Thirty years on – what is the legacy of the SDP?

Thirty-one years ago today, a new British political party was launched with a huge fanfare.  The Social Democratic Party, the SDP, founded by a Labour Party breakaway group, was, its founders claimed, destined to break the mould of British politics.

Not a centre party – Shirley Williams declared that such a party would have no heart, no roots, no philosophy – but a radical, continental-style party dedicated to modernising a moribund British political system.  For a brief period, in alliance with a Liberal Party whose leader had told it at its conference to go back to its constituencies and prepare for Government, it looked as if a political breakthrough was on the cards.  For me personally, as a politically-engaged PPE student, active in the Liberal Party at a student level, it was a period whose fascination one probably underestimated at the time.

Thirty years on, what happened to those ideals?  And, having watched SDP founders Shirley Williams and David Owen on opposite sides over the Lords votes on the Health Bill, where are the Social Democrats now?

The Liberal-SDP Alliance manifesto from the 1983 Election is a fascinating read, and I think essential to an understanding of where politics has gone.  It is a document that focuses on structural reform – of the economy and of Britian’s political and constitutional arrangements.  It is built, with hindsight, on some important assumptions – about the mixture of the private and public, for example – and, to the extent that such a short document can be, is rational and evidential in tone.  In all of those things it seems a world away from  contemporary political debate.

There were three cleavage issues that led the SDP to break away from Labour; unilateral nuclear disarmament, Europe and constitutional reform.  The two latter made them natural allies of the Liberal Party – nuclear disarmament was an issue that split the Liberal Party, its leaders being firmly multilateralist but the same Liberal Assembly that backed the Alliance voting for a pro-CND policy motion moved (with, I recall, a shameless emotionalism that wowed the conference floor, including the present writer) by one Cllr Paddy Ashdown.  It was perhaps a symptom of a deeper tension – a party of local activists fuelled by a natural cussedness and nonconformity in uneasy alliance with a party whose leaders, for all their preaching of party democracy, appeared to retain the taste for Olympian parliamentarianism and top-down management that has long been a feature of Labour Party life (and which allowed the New Labour project to move the party to the right in later years). But it was an unstable, mutually resentful alliance from the start – I vividly recall the launch of the Oxford branch of the launch of the Tawney Society, the SDP attempt to replicate the Fabian Society, at which the then Liberal candidate for Oxford East, Margaret Godden, told David Owen to his face that he was not fit to hold public office, to cheers from Liberals and stunned silence from Social Democrats).  Pavement-pounding Liberal activists found the SDP’s notable lack of enthusiasm for grass-roots campaigning infuriating, and the handing over of prime Liberal target seats like Bath and Oxford West and Abingdon (both SDP defeats, later won by Liberal Democrats) to SDP candidates fuelled resentment.  “Soggy centrism” was a mantra one heard often in Liberal Party circles, and the term “soggies” often used by Liberals to describe their SDP allies was a recognition that there appeared to be no essential belief system at work in that Party – it was a reaction against things like the Labour left and CND rather than a party that appeared to advance its own philosophy.  The fact that many of the Labour MPs who joined were on the old right of that Party and were essentially time-servers who were facing their quietus as a result of mandatory reselection of Parliamentary candidates – dressed up by them as entryism of the Left – confirmed this view.

And it is a situation that explains much about the failure of the SDP and, thirty years on, about the failure of the Liberal Democrats now. The SDP were reformers – especially of political institutions – who believed in a sort of Fabian way that this kind of reform was the way to ensure political change.  In some ways it’s quite touching to read that 1983 Manifesto – there’s an appealing rational and empirical quality about it, a determination to use evidence and intellect as problem-solving tools.  But that rationality is firmly grounded in unspoken assumptions about politics and society which were in the process of being swept away by the politics of narrative being conducted by Thatcher.  In that sense, the 1983 Labour Manifesto – caricatured since by Gerald Kaufman as “the longest suicide note in history” – was, in its challenges to the neoliberal narrative, a far more rational response to the politics of the times.

Thirty years on, the politics of neoliberal narrative is triumphant – at Westminster, in the academy, and in the media.  With hindsight the SDP was trying to shelter from an incoming cyclone behind a flimsy windbreak of reason – it lacked the intellectual and political equipment to ride out the storm, and with hindsight it simply contributed to the triumph of the neoliberal narrative, by undermining (in the name of moderation) the opposition to that narrative articulated by some parts of Labour and the old Liberal Party.

Within the Liberal Democrats, the politics of both social democracy and the old grass-roots radicalism has been decisively trumped by that party’s own local neoliberal narrative, set out in the Orange Book – whose authors set out a vision of society only marginally different from that of the Conservative party and who now enthusiastically sustain that party in office and support its austerity economics and privatisation programme.  It’s possible to see the Orange Book as a triumph of one old strand of Liberalism, deriving from the nineteenth century politics of retrenchment and reform, of free trade and the market’s invisible hand; but it seems to me that the failure of the social democratic tradition within the Liberal Democrats to respond to this was as much an intellectual as a political failure – it had nothing to offer as an alternative in the face of an all-devouring neoliberal narrative.

The irony of Britain’s economic and political crisis is that the neoliberal narrative has gained political hegemony at a time when every piece of empirical evidence is pointing to its failure – austerity economics is only working for a tiny wealthy minority, who are enriching themselves in the process of a wealth and power grab from the poor and vulnerable.  Perhaps the ultimate irony is that the final, last, desperate opposition to the Health Act that effectively ended the idea of a universal state-provided NHS came from Dr David Owen, long regarded as being the right-winger who brought the SDP to its knees institutionally, while his fellow Gang of Four member Shirley Williams, despite a lot of empty rhetoric, happily tripped through the voting lobbies in support of the Act.

In the end, the Liberal Democrats seemed to comprise two groups of people – the Orange Bookers who subscribed wholesale to the neoliberal programme, and the remainder of the party, on the whole decent people who wholly lacked the theory, the intellectual grip and the political nous to realise that, far from acting as a brake to the Tories neoliberal ambitions, coalition would both legitimise it and neutralise the main political opposition to the Conservatives in many of their Parliamentary seats, allowing them to take their agenda far further than would otherwise have been possible.  I suspect that it is that intellectual and political failure, along with the practise of the politics of micro-rationality on single issues while turning one’s face away from the larger picture, that is the real legacy of the SDP.


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