UK Politics

1966: Owen and Heseltine go to Westminster

Michael Heseltine
Image caption Michael Heseltine ran a mobile surgery from his personal caravan

I'm never happier than when rummaging around in the BBC archives.

Most of it these days is on computer. In 1990, when I joined as a trainee in Bristol, regional television had only stopped using film the year before.

With the help of our two great librarians at the time, among the hundreds of film cans, I discovered two programmes produced to mark a major event which took place 50 years ago this week, the general election held on 31 March 1966.

"Seven for Westminster" and "Seven at Westminster" were broadcast a few months apart to viewers living in the west country and on the south coast.

They did something which is common now but was quite unusual back then: identifying newly elected MPs and following them as they adjusted to their new life. Each was broadcast only once, and has never been seen since.

Among the seven captured at the start of their parliamentary careers are David Owen, later Foreign Secretary and one of the defectors from Labour who founded the SDP, and the future Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine, who helped to bring down Margaret Thatcher.

Armed with the archive of their younger selves I spoke to both of them.

Image caption David Owen believed he would return to his medical career

Film of the 27-year-old new MP with his parents in their garden brought back memories for Lord Owen of his father's unintended contribution to his career.

David Owen secured the Labour nomination at a party meeting where, he says, Betty Boothroyd - later Speaker of the House of Commons - "made by far the best speech".

A clutch of women members, though, reassured Owen they had voted for him anyway because they were patients of Dr Owen Senior.

Still, he maintains he wasn't expecting to become an MP in 1966. It was only when, after a prime ministerial visit a week before polling day, an aide of Harold Wilson waved goodbye and said "see you in Westminster" as the train pulled out of Plymouth Station, that he realised his medical career was about to be interrupted.

He says he only stopped looking at job adverts in the British Medical Journal after the 1979 election, when he finally accepted he wouldn't be going back.

Rapid promotion

The second film includes pictures of David Owen posing on the steps of the Ministry of Defence with his new boss, a junior defence minister.

When I asked Lord Owen about his rapid promotion, he told me it happened within days of his election, and the reason that he was chosen may have had something to do with the good dinner the minister received when he visited the constituency; apparently David Owen's father had been very generous with the Plymouth Gin.

Whatever the explanation, Owen's appointment as a Parliamentary Private Secretary gave him the ear of ministers in a department whose decisions directly affected his constituents, many of whom worked in the dockyard at Devonport.

Image caption Lord Owen says he retains much sympathy with the Labour cause today

"I can speak to anyone from the prime minister down," he told the interviewer in 1966.

As for the restriction of party discipline - something he would strain against as Labour lurched leftwards after its election defeat in 1979 - the young Owen seems to have regarded it as part of the job.

"I've got to accept the discipline of the group. This is politics; if you don't like compromise, don't become a politician."

In the light of his later defection to the SDP, I asked Lord Owen whether his view had changed.

"No, I can honestly say not," he told me. He said his loyalty was to Labour values even as the party itself veered away from them.

"I continued to represent the Labour cause until 1992 [the year he retired from the House of Commons] … social democrat was compatible with being Labour."

That will probably irritate quite a lot of members of the Labour Party who shared his outlook in 1981, but stuck with the party rather than join the SDP.

"Do you still feel Labour?" I asked.

"'Nearly' is the real human answer to that," he replied.

Independent streak

Michael Heseltine never changed parties, but even in his earliest days as an MP there were signs of the independent streak that, for a while, would derail his political career.

The new Member for Tavistock told the narrator of "Seven for Westminster" he was worried about "the sinister risk of compromise", of doing as the party wants rather than sticking to his own view.

Image caption Michael Heseltine showed signs of an independent streak from early in his career

Michael Heseltine:

  • 1966-1974: MP for Tavistock
  • 1974-2001: MP for Henley
  • 1979-1983: Environment Secretary
  • 1983-1986: Defence Secretary
  • 1990: Stood for leadership of the Conservative Party. Beaten by John Major
  • 1990-1992: Environment Secretary
  • 1992-1995: President of the Board of Trade
  • 1995-1997: Deputy Prime Minster

It's hard not to see these remarks through the prism of Lord Heseltine's cabinet resignation 20 years later, his leadership challenge to Mrs Thatcher, and, of course, the pro-European Union views, which on occasion left him looking isolated.

"I'd forgotten it, but strongly subscribe to it," he says today. "I was not going to be a 'yes man'."

Despite their party differences, David Owen and Michael Heseltine had things in common; trying to maintain careers in London (one in medicine, the other in publishing), make their mark in Parliament and nurse constituencies hundreds of miles away.

Lord Heseltine recalls journeys in a Morris or Austin car, crammed with his wife, three children, a cat and a bird in a cage.

It took 10 hours to travel from London to Tavistock, his constituency on Dartmoor - "and the cat was sick".

In the films, Heseltine, complete with trademark shoulder length hair, exudes confidence, speaking directly to the camera rather than the interviewer. Today, he admits that he didn't always feel in control.

In one film, he is standing in a milking parlour, immaculate in a three-piece suit, hands clasped behind his back, earnestly attentive as the farmer explains about the risk of brucellosis.

"I look," he says now, "like a man from Mars."

He says fitting in was important for a new MP, especially one who, as the narrator in 1966 drily observed, "is not a countryman".

There is no doubt that the 32-year-old publishing boss did try to make an impression on his rural constituents - perhaps too hard.

"Seven at Westminster" includes a glorious sequence of the young MP towing a caravan into a village with "Heseltine" emblazoned on its side.

This was his mobile constituency surgery, an attempt to reach voters who would not otherwise be able to bring their problems to him.

Half a century later, Lord Heseltine describes it as a "terrible, terrible mistake".

Image copyright PA
Image caption Lord Heseltine eventually played a central role in the downfall of Lady Thatcher

People had turned out enthusiastically on his first visit, Lord Heseltine says, but by the third or fourth they had completely lost interest.

Worse, he was stuck with it because he feared if he stopped the village visits, people would say "he's lost interest, he doesn't care, we never see him".

Only when his seat was abolished in 1974 and he moved to Oxfordshire did he stop.

"I didn't take the idea to Henley," he deadpans.

Contrast with today

In the two films from 1966, images of how elections used to be fought - the daytime declarations from town hall balconies, for example, because few were daft enough to declare results in the middle of the night - contrast with reminders of how little has changed.

Image caption David Owen told the interviewer he was determined to keep his public and private lives separate

David Owen:

  • 1966- 1974: MP for Plymouth Sutton
  • 1974-1992: MP for Plymouth Devonport
  • 1977-1979: Foreign Secretary, Labour
  • 1981: Co-founder of the Social Democratic Party
  • 1982-1983: Social Democratic Party deputy leader
  • 1983-1987: Social Democratic Party leader

Dr Owen - "rather serious but one of Labour's rising stars", as he is described in one of the films - describes a feeling that would sound familiar to any MP today.

"Overnight," he complained in 1966, "I went from being respected as a doctor to being regarded with cynical denigration."

Today, his view is somewhat different.

"A very large number of people thought I'd gone down in the world and that upset me in a way. This is a very healthy thing in a democracy."

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