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A sheep in sheep’s clothing? Remembering Geoffrey Howe

October 10, 2015


Ah 1990.  What consummate political theatre.  It’s always the one you least expect eh?

Like the traitorous Thane of Cawdor at the beginning of Macbeth being taken to execution…

“Nothing in his [political] life became him like the leaving of it.”

Last week, the defining Chancellor of my childhood died.  This week the defining Chancellor of my teens dies.  They were ten years apart in age.  They were sort of friends.

The “sheepish” attitude to Howe lasted right up to the incredible conclusion to his political career.  Healey made his “savaged by a dead sheep” comment about Howe as early as 1978.  In the 1980s, Spitting Image depicted Howe as a rather slow moving creature whose continued presence around the cabinet table was somewhat baffling.

In one sketch, an apoplectic Thatcher (more apoplectic than usual) was waving a pair of shears around, outraged by the latest Tory sex scandal and preparing to castrate her entire cabinet.  Howe sheepishly pipes up.  “It’s alright Margaret.  I’ve already been done”.

Yet Howe’s quiet manner belied the fact that he was a determined ally of Thatcher and empowered and accelerated much of her distinct agenda – from a determination to permanently disable the legal scope of union activity to his (now) famous belief that places like Liverpool should be left to wither on the vine.  He was the quiet functionary who normalised the idea that “the national interest” depended on giving up on very large numbers of people.

Ah, but 1990, 1990,1990!  Blest was it in that dawn to be alive but to be young was very heaven.  The spectacle of Thatcher’s fall was ruined only by a nagging and accurate sense that toppling Thatcher would actually secure the long term survival of Thatcher’s own policies.  I felt that at the time and for once I was actually right.  I was even right about who would succeed Thatcher – feeling that the party would not reward Heseltine the assassin and Hurd looked too old and crusty.  Major it would be.

But Howe’s own speech was so perfect in 1990, that such petty issues as the long term future of millions of people appeared irrelevant.  This was about personalities, not policies – which is why we loved it.  Howe had been given this title of “Deputy Prime Minister” – which has never really meant anything, and which is perfect way of keeping someone in a state of simmering frustration – keeping them very close to power without having any real basis to exercise it.  When Howe felt undermined over Europe, his moment had come.

What happened next has formed the basis of several dramas.  This summer Jonathan Maitland has had a hit with “Dead Sheep” about the whole affair.  But the truth is, that if a dramatist in 1989 had proposed a play in which Thatcher was destroyed by… Geoffrey Howe – their script would never have received a second reading.  Spitting Image could never have predicted it.   Maverick (ie. fascistic loon) Tory diarist Alan Clark was convinced that the speech must have been the work of Geoffrey’s wife Espeth and that the sheep didn’t have it in him.

People heard the speech at the time, in other words, and still didn’t quite believe they were hearing it.

This is so-called “high” politics – the personality politics of wealthy and powerful people who feel snubbed by other wealthy and powerful people and from a pure spectator point of view it is tremendously enjoyable to watch.  All you have to do is somehow forget the impact these characters have on ordinary vulnerable folk.

Anyway – here’s the speech.


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