Wednesday, 14 October 2015

GEOFFREY HOWE (1926-2015)

Reminder of an earlier time

The sudden death last week of Geoffrey Howe attracted considerable and favourable attention in the British media, most of it focussing upon his achievements as Margaret Thatcher's Chancellor of the Exchequer and of course his pivotal role in her downfall. Much was said and written about his gentle, courteous and accommodating manner, and I am very pleased to confirm this from my own limited experience of him.

I met him two or three times over breakfast when he was Foreign Secretary, I guess during the first half of 1989, at his official residence in 1 Carlton Gardens, off Pall Mall, along with his wife Elspeth, and a very nice little dog. The purpose of these meetings was to keep him informed about what was happening over Conductive Education, not in the UK of course but in respect to its place in relations with the People's Republic of Hungary where the communist regime was on the brink of breakdown.

As far as I know, his successor as Foreign Secretary, John Major, showed no interest in Conductive Education (once the Cold War was over, what was the need?)  Elspeth Howe became a Trustee of the Foundation of Conductive Education.
The late eighties

That had been a strange period for Conductive Education in the United Kingdom. For a while Conductive Education moved in circles, both in London and Budapest. Contact with the British Government was not, however, straightforward:
  • The Department for Education and Science was against Conductive Education. Ministers appeared not to be interested and there was disapproval and even outright opposition from within its civil service. This opposition framed 'the Birmingham research' and the highly damaging way in which its results were leaked.
  • The Department of Health and Social Security supported the Foundation's goal of establishing Conductive Education in the UK. The minister responsible was Nicholas Scott, minister for the Disabled, who went out of his way to be helpful, financially and morally. His civil servants followed suit and took a positive and intelligent interest in the practical and micropolitical problems of setting things up in the UK.
  • The Foreign Office had its own agenda. In the end game of the Cold War, Hungary had a role to play in the Anglo-American strategy of hastening the economic and social malaise of the crumbling Eastern Bloc. Following Standing up for Joe (1986) the UK's Embassy in Budapest found itself with an extraordinary situation on its hands, a massive influx of UK parents, with media and politicians in its train, arriving in an East European city that was altogether unprepared for such a phenomenon. This was not just a challenge, one that on the whole both diplomatic and consular staff met extraordinarily well, but also an unexpected political opportunity. The Embassy's agenda, and presumably that of the Foreign Office, was of course directed to achieving foreign policy, and was not primarily concerned for Conductive Education and developing future services for the UK. Notwithstanding, thus did Conductive Education unwittingly play its small role in the fall of  the 'Evil Empire'.
And in Edinburgh, there was another strand:
  • The Scottish Office –  Later, Health Minister Michael Forsyth did his own thing with respect to Conductive Education, as in much else, but that is another story.
Stirring times, and not without their contradictions. Things certainly moved fast, though rarely in the directions anticipated or with the consequences intended. Maybe some other time...

Maybe not.

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