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.
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