I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of former Conservative Chancellor, Lord Howe of Aberavon, at the age of 88. Geoffrey Howe was Margaret Thatcher’s longest-serving Cabinet minister and was one of the primary authors of her government’s economic revolution. Although best remembers as Mrs Thatcher’s first chancellor, he was also the second longest-serving Foreign Secretary (after Sir Edward Grey) and a founding member of the Bow Group in 1951, the country’s oldest political think-tank.
Richard Edward Geoffrey Howe was born in Port Talbot, Wales, on 20th December 1926 to Mr B. Edward Howe, a solicitor and also the local coroner, and his wife Lili. His parents were middle-class but the area was staunchly Labour. His grandfather had been a trade unionist and the local MP was Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald. In later life, he recalled that the long queues at the local employment exchange while he was growing up were a formative memory from his youth. Precocious from an early age, young Geoffrey initially attended Bridgend Prep in Bryntirion and later Abberley Hall in Worcestershire before winning an exhibition to the prestigious Winchester College, where he studied for the duration of World War II and developed a keen interest in politics as a member of the school debating society. He later won a Classics scholarship to Trinity Hall, Cambridge but first, in 1945, undertook his National Service as a lieutenant with the Royal Corps of Signals, serving in East Africa and learning to speak Swahili so that he could give the locals political lectures about why Africans should remain loyal to ‘bwana Kingy George’ rather than ‘bwana Joe Stalin’ and avoid the perils of communism. He also climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.
Despite being offered a captaincy to remain in the Army, Geoffrey went up to Cambridge in 1948, though working with his father during his gap year had convinced him to switch from Classics to Law. The politics that had already begun to manifest themselves in his political lectures to the natives in Africa soon also manifested themselves at university and he became chairman of the Cambridge University Conservative Association and a committee member of the Cambridge Union Society.
He embarked upon his legal career after leaving Cambridge and was called to the bar by the Middle Temple in 1952, returning to practice in Wales, where he specialised in industrial accident cases. The following year he married Elspeth Shand, daughter of the English writer P. Morton Shand (Lady Howe is the paternal aunt of HRH The Duchess of Cornwall). Mr Howe was a high flyer in the legal profession, serving on the Council of the Bar from 1957 to 1961 and was a council member of Justice. He ‘took silk’ in 1965, becoming a Queen’s Counsel, and was one of the highest earners in his branch of the legal profession but eschewed this wealth to instead pursue a career in politics, having founded the Bow Group in 1951, an internal Conservative think-tank for ‘young modernisers’, which aimed to provide an effective counter to the socialist Fabian Society. Other leading members of the Bow Group included Michael Heseltine, Leon Brittan, Norman Lamont, Michael Howard and Peter Lilley. Mr Howe became the group’s chairman in 1955 and managing director of its magazine, Crossbow, from 1957. In 1955 he also fought his first parliamentary campaign in his home seat of Aberavon, failing to unseat Labour’s William Cove, who had succeeded Mr MacDonald in 1929 and had held the seat comfortably ever since.
In 1958, Mr Howe co-authored A Giant’s Strength, published by the Inns of Court Conservative Association, arguing that the trades unions were too powerful and that their legal privileges ought to be curtailed. Mr Howe and the other authors came under intense pressure from Iain Macleod, then Minister of Labour under Harold Macmillan, not to publicise the report. The Prime Minister believed that trade unionist votes had contributed to his election victories in 1951 and ’55 and was not willing to support legislation that might alienate them. Thus, Mr Howe – the proto-Thatcherite – got a strong dose of that post-war Keynesian collectivist conspiracy that made the trade unions so unassailable. In 1959, he again stood in Aberavon but was once again defeated by Mr Cove. The following year, he became editor of Crossbow, a post he held for two years.
Mr Howe was finally selected for the marginal seat of Bebington, in the Wirral, following the retirement of Sir Hendrie (later Lord) Oakshott, who had held the seat since 1950. Mr Howe won the Bebington at the General Election of 1964, beating Labour’s Dr Edwin Brooks, but such was the size of the anti-Tory swing at that election that the Tory majority there was cut from 9,000 to just 2,000. He devoted his maiden speech in the House of Commons to advocating a ‘Receive as You Earn’ negative Income Tax, to give all those returning to work a tax credit that tapered as they earned more income (something which was eventually introduced, albeit imperfectly, by Gordon Brown). At Westminster, he became secretary of the Conservative backbench Health & Social Service Committee and soon became a frontbench spokesman on labour and welfare under new party leader Edward Heath. However, Mr Howe lost his seat at the General Election of 1966 to Dr Brook and returned to the Bar.
Having resumed his career as a QC in Wales, Mr Howe served as deputy chairman of the Glamorgan Quarter Sessions and sat on the Latey Committee on reducing the age of majority from 21 to 18 (and thus the voting age), the Street Committee on racial discrimination, and the Cripps Committee on discrimination against women. He also chaired an inquiry into alleged abuse of mental patients at Ely Hospital in Cardiff. But he returned to the Commons at the General Election of 1970, when he was selected for the safe Conservative seat of Reigate following the retirement of Sir John Vaughan-Morgan (late ennobled as Lord Reigate), who had held the seat for twenty years. Edward Heath won the election and appointed Mr Howe as his Solicitor-General, along with the traditional knighthood that customarily came with that post (until the practice was discontinued in the late ‘90s by the then Labour government!).
Sir Geoffrey’s time as HM Solicitor-General was not an altogether happy one, as the draughtsman of Mr Heath’s disastrous Industrial Relations Act (1971). The Act sought to impose a legalistic framework on the trades unions, which the TUC refused to accept (it led to widespread industrial unrest and, eventually, to the downfall of the Heath Ministry). In 1972, Mr Heath moved Sir Geoffrey to the new post of Minister for Trade & Consumer Affairs, with a seat at Cabinet and induction into the Privy Council. During this period, he introduced a number of Bills to improve consumer protection and set up the Office of Fair Trading but he played no major role in policy, as Mr Heath and more senior Cabinet colleagues performed a spectacular U-turn on economic policy and then clumsily took on the miners. In 1974, Mr Heath called a General Election, asking “Who governs Britain?” Following the boundary review that preceded that election, Sir Geoffrey won the modified East Surrey seat, which he would go on to represent for the remaining eighteen years of his Commons career, but Mr Heath lost the election and, consequently, the Tory leadership.
Initially, Mr Heath appointed Sir Geoffrey as his Opposition Spokesman on Social Services but, in 1975, the former Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher challenged Mr Heath for the leadership. Sir Geoffrey initially remained loyal to Mr Heath but, when Mrs Thatcher trounced him in the first ballot it was to the surprise of many that, on the second ballot, Sir Geoffrey threw his own hat into the ring. He secured a mere nineteen votes but had set out his stall. In the event, Mrs Thatcher won more votes than all the other candidates put together. He later recalled her arriving after the announcement to meet her backbenchers, flanked by the all-male officers of the 1922 Committee: “Suddenly she looked very beautiful and very frail, as the half-dozen knights of the shires towered over her. It was a moving, almost feudal occasion… By her almost reckless courage she had won their support if not their hearts. A new bond of loyalty had been forged.” The new Leader of the Opposition appointed him as her Shadow Chancellor.
He spent four years shadowing Labour Chancellor Denis Healey, during which time the United Kingdom had to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund. Though Mr Healey was a far more adept parliamentary performer, it was Sir Geoffrey who, in his patient, studious fashion, seized the initiative when he co-drafted the Conservatives’ landmark policy document The Right Approach to the Economy in 1977. Although initially cautious about taking on the unions again, after 1978’s ‘Winter of Discontent’ and a mild Tory recovery in the polls, Sir Geoffrey, along with that other great proto-Thatcherite Sir Keith Joseph, sponsored a secret paper called Stepping Stones produced by John Hoskyns and Norman Strauss at the Centre for Policy Studies (the free market think-tank founded by Mrs Thatcher and Sir Keith). Together with The Right Approach, Stepping Stones formed the blueprint of what would later be termed ‘Thatcherism’. At its heart, it identified trade union reform as pivotal to a successful programme of national recovery and monetarist supply-side reform. The document was considered so explosive that the Party Chairman, Lord Thorneycroft, wanted every copy burned. Stepping Stones met with furious opposition from the Heathites still inside the Shadow Cabinet, most notably Jim (now Lord) Prior, the Shadow Employment Secretary. It led to a fierce debate over the contents of the 1979 Conservative Manifesto, with Mr Prior and the Heathites on one side and Sir Geoffrey and Sir Keith on the other advocating Stepping Stones. In the end, Mrs Thatcher sided with Sir Geoffrey and the monetarists, promising legislation against secondary picketing, a review of trade union immunities and no-strike agreements in public services. The British people, having turned on the militant trade unions that had made their lives a misery throughout the 1970s and the Labour Government that had failed to curtail them, returned Mrs Thatcher with a 44% share of the vote, a working majority of forty-three, and a clear mandate for change. Sir Geoffrey Howe became Chancellor of the Exchequer.
It has often been remarked that Sir Keith Joseph would, perhaps, have been a more obvious like-mind for Mrs Thatcher to appoint as Chancellor. Her decision to appoint Sir Geoffrey perhaps owes as much to his ‘solidness’, as opposed to Sir Keith’s somewhat furtive and unstable personality, as it does to her general decision to keep Heathites in her Cabinet (those whom would later be designated ‘Tory Wets’, juxtaposed to her Thatcherite ‘Drys’), at least for the time being. There were other Heathites in the Cabinet – Mr Prior, Lord Carrington, Mr Heseltine, Sir Ian Gilmour, Norman St John-Stevas, etc. But Sir Geoffrey would survive them all. Indeed, he outlasted many of the Thatcherite attacks dogs who were brought in later, like Nicholas Ridley, John Biffen and Norman Tebbit.
Sir Geoffrey was a truly radical Chancellor, whose tenure saw policies aimed at correcting the public finances, bringing down the scourge of inflation, and liberalising Great Britain’s stagnating economy. Indeed, it is often underappreciated how much more radical a monetarist he was than even Mrs Thatcher herself. He proved his reforming credentials by cutting Income Tax but had to confront the fact that, during the ’79 election, Mrs Thatcher had bribed the public-sector unions with promises of pay increases, which had to be paid for by cuts in public spending and doubling VAT. When this added four points to the Retail Price Index and inflation rose to above 10%, Mrs Thatcher remarked to Sir Geoffrey that, back in 1951, R. A. Butler had cut taxes gradually. She now advocated a similar approach. Sir Geoffrey had to persuade her to stay the course, later complaining of: “…the ambivalence which Margaret often showed when the time came to move from the level of high principle and evangelism to practical politics”. He similarly pushed her to adopt his flagship proposal to abolish exchange controls, which she later gloried in having achieved but which had actually terrified her.
Because Mrs Thatcher had ducked the issue of industrial relations, public expenditure on unemployment and welfare was soaring, prices were rising, the recession was deepening, and rises in oil prices were precipitating a burst of pay claims across both the public and private sectors. The case for carrying out the Party’s electoral mandate to reform the trades unions became unanswerable. Secondary pickets were outlawed and, after a prolonged period of open warfare within the Cabinet between Sir Geoffrey and Mr Prior, the Employment Act (1980) was passed. Sir Geoffrey’s 1980 Budget reduced spending by £1 billion and, while many predicted a U-turn, Mrs Thatcher famously told the Conservative Party Conference that year “You turn if you want to; the lady’s not for turning” and kept faith with her redoubtable Chancellor. The pressure for her to do a U-turn was, however, incredible. Throughout 1981, the Government were beset with problems, as every economic and political weathervane pointed in the direction of a U-turn. Margaret Thatcher always said that she “never needed to know what to do, only how to do it.” Sir Simon Jenkins has observed, she could have spelled that word ‘Howe’. Her reliance on her chancellor was, at this point, absolute. As Sir Simon put it, “She could not have climbed even the foothills of Thatcherism without Howe’s dogged presence at her side. His monetary targets, his medium-term financial strategy, his mental resilience and quiet, persuasive manner with colleagues, were foreign to Thatcher.” He will, perhaps, always be best remembered for his revolutionary 1981 Budget, which was the radical tonic the country’s stagnating economy needed.
The 1981 Budget defied conventional economic wisdom at the time by disinflating the economy at a time of recession. It was seismic, both intellectually and politically. He took an extra £7 billion out of the economy in taxes, to reduce public borrowing and hold down interest rates, such was his adamant belief that only a ruthless disciplining of the public sector and shock tactics would yield economic regeneration. Mr Healey dismissed it as “sado-monetarism”. Nevertheless, Mrs Thatcher won a second term in office at the General Election of 1983. Many are quick to attribute this exclusively to the successful outcome of the 1982 Falklands War but the fact is that, by then, the economy had returned to growth and Sir Geoffrey’s monetarist radicalism had been vindicated. There was also the fact that Labour fought the election under the ineffectual, Left-wing leadership of Michael Foot, whose manifesto included abolishing the House of Lords and abandoning Trident, a programme dubbed by one of their own MPs, Sir Gerald Kaufman, as “the longest suicide note in history” (fans of Jeremy Corbyn should take note). Mrs Thatcher was returned to office with 42.4% of the vote and an increased parliamentary majority, becoming the first Tory leader in half a century to be re-elected to a second full term.
After serving a full parliament as an ultimately successful chancellor, Sir Geoffrey was moved to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, in which post he served for six years (the longest serving Foreign Secretary since the First World War). Although he would have preferred to remain at HM Treasury, his clubbable personality and patient and lawyerly diplomatic style made him an obvious choice for the Foreign Affairs brief but his tenure at the FCO was marked by incremental advances and carefully-crafted compromises, rather than dashing forays. Among his notable achievements was the agreement with Communist China over the handover of Hong Kong. While it was a decision I disagreed with then and now, and I deprecate that he denied the Hongkongers a general right of entry into the UK, I do applaud the promise he extracted from Peking (thus far mostly honoured) to allow Hongkongers to retain their distinctly capitalist way of life, which has so far endured for a further half-century. As Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey also forged a strong relationship with George P. Schultz, Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration, and played a largely underrated role in the mission to bring down the Iron Curtain and in negotiating the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Mrs Thatcher won a resounding third successive election victory at the General Election of 1987 but, sadly, by now the disagreements between her and Sir Geoffrey were enormous, particularly on the subject of Europe. This coupled with the Prime Minister’s often brutal treatment of her docile Foreign Secretary slowly poisoned the relationship. Indeed, she handled him so roughly that it frequently embarrassed others to witness it. Sir Geoffrey was the unfortunate victim of one of the curious quirks of Mrs Thatcher’s personality. She was always extremely considerate and courteous to personal staff, drivers and cleaners, people over whom she had unquestioned supremacy, but was tactless and overbearing to ministers and other senior officials, her nominal equals and contemporaries, with whom she would frequently argue and shout. Sir Geoffrey bore the brunt of much of this. She would hector, chide, belittle and berate him, both publicly and in private. Sir Keith Joseph was heard to remark to staff when heading to Cabinet, “send two ambulances at 3 o’clock”. A particularly telling incident occurred at Chequers, when a waitress accidentally poured a bowl of piping hot soup over Sir Geoffrey. Mrs Thatcher was at pains to comfort and reassure the mortified waitress but completely ignored the scalded Foreign Secretary.
In the end, it was the breakdown of this relationship, along with that of Sir Geoffrey’s successor as Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, which ultimately sealed Mrs Thatcher’s fate. The crux of the issue was over Britain’s entry in the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). When the PM discovered that Sir Geoffrey had colluded with Mr Lawson to proceed ERM membership prior to the 1989 Madrid summit, she refused to either speak to Sir Geoffrey or attend any function at which he was present. She now retreated behind a clique of aides: her Private Secretary Charles Powell, her bullish Press Secretary Bernard Ingham, and her eccentric economic adviser Prof Alan Walters. Subsequently, in July 1989, she exacted her revenge on Sir Geoffrey by removing him from the Foreign Office and replacing him with the inexperienced John Major, then a relatively junior minister at the Treasury. Sir Geoffrey had increasingly come to be supplanted by the career diplomat Mr Powell, now firmly embedded in the PM’s private office. Mrs Thatcher had come to prefer Mr Powell’s judgement to that of the official Foreign Secretary, who she distrusted, feeling he had been ‘got at’ by the Foreign Office mandarins. Indeed, such was the contempt with which the Foreign Secretary was regarded within Downing Street, that Mr Powell once wrote to the PM: “You have a bilateral with the Foreign Secretary, the plump chap with glasses … whom we haven’t seen for a long while.” Mr Powell had, for all intents and purposes, become Mrs Thatcher’s real Foreign Secretary.
Sir Geoffrey probably ought to have resigned at that stage but that ‘bond of loyalty’ got the better of him and, after turning down the Home Office, he accepted the much lesser post of Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons, consoled only with the important-sounding but ultimately hollow title ‘Deputy Prime Minister’. Indeed, when briefing the press the morning after the announcement, Mr Ingham dismissed the title as having “no constitutional significance”. Three months later, Mr Lawson resigned as Chancellor, similarly frustrated at being frozen out of the decision-making process in favour of Professor Walters, whom he had demanded be sacked.
Sir Geoffrey languished for another year as Lord President. Even though he was still nominally the PM’s deputy, he only learned of her final capitulation over membership of the ERM from a passing remark by the Queen at a reception and the Prime Minister’s ruthless imposition of the Community Charge (commonly dubbed the ‘Poll Tax’) alarmed him. Mrs Thatcher could, by then, scarcely bear to be in his company and routinely insulted him, deriding his docility and demanding he ‘speak up’ at meetings, feigning to be unable to hear his soft-spoken voice when really her frustration was at his prolix delivery. The final straw came at a meeting of the Cabinet – recently dramatised in the film The Iron Lady with Meryl Streep playing Mrs Thatcher and Anthony Head as Sir Geoffrey – when the PM upbraided him over some Bills for the Queen’s Speech not being ready, something which had nothing to do with him, and he finally snapped and resigned on the spot. Already appalled by the PM’s declaration at the Rome Conference the previous weekend, at which she had flatly rejected the idea (quite rightly) that the UK would ever join the European Single Currency, and her famous “No! No! No!” speech in the Commons, Sir Geoffrey drafted a carefully worded letter of resignation, criticising the PM’s overall handling of relations with the European Community. 10 Downing Street immediately tried to spin the story as a difference of ‘styles rather than substance’, so Sir Geoffrey felt the need to send a powerful message of dissent. On the 13th November 1990, he made perhaps the most famous and most devastating resignation speech in parliamentary history. In it, he famously employed a cricketing metaphor, likening British negotiations on monetary union in Europe to: “…sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain”. He then called on others to “…consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long”. This latter part was seen by many as a coded call to erstwhile Cabinet colleagues to challenge Mrs Thatcher for the leadership. A few days later, Michael Heseltine did just that. By 22nd November, she had resigned.
It was a sad end to an important relationship and she could never forgive what she termed his “bile and treachery”. Nor could many others and Sir Geoffrey’s parliamentary office was afterwards bombarded with bags from constituencies containing “thirty pieces of silver” (he donated them all to Guide Dogs for the Blind). Yet among parliamentary colleagues, Sir Geoffrey retained his reputation for decency, honesty and courtesy and, in 2005, when Baroness Thatcher marked her 80th birthday, Lord Howe, as he by then was, gave a generous speech about her achievements, saying: “Her real triumph was to have transformed not just one party but two, so that when Labour did eventually return, the great bulk of Thatcherism was accepted as irreversible.” He said later of the events of 1990 that they “…could not wipe out fifteen years of close comradeship”.
Sir Geoffrey Howe remained the MP for East Surrey until he retired at the General Election of 1992, when Mrs Thatcher’s successor, John Major, ennobled him as Baron Howe of Aberavon, of Tandridge in the County of Surrey. He published his memoirs, Conflict of Loyalty, in 1994 and was further honoured when he was inducted into the Order of the Companions of Honour in 1996. Lord Howe went on to serve conscientiously as an active member of the House of Lords, where he frequently spoke on foreign policy issues and the economy. He led opposition to the Nolan Committee’s attempts to curb MPs’ outside interests (he had continued his legal career while still an MP and once famously said “Politics is much healthier if you have real people conducting it”) and was a staunch opponent of Labour’s attempts to turn the House of Lords into an elected chamber. Lord Howe had more reason than most to defend the House of Lords, as in addition to being a member himself, his wife, Elspeth, was ennobled in her own right as Baroness Howe of Idlicote in 2001 following a lifetime of service on numerous public bodies. In May of this year, and at age of 88, Lord Howe chose to utilise a new provision under the recently passed House of Lords Reform Act (2014) to retire from the Lords. He died of a suspected heart attack on Friday and is survived by his widow, Lady Howe, and their three children, Caroline, Alexander and Amanda.
I did not always share Lord Howe’s convictions, particularly on Europe, but there is no denying that he was one of the great pillars of the Thatcher revolution. As Lady Thatcher’s official biographer, Charles Moore, has put it, Lord Howe was the “tapestry-master of Thatcherism” and nobody did more than he to make her economic doctrines work and, between them, they helped transform the British economy. Indeed, as has been said, he kept a steadier hand in 1981 then Lady Thatcher did herself and it was his steadfastness that contributed to her landslide victory in 1983 (with perhaps a little help from General Galtieri). History will remember him as an honourable man and as a statesman of great dedication and ability, who served his country in Parliament with tremendous distinction. It is sadly ironic that he dies less than a week after his great Labour friend and rival, the late Lord Healey. During one of their parliamentary exchanges, Lord Healey, always a devastating wit, stated that an attack from him was “like being savaged by a dead sheep”. It is a testament to this decent man’s quiet good humour that, shortly after he was ennobled, he included a representation of a dead sheep in his coat of arms. Lord Healey acted as one of his supporters when he was ceremonially introduced into the House of Lords, proof that even in politics it is possible for opponents to show mutual respect. Lord Howe of Aberavon was a politician of the old school. I wish we had a hundred like him.