“I’m not a Eurosceptic – I’m a convinced European and always have been.” Theo Demolder

Varsity, it seems, has a special place in Lord David Owen’s heart. In 1959 – his final year at Cambridge – he saw an advert on our pages for a place on ‘the Cambridge-Afghanistan expedition’, which he applied for and subsequently took up.

“It changed my life, really”, he told me. “It taught me about Iran, and Afghanistan, and India at the age of 21. It opened my horizons – influenced me when I was Foreign Secretary… influenced me in many ways.”

It felt appropriate, therefore, that we should be sitting in the Varsity offices 57 years later, at what he describes as the final chapter of his political career.

“I’m 77 for crying out loud! This is the last campaign I’m going to damn well do, that’s for sure”, he laughed.

"If the arch-Europhile Lord Owen wants out of the EU, it should make us all stop and think" wrote one pro-Remain commentator in February when he made his announcement. The former Labour Foreign Secretary, who was one of the ‘gang of four’ who left the party to form the SDP (now the Liberal Democrats) – foremost because he felt Labour was too Eurosceptic – finds himself on the opposite side of the debate than he was on in 1975. However, he does not regret his stance on the last referendum: “Like many things it was a compromise. And it did involve some measures of pooling sovereignty – I accepted that and stated it quite clearly.”

Owen notes that it is the EU (then the Common Market) which has changed, not him – assuring me: “I’m not a Eurosceptic – I’m a convinced European and always have been.”

He is concerned by the increasingly federal nature of the EU: “It’s the structure for a United States of Europe. It’s not even in embryo – it’s a fully grown size. Now you can go on ignoring all these signs but slowly they are putting in place: firstly, a currency which is a big, big step towards a federal Europe: secondly, a defence force; thirdly a foreign policy.

“What was the job Mr Blair wanted when he left [Downing Street]? What did he lobby for? The President of the European Council. Now we see his emails to Hillary Clinton and the White House. Blair wouldn’t give up making vast sums of money for a post of no influence. He knows that if you elect a President it won’t be long before they have not just the staff – which they’ve got now – but the power of a President.”

Speaking of Blair, Owen recalls his efforts to persuade him to rejoin the party in 1996.

“I thought I wouldn’t give but I was equivocal – when I was given the Blair treatment I began to weaken”, he smiled wryly. “But the conversation went on too long really. We started talking about the Eurozone and I soon discovered that he was very keen to get in, and knew absolutely zero about it. So I declined – and I look back on it as the best political decision I’ve made in my life.”

Owen tells me that later on, from attending dinners at No. 10, Blair’s plan became “quite clear – it was to have a Euro referendum in 2003 on the back of what they were calling in Downing Street ‘the Baghdad bounce’. Well, the aftermath of the invasion was a disaster… And by 2005, all those people who had been telling us the dire warnings of what would happen if we didn’t join the Euro were beginning to realise something was wrong with the Euro… Practically all the great figures in business and the City of London who pontificate about why we shouldn’t leave [the EU] all told us that there would be dire economic consequences from not joining the Euro.”

Now, in 2016, “we’ve seen the experiment crash – we’ve seen the Eurozone in crisis for six years. A very important voice who supports my position – though he hasn’t said if he’s in or out – is the former Governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King, he says quite clearly that there will be a Eurozone collapse unless there is the creation of a United States of Europe.”

And Owen adamantly refutes the idea that this does not affect us as we kept the pound.

“We’ve seen now more than a glimpse of what a Eurozone collapse looks like” – drawing on the case of Greece, where he has spent some of his retirement: “The run-up to the collapse is very nasty indeed. Huge unemployment, real growth of nationalism, rioting in the streets… go into a pharmacy, you’ll see empty shelves – in a pharmacy for goodness sake! And multiply that four or five times – have it in a larger country like Italy: it will have global consequences” – arguing that Britain will weather the collapse much better, when it comes, if it has regained and made use of the power to make its own free trade deals with non-EU countries.

I asked him specifically about TTIP – the upcoming EU-US trade deal of which he and the 12 Labour MPs on the Leave side have been especially critical. Lord Owen singled out the Chief Executive of the NHS who “spent 10 years lobbying for TTIP. He is destroying the National Health Service which Labour created. I’m absolutely appalled at the Labour Party’s attitude to the Health Service. Even now, after their second [general election] defeat, we can’t get them to reverse engines out of this marketised health service. And by putting Health in TTIP you make it much harder to reverse.

“It’s not just a trade treaty, it’s a regulatory agreement. What the Americans have wanted to get in is a capacity to keep contracts once they’ve got them. This isn’t competition – this is cartelism: great big companies protecting their own backsides. This is an absolutely outrageous provision.”

He explained: “once we started a marketised health service under Blair in 2002, slowly the EU competition and procurement law began to get involved in it. I was Minister of Health: I passionately believe in the Health Service and have done ever since I was old enough to know what it was about, my father voted for it in 1945 as a GP – and I’m not about to give it up without a hell of a fight! Barbara Castle, who campaigned to leave in 1975, used to say: ‘David – that Common Market will marketise the NHS’ – and she was bloody well right – I was wrong! We need to get out to stop it.”

The more Owen spoke about Labour and the NHS, the more his voice filled with passion: “Where’s the radicalism in the Labour Party these days?” he exclaimed. “What the hell are they fighting for? What do they honestly stand for? I really don’t know. We’re told it’s the social policies of the EU. But the EU has been the main implementer of austerity! We haven’t had anything like the austerity seven or eight countries have been through in the European Union.  They now have legislation coming in for balanced budgets – but what happens to the countries which can’t balance their budget?”

 “You have to get into the detail” he remarked at one point – “half of these politicians don’t know anything about the detail.” Over 45 minutes of discussion – and even as we were leaving, drawing my attention to polling data suggesting Obama’s “back of the queue” comment had hindered, not helped the Remain side – it was clear that Owen is a details man.  And it is study of the detail which has left the ‘arch-Europhile’ campaigning to Vote Leave.