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David Owen is Back - But Frankly We Don't Deserve Him

03/03/2014 10:58 GMT | Updated 01/05/2014 10:59 BST

This weekend's news that Lord Owen has returned to the Labour fold after more than thirty years brings full circle one of the saddest journeys in political history. His Social Democratic Party, founded after leaving Labour in 1981, almost succeeded in breaking the mould of the two-party system, hitting 50% in the polls and coming within two percentage points of beating Labour in the election of 1983. "Our support was melting like snow in the sunshine," remembered Jack Straw. "Another week and we would have gone under."

In the years that followed, however, Owen's party and his career faded as Labour drew back from the abyss, found Tony Blair and expelled its militants. The SDP disbanded, and he retired from politics, wandering off into the anonymity of business and writing.

The story of Owen's political demise was always depicted as Shakespearean tragedy. Even Margaret Thatcher tried to rescue him. "He's wasting his life," she said, while raising the possibility of offering him a seat in the cabinet. Thatcher had a nagging fancy that she could restore a man who, by any measure, was the brightest political brain of the post-war period, the youngest Foreign Secretary in history. She acknowledged him as her only intellectual equal in British politics.

But Owen would have refused the offer, even if Thatcher had been able to convince her colleagues. This was because power meant less to him than beliefs. And this is why his tragedy is also ours: a study of politics then and now, measured against the posture struck by a unique figure, so wedded to his beliefs he will take resignation before compromise, shows how venal its practitioners truly are, how readily for sale, how morally flaccid: not occasionally, not at the margins, but elementally.

David Owen walked out of Labour in 1981 because the party, hijacked by the extreme left in the wake of a shattering election defeat, committed itself to leaving the EU, surrendering Britain's nuclear weapons and to the wholesale nationalisation of large sectors of private industry. One would imagine that in these circumstances most of Labour's senior figures would have gone with him, rather than advocate a bunch of crack-pot fantasies which they recognised were a danger to the national interest. How else can a reasonable person with a moral framework conduct themselves? Yet Owen was virtually alone when he resigned. He walked down the road with the tumbleweed blowing about him. His Parliamentary colleagues decided by and large that their careers were more important than anything they might actually believe in. The former Labour Defence Minister, Denis Healey, went on Question Time to campaign for a policy he had spent his entire time as a Minister arguing against. The Deputy Leader, Roy Hattersley, bitterly attacked Owen for "betraying the party which had made him", without acknowledging, even ironically, that it was the party, not Owen, which had changed. Across the left, the craving for power obliterated not only codes but logic.

Fast forward to modern times and the abasement becomes even worse. By the 1990s Labour had performed another volte-face, to make itself electable. Tony Blair, once a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, changed his mind on the biggest moral question facing humanity - because Labour's ruling committee told him his argument wouldn't wash with the public. Neil Kinnock, who had been so anxious to withdraw from Europe, became Europe's chief champion, and indeed accepted a job from its Commission. Today we have the bizarre spectacle of those who once taunted David Owen as a traitor to the left now implementing the most right-wing policies Britain has ever seen - Shirley Williams, an ex-Labour Education Secretary, and former SDP colleague, orchestrating the sale of the NHS, phoning David Cameron to check that she's doing it properly, aided by Tom McNally, now Baron McNally, a former aide to Labour Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan. For all the hyperbole, it is clearly not Owen who was the traitor.

The destruction of David Owen's career was a personal tragedy for him - jeered at, spat upon, abused and threatened, he settled for a quieter life. But his story is our tragedy, too. In our politics, the way we run it, the way we like it, the righteous are mashed up and spat out. We elect the unprincipled over those who hold to their views. And we do it cognitively. David Owen went into the wilderness because we sent him there, with zero votes, nil pois. We prefer to reward those who are more pliable. Tony Blair won power and his monumental changes of heart were never mentioned. Nick Clegg and Vince Cable argued throughout the last election against austerity, the sale of the NHS and the introduction of fees in education - yet they will nonetheless keep their seats, perhaps with increased majorities. The pragmatists endure, with their sun-blushed careers and their venality, because we vote for them. It is the principled who go to the wall.