doctor, minister and baron, was born in Plympton, Devon on 2 July 1938, son of Dr John William Morris Owen and Mary, née Llewellyn. Educated at Bradfield College, Sidney Sussex College Cambridge and St Thomas's Hospital London, he practised medicine. In 1968 he married Deborah Schabert; they have three children. Elected Labour MP for Plymouth in 1966, he held several junior ministerial posts in the Wilson and Callaghan governments of the 1970s. He was serving as minister of state in the FCO (appointed in 1976) when Anthony Crosland, secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, died in February 1977. Owen succeeded Crosland.
One of Crosland's last acts as foreign secretary had been to make a statement in the Commons on Lord SHACKLETON's report on 2 February 1977. Crosland said that 'in any major developments of the Islands' economy, especially those relating to offshore resources, co-operation with Argentina - even participation, should, if possible, be secured'. He was willing to spend some money on relatively minor schemes and improvements to the infrastructure but not on the recommended extension to the airfield runway when there were 'more urgent claims from much poorer countries. And the right political circumstances do not exist'.
In relation to Argentina, Crosland concluded that 'the time has come to consult both with the Islanders and with the Argentine Government whether a climate exists for discussing the broad issues which bear on the future of the Falkland Islands, and the possibilities of cooperation between Britain and Argentina in the region of the South-West Atlantic'. He emphasised that the 'sovereignty umbrella' * must apply and that changes must be acceptable to Islanders 'whose interests and well-being remain our prime concern'. He announced that he was sending Ted ROWLANDS, minister of state, to hold discussions in the Falklands and Argentina.
The situation, as Rowlands set out, was tense. On 20 December 1976 a helicopter from HMS Endurance had discovered an Argentine military presence on Southern Thule, one of the South Sandwich Islands. The Argentine response to British protests claimed that its purpose was to establish a scientific station but expressed the hope that nothing would cloud the 'auspicious perspectives' for negotiation. Information had been received about Argentine naval contingency planning for the occupation of the Falklands. On 4 February the unarmed survey ship RRS Shackleton, (Captain WARNE), had been fired on by an Argentine destroyer which had attempted, unsuccessfully, to arrest her 78 miles off Stanley.
Owen tells in his memoirs Time to Declare (1991) how serious consideration was given to diverting a Royal Navy task group, which included a nuclear submarine, to the South Atlantic if developments during Rowlands' visit warranted it. This was not in the event deemed necessary since Rowlands' discussions, in which he chose not to make a great issue of Southern Thule, went well. But it was a precedent for the deployment by Owen and Callaghan of a Royal Navy task force in the following November (which was to be significant later in considering whether the Conservative government had done sufficient to deter the 1982 invasion).
On 1 March there was a Foreign Affairs debate in the Commons in which both Owen and Rowlands spoke. Owen reaffirmed the pledges made by Crosland, including the fact that any negotiations would take place under the sovereignty umbrella*. He said 'there has been and there will be no sell-out' and that 'any change in the sovereignty would have to come before this house'. Rowlands was able to report that the Island councils supported HMG's intention to try to establish a basis for negotiations with Argentina. His talks in Buenos Aires had led him to the view that 'we shall be able to make progress towards a possible agreement on future negotiations'. No mention was made of Southern Thule which was not to be public knowledge till the following year. Rowlands repeated Owen's assurances.
On 26 April 1977 Owen was able to announce in the Commons that the British and Argentine Governments had agreed to hold negotiations in June or July 1977. They would concern 'future political relations, including sovereignty... and economic co-operation ....The issues affecting the future of the Islands will be discussed and negotiations will be directed to the working out of a peaceful solution...' The major objective would be 'to achieve a stable, prosperous and politically durable future for the Islands'. The agreement also incorporated a commitment to consult the Islanders and the assurance of the sovereignty umbrella in the negotiations.
Prior to the negotiations, Owen presented a paper to the Cabinet's Defence Committee which argued for keeping the Argentines in play, bearing in mind that the Islands were indefensible. The Committee felt that in the end some form of leaseback was the only formula likely to satisfy Argentina. The aim was to retain British sovereignty as long as possible while educating UK and Island opinion. Having agreed to talk, Owen wanted to play it long, postponing any ministerial meeting to the year end. He disliked doing business with a country with such a poor human rights record. The first round of talks in Rome in July 1977, held at official level, progressed little beyond the restatement of positions.
The period from July to December 1977 saw a steady increase in Argentine militancy, which doubtless reflected their view that Britain was playing for time. There was the arrest by Argentine naval vessels of Soviet and Bulgarian fishing vessels in Falklands waters with carefully publicised threats to sink other vessels in similar circumstances. There was the continuing occupation and duplicity over Southern Thule (which the Argentines had said they were abandoning but to which they returned in October 1977). A Joint Intelligence Committee study which Owen had especially requested at that time assessed that if Argentina concluded that negotiations had broken down or there appeared to be no real prospect of progress towards a negotiated transfer of sovereignty there was high risk of more forceful measures including direct military action. An invasion was unlikely but could not be discounted; an adventurist operation was always possible.
Owen was concerned that in the face of the hardening Argentine position the FCO appeared disposed to concede too much on sovereignty and he decided that 'we should work towards the solution of a leaseback of the inhabited islands for a period of 70 years and certainly not less than 50 years.' Owen had also become concerned at reports from the Falklands that Islanders thought HMG was talking behind their backs and minuted 'I am not prepared to move behind their backs. We will, at all times, operate straightforwardly'. There was always tension between the FCO official view that a crisis was best averted by a change of tack in negotiations and the Callaghan view, shared by Owen, that threatening behaviour was best met by demonstrating a will to resist, most notably by the deployment of ships.
When Rowlands had gone to Argentina in February, a Royal Navy task force, including a nuclear-powered submarine, had been put on standby, albeit a thousand miles away. Now it was decided that a military presence in the area of the Falklands should be established by the beginning of the next round of negotiations in December.
In the same spirit Owen had attached a great deal of importance to the retention of HMS Endurance, the patrol ship which visited the South Atlantic every austral summer, described by Callaghan as 'a visible symbol of the latent power of the Royal Navy and of Britain's determination'. The issue of her possible withdrawal went back to the 1974 Defence Review and had been debated every year since. On 25 April 1977 Owen wrote to the secretary of defence, Fred Mulley, saying that HMS Endurance should be retained. Her withdrawal would undermine the confidence of Islanders and encourage Argentina to think that Britain was withdrawing from the South-West Atlantic. Mulley agreed to her deployment for 1977/78, which continued till 1981/82 when the Conservative government agreed to her withdrawal. This was to be challenged by Callaghan in the Commons shortly before the invasion as 'an error that could have serious consequences'.
The December 1977 deployment was to be the subject of substantial debate at the time of the 1982 invasion when it was revealed by Callaghan in the Commons on 30 March and in the context of the Franks Report when it was debated in January 1983. Franks says that the decision was taken in the light of the intelligence assessment at a meeting on 21 November 1977 (between Prime Minister Callaghan, Owen, the defence secretary and the chief of the defence staff) and that its:
objective would be to buttress the Government's negotiating position by deploying a force of sufficient strength ...to convince the Argentines that military action by them would meet resistance. The Committee agreed that secrecy should be maintained about the purpose of the force which would consist of a nuclear submarine in the immediate vicinity of the Islands and two frigates standing off a thousand miles away. Rules of engagement were drawn up.
According to Franks, Cabinet Committee papers show clearly that it was agreed that the force should remain covert and there was no evidence that the Argentine Government came to know of its existence.
Owen in Time to Declare is clear the deployment was covert. He criticises Franks for not having cleared up the controversy surrounding Callaghan's evidence to the Committee that he (Callaghan) had advised the head of MI6, Sir Maurice Oldfield, to inform the Argentines of the naval deployment and thereby deterred an invasion at the time. In his own memoirs Time and Chance, Callaghan modifies this to state that he 'informed the Head of MI6 of our plans before the ships sailed and it is possible, as I had hoped, some information reached the Argentinian armed forces'. Whatever the precise way in which Callaghan went about imparting the information, Owen does not think that Oldfield would have acted on Callaghan's instructions without reference to Owen to whom he was primarily answerable. This undermines the argument that the deployment deterred the Argentines, but in the Franks Debate Owen, reiterating his view that the Argentines did not know, said 'the real significance of deploying a nuclear-powered submarine below the surface (was) ... to be in a position to intervene if matters deteriorated'. Owen also thought the deployment might need to be repeated and was pleased that the naval personnel had kept news of the deployment secret.
The December negotiations took place in New York and were conducted by Rowlands and Captain Allara, the Argentine deputy foreign minister. The Argentines predictably presumed that the talks would deal with stages in the transfer of sovereignty while Rowlands emphasised the need to search for compromise. To this end he was willing to draw a distinction between inhabited and uninhabited territories. There might be willingness to contemplate a change in the sovereignty position of the Dependencies though not in the status of the Falklands. This concession avoided the necessity of discussing leaseback to which Islanders were reported to be implacably opposed. Agreement was reached on the creation of two Anglo-Argentine working groups to discuss economic cooperation and sovereignty issues. Rowlands subsequently briefed Islands councillors on what had transpired in Río de Janeiro and they raised no objections.
The first meetings of the working groups took place early in 1978 in Lima. They ran into the immediate problem that the Argentines' claim that the Falklands and their Dependencies did not generate a continental shelf and that the shelf rights belonged to Argentina. This was relevant to the Argentine dispute with Chile over islands in the Beagle Channel with which they were for the time being more preoccupied than the Falklands. It was agreed that the Argentines should explain their position further, which brought a respite, as did the holding of the World Cup in Argentina and their desire to avoid international embarrassment at that time.
Throughout 1978, the British Government continued to be troubled by the unsolved problem of Southern Thule, the resolution of which was the particular responsibility of Rowlands, whose last appearance as a negotiator was in Geneva in December 1978.
A further meeting was held at the end of March in New York but little substantial progress was made. The British Government's electoral position was looking increasingly perilous and Owen had warned Argentina that there could be no movement before an election. Owen's view was that HMG's negotiating position was already at least five years ahead of public opinion both in Britain and the Falklands. Owen's concerns in 1978 were largely about military options. He worried about the Falklands' vulnerability if the Argentines were to react suddenly to further lack of progress in negotiations and the continuing need to reassure Islanders. The Ministry of Defence, nervous about military confrontation with Argentina, were also reluctant to deploy ships for operational and cost reasons, especially for the fishery patrols which might be needed if there was to be economic collaboration in this area. Throughout Owen continued to take a special interest in the deployment of HMS Endurance. The Callaghan government resigned after the general election of 3 May 1979.
In opposition, Owen drifted away from the Labour Party and became a founder of the SDP in 1981. He led the SDP from 1983-7. Before he had become leader of the SDP Owen was praised for his speech in the Commons debate on the Franks Report on 25 January 1983. Making the point at the start that 'there but for the grace of God go I', he went on to criticise both the prime minister, Mrs Thatcher and foreign secretary, Lord Carrington for the government's failure to react to intelligence of an impending invasion by a naval deployment, especially a nuclear-powered submarine. He criticised Mrs Thatcher for her posture after the war: 'Not one millimetre of magnanimity nor one centimetre of sensitivity has come from her'. He went on to say: 'It is a fool who believes that we shall be able to withstand the present stance of no negotiations, Fortress Falklands and paramountcy for Falkland Islanders'. In reply to a question by the prime minister, he denied ever having used the word 'paramountcy' in his own statements on the Falklands as foreign secretary, always as he said, talking of the best interests or the long-term interests of the Falkland Islanders. His view was Britain should be prepared to discuss sovereignty and that ultimately it would be a question for the House of Commons to decide.
From 1992-5 he served as co-chairman of the International Conference on former Yugoslavia. In 1976 he was appointed privy counsellor; he was created baron in 1992; he became a Companion of Honour in 1994.
Kenneth Harris; David Owen: Personally speaking; Pan Books 1988
David Owen; Time to declare; Michael Joseph; 1991
May 2019 Photograph added
September 2019 External link added; two references added