During this pandemic, I felt it would be the perfect opportunity to take a closer look to the careers of some political giants who don't always get the recognition or remembrance they deserve. One of my greatest interests is political history and every Friday I will publish an article outlining the career and some interesting facts about some political pioneers who are unfortunately no longer with us. Last week I looked at the life of one of Mrs Thatcher's loyalist Ministers and de facto Deputy, now this week I'm looking back at the remarkable life of the man who succeeded Willie Whitelaw as Deputy Prime Minister and Thatcher's first Chancellor of the Exchequer who set the tone for the 1980s, Sir Geoffrey Howe.
The story of Howe begins in the small town of Port Talbot in South Wales on 20th December 1926, he was born Richard Edward Geoffrey Howe to a well-known local solicitor and coroner Benjamin Howe and Eliza who was a justice for community affairs. He had a privileged upbringing and was schooled at three different private schools including Bridgend Preparatory School in his native Wales before he eventually won a scholarship to the prestigious Winchester College in Hampshire; during his time in education, he never really participated in sports and was perceived to be a quiet young man despite being part of Winchester's debating society. During the Second World War, he was an active member of the Home Guard and set up a National Savings group, a body which helped people survive on rationing and helping the war effort financially. Howe was a keen Classicist and in 1945 he was offered a scholarship to attend Trinity College, Cambridge and study his passion but instead he joined the Army to complete his national service for three years; he held the rank of lieutenant and served in East Africa with the Royal Corps of Signals where he gave political lectures in his spare time to locals about how they should avoid turning to Communism and instead remain loyal to the British Monarchy and King George.
A lifelong Conservative Party member from a young age, his national service and subsequent political lectures in Africa was the beginning of a prosperous, yet somewhat under the radar and far from dazzling. He impressed in the Army and was offered the rank of Captain in 1948 but instead chose to pursue his academic career and he took up the offer to study at Trinity College at Cambridge University, although he wouldn't read Classics as it was first thought by his family, he chose instead to read law and follow in his father's footsteps to forge a career in the legal system. He was Chairman of the Cambridge University Conservative Association and sat on the Committee of the Cambridge Union, the University's free speech union. In 1952, he was called to the bar by the Middle Temple and moved back to his home in Wales to start his career in law, he soon after moving back married Elspeth Shand, the daughter of the renowned architect, journalist and entrepreneur Philip Morton Shand. In his early career in the 1950s, he wasn't successful financially and mainly survived off a cash gift from his father and from the wealth of his wife's family as well as of course the limited income he made working as a lawyer in the Welsh Valleys.
Howe first dabbled with a career in politics in 1955 when he was selected as the candidate for the safe Labour seat of Aberavon, which was his home seat, held by veteran MP William Cove who had held the seat since 1923. He managed to reduce Cove's majority but only by 2.5pc and he still enjoyed 70pc of the vote share, he again stood at the 1959 general election against John Morris who replaced the retiring Cove, Morris would later go on to serve as Secretary of State for Wales between 1974 and 1979 in Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan's Cabinets. Around the time of the 1955 general election, he co-founded the Bow Group, a think tank for Conservative modernisers, aimed at younger members of the Party – he was one of the first Chairmen of the group and also later edited its magazine Crossbow in the early 1960s.
However, he soon rose up the ranks in the world of law and served on the Council of the Bar from 1957 to 1962 and was on the executive council and an active member of the judicial pressure group JUSTICE, a human rights and law reform group for UK judicial reform. In 1965, he was finally rewarded for his tireless effort as he was awarded a QC.
Howe was soon becoming a prominent figure in the anti-trade union movement, he supported privatisation of most of Britain's nationalised industries and the curbing of union power. He was inspired by Conservative politicians of the day such as Enoch Powell who also was noted as a great influence on Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph in their formation of the policies later to be known as Thatcherism. In the late 1950s he co-authored several reports and publications arguing for the reduction in trade union power and influence, however these reports were discouraged by the leadership of the Party of the day, Harold Macmillan who had thought the trade unions were supportive of his new brand of Conservatism and were responsible in helping to win the 1951 and 1955 general elections, needless to say Howe and the Bow Group strongly disagreed; Macmillan said of the reports "it would be inexpedient to adopt policies which alienate our voters".
It was in 1964 when Howe's political career first really got underway when he was selected to stand in the constituency of Bebington, on the Wirral Peninsula succeeding the retiring Sir Hendrie Oakshott who had held the seat since its creation at the 1950 general election. Soon after his election to Parliament, he was elected as the Chairman of the Backbench Committee on Social Services before he was promoted to the front bench by the then Leader of the Opposition, Sir Alec Douglas-Home as the Opposition Spokesman for Welfare and Labour. Despite his promising career ahead as a Conservative politician and frontbencher, he was defeated at the 1966 general election from his fairly safe seat of Bebington, he lost to Labour's Edwin Brooks who had seen an increase of over 10pc of the vote share.
Geoffrey Howe returned to the bar and became a fairly prominent lawyer in his native Wales, serving as Deputy Chairman of Glamorgan Quarter Sessions, however he still remained politically engaged serving as part of the Latey Committee, commissioned by the first Wilson government to look into the reduction of the voting age from 21 to 18 for all British citizens. In 1969, Howe was a member of both the Street Committee and the Cripps Committee, investigating racial discrimination and gender discrimination, the findings of each helped the Labour government's reforms of the late 1960s.
It was becoming evident that the Cambridge graduate from the South of Wales was starting to shine as a more than capable lawyer and a fine politician who got the job done and was willing to work across party lines for the good of Britain. Therefore, in 1970 he was selected to stand in the Surrey seat of Reigate, now held by Crispin Blunt, he was predictably elected, increasing the Conservative vote share to over half, a six per cent increase from the 1966 general election when veteran politician Sir John Vaughan-Morgan had stood. After the general election, he was nominated for a knighthood and swiftly promoted by Prime Minister Edward Heath to Solicitor General, a junior ministerial role in the Attorney General's Office. It was Howe who engineered the Industrial Relations Act, 1972 which provoked the first of many major strikes by trade unions against the Heath government. The tough stance and firmness with trade unions and their leaders which Mr Heath had entered Office with in 1970 was soon gone and so began the U-turns, Howe was powerless as Solicitor General and was disapproving of the government rolling over to the ever powerful unions.
By November 1972, he had received another promotion to Minister of State for Trade and Industry, a new department created at the beginning of the Heath administration, merging the role of the President of the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Technology, Howe served as the junior minister to Secretary of State Peter Walker when he succeeded John Davies in the role. In 1974 the boundaries changed once again and Howe's Reigate seat still existed but a new constituency was created, East Surrey which he chose to stand in at the February 1974 general election – this seat is currently a safe Conservative seat held by Claire Coutinho but was previously held by the arch Remoaner Sam Gyimah. Now a Privy Counsellor as of his promotion two years earlier, he remained central to Heath's shadow government and was appointed as Shadow Secretary of State for Social Services, however when Margaret Thatcher challenged and defeated Edward Heath on the first ballot in the 1975 Conservative Party leadership election he remained loyal to Heath and then stood himself on the second ballot against Mrs Thatcher; he managed to secure 19 votes which was nowhere near enough to even come close to Thatcher on 146.
Now leader, Thatcher saw Sir Geoffrey as a like minded right winger and admired his involvement with the Bow Group as well as his own admiration for Powell, subsequently she appointed him as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. Together with Thatcher and her Head of Policy and Research Sir Keith Joseph, he masterminded the economic policies which would be implemented as Thatcherism when elected to government in 1979. The ex-lawyer was hugely successful in producing new economic policies which were radically different from those of previous Conservative leaders, he also was the key driver behind the mini manifesto 'The Right Approach to the Economy' which embraced the shared belief of monetarist economics. He was abundantly critical of Labour Chancellor Denis Healey, never more so when in 1978 he approached the IMF for a loan due to Britain's bankruptcy, this resulted in a mass programme of austerity from the Callaghan government and ultimately the winter of discontent. He described Healey's proposals to the International Monetary Fund as going "cap in hand" to which he was met with the now infamous countercriticism, "being attacked by Geoffrey Howe is like being ravaged by a dead sheep".
The attacks of a dead sheep were obviously popular as it was Howe's unmatchable deconstruction of the Callaghan government's economic policy which was paramount to Thatcher winning a vote of no confidence against the government in 1979 which of course led to the general election when she entered Number 10 for the first time as PM. This meant Howe moved in next door, at Number 11 and he would soon get to work, producing his first Budget on 12th June 1979 in that, he slashed taxes including the highest rate of income tax from 83pc to 60pc and the basic rate from 33pc to 30pc. It was Howe's tax cuts which started to resuscitate the economy and increase consumption, the two tier rate system of VAT was abolished in favour of a single rate of 15pc on all goods rather than a higher rate and a lower rate, depending on the item. One of Howe's flagships in the Budget, other than significant tax cuts, was that of a major relaxation of exchange controls, a mechanism designed to limit the amount of sterling being converted into foreign currency, these controls were eventually abolished in October 1979 in Howe's autumn statement. His decision to abolish the months after relaxing them wasn't what Mrs Thatcher had imagined and was cautious of proceeding too quickly and remarked "Geoffrey, on your head be it if anything goes wrong", in fact the opposite would happen and she would later admit it was one of the best and defining decisions to abolish them sooner than she had planned.
He wanted to stimulate the economy more than it had ever been before, especially as he wanted to get underway with first of all curbing the power of unions and then privatisation, however he had only been in power for just over a month and as a precursor to the previously mentioned reforms, he introduced tax-free enterprise zones. These zones offered tax concessions, infrastructure incentives and deregulation which were all matched with nationwide policies of small business grants and entrepreneurial grants, although Thatcher later scrapped these zones following a review in 1979 due to the cost of them, it was proved successful in improving the areas they were implemented in and created a significant amount of jobs, most notably, but not exclusively, in the London Docklands regeneration.Howe's Chancellorship is without doubt one of the most important in history and the 1979 Budget would pave the way for the direction of the Thatcher government as well as its successors. Not only would he introduce radical reforms in taxation and pro-business policies, Sir Geoffrey aimed to improve public finances and reduce the rampant inflation. Nevertheless, Howe committed to Professor Hugh Clegg's report which recommended restoring public sector pay levels to that of before Labour's cuts, as a result of the IMF bailout.
Despite his commitment to the Clegg Report, public sector pay was restricted and didn't rise to pre-Labour government levels, instead he made the tough decision to close unproductive and inefficient factories which were costing the taxpayer millions of pounds per day. By 1980, the Chancellor decided to tighten the money supply and allowed exchange rates to rise in a deflationary Budget, but his 1981 Budget, which was the biggest turn away from Keynesian economics ever seen, he faced opposition from his own backbenches when he proposed real terms spending cuts and increased fuel, alcohol and tobacco duty, signalling a huge swing from direct to indirect taxation. These reforms in the 1981 Budget were noticeably unpopular and it showed in the polls as Michael Foot's Labour Party gained traction and Mrs Thatcher's ratings slumped, however the short term economic plan began taking shape and the medium term economic plan could be seen to start working as output started to recover and increase in productivity as well as economic growth which started to prosper once again. When Sir Geoffrey delivered his fifth and final Budget in 1983 before the general election, he found room to cut income tax once again due to double digit inflation being reduced to 8 ½ pc, he did it by increasing the threshold rather than actually cutting the rate of tax, something which he was disappointed with, the tax allowance was raised by a massive 14pc which allowed "more people to keep more of their own money", to quote Margaret Thatcher. Howe's final tax pledges in 1983 would result in saving British taxpaying individuals £2bn per annuum and British businesses over £750m per each financial year, this, along with the victory in the Falklands War, boosted Thatcher in the polls to like no post-war leader, later producing the biggest Conservative majority that the Party had seen in its current format.
His macroeconomic policy was evidently successful as the budget deficit fell dramatically between 1981 and 1991, furthermore, his challenging of Keynesian economics which resulted in a letter to The Times, signed by 364 economists saying they had no faith in Howe's budgets, including future Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, would see a new way of thinking towards economic theory and policy for governments to come. He proved the sceptics wrong and secured his place as one of Britain's finest Chancellors as the economy dragged itself out of recession quicker than any economist who had signed that letter had predicted, interest rates were cut from 14pc to 10pc by the time he left Downing Street and the rapid inflation was cooled down from 11.9pc when he delivered that now infamous 1981 Budget to 3.8pc just before the 1983 general election. Howe's macroeconomic policy shifted the consensus from demand side policies to supply side policies and pro-business reforms which resulted in a huge liberalisation of the markets and the economy.
Following the securing of a 144 seat majority, Thatcher had an almighty mandate but it was time for Sir Geoffrey Howe to move on from the Treasury, her relationship with the Cambridge lawyer was always fractious and they often clashed, as popular culture often portrayed and still portrays them, hence why she moved him from next door. Francis Pym had said in the run up to the general election that "landslides on the whole don't produce successful governments" which enraged the Iron Lady who after the general election sacked him as Foreign Secretary and from the Cabinet. She opted to shuffle Howe to the Foreign Office and promote his good friend, the Secretary of State for Energy, Nigel Lawson to Second Lord of the Treasury. In the Foreign Office, he would become less aligned with Thatcher and she would go on to say in her memoirs 'The Downing Street Years' that "the Foreign Office did to Geoffrey what it did to so many great politicians, it made them more centrist and open to compromise, it makes them value their principles less in favour of consensus".
As Foreign Secretary he was an effective ambassador in cementing Britain's position on the global stage and improving international relations in every part of the world. He was seen as a potential successor to Thatcher at the time of taking up his second Great Office of State but his time in the FCO would see him come to loggerheads with the PM more than he did as Chancellor, this was primarily over his pro-European policy towards the end of the Thatcher administration. Post 1987, Thatcher was becoming more and more discontent with the direction of the EEC and was a vocal critic of Commissioner Jacques Delors, by the time she had made her Bruges Speech in 1988 she was in complete disagreement with Sir Geoffrey over Europe due to his will to further integrate into the European project. From 1987, Howe's successor in the Treasury, Nigel Lawson had shadowed the Deutschemark in preparation for joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism, however, Mrs Thatcher was vehemently opposed to joining the ERM, saying it would damage Britain's financial stability and wreck the good economic work done over the last decade. At a EEC summit in Madrid, Thatcher was given an ultimatum by Chancellor Lawson to announce a date to join the ERM, a plan Howe supported from the Foreign Office, however she opted to listen to the advice of her economic advisor Alan Walters, subsequently leading to the resignation of Lawson.
In 1989, Sir Geoffrey Howe was demoted to Leader of the House of Commons and Deputy Prime Minister, after tuning down the position of Home Secretary – in the press conference the next morning, Thatcher's Chief Press Secretary, Bernard Ingham denounced the role of Deputy PM saying how it had "little constitutional significance". His support of Lawson following Madrid had frozen him out of the Prime Minister's 'inner circle' which significantly devalued his position in the Cabinet even further. It was in 1990 that his and Thatcher's close friend and MP, Ian Gow was assassinated by the IRA, this news severely affected Howe who was particularly close to the Eastbourne MP.
Nigel Lawson's resignation is important to consider when looking back at the career and life of Sir Geoffrey Howe as that resignation as Chancellor in late 1989 would act as a forerunner for Howe's own resignation 1st November 1990 and his subsequent and damning resignation speech to the House of Commons on 13th November 1990. That now infamous speech was voted as one of the most significant parliamentary speeches in The New Statesman as it was seen to have signalled the end of Thatcher's premiership, he played on the cricketing metaphor which Thatcher had used a few days earlier at an address to businessmen, he described the situation regarding Thatcher and Britain's position on negotiations with Europe as "rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only to find that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain." It is judged to be so significant as he spoke of how "the time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties which I have, myself, wrestled for perhaps too long." This was seen as a personal attack on Thatcher and spurred Michael Heseltine to finally launched his long anticipated leadership bid. His resignation speech was devastating for Thatcher and it was noticeable that her old ally and loyal friend had delivered such a damning address attacking her, overall, it wasn't bad for someone who attacked like a "dead sheep".
Despite he being largely responsible for the final push of Margaret Thatcher, he was one of her loyalist Ministers and was the closest to serving in every day of her Cabinet, resigning just weeks before she, but nevertheless without Sir Geoffrey Howe she couldn't have proceeded with the reforms she did. He was one of Britain's most influential and reforming Chancellors before going onto being a fine diplomat and ambassador for our great nation when we were rebuilding our economy to be great again.
He will always be remembered as a quiet, less than impressive orator who was always on the fringes but someone who got his head down and carried out the job he was given with ruthless efficiency and produced astounding results and reforms. On Spitting Image, Sir Geoffrey was put across as a quiet, stuttering member of the Cabinet, often found talking to his teddy bear, the only thing that would listen to him, and quite often seen with a flock of sheep as a reference to Healey's attack on the then Shadow Chancellor. He was actually good friends with his former opposite number and appeared on This Is Your Life in 1989 when the former Labour Minister appeared on the show; likewise, he remembered his time in Thatcher's Cabinet fondly in his memoirs 'A Conflict of Loyalty', they had many noted disagreements but they formed a team which would change Britain indefinitely for a generation and his economic policies would become the proof for monetarist and supply side policies, breaking the status quo of Keynesian economic ideology.
He went on to be an active member in the House of Lords when he was created a life peer in 1992 after stepping down as an MP where he was a vocal critic of Tony Blair's foreign policy during the early 2000s, as well as this he would serve as a political advisor to J.P. Morgan and also GlaxoSmithKline. He retired in May 2015 before he passed away months later on 9th October 2015, he is survived by his wife, Elspeth who was made a life peer in 2001 after chairing the British Broadcasting Standards Commission.
Rest in peace The Rt. Hon. Richard Edward Geoffrey Howe CH, Kt, PC, QC, Lord Howe of Aberavon