Lord Owen takes no prisoners

On 19 May 2016 Lord Owen delivered a speech on behalf of Vote Leave, indeed he delivered it in their HQ on the Albert Embankment in London. Some of us are old enough to remember when David Owen was a young, vibrant, energetic, dynamic, ridiculously young Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in the Cabinet of Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan.

Today, aged 77, he still looks maddeningly youthful, but that is not why I was eager to see what he had to say. I already knew which side of the debate he took: I wanted to see what fresh arguments he would deploy. I was not disappointed.

In the first few seconds Lord Owen bluntly defends the reputations of the three leaders of Vote Leave, Gisela Stuart, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, giving the smear merchants a good kicking and setting a style that goes on to characterise this speech. He is highly disapproving of much of the way this referendum campaign is being conducted.

He is scrupulously even-handed. Repeatedly he refers to opinions that differ from his, holding them up as being perfectly respectable. What bothers him is the manner in which they are being promoted. Given that he was a Member of Parliament before the Prime Minister was potty trained, a Cabinet Minister while the Prime Minister was still in short trousers and given that his tenure in the House of Commons segued in 1992 to tenure in the House of Lords, we are here looking at one who has seen at very close range half a century of the workings of the British legislature. He knows as well as anyone that politics can be a rough game, but the elder statesman in him cleaves to codes of honour which he evidently feels have been damaged.

These codes are not merely unwritten understandings and they are not restricted to the public players of the game. Lord Owen’s toughest censure is reserved for Civil Servants. He deplores various breaches of political purdah, in particular at 17:20 when our own politicians are planning to hide behind the skirts of Christine Lagarde breaking purdah for them.

He also weighs in severely on the notorious projection from HM Treasury. Most of us simply found the analysis risible, because the assumptions were so outlandish and because HMT consistently get their forecasts wrong. Lord Owen at 18:40 addresses it from a standpoint of Downing Street having breached Whitehall protocol, concluding that the Cabinet Secretary will be held responsible. The Electoral Commission and the Cabinet Secretary are passing the buck back and forth, and the result is a disreputable shambles.

What, I wonder, is he now saying about the legality of the last-minute extension of the registration for voting, or the news that voting cards have been given to thousands of EU citizens not eligible to vote? The government of the United Kingdom seems prepared to behave like a Third World Banana Republic, and this bodes ill for the conducting of the referendum itself. I find it hard to forget the quote attributed to Joseph Stalin –

The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.

At 20:42 we turn to what happens if we vote to remain. We have become accustomed to the Remain side daily peddling fear; and Lord Owen now gives it back. He makes the point very strongly that a Remain vote is not a vote for the status quo, and he shows his workings. Apart from other things a Euro collapse is firmly on the cards, and consequences for the EU as a whole, including the non-Euro countries, would be very dire. As Daniel Hannan says,

Staying in does not mean staying put.

The speech concludes at 31:40, leading into questions. Lord Owen is not pushover in the questions either.

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