Saturday, October 10, 2015

Geoffrey Howe RIP

Lord Howe of Aberavon, who I will always think of as Sir Geoffrey Howe, died yesterday of a heart attack at the age of 88.

He was Chancellor during the first and most difficult period of Mrs Thatcher's government and although his tough policies to bring down the budget deficit were unpopular at the time he laid the seeds of future economic growth and stability, and, as he said in the resignation speech below, he and Margaret Thatcher worked together to reduce inflation from 22% to 4% within four years.

He subsequently served as foreign secretary, leader of the House of Commons and Deputy Prime Minister and was the longest serving minister in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet.

It is supremely ironic that he should have died within a few days of his opponent and friend Denis Healey, who he faced over the despatch box many times as they were Chancellor and Shadow Chancellor, with each man holding each position in turn, for six years. Denis Healey once described being criticised by Sir Geoffrey Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep."

After watching the devastating attack - which brought down Mrs T - in the resignation speech below, I commented to friends that if this was what Denis Healey thought being savaged by a dead sheep was like I would give any dead sheep in Leeds East (Healey's constituency) a very wide berth indeed.



It is strange to watch that speech now given the degree to which the debate on Europe in general and on European monetary integration in particular has moved on so much in the meantime: he was speaking at a time when the Euro had not yet come into existence and there was still fierce argument not just about whether there should be more monetary integration but also about the form and such integration should take.

Consequently both some of the views expressed in Geoffrey's resignation speech and some of the opposing views with which he respectfully disagreed seem now like something from a former age.

Given that this is an obit post I am trying to say a few words about this without criticism of any of the parties involved. With hindsight we all know that the Exchange-rate mechanism of the European Monetary System went catastrophically wrong for Britain two years after this speech.

It would also be easy - but facile and wrong - to draw conclusions from the subsequent history of the Euro about whether either side of the debate which led to first Geoffrey's resignation, and shortly after the defenestration of Mrs Thatcher, has been "proved right" or "proved wrong."

However, he was talking about the position before the Euro was created. At that time John Major, then the Chancellor, was promoting a much more market based Common currency proposal called the "Hard ECU" as an alternative to the Delors plan for a Single currency which was to be adopted and became the Euro. The trigger for Geoffrey Howe's resignation was the belief that Mrs Thatcher's style and comments had doomed any chance of persuading the European Union to adopt the "Hard ECU" plan by giving the impression that it was being put forward as a wrecking or delaying tactic rather than a serious alternative proposal.

In any event the Hard ECU was not adopted, so we will never know whether it might have been more successful than the Euro as I suspect might well have been the case, so on that point none of the participants have been or can be proved right or wrong.

What is beyond doubt is that Geoffrey Howe served his country for many years, sometimes doing very difficult jobs in very difficult circumstances. However memorable and historically significant the resignation speech that I included above, this should not obscure the fact that he worked closely with Mrs Thatcher for ten years and in my opinion their partnership did a great deal of good for Britain.

The usual obit rules apply to this post and any comments attacking the deceased will be deleted.

Rest in Peace.

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