Thirty years ago today the Provisional IRA got their man. It would be comforting to state that the murder of Ian Gow, the 53-year old Conservative MP for Eastbourne, on 30 July 1990, achieved no wider purpose beyond the personal – bereaving a widow and two sons. After all, Gow had resigned from Margaret Thatcher’s government five years earlier and would almost certainly have never held office again – certainly not under any of her successors.
But ministerial office and influence over “the course of men and events” (to use one of Gow’s own expressions) are not one and the same. And if terrorism never worked, it would not have endured so well. The bomb under the car driving seat that detonated as Gow backed-out of his driveway, leaving his wife to come running out of her house to find her husband missing his legs and dying in unimaginable agony, was not just a personal tragedy for those who knew and loved the victim. In a roundabout way, Margaret Thatcher’s downfall was its collateral damage.
Ian Gow was a man of his time, and even some of his dearest friends dated that period to somewhere between the Abdication of King Edward VIII and the Profumo scandal. A Wykehamist whose university took the form of national service with the 19th/21st Hussars in Malaya and Northern Ireland in the 1950s, Gow was the apotheosis of old school in outlook, accent, demeanour and dress-sense (no summer day was too hot to merit downgrading his three-piece suit by a third). A successful family solicitor, he continued to serve in the Territorial Army – reaching the rank of major – until after he had entered Parliament in 1974. His party piece was to recite from memory complete speeches by Charles de Gaulle, in French.
The time he had spent in Northern Ireland was formative in shaping his outlook and, in doing so, what ultimately ensured his murder. Like Enoch Powell, he was an Englishman who developed a deep feeling for Ulster. And like Powell, he believed that the better solution to the Province’s problems of governance were to be found in integrating it fully and on equal terms with the political institutions of Great Britain, rather than the devolution of power that pre-dated The Troubles and the devolution of power plus power-sharing that post-dated it.
This was the outlook that Gow developed alongside the Tory MP and Colditz escapee, Airey Neave, on the Opposition benches in the late 1970s. The expectation was that they would both go to the Northern Ireland Office (Neave as Secretary of State, Gow as Minister of State) when Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 general election. This she did, but without Neave. Less than five weeks before polling day, the INLA (an Official IRA splinter group) blew him up in his car as he was leaving the Houses of Parliament car park.
Thus the same methods of atrocity bookended the start and end of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure in power. In 1979, Neave’s death removed the most senior proponent of integrationist unionism from the Conservative frontbench, and those who went on to serve as Thatcher’s Northern Ireland Secretaries in his place instead pursued variations of the power shared and devolved strategy.
Decoupled from Neave and thus from the Northern Ireland office too, Gow was appointed the Prime Minister’s PPS. In this role he was Thatcher’s eyes and ears, relaying to her what her MPs – individually and collectively – thought as well as other influences like journalists and their editors. Given that his boss (whom he referred to reverentially and protectively as The Lady) was not naturally matey and was pursuing a course of economic medicine that many of her nominal followers, in and out of Cabinet, wanted to spit out at the second sip, Gow was indispensable in guiding her on who she needed to flatter, (pretend to) listen to, or outmanoeuvre. What was more, his friendship with the Chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Howe, made him a vital conduit between 10 and 11 Downing Street, smoothing over the considerable potential for misunderstandings.
Despite the “young fogey” manner, Gow’s capacity for hard work, and for organisation, was unremitting, aided by his capacity to be energised rather than blunted by successive “White Lady” gin and Cointreau cocktails. Such was his ability to report back from what was being said in Westminster committee rooms that he got the nickname “Supergrass.”
In this role Gow “was the most useful sort of aide for a leader – the one who knows his principal’s mind so completely that he does not need to ask her permission before he acts” concludes Charles Moore in his magisterial three volume biography of Thatcher, “the testimony of his contemporaries is that no one was more important in helping Mrs Thatcher survive the potential political crisis of her first years, and that his role, after he left the post in 1983, was never so successfully replicated by his successors.” In the judgment of the Conservative Party historian, Lord Lexden, he was “the greatest PPS of all time.”
After four years in the role, Thatcher did him the disservice of promoting him: first as a housing minister and then as a Treasury minister – a disservice because such roles were not really where his greatest talent, and political utility, lay. As PPS he had also been able to keep the Prime Minister abreast of the position of his friends in the Ulster Unionist Party, but the Treasury diverted him from being that point of contact.
Meanwhile, the Cabinet Secretary, Robert Armstrong, had been quietly and effectively working with Dublin to conclude what in November 1985 became the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which was then presented to Cabinet and Parliament as a fait accompli, rather than an extraordinary constitutional innovation that might benefit from the stress-testing of wide and preparatory debate. It was extraordinary in the sense that it gave the Irish Republic, a foreign power, making constitutional claim to Northern Ireland, wide consultative roles in the Province’s governance through an Intergovernmental Conference that bypassed the Unionist majority who lived there. It also envisaged a path to devolved rule and power-sharing – the opposite of Gow’s prescription.
The Agreement sent a powerful signal that the Conservative Party was not the lapdog of the Ulster Unionists. And given the fury with which both the UUP and DUP greeted it, it succeeded in that provocation. However, it proved wholly unsuccessful in its most ambitious wish – that Republicans would therefore cease the armed struggle and enter into civilian government. In the succeeding five years, there were more than 400 further deaths.
Thatcher attempted to dissuade Gow from resigning, but to no avail. “His decision was a great sadness to me,” she subsequently wrote, “although I recognised that it was consistent with the strength of his personal feelings and his adherence to his beliefs.” In a powerful speech in the Commons, Gow said:
The Intergovernmental Conference will be composed of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and a Republic Minister, who, in effect, will be the Minister for Northern Ireland affairs. The two Ministers will be the joint chairmen. The Republic Minister, even though he has only a consultative role, will be perceived to be the representative of the minority community. Thus, for the first time, a Minister from a foreign country will be representing at official level citizens of this kingdom. … That arrangement leaves unionists with no comparable status. That arrangement will be damaging, and incalculably damaging, for those who are asserting the principle that unionists and nationalists are fellow citizens.
Alan Clark, who regarded Gow as “my closest friend, by far, in politics” later wrote of the moment of Gow’s decision to resign as a painful parting: “Ian loved her, actually loved, I mean, in every sense but the physical. And then in the end, as lovers do (particularly that kind), he got on her nerves, and she was off-hand with him.” Thereafter Clark lamented that his friend struggled to adapt. Having had “so clear and cogent an understanding of how Whitehall, and the Cabinet Office building worked” he became “a little saddened” and detached, leading him “to indulge in manneristics. He practices, sometimes beyond the bounds of tolerance, the always tricky jeu of self-parody. But Ian remained always witty, clever, industrious, affectionate and almost painfully honourable.”
By 1990, Gow worried that Thatcher’s desire to “go on and on” was not in her own interests. But he remained chivalrous and loyal. If the call had come, he would have picked-up The Lady’s battle standard. His murder on 30 July that year led to a by-election at a particularly difficult time for a Prime Minister fighting on the two fronts of the poll tax and the pro-European integration machinations of her Cabinet rivals.
If ever there was an argument for the main Opposition parties not contesting by-elections it is when they have been caused through terrorism
If ever there was an argument for the main Opposition parties not contesting by-elections it is when they have been caused through terrorism. In 2016, they duly and very properly decided not to contest the seat that had been held before her murder by Jo Cox. No such propriety animated Labour and the Liberal Democrats when Ian Gow was blown to pieces. Sensing their opportunity to cause a sensation, the newly styled Lib Dems seized their chance and in October won the seat on a 20 percent swing.
The shock was a small contributory factor in the further undermining of Thatcher’s position. The following month she faced Michael Heseltine’s challenge for the leadership. She turned to Peter Morrison to run her campaign. Complacent and disorganised, he proved to be a disastrous choice.
Had Ian Gow lived, he would certainly have played a major role in Thatcher’s campaign, and perhaps the leading role. Where Morrison squandered vital hours snoozing in his office or in amateurish canvassing, Gow would have been listening to the concerns and needy hopes for attention from wavering MPs – and ensuring that Thatcher got to talk to them personally. Given that despite Morrison’s mishandling, she still won the first ballot but was four votes short of the super-majority needed to avoid a second vote, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the day the IRA murdered Ian Gow was the moment they did, politically, for Thatcher too.
Thirty years ago today, she received the news from her private secretary, Charles Powell, that Gow had been murdered. As Charles Moore narrates, “it was the only time [Powell] ever saw her completely break down, weeping uncontrollably.”
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