Ian Gow: Adviser to Mrs Thatcher, killed for his unionism

Ian Gow MP, right, with Margaret Thatcher, to whom he was Parliamentary Private Secretary
Ian Gow MP, right, with Margaret Thatcher, to whom he was Parliamentary Private Secretary

Ian Gow MP was murdered by the IRA 25 years ago on Thursday past. His friend, the Conservative Party historian LORD LEXDEN, remembers a politician who became Margaret Thatcher’s confidant but resigned as one of her ministers in protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement

The IRA bomb went off at 8.39am on a sunny Monday morning.

Ian Gow murder

Ian Gow murder

It had been placed overnight under Ian Gow’s car beneath the driver’s seat. It detonated shortly after the car had started to move with Gow at the wheel. He died ten minutes later. His adored wife, Jane, was a helpless spectator. Over the weeks ahead she drew solace from the deep Anglo-Catholic faith they had shared.

His brilliant, many-sided life of service was cut short at the age of 53.

The scene of this terrible IRA crime was the Dog House in Hankham, a village in the Eastbourne constituency which Gow had represented since 1974, attracting ever deeper affection as the years passed. Despite its gloomy name, his charming constituency home had been a place of laughter, much of it induced by Gow himself who dashed around the tennis court and swam in the pool.

He had earlier drawn on his apparently limitless reserves of energy as Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Margaret Thatcher from 1979 to 1983. She was the only person at Number 10 who worked longer hours than he did, arriving every morning at 6.30am regardless of how late he had departed the previous night. In the 1980s Gow put himself high on the IRA’s target list by the eloquence with which he condemned its terror campaign and proclaimed his determination to ensure that Ulster remained part of his country in accordance with the democratic wishes of its people. He believed that terrorists must be defeated. He regarded it as intolerable that their representatives should be considered for places at the negotiating table, still less regarded as possible partners in the government of a part of the country they had sought to unite with another state. In his view a stable future for Ulster could only be achieved by governing it as all other parts of his country were governed: through elected representatives accountable to Westminster.

He showed courage in the face of danger, refusing personal protection. When pressed to vary his journeys and check under his car, he replied: “Certainly not. I am at less risk than any serving officer in Her Majesty’s Royal Ulster Constabulary – and anyway, I wouldn’t know what to look for.”

The joie de vivre which he displayed to his friends at the Dog House and elsewhere was not immediately apparent. To strangers he gave the impression of being a survivor from an earlier age. At Westminster he wore a three-piece suit cut in the style of the 1950s and adorned by a gold watch-chain. He carried into political life the solid professional demeanour acquired in his earlier career as a partner in the most old-fashioned firm of solicitors in London.

This spectacle of probity was, however, a little diminished by Gow’s physical resemblance to the most celebrated of his Eastbourne constituents, Dr John Bodkin Adams, an Ulsterman whose elderly female patients had a habit of dying soon after they had made wills in his favour; precipitating a murder trial which resulted in an unexpected acquittal.

Gow was not abashed by instances of mistaken identity, fondly recalling the £5 donations which “the good doctor” made to Tory funds at each election.

His conversation, when first heard, reinforced the impression of a period piece. “The Queen’s First Minister desires me to say that she would be grateful if you could wait upon her at Chequers this very Sunday”. A new member of Mrs Thatcher’s speech-writing team was summoned in these terms. Behind the old-fashioned spectacles impish eyes gleamed. He played the part of relic from an earlier generation with self-mockery.

He became Margaret Thatcher’s principal Tory confidant during her first government — and the greatest PPS of all time. In choosing him as her closest aide in 1979, “I made my last and best appointment”, Mrs Thatcher later wrote. His devotion to The Lady, as he was the first to call her, became legendary. Alan Clark noted in his diary on hearing the news of Gow’s murder that “Ian loved her ... in every sense but the physical”.

He was sustained, as he wrote to me at the outset, by the conviction that she was destined to become a great prime minister. This was the happiest time of his life. His close friendship with Geoffrey Howe,then Chancellor of the Exchequer, added to the importance of the role he played. His capacity to carry it out was assisted by the popularity that he enjoyed on all sides of the House and by the readiness with which he dispensed cocktails, with which he prized secrets from his colleagues.

In his biography of Mrs Thatcher, Jonathan Aitken, identifies “three great strengths” which explain why he became so formidable: First, his knowledge of Tory MPs. He reported their “murmurings and mischiefs with a humorous fidelity that appealed to Margaret Thatcher’s enjoyment of gossip, and kept her attuned to her power base with a depth of understanding that was never again achieved”.

Second, he achieved a personal rapport with her that was unequalled by any other political colleague. “Over late-night tumblers of Famous Grouse whisky in the flat above No 10, he reinforced her own convictions.” In major policy areas, from relations with the EEC to balancing public finances, Gow had “the driest of dry views”.

Third, “he was a straight arrow who won her absolute trust”. He influenced her in matters from who she should invite to dinner to who would make good ministers.

Gow himself did not make a good minister in the housing and Treasury posts to which he was appointed in 1983. His fellow MP and friend, Michael Brown, has no doubt that “his departure as her PPS for ministerial office was a mistake. She felt he deserved promotion but he hated ministerial life”.

The job he wanted, but never got, was at the Northern Ireland Office where Airey Neave would have made him a Minister of State in 1979 if he had lived. Neave and Gow, who got on together well, had formulated a policy – with some help from me – to draw Northern Ireland fully into political life at Westminster and kill off devolution by stealth. This was the Ulster policy from which Gow never departed. Her failure to implement such a policy was the one shadow on his happiness as her PPS.

That shadow darkened much further when Mrs Thatcher took the political world by surprise by signing the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. It gave the Irish Republic a direct role in the affairs of Northern Ireland over which it claimed sovereignty. Parliament was told nothing in advance about this extraordinary demarche. It was the secret creation of the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robert (now Lord) Armstrong and his counterpart in Dublin.

It was wholly incompatible with the Ulster policy with which Gow was identified and he resigned his Treasury post. His almost total absorption in Ulster affairs thereafter made him a marked man among the criminal ranks of the IRA.

Airey Neave’s murder eleven years earlier had altered the course of Conservative history by leading to the cancellation of a strong unionist policy and releasing Gow for his work at No 10.

Did Gow’s murder alter it even more fundamentally by removing the one person who could have prevented Margaret Thatcher’s downfall four months later?

In 2010, Bruce Anderson wrote: “The man in charge [of her re-election] was her then PPS, Peter Morrison. He was bibulous, complacent, useless… In the first ballot, she was four votes short of an outright win… If Ian had been alive, he would have found her the votes. He himself would have provided one of them, while persuading the other three—and more…”

Geoffrey Howe gave a powerful address at Ian Gow’s memorial service in October 1990. He concluded: “One of the most respected, warm-hearted and courageous politicians of his generation has been struck down by the brutal extremism which he so forthrightly and consistently deplored.

“In this place and on this day we may be sure – he may be sure – that Ian’s oh-so-full life was not in vain. Our resolve in the face of evil will never weaken.”

Twenty-five years on that must remain for us the chief lesson of this wonderful man’s life.

• Alistair Cooke, now Lord Lexden, was political adviser to Airey Neave 1977-1979 and often discussed Ulster politics with Ian Gow in the following years. A longer version of this article was written for the website conservativehome.com