“It was a tough battle” – Shirley Williams on the birth of the SDP

Shirley Williams tells the story of the 1981 Gang of Four breakaway, which eventually led to the formation of the Liberal Democrats, in the first issue of AD LIB magazine, out next week.

“…we said, if we haven’t got anywhere else to go, we’ll create one.”

Those nascent views crystallised after the party’s 1981 Wembley conference which committed it to unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the EEC and NATO. Within hours Williams, Owen and Rodgers were drawing up the plans which would lead to the creation of the SDP.

“The three of us met – not Roy, at that point – in my room,” says Williams. “We then decided that we had to try to create a new party. We talked in various hours immediately after the conference.

“The conference for us had been a rubicon. You know, if it had gone another way we would have stayed, I think. But it was for us definitive. On the policy issues, there was no give from the conference at all. They were solidly going off in the other direction.”

They issued two declarations. The first one in July 1980, which is usually neglected, was about Europe. The second one, which was in 1981, “was of course the Limehouse Declaration, which dealt with domestic policy, with the line between public ownership and all the rest of it, with issues about taxation, with issues about greater equality and so forth”.

That was written jointly by Williams, Owen and Rodgers at Owen’s home in Limehouse, London. They had had conversations with Jenkins at that point, but he only formally joined them later after completing a stint as a European commissioner.

“In March we decided the game was up and we then called the launch of a new party,” says Williams.

“We fought to the very end. I remember at the September conference in 1980 David got up to speak about staying in NATO and was booed all the way from when he got up from his seat to the platform. You could hardly hear him speak. And that was the thing that finally made him absolutely convinced that there had to be a new party.

Read the full interview at the AD LIB Facebook page.

AD LIB is the brand new monthly magazine for Liberal Democrats. Full of the news, views, politics, policy, humour and gossip you don’t get in the mainstream media. Subscribe here.

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11 Comments

  • Foregone Conclusion 30th Nov '12 - 12:18am

    “Is the rise of the PPE-politician to blame? Are politicians too scared for their own careers?”

    I’m quite willing to blame careerism, but knocking the Oxford PPE course seems a little unfair since Shirley and Roy Jenkins (and I think Bill Rodgers as well) were Oxford PPE graduates.

  • I remember the excitement, as a 17-20 something school and uni student, about this new centre-left force in politic that would ‘break the mold’. It’s what got me interested in politics, and started my 30-year support for first the SDP, then the Lib dems, the natural party of the centre-left, social democrat.

    Then came clegg, edging into control with a less than convincing takover for the centre-right old-stylr libertarian small-state liberal party. Myself, and thousands of others, told we should find another party… and the Liberals (less the ‘Democrats’) restored to their natural place… 4th, behind UKIP.

  • LIam – I suspect that creating a new party really needs some heavyweight politicians behind it to give it traction. The SDP certainly had that, given that all four of the Gang were ex-cabinet members and very senior Labour politicians in their own right. No new party formed since has really had this, save – possibly – the Referendum Party with Sir James Goldsmith. All four had a following in the Labour party, so could bring with them a degree of support which new parties really don’t have.

  • @ Tony H

    “Then came clegg, edging into control with a less than convincing takover for the centre-right old-stylr libertarian small-state liberal party. Myself, and thousands of others, told we should find another party”

    Realistically, what would the SDP have done under Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers if put in exactly the same position as Nick Clegg? Frankly, I don’t think they would have been able to do better, given the appalling position he was put in in 2010.

    I think you are confusing the reality of having 8% of MPs versus a right wing coalition partner with 47% of MPs and the compromises that would force on any party going into a Coalition government with a “takeover for the centre right”. The party remains the same as it was, but the policies of a Coalition government are not those a Lib Dem government would pursue on its own.

    I too became interested in politics because of the SDP. It seemed to me swings from right to left and back again had ruined the country and to me it still seems the same way. We need a better political system. What could never have been predicted is how long it would take and how tough a road it would be to achieving that and how bitterly and destructively the forces of the left and right would resist it. The situation we are in today as a party is largely because of their continuing backlash as they fight viciously to protect their entrenched interests. The Lib Dems will need to find new ways of articulating their vision of a new politics, but it is still a goal worth pursuing, alongside all the others.

  • Richard Swales 30th Nov '12 - 10:26am

    As someone too young to remember this I would be interested to know why they didn’t join the Liberal party. We are often told on these forums that the rise of centre-politics dates from 1974, but the article above doesn’t mention the Liberal party as an option at all.

  • Simon Titley 30th Nov '12 - 11:16am

    @Richard Swales – The reason that Roy Jenkins and his allies didn’t simply defect to the Liberal Party is that they were actively discouraged from doing so by the then Liberal leader David Steel. Steel reasoned that the creation of a new party (the SDP) would attract more defectors from Labour and thus do more damage to the Labour Party. This in turn would aid the Liberal objective of replacing Labour as the main anti-Conservative party.

    In a sense, Steel was right. 28 Labour MPs joined the SDP, more than would have defected to the Liberals. But to be honest, many of these defectors were right-wing old f*rts facing deselection threats by their constituency parties, so the Labour Party was glad to see the back of them.

    Worse, energies that could more profitably have been focused on campaigning against the Thatcher government were instead wasted on endless negotiations over seats share-outs and the merger.

    Roy Jenkins’s original instinct was right. A straightforward defection to the Liberal Party by a smaller but more sincere group of former Labour MPs would have been an asset and spared the Liberal Party a lot of grief. It would also have spared us from David Owen.

  • How ironic that the new Lib Dem publication should drop the Dem from the name and yet lead with this reminder of the SDP roots of a significant part of the current party.

    Why has no other party been formed and had the success of the SDP? Because back then there was a real gap in politics for a non-Labour party for people’s with a social democratic conscience (as Labour had sadly become so lost in itself), and an alternative was needed to the hardening Tory attack on working people that did not just blindly support (or encourage) union excesses and command/control politics.

    That gap is emerging again as the Lib Dems continue to veer to the right. We should be so much more than a Tory conscience, so that new party may emerge. If it does, though, I predict it will never succeed in the current political arena.

  • Bill le Breton 1st Dec '12 - 8:23am

    RC asserts that the ‘Gang of Four’ probably ‘wouldn’t have been able to do better, given the appalling position he (Clegg) was put in in 2010’.

    Although coming from the Liberal tradition I was fortunate to see the Four in action pretty close up. Here are the major differences I see between that leadership and the present.

    The Four had the task of creating their own party. Clegg gave himself the task of gaining control of a party and changing it.

    Williams, Rogers, Jenkins and Owen had huge experience and, although driven by a policy vision, had campaigned from their student days onwards. You cannot see Clegg, Laws, Alexander et al fighting the street campaigns of Hillhead, Crosby and Warrington. You just can’t see any of today’s leadership team spending the whole day in the streets with their own ancient portable megaphone set strapped round their necks a la Bill Rogers (let alone spending all night at the printing press covered in ink a la Penhaligon!)

    The two leadership groups were also different in their reaction to the Liberal passion for and unique style of campaigning. The SDP had a lot of their own radical ideas about Party management, but they were eager to learn from the campaigning techniques personified in the skill of the then leading Liberal campaigner, Peter Chegwyn. The Clegg coterie in contrast saw Chris Rennard as an obstacle to be removed as soon as they could.

    Finally, temperamentally, Williams, Jenkins and Rogers would have dealt with Cameron with a long spoon, whereas it is obvious that,when Clegg spent that fateful half hour alone with Cameron while Prime Minister Brown entertained the Queen, he found the fellowship and affinity that became publicly evident in May 2010.

    My conclusion? Clegg would have done a better job of ‘dealing’ with Blair than Paddy. Jenkins, a better job with Cameron. But that’s life!

  • I think it’s time to bring back the SDP.

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