Who are the heirs of the SDP?

Today (March 26th) is the 30th anniversary of the founding of the SDP. To mark the occasion last Monday CentreForum organised a discussion “the Class of 81: Who are the true heirs of the SDP? with leading former SDP members, Chris Huhne , Greg Clark (Tory Decentralisation Minister) and Andrew Adonis (Labour’s former Transport and Schools Minister) on the panel. In the audience were Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams, members of Roy Jenkins’ family, countless former SDP members as well as a good few ”political anoraks”.

It was an evening of reminiscing, “what ifs”, analysis, historical reflection and a few amusing ironies. Bill Rodgers revealed that one of the names they considered for the new party was “New Labour”. Andrew Adonis that in the early 1990s when asked by a pre-leadership Tony Blair why Labour could not break through in Middle England said “It’s the name “Labour” – it puts people off.” “So what should we change the name to?” asked Blair. “How about Liberal Democrat?” said Adonis –still then a Lib Dem member.

What if the Falklands War had not happened when it did? What if Tony Benn had beaten Denis Healey in the Labour Deputy Leadership election would many more Labour MPs have defected? What if all Labour MPs who defected had fought by-elections? Would it have built momentum, helped them save their seats in the 83 election and enabled the Alliance to overtake Labour as Andrew Adonis speculated?  No, seemed to be the general response to the third question but the Falklands War was generally seen as crucial to halting the progress of the Alliance.

SDP logoSo what did the SDP contribute to British politics apart from some very talented politicians, including according to Stephen Williams MP at least 15 current Lib Dem MPs and countless peers? Bringing many women into politics for the first time said some– but an accompanying frustration, exemplified by the all male panel, that more progress had not been made.

Greg Clark said that the removal of the SDP strand from Labour had fed through to a very “uniform” view at the top of the Labour Party as shown by last year’s leadership election. This was in contrast to widely differing views in the Tories (Cameron versus Davis or Fox) and in the Lib Dems (Laws versus Hughes).

Andrew Adonis believed the true heirs of the SDP of 1987 are the Liberal Democrats but the heirs of the vision of those setting up the SDP in 1981 are the modern Labour Party. Chris Huhne, not surprisingly, thought it was the Lib Dems. The last word on the matter was Bill Rodgers’ “the Liberal Democrats – but the modern Labour party are the step-heirs”

And the SDP’s legacy? Reflecting on this I was struck by how each of the three panellists have made a name in politics for their challenge to monolithic, top down, public services. Greg Clark as a fierce advocate of decentralisation and localism (never mind the contribution of ex SDPers Andrew Lansley to NHS reform and Chris Grayling to welfare reform), Andrew Adonis through his promotion of academies and Chris Huhne through the Public Services Commission he chaired for the Party which promoted localism and diversity of public service provision.

So is the enduring legacy of the Class of 81 the dismantling of the post – Second World war version of the social democratic state which the SDP was set up to preserve? Is that the main contribution of the Owenite wing, who as Chris Huhne acknowledged, were the first to challenge the “Butskellite” consensus of the welfare state within the new party?  And is the final irony that, as a letter read out at the end from David Owen  (who had loomed, rather like Banquo’s ghost, throughout the discussion) made clear, he is now considering rejoining Labour because of the proposed NHS reforms!

Chris Nicholson is Director, CentreForum

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23 Comments

  • Jamesy Cotter 26th Mar '11 - 7:39pm

    I’d hope that it be some activists that actually respect the principles of demcracy; that would be a great start.

    There was a massive democratic march against the coalition government today, not that any activists on this site would blog about it; why on Earth does power reduce mass political principle?

    I think it would be fully just if the party went back to be called the Liberal Party.

  • If only we could go back to the Liberal Party and unwind the toxic link with the SDP in total! That experiment, born in part of concern and careerism, had some good early consequences which quickly turned into the nonsense born of Dr Death’s rampant ego.

    Please, PLEASE, can we now forget the SDP?

  • Simon McGrath 26th Mar '11 - 10:01pm

    “I was struck by how each of the three panellists have made a name in politics for their challenge to monolithic, top down, public services. Greg Clark as a fierce advocate of decentralisation and localism (never mind the contribution of ex SDPers Andrew Lansley to NHS reform and Chris Grayling to welfare reform), Andrew Adonis through his promotion of academies and Chris Huhne through the Public Services Commission he chaired for the Party which promoted localism and diversity of public service provision”

    Except that the Lib Dems at the last two conferences have shown themselves depressingly wedded to statist centralist solutions – for example opposition to free schools and private involvement in the NHS

  • No to all of the above comments. The central idea of the SDP that really struck me when it was founded was an end to the left-right pendulum of UK politics that has constantly damaged our economy and our society. This idea has yet to be put into action and the consequences are there for all to see. We still have too much power given to the extremes of our political spectrum and not enough to the centre. Hence we have the freemarket headbangers of the right baying for NHS privatisation and pointless self-serving demos by trade unionists and deficit denialists on the left.

    Now we are in power, trying to restrain one end of the spectrum. The founders of the SDP left the Labour party because they couldn’t restrain those on the other.

    Plus ça change.

  • David Owen is the heir of the SDP. It was a bad Idea with some good people in it. The real problem the founder had was a lack of political intelligence. They thought they were to the ‘left’ of the Liberal Party. In fact, the Liberal Party was, in classical economic terms, more social democratic than the SDP and the SDP was more ‘Liberal’.. Tony Blair, similar to the ‘continuing’ SDP in many ways, tried to move his Party onto the territory of the Lib Dems. He ended up failing so the only place for him to go was to the Right of the Lib Dems, from which place New labour has never really strayed although ‘Militant’ Miliband may change that (holds breath not).

  • ” Lib Dems at the last two conferences have shown themselves depressingly wedded to statist centralist solutions – for example opposition to free schools”

    Free Schools is a depressing statist centralist solution. I do not want my state’s money subsidising weird waffle.

  • “the Liberal Party was… more social democratic than the SDP and the SDP was more ‘Liberal’”

    My brain hurts!

    Both parties were actually quite broad coalitions. The Liberal Party attracted both leftist community politicians like Tony Greaves and rightist economic liberals like Clegg. The SDP attracted some very able and forward-thinking left-of-centre people like Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins, together with some very low-ability old Labour dinosaurs, all mixed in with a trendily vapid “not left, not right but forward” bunch of people led by Owen, who have by now mostly got round to recognising that they are actually Tories.

    Both parties could have learnt a lot by searching out the strengths in their respective Alliance partners. Sadly, too many people from both parties instead spent their time searching for their partners’ weaknesses, and practicing a destructive tribalism which eventually caused the failure of the Alliance.

    That failure, back in the 1980s, was one of personal character, integrity, and adherence to principle. The failure in 2010-2011 – because that’s what it is – is attributable to similar character defects amongst today’s quisling coalitionists.

  • George Kendall 27th Mar '11 - 2:52am

    @David Allen
    “Both parties were actually quite broad coalitions”

    Agreed. The Liberal Democrats is also a broad coalition.

    “Sadly, too many people from both parties instead spent their time searching for their partners’ weaknesses, and practicing a destructive tribalism which eventually caused the failure of the Alliance.”

    I agree that aggressive tribalism is extremely unhelpful.

    “That failure, back in the 1980s, was one of personal character, integrity, and adherence to principle. The failure in 2010-2011 – because that’s what it is – is attributable to similar character defects amongst today’s quisling coalitionists.”

    Isn’t calling fellow party members quislings and accusing them of having serious character defects just yet more aggressive tribalism?

  • @GeorgeKendall

    Maybe for years we did not realise that we were such a broad coalition. However I suspect the demographics of the party are changing quite quickly at the moment. Although I am sure the picture is mixed, I would be surprised if the party was not less of a broad church and my guess is that membership loss in the North is a major issue. Not sure where current trends would take the party.

  • david thorpe 27th Mar '11 - 12:53pm

    @ geoffrey

    celgg has only ever been a lib dem and never was a liberal party member.
    ironically vince cable and chris huhne, economic liberals both, were in the SDP, and never in the liberal party.

  • David Allen 27th Mar '11 - 7:01pm

    George Kendall,

    “Isn’t calling fellow party members quislings and accusing them of having serious character defects just yet more aggressive tribalism?”

    Aggressive yes, tribalism absolutely not. All our leaders prior to Clegg took care to hold the party together by formulating policies which commanded broad support. Clegg was elected leader on a nice-bumbler-with-a-shy-smile ticket, and then set about the wholesale takeover of the party by its Orange Book wing. Clegg is the tribalist, not me.

  • David Allen 27th Mar '11 - 8:20pm

    @ Geoffrey Payne,

    “there were very few economic Liberals in the Liberal party in the 1980s”

    Largely fair comment I suppose, my posting was a bit too brief. Grimond might in some ways be considered a forefather of Orange Book liberalism, but he balanced his anti-statism with policies such as the empowerment of workers as shareholders which – if in a somewhat patrician manner – did demonstrate a genuine concern for fairness. All the same, some of the taunts which Labour directed at the 1960s / 1970s Liberal Party did ring true. For all their protestations of classlessness, the Liberals were a predominantly middle-class party at a time (unlike the present day) when Labour was not. The Liberals condemned industrial strife, whereas Labour were at least partly right to argue that without the strife the working class would have been a lot worse off.

    I think there was a widespread conceit amongst Liberals and SDP-ers alike that theirs was the party which was further to the left. This was in many ways romantic and wishful thinking. As for me – well, I always voted Liberal in the 70s, but held back from active involvement, for two main reasons. First, there was an air of impracticality about the Liberals, a pleasure in being bright outsiders who would happily stay outsiders. Second, I’d met too many Liberals at University for whom politics just meant their freedom to smoke pot. I just felt that there were one or two other issues that also rather mattered, like the starving millions in Africa and the coming environmental catastrophe (perfectly well understood in 1970 but of course now much nearer). For me, the SDP’s groundedness in reality and on the left of the political spectrum was more appealing – though as I said, we were all guilty to some extent of wishful thinking!

  • david thorpe 27th Mar '11 - 9:20pm

    @ DAVID ALLEN

    clegg defeated huhne, another ornage booker.
    clegg alos contributed a chapter to the redefining the state book, which syurely is an attempt to show that one can be both. steve webb was an ornage book contributor, and later chair of the social liberal forum.
    david heath and davd laws, two different traditions within the party, have both acknowledged that the orange bookers and the social liberals share the same vision for how they want society to look, but have different visions of how to get there, neither of thsoe are tribal, and while my differences with clegg are enormous I fail to see how someone who appoints as ministers/front benchers those from a diofferent tradition to ium, who contribuets to books by all sides, and worked on policy propsals with people from all sides

  • Ed Maxfield 27th Mar '11 - 9:46pm

    Well done to Centre Forum for doing something to mark the anniversary. The lack of attention paid to it is a sad comment on the extent to which the SDP has failed to make a permanent mark. Whatever ones views of the SDP it was the most dramatic attempt to reallign British politics arguably since the creation of the Labour Party.

    Established political parties are incredibly difficult to kill off. The Labour Party probably saved itself from oblivion by starting back on the road to the centre ground very quickly after 1983 even though it took a long time to complete the job. The Lib Dems didnt have the weight to mount a credible challenge to the Tories when they might have had the chance in 2005.

    The SDP was ahead of its time – that so many former members ended up as leading lights in 3 different parties reflects the fact that managerialism-as-ideology has become the norm as class divisions in politics have become less relevant.

  • Paul McKeown 28th Mar '11 - 12:13am

    The foundation of the SDP was a matter of enormous and lasting importance for our country and, naturally, even more so for the Liberal Party and for its current post-merger successor, the Liberal Democrats. However, another, more fundamentally important anniversary this year is the centenary of the Parliament Act. The history leading to that Act is that of the struggle of the Liberal Party for the foundations of our current social welfare system against a deeply entrenched reactionary House of Lords. Somehow, with the promise of this current government to enact the prologue of the Parliament Act after a mere century in bringing democratic election to that chamber, that particular anniversary seems highly pertinent.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Mar '11 - 11:29am

    David Allen

    The Liberal Party attracted both leftist community politicians like Tony Greaves and rightist economic liberals like Clegg.

    As other have said, the pre-merger Liberal Party had nothing like the “Orange Bookers” within it. So far as I am aware, Clegg was never a member of the pre-merger Liberal Party. I think he may have been, like others of the “Orange Bookers”, a member of the pre-merger SDP. Indeed, one of the reasons some of us in the Liberal Party opposed merger was because there were elements in it going that way at that time. This could be seen, for example, in the Leader’s Statement given by the leader of the SDP on the eve of merger (in fact written by a couple of interns in his office) – so badly received by Liberals that the SDP leader broke down in tears, and the document was put aside, becoming known as the “Dead Parrot” document.

    Those in the pre-merger Liberal Party who were most in sympathy with classical “free market” politics almost always linked it with radical positions on other issues, such as worker democracy and land value taxation. It is simply NOT the case that the pre-merger Liberal Party had anything like the position which people like “Liberal Vision” are trying to label “Liberal” now. This goes right back to the 19th century, where I see REAL 19th century Liberals taking great pride in creating good public services. Here for example:

    http://www.thepotteries.org/advert_wk/013.htm

    The likes of “Liberal Vision” may think it would be appalling to take ratepayers’ money and use it to create public parks – they would like instead for such parks if they are to exist to be private enterprise, created and run for profit. But do they deny that this great Mayor of Hanley, taken to burial in 1910 with the condolences of Hanley Liberal Association, Hanley Liberal Club, and the Hanley League of Young Liberals was a 19th century Liberal?

  • George Kendall 28th Mar '11 - 11:43am

    @AlexKN “Maybe for years we did not realise that we were such a broad coalition.”
    I don’t know how much of a broad church we are, I don’t know enough members to have a big enough sample size. But I think we’ve always been a broad church, and I don’t think we’d have been able to achieve anything like as much electoral success if we hadn’t been.

    In my opinion, the social liberal and economic liberal strands are both key to retaining what makes the party what it is. And my hope is that we continue to be a broad church, in which we continue to agree to disagree on some issues, and work together for the many things that unite us.

  • davidj thorpe 28th Mar '11 - 12:19pm

    @ mathew.

    as far as Im aware nick cleggw as only ever a member of the lib dems, not of either constituent party.
    and nick, like vince is an advoacte of LVT.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Mar '11 - 10:40pm


    as far as Im aware nick cleggw as only ever a member of the lib dems, not of either constituent party.
    and nick, like vince is an advoacte of LVT.

    I do not ever recall Nick Clegg saying anything in favour of LVT. Given that the lack of a tax on commmunity created land values is hugely relevant to the economic situation our country is in now, if he days nothing now when we he say something? The “mansion tax” is a tiny-weeny start to the idea that more taxes should be on land, but to do it properly would require much, much more, and it would be painful for those who benefit from it not being taxed. However, those who benefit tend to be at the wealthier end of society, and we know that in today’s Britain “hard decisions” always means “hit the poor more”, never “hit the rich more”. Those who make money out of owning property have almost all the press speaking for them and screaming abuse at anyone who dares question the assumption that land should be tax free. Those who would benefit most from LVT have no-one speaking in their fabvour and hardly ever realise how they are diddled by the lack of it. The way we have been conned into taking on huge debts just to get a roof over our heads and made to feel good that we are on the “housing laddr” is a disgrace. It is at the heart of our current econmic crisis, but what is less realised is the extent to which hugely expensive housing is also at the heart of our social crisis.

  • david thorpe 30th Mar '11 - 11:21am

    @ matthew

    there is a group wityhin the lib dems which seeks to camapign for LVT,
    among its vice presidents are nick clegg and vince cable

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