Continuing with the series of posts From the vaults—this time I will provide some background on the merger debate from the Social Democratic Party’s (SDP) perspective.
The SDP called a two day conference at Sheffield to discuss the possible merger. This had been preceded a week earlier by the historic decision of the Liberals to approve the merger with the SDP at their conference. The party of Gladstone, Lloyd George and Jo Grimond, under the inspired leadership of David Steel, was therefore willing to cast aside its historical identity in British politics and merge with the Social Democrats.
For over more than half a century the philosophy of classical Liberalism was changing to being one more akin to social liberalism. This began with Lloyd George, Churchill and the 1911 legislation. Then Keynes, who was brought up as a classical Liberal, became the leading proponent of a welfare and social liberal approach after the Great Depression of 1929. Finally the transformation was completed by Beveridge and his benchmark report—the precursor to the National Health Service and the Welfare state.
Anyway, the heated arguments and divisions inside the SDP over the issue of merging with the Liberals was one that had been simmering away under the surface within a year or so of the party’s formation in 1981. Indeed, in my case, close ties with the Liberals had been a conviction even before the birth of the party on March 26th, 1981.
I came from a Labour/Liberal background and had never been a traditional Labour MP. Even in 1974 I had stated my support for social democracy in a letter to party members in Carmarthen and had made a speech, along those lines, at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour party called to discuss the outcome of the February 1974 General Election. There was a lot of unease within Labour about the result, particularly due to the three day week and ongoing miners’ strike. I thought, having survived by just a majority of 3, I had something to contribute about the future direction of the party. How wrong could I have been! It was a brave stance to take at a time when the party was lurching leftwards and with militant tendency on the horizon.
When Roy Jenkins was President of the European Commission, in the late 1970s, we exchanged correspondence regularly and we would often discuss what should be done in view of Labour moving away from the centre ground of politics. In correspondence, I used to argue that we should leave Labour and join the Liberals. This was mainly because they already had MPs with 5 to 6 million votes across the UK. Roy was not convinced by that approach and was obviously aware of other forces at work. By the end of 1979, he was more and more certain that a new force was required in British politics.
I was also made aware that other members of the Gang of Four were just as unhappy along with some 20 other Labour MPs. The first key moment came with Roy’s BBC Dimbleby Lecture in November 1979 on the theme of ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’. It was immediately interpreted that he was going to come back to UK politics after his four years at the Commission to start a new party. He had always had a strong following inside and out of Parliament.
As they say the rest is history. Michael Foot became leader of the Labour party and senior former Labour Cabinet Ministers including Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers joined with Roy in publishing the Limehouse Declaration in January 1981. After that, matters moved very quickly following the birth of the SDP on March 26 1981. On May 20th the first formal meeting of the SDP and the Liberals took place to discuss the formation of an electoral alliance. Then on June 16th, an SDP/Liberal joint working party published a statement of principles entitled ‘A Fresh Start for Britain’. In September the Liberal assembly held in Llandudno endorsed the creation of the Alliance with the SDP, followed by the spectacular by-election victories of Bill Pitt and Shirley Williams. Now the show was well and truly on the road!
In March 1982, Roy Jenkins won the Hillhead by election and in July was elected SDP leader in a postal ballot of all party members. Ever closer ties were being established, especially in terms of which party would take the lead in the allocation of Parliamentary seats. There were people on both sides who viewed closer ties with suspicion. On the SDP side, they were led by David Owen and supporters such as Mike Thomas. Without going into detail the major issue revolved around seats, particularly where members of both parties could participate in selecting candidates. As Chair of the SDP in Wales and Joint Chair of the Alliance Committee for Wales, I strongly championed that method and was confronted with fierce opposition to the final seat agreement in Wales at a meeting of the SDP National Committee. Indeed a deputation was dispatched to meet with the SDP Council for Wales to see whether I had orchestrated the agreement without reference to the members of the Council. The group, led by Mike Thomas, soon found out otherwise. From the outset, the Alliance between the two parties in Wales was close and was also a strong force in the deliberations of both the SDP and Liberals at UK level.
In January 1983, with a General Election looming, the Alliance parties launched the joint programme ‘Working Together for Britain‘. In February, Simon Hughes won the Bermondsey by-election. Then came the General Election in June where the Alliance received 25.4% of the vote but only 23 MPs. We almost pipped Labour—which received 27.6% of the vote—into third place but of course winning considerably more seats in the process! Rest assured debates about the unfair and undemocratic voting system were alive and well even in those days. Another factor affecting the outcome had been the Falklands War—a needless conflict. To this day I remain convinced that it was a war contrived to save Mrs Thatcher who in the weeks prior to the conflict was languishing a poor third in the opinion polls with the Alliance at 51%.
In June, Roy Jenkins resigned as SDP leader. There had been a lot of talk, trouble making and gossip sharing regarding the need to replace Roy with David Owen, even before the General Election. David had benefited from being imperious in the Commons during the Falklands’ debates. As a former Foreign Secretary he was at his best in those discussions—so on June 21st he was elected leader. However, this opened up a new chapter in the relationship with the Liberals which will be the subject of the next From the vaults, featuring Vincent Kane’s reporting of the full merger debate by the SDP in Sheffield.
As a taster, here is a video recording of the speeches made by Roy Jenkins and myself at that conference...
VIDEO: Speeches by Roy Jenkins and Gwynoro at the SDP merger debate with Liberals in Sheffield, Feb 1988