History / Politics

‘A posh lot’: The birth of the SDP

This is extracted from Alwyn Turner’s Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s – now available in paperback…

On Sunday 25 January 1981, the Gang of Four – as Labour dissidents Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers had become known – issued a joint statement that marked the beginning of the split. Instantly nicknamed the Limehouse Declaration, since it was first proclaimed at Owen’s house in London’s Docklands, the statement was prompted by the previous day’s decision to change the Party’s rules on electing its leader.

‘The calamitous outcome of the Labour Party Wembley conference demands a new start in British politics,’ it opened, and it concluded: ‘We recognize that for those people who have given much of their lives to the Labour Party, the choice that lies ahead will be deeply painful. But we believe that the need for a realignment of British politics must now be faced.’ In between came a statement of broad principles – a mixed economy, membership of the EEC and of NATO, decentralized decision-making, egalitarianism and the elimination of poverty – none of which was particularly new.

But then novelty was not really a requirement. The call for a new party (albeit in the thinly disguised, and obviously temporary, form of a body called the Council for Social Democracy) was intended to appeal first and foremost to disaffected Labour members, seeking an honourable way out of a party they feared had been taken over by extremists. What was needed was not new policies, but an unashamed reclaiming of the past, the promise of, as academic Ralf Dahrendorf put it, ‘a better yesterday’. The claim was that the social democrats had not changed, it was the Labour Party. When Owen was urged to replicate Hugh Gaitskell’s 1960 determination to ‘fight and fight and fight again to save the party we love’, he shrugged: ‘It also needs to be said that you can compromise and compromise and compromise again and destroy the party you love.’

The Limehouse Declaration was subsequently published as an advert in the Guardian, accompanied by a list of a hundred supporters, including academics, ex-cabinet ministers, figures from the arts and – the sole trade union leader – Frank Chapple of the electricians. That the Guardian was the chosen vehicle for the advert was no accident; it was the one paper that was most easily identified with the initiative, though there were discussions at a senior level at the Daily Mirror about whether to back the venture, and Rupert Murdoch was later to tell that Andrew Neil, his new appointment as editor of the Sunday Times, that ‘I could tolerate it supporting the SDP’ if Neil so wished (he didn’t).

Even The Times in an unexpected leader, written by departing editor William Rees-Mogg, offered some endorsement, with the suggestion that Shirley Williams would make a fine prime minister. The praise here was tempered by the paper’s view of her as a ‘somewhat indecisive woman, of middling intellectual attainments and mistaken views’, but it did celebrate her innate courtesy and her ability to communicate: ‘Mrs Williams talks to the British people in their own accents, sometimes muddled, often courageous, always human and always kind.’ Other parts of the media were also encouraging, particularly since it was Labour that was likely to suffer from the birth of a new centre-left party.

Finally, two months after Limehouse, the party itself was launched with thirteen MPs, though neither Jenkins nor Williams was at that stage in the Commons. It was christened the Social Democratic Party, the other founder-members having rejected Jenkins’s suggestions that it be called the Democrats or the Radicals (the latter would surely have been a mistake, given his speech impediment).

The launch itself was a triumph of marketing, as indeed it needed to be since there were as yet no policies to trumpet. Adverts appeared under the slogan ‘The SDP – the country’s waited long enough’, and asked would-be members to phone in with their credit cards, a novelty at the time. (Unlike Labour, there wasn’t a fixed subscription, but there was a suggested donation of nine pounds.) Thousands of applicants responded instantly, bearing out the confident predictions made the previous year by psephologists Ivor Crewe and Anthony King – for the Gang had done their homework – about the party’s prospects. Alongside ex-Labour members, there were large numbers of people who had previously not been a member of any political party, but who were now filled with enthusiasm and were, in a strange way, passionate about a party that seemed almost designed not to arouse passion.

Repelled in equal part by what was perceived to be the sheer violence of the rival Thatcherite and Bennite remedies for the nation’s woes, the early adherents of the SDP sensed that this was a new dawn for decency, a crusade for common sense. ‘I refuse to acknowledge class barriers,’ proclaimed Barry (Timothy Spall) in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. ‘That’s the tragedy of this country, you know, the bloody polarization of the classes. That’s why I joined the SDP, you know, mate – it’s the party of the future, that is.’


For the more cynical, the impression was that it was all a bit too nice, the political equivalent of comfort food, albeit washed down with an agreeable Burgundy. The Peter Simple column in the Daily Telegraph, never very enthusiastic about anything that bore the taint of liberalism, suggested a Make Your Own Centre Party book: ‘It lists the basic essentials: a good supply of cardboard in various thicknesses, glue, cold rice pudding (see your local cold rice pudding stockist), moderation and, most important of all, meaningless verbiage.’

On television, Not the Nine O’Clock News was soon featuring a parody of an SDP party political broadcast with Rowan Atkinson reading a fairytale as though on Jackanory, while in reality one of Jackanory’s favourite presenters wasn’t much impressed, Kenneth Williams deciding that ‘they’re all worthy one feels, but terribly dull.’ (In his memoirs David Owen was to echo that verdict: ‘Our policy development in those early days can best be described as worthy.’) At a time when politics was becoming increasingly polarized, the SDP’s progress down the middle of the road did run the risk of being a little boring; its publication on nuclear arms policy was titled Negotiate and Survive and may well have contained perfectly sensible proposals, but it lacked both the make-do-and-mend optimism of the official pamphlet, Protect and Survive, from which it took its title, and the campaigning spirit of E.P. Thompson’s anti-nuclear riposte, Protest and Survive.

On a personal level, as the Limehouse Declaration had said, the emergence of the SDP from within Labour was for many a ‘deeply painful’ experience, though much more so for those who left than for those who remained. ‘The sadness was mainly manufactured,’ wrote Austin Mitchell, who might have been, but wasn’t, tempted to jump ship. ‘The break was not a great party split like 1931 but a public relations event. Real feelings were deader. The mood was one of inevitability, as if a formal decision long taken was merely being ratified.’ Even so, he experienced the bitterness that comes with civil war as members of his own constituency party defected.

The situation was covered in Sue Townsend’s fictional chronicle of the era, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾, as the diarist finds trouble at his girlfriend’s house: ‘Pandora’s parents have had a massive row. They are sleeping in separate bedrooms. Pandora’s mother has joined the SDP and Pandora’s father is staying loyal to the Labour Party.’ The following day he reveals in awe: ‘Pandora’s father has come out of the closet and admitted that he is a Bennite.’ As Mole reflects, ‘It is a sad day when families are split asunder by politics’.

The fact that it was Pandora’s and not Adrian’s family who were thus divided indicated perhaps the greatest of the SDP’s problems. As Sun columnist Jon Akass, pointed out: ‘the SDP remains a party that is visibly middle class. They are a posh lot. They can argue that they are not posh at all, that they have impeccable working-class origins, but they are betrayed by the clothes they stand in and by their accents.’ Party politics in Britain had always had their roots in cohesive class-blocks, and the omens were not good for parties that bucked the trend…


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