British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe (born 1926) was one of Britain's most important political leaders through the 1980s.
Sir (Richard Edward) Geoffrey Howe was the chancellor of the Exchequer, entrusted with the key job of directing economic policy, in the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher which took office in 1979. In 1983, after Thatcher won re-election, Howe became foreign secretary. Called the "patient Fabian of Thatcherism" by one writer, Howe was less outspoken than the prime minister, but he was closely identified with her vigorously right-wing policies, especially in economics.
Geoffrey Howe was born in Port Talbot, Glamorgan, Wales, on December 20, 1926, the son of B. Edward Howe and E. F. (Thomson) Howe. His father was a solicitor who served as a court clerk and coroner and his mother was a justice for community affairs. Although his parents were of English ancestry, Howe often talked of his identification with his native Wales. He received his early schooling at local schools and in England before attending the prestigious Winchester College from 1939 to 1945. Then, with World War II just ending, he joined the army and was sent to East Africa as a lieutenant in the Royal Signals. After he was discharged in 1948 he entered Cambridge University on a scholarship. At Cambridge he was active in political affairs and in 1951 became chairman of the university Conservative Association. He decided to follow in his father's footsteps and become a lawyer and was admitted to the bar, Middle Temple, in 1952.
Howe pursued an active career in the law in the 1950s and 1960s and in 1965 was appointed queen's counsel. His service was rewarded with a knighthood in 1970. His hopes of winning election to parliament were frustrated at first, with two defeats in Aberavon at the hands of Labour Party candidates in 1955 and 1959. He finally won election to the House of Commons in 1964 from Bebington, but lost his seat two years later. He returned to the House of Commons in 1970 from Reigate and, representing first this district and then after 1974 East Surrey, was a member into the mid-1980s.
Within the Conservative Party, Howe joined with other younger intellectuals to start the Bow Group, which he chaired in 1955. Here, and in the group's journal Crossbow, which he edited from 1960 to 1962, he worked to revive the party and provide it with new policies which fit the times. As reformers, this group was often described as on the left wing of the party, but their proposals were in fact quite moderate. Occasionally, Howe did emerge as an outspoken critic of the establishment. In 1969, for instance, when he chaired a committee investigating the abuse of mental patients at a hospital near Cardiff, he had to overcome official opposition to release his report.
In the Conservative government of Edward Heath, which took office in 1970, Howe became solicitor general and played an important role in drafting the controversial Industrial Relations Act of 1971. The grandson of a trade union leader, Howe nevertheless shared the Conservative conviction that excessive trade union power and lack of labor discipline had weakened Britain's economy, and the act, which was eventually rejected, was designed to help correct the situation. Howe went on to become Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs from 1972 until the Heath government fell in 1974.
Howe was one of those in the running for head of the Conservative Party when Heath was ousted from leadership in 1975. He quickly allied himself with Margaret Thatcher, who became the party leader, and became the opposition spokesman on the economy, the shadow chancellor. Like Thatcher, Howe advocated a sharply conservative course in industrial and economic policy which stressed encouraging initiative in the private sector and a sharp reduction in public sector spending. Conservative victory in the 1979 general elections elevated Margaret Thatcher to prime minister and gave Howe the chance to put his ideas into practice. Within weeks of the election, Howe produced his first budget as chancellor, a bold document which set the course for Thatcherism.
This course, which in broad outline resembled that which the Reagan administration introduced in the United States a year later, involved sharp cuts in government spending, especially in the field of social welfare; lowering income taxes in favor of indirect taxes; and strong efforts to curb inflation. In the face of sharply rising unemployment and bitter opposition to his policies even from within his own party, Howe refused to modify his monetarism. His next budget continued to stress cuts in government spending and increased incentives for businessmen.
Thatcher led the Conservatives to victory again in the 1983 general elections over a divided opposition following Britain's victory in the Falklands war with Argentina. Howe was rewarded for this loyalty with the position of foreign secretary. In that post, he was generally supportive of the United States and assertive with Britain's partners in the European Economic Community (EEC). On issues such as price supports for agricultural products and the contributions which Britain is obligated to make to the EEC budget, Howe took a tough line.
During a major Cabinet reshuffle in 1989, Howe was moved from the foreign office to lead the House of Commons. However, he insisted on keeping an official country residence, with the title of deputy Prime Minister.
While Howe was not a charismatic leader, he was thought to be well placed to succeed Margaret Thatcher at the head of his party if she were to leave office. Instead, John Major took the helm; Major was replaced by Labour Party head Tony Blair in 1997. Married (in 1953 to Elspeth Rosamund Morton Shand), Howe was the father of three children.
Further Reading on Sir Geoffrey Howe
In 1994, Howe published his insightful Conflict of Loyalty. While there is no biography of Howe available, he figures prominently in general works such as Peter Riddell, The Thatcher Government (1983) and Alan Sked and Chris Cook, Post-War Britain, A Political History (1984).