescue. 'He just needs another good international job,' says Toynbee. Unhappily for him, there are very few around for brilliant, difficult loners.

(Photograph omitted)

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