Tag Archives: SDP

350 years of Liberal history in 32 pages

If you want to read a short summary of the last 350 years of Liberal politics in Britain, the Liberal Democrat History Group has just the thing for you – a new edition of our booklet Liberal History: A Concise History of the Liberal Party, SDP and Liberal Democrats.

This is designed as a comprehensive but relatively short (about 10,000 words) summary of Liberal, SDP and Liberal Democrat history for readers wanting more detail than they can find on the party website, but less than a full book. We produced the booklet originally in 2005, and we’ve revised it twice since; this edition is up to date as of summer 2016.

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Party like it’s 1981

Imagine that, alongside Michael Foot as leader, Tony Benn had won the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in 1981; it almost happened. Would the creation of the SDP then seem wrong even to Labour loyalists and even today? There is certainly a view within the Labour Party, shared with The Guardian editorial writers, that a way must be found to keep the current party together rather than face the alternative: “No one who remembers or knows about past divisions, notably the breakaway of the Social Democratic party in 1981, should want a return to that.”

The argument runs that the SDP split the Left, enabling Thatcherism to run riot in the Eighties without a strong, electable opposition. With many moderates leaving Labour, the hard Left almost triumphed and Neil Kinnock needed a monumental effort of will to turn the party around into something more, though still not quite, electable.

This line of reasoning is obviously flawed. In the Eighties, Benn did not defeat either Denis Healey for the deputy leadership or Kinnock for the leadership. Jeremy Corbyn (Foot without the charisma) and the hard Left already control the Labour Party. Good luck to Owen Smith trying to do a Kinnock, but if, as seems likely, he fails, what then? The Guardian suggests that the answer is Shadow Cabinet elections.

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David Owen – remember him?

William Rodgers, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins & David Owen with funds from SDP supporters, Feb 1981

Some of us were members of the SDP and recall still the various reasons why this new political party was created – not least to combat the anti-European mood which then gripped Labour (the Conservatives were largely fine on the issue. The irony…)

Six years later, Owen refused to accept the will of his own Party to merge with the Liberals. He pretended for a while that the majority who joined the merged party had somehow ‘left’ the SDP and he could therefore continue as Leader of the much reduced force. He finally killed it off when it was overtaken by the Monster Raving Loony Party in a by-election in Bootle.

Since then he has floated around the political scene, with sporadic not terribly perceptive interventions on Radio 4 as a ‘former Foreign Secretary’ and the occasional advice to his imagined followers to vote this or that way in General Elections.

So it comes as no surprise that he is reduced to appearing in the Sun urging people to trash their future by voting for Brexit.

His arguments are thin to say the least. For example this insight:

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Dick Newby writes….Limehouse at 35

2016-01-20 13.51.09

35 years on from the Limehouse Declaration and the launch of the SDP it’s easy to see the similarities. We have a Labour Party with a very left wing leader pushing ideologically driven policies and zero prospect of winning the next election. And we have a Conservative Party which is pursuing harsh economic policies at home and is split down the middle over the UK’s relationship with the EU.

But if there are similarities with 1981 there are even more differences. Britain is now a very different place socially and economically. It is much more ethnically diverse, particularly in the large cities. It is far less deferential and far fewer people have a strong party loyalty. It is also much more affluent – the average household is now earns twice as much as it did in 1981 – and unemployment and inflation are both much lower.

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Opinion: What’s in a name ?


Having recently finished reading a biography of Charles Kennedy, which covered the merger of the Liberal Party and SDP in detail, I pondered for some time on the controversy surrounding the names and philosophy of political parties.

In the late 1980s the Social and Liberal Democrats or SLD were lampooned as the Salads, the use of the shorter Democrats was unpopular because it omitted the word liberal, so we ended up with the Liberal Democrats – a title that is now long established.

If you look beyond the UK though, the confusion really begins.

Posted in Op-eds | Also tagged | 66 Comments

Ukip examined: who they are, what they stand for, and what it all means for British politics

revolt on the right ukipI’ve just finished reading Revolt on the Right, Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin’s fascinating book analysing the rise of Ukip and what makes the party and its voters tick. Mark Pack has already written a very good review for LibDemVoice here. Here’s my take on some of its key insights.

Who votes for Ukip? The ‘left behind’

For a start, it debunks the myth that Ukip is a party of disaffected, well-to-do, shire-Tories obsessed by Europe and upset by David Cameron’s mild social liberalism on same-sex marriage. Yes, there are some Ukip voters like that, but they tend to be its peripheral voters, the ones most likely to give the Tories a kick in the Euros next month then return to their traditional True Blue ways in time for the general election. Ukip’s core vote in reality is made up of what the authors define as ‘left behind’ voters, overwhelmingly comprising older white working class males with no formal educational qualifications.

Posted in Books and Op-eds | Also tagged , , , , and | 85 Comments

“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 –

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