During these awful and bleak times, I felt it would be the perfect opportunity to take a closer look to the careers of some political giants who don't get the recognition or remembrance they deserve. One of my greatest interests is political history and every Friday I shall publish an article outlining the career and some interesting facts about some political heroes who are unfortunately no longer with us. Last week I documented the remarkable life and career of Airey Neave, Margaret Thatcher's leadership campaign manager, who was tragically murdered by Irish republican terrorists and the subject of today's article also came to the same unfortunate end.
Today's subject was one of Thatcher's closest allies, Ian Gow, who was born in London in 1937 to a doctor at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, unfortunately Gow's father would pass away shortly after the war when Ian was only 15. He grew up at a time when national service was still mandatory and served in the 15th/19th Hussars between 1955 and 1958 where he would serve in Northern Ireland, Germany and Malaya – this wouldn't be the end of Gow's military connection as he would remain in the territorial army until 1976 where he would rise to the rank of Major.
Once finishing his mandatory national service in 1958, he would go to university to train as a solicitor, which he qualified as in 1962, but his passion was still politics and it wasn't long before he would become a rising star in the Conservative Party. He soon won the Party nomination for the Midlands seat of Coventry East, a safe Labour seat, in the 1964 general election. That election was a disaster for the Conservatives and Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the Party still recovering from the disasters and PR nightmares of the Macmillan administration such as the Profumo Affair. Gow succeeded a future Cabinet Minister of Margaret Thatcher, John Biffen, as the prospective candidate, but he was still 13,000 votes off the former Labour Party Chairman and, at the time, the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Richard Crossman. The seat of Coventry East would be a starting point for another ally of Mrs Thatcher, in 1966 John Wakeham would be the candidate to take on the now Housing Minister, Crossland but would unfortunately fail.
In 1966, he was adopted as the candidate for the Labour held London marginal of Clapham, however the Party's new leadership of Edward Heath failed to have an impact and would lose a further 51 seats, giving Harold Wilson an even bigger majority in the House. Gow would take on the trade unionist Margaret McKay, who had only won the seat in 1964, defeating sitting Conservative MP Alan Glyn, she had a slim majority of a little over 500 but this would increase to 4000 when she took on Gow in 1966. The loss was little to do with Gow's capability as a politician but more so the anti-Conservative mantra of the country at the time, especially after the disastrous Macmillan government and his predecessor Anthony Eden in the Suez Crisis.
He didn't stand in the 1970 general election when Mr Heath eventually defeated Wilson, forming a minority government, being propped up by the Ulster Unionists, subsequently commanding a House majority of just 31. This was also a landmark general election as it was the first election which had permitted 18 year olds to vote, following an amendment to the Representation of the People Act. However, it was halfway through the lifetime of Heath's administration, the government known for its U-turns, that Gow would secure a safe Conservative seat. It was in 1972 the Eastbourne Conservatives decided to deselect their long serving sitting MP, Sir Charles Taylor, he'd entered the House in an unopposed by-election in 1935 when the sitting Tory MP John Slater passed away. Gow was selected as the candidate for the East Sussex constituency in 1972 to replace Sir Charles in the 1974 general election; his predecessor didn't take kindly to the deselection and resented the experienced lawyer for it.
Gow stood at the February 1974 general election where he would be hugely successful, increasing the majority to over half the vote, adding 1000 votes onto his predecessor's total; he was also over 7500 vote in front of second place candidate, the former President of the Liberal Party, Stephen Terrell, who had stood at every election in Eastbourne since 1964. In the following October general election in 1974, due to the hung Parliament, Gow doubled his majority, securing a 10 point swing from the Liberals who had not fielded the locally popular Terrell.
Following his second outright electoral defeat, Edward Heath was under mounting pressure from both grassroots members and MPs alike and his day came in 1975 when Margaret Thatcher, his Shadow Education and Science Secretary, challenged him and beat him. Heath consequently resigned as Party leader and several new candidates entered the race, including Jim Prior, Geoffrey Howe, John Peyton and Willie Whitelaw; although Ian Gow voted for Thatcher in the first ballot, he would be torn between her and his close friend, Geoffrey Howe in the second. He would ultimately vote for Howe, but Thatcher would storm to victory and become the first female leader of a major political party in the western world and one of the first to be democratically elected. Thatcher's campaign manager, Airey Neave would take a liking to Gow and admired the lawyer's capabilities and confidence, subsequently it was on his advice in 1978 that Margaret Thatcher promoted Gow to Opposition Spokesman on Northern Ireland, where he had once served, and this would start a close working relationship between him and Neave, the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary.
In lots of ways, it was Airey Neave who introduced Ian Gow to Thatcher's inner circle, and it was through the former British soldier and spy that he would become one of Thatcher's most trusted aides. Neave and Gow worked on continuing Roy Mason's Ulsterisation policy and ensuring that the union wouldn't be compromised with any agreement or plan – Neave was tragically assassinated in a car bomb attack shortly after a vote of no confidence was announced in Jim Callaghan's government, this would inevitably result in a snap general election.
Following the thumping general election victory on 4th May 1979, Margaret Thatcher was handed the keys to 10 Downing Street for a premiership which would last 11 and a half years. She immediately appointed allies in her Cabinet but not as many as she would've initially liked, this was due to the massive split in the Party between wets of the old order and the dries of the 'new right' who were staunch supporters of the Iron Lady. Gow wasn't appointed to the Cabinet but was made Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, a high ranking junior office which consisted of managing Thatcher's private office. He would hold this position until the next general election in 1983 where he would be promoted to Minister for Housing and Construction and then later a junior Minister in the Treasury.
However to move to the next stage of Gow's career and life story, we must first take a look back to the beginning of the decade, Humphrey Atkins was appointed Northern Ireland Secretary following the election victory in 1979 – the position Airey Neave would've held if he weren't assassinated – and it was him and his successor in that Office, James Prior, a notorious wet, who would bring a more flexible policy on Northern Ireland. This more flexible stance held by the government angered Gow and in 1985 the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed by Margaret Thatcher and Irish Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald at Hillsborough Castle. The Agreement sought to bring an end to The Troubles which had now lasted for over a decade and a half at this point, however, the Agreement would give the Republic of Ireland an advisory role in any peace process. This infuriated senior unionists, both on the frontline in Northern Irish politics and Conservatives back on the mainland of the UK, the leader of the DUP, Dr Ian Paisley, and the leader of the UUP, James Molyneaux, began the infamous 'Ulster Says No' campaign against the Agreement. In her memoirs 'The Downing Street Years', Lady Thatcher would admit that it was the greatest mistake and regret of her political career. Another staunch Unionist and Conservative MP that was infuriated so much by the Agreement was Ian Gow who resigned as Minister of State for the Treasury in 1985, shortly after being appointed there from his previous role in Housing.
Although Gow vehemently disagreed with the policy in Northern Ireland, he would make his resignation speech more than complimenting of Mrs Thatcher, saying she was "the finest chief, the most resolute leader, the kindest friend that any member of this House could hope to serve." Following his resignation, Gow was elected Chairman of the Conservative Backbench Committee on Northern Ireland, it was from this role that he opposed any policy which compromised or engaged in discussion or involvement with the Republic of Ireland or republican terrorists. Gow's opposition to compromise hadn't just started here though, when he was serving as PPS to Thatcher, he organised a backbench rebellion of Conservative MPs to vote against the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Jim Prior's proposals of a Northern Irish Assembly Bill in 1981 and into 1982.
It was in 1989 that the backbencher delivered the first ever televised speech in the House of Commons, prior to this, TV cameras weren't allowed into the Chamber although it had been discussed several times, dating back to the mid-1960s. Gow was in fact against cameras being introduced in the House of Commons, but nevertheless delivered the first speech on 21st November 1989, making several remarks about his own appearance and how one firm in his constituency had jokingly sent him a letter about improving his appearance for the TV!
Despite being opposed to government policy on Northern Ireland, he remained close friends and a staunch confidant of Margaret Thatcher, this resultantly led to him being campaign manager for her leadership campaign in 1989 when Sir Anthony Meyer was put up as a litmus test candidate, in preparation for Michael Heseltine's bid a year later. Following her Eurosceptic Bruges Speech, Thatcher made several enemies within and this began the over three decade long divide in the Party between the Europhiles and Eurosceptics. Subsequently in 1989, the pro-European members of the Party had fielded a 'stalking horse' – a candidate with no chance of winning – to challenge the ever more Eurosceptic Mrs Thatcher. Gow's campaign was expectedly successful and Thatcher was safe for at least another year as leader of the Party.
Ian Gow wouldn't however see the end of Thatcher's time in office as on 30th July 1990 he was assassinated by a car bomb, planted by the IRA outside his home in his Eastbourne constituency. Just like one of his closest friends and Thatcher's last campaign manager, he was tragically assassinated by republican terrorists. Gow was a huge target for the IRA, especially with his staunch Unionist stance and opposition to any compromise as well as his sympathetic approach to Paisley and Molyneaux's campaign. The IRA' statement on why they'd targeted Gow was made clear that it was because of his close affiliation with the Prime Minister, who they had attempted to murder in 1984 with a bomb attack on the Grand Hotel in Brighton, and his firm stance on policy regarding Northern Ireland.
In the aftermath of his assassination, the Leader of the Opposition and old political rival, Neil Kinnock said "this is a terrible atrocity against a man whose only offence was to speak his mind. I had great disagreement with Ian Gow and he with me, but no one can doubt his sincerity or his courage, and it is appalling that he should lose his life because of these qualities." This testament proves the high principles held by Ian Gow and the respect he commanded from all four corner of the House, in her autobiography, Thatcher would talk of Gow's death as an "irreplaceable loss".
The subsequent by-election came at the height of discontent with the Thatcher government over the Community Charge, the Liberal Democrats subsequently won the seat with David Bellotti becoming the new MP for Eastbourne. Conservative MP, Ann Widdecombe summed the situation up in a press interview the following day, "Bellotti is the innocent beneficiary of murder. I suspect that last night as the Liberal Democrats were toasting their success, in its hideouts the IRA were doing the same thing". Gow's seat was a marginal between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems from then on, Nigel Waterson won the constituency back in 1992 and surprisingly kept it in the next general election when the Conservatives were obliterated by Tony Blair's New Labour, and support for the Lib Dems was on the rise. The Lib Dems won it back in 2010 with Stephen Lloyd, who subsequently lost it again in 2015 to Caroline Ansell but defeated her in 2017 as a Lib Dem – Lloyd would resign the Liberal whip in 2018 over his Party's position on Brexit, saying it "went against his pledge to the people of Eastbourne", he would take back the whip before the 2019 general election where Ansell won back the seat with a 4000 majority.
In loving memory of Ian Reginald Edward Gow TD
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