My good friend and fellow blogger Phil Holden has recently been pondering on the issue of the new Independent Group in the HofC and in doing so reflecting on the rise and fall of the SDP. His posting is accessible via this link:-
One particular part of Phil’s posting stood out for me and it is this:-
‘The SDP foundered in part on whether it should be a party of the left, taking on Labour in a fight to the death, as David Owen wanted, or a centre-party that cosied up to the Liberals, as Roy Jenkins wanted. Jenkins of course won that one.’
As someone who had only joined the old Liberal Party on New Years Day 1980* I was very new to politics when the SDP came along soon after and then I was swept along in the tide that was the famous Crosby by-election**. Heady days indeed but my perspective is just a little different to Phil’s.
Firstly, I think it is fair to say that we Liberals looked upon David Own as a stubborn difficult person with rather right-wing views (who seemed obsessed with NATO for some odd reason) but that the other 3 of the Gang of 4 were to the left of him and far more in tune with Liberal values. Liberals have always been at their best when they espouse radical and left of centre views. Attempts to look moderate or centrist will always fail in my book.
So I saw Owen, Rodgers, Williams and Jenkins from the other end of the telescope to Phil, indeed in my view Owen was probably a big factor in the failure of the SDP along with our appallingly warped electoral system of course. We Libs often referred to Owen as ‘Dr Death’, probably because we feared he would kill us off along with the SDP. In truth he nearly did but we survived and prospered until we tried to commit ritual suicide in the Clegg era on a worryingly moderate platform with one infamous and devastating political U-turn – Tuition Fees.
That there was no love lost between the Liberals and Owen to me is a given and it will be interesting to see whether anyone from the IG starts to fill Owen’s boots again – I hope they don’t but fear they might. And I say that because in my experience many in the Labour Party hold views that are well to the right of us Liberals.
And just to be nostalgic, my abiding memory of the Crosby By-election was a public meeting in Deyes High School, organised by the SDP/Liberal Alliance. It was packed out and standing room only. Obviously, Shirley was there as the soon to be winning candidate, along with Roy Jenkins and Joe Grimond the former Liberal leader who had saved his party from the political wilderness in the 1960s. Being in the same hall as these 3 was wonderful to a fresh-faced political lad like me. Ah memories……
And talking of SDP/Liberal Alliance memories, whilst I’m at it, here’s another story told to me by my very good friend Roy Connell. One day during the heady days of the Alliance he was asked in to drive Roy Jenkins and BBC reporter Kate Adie on an open-top tour of parts of Liverpool. It seems that at one point he had to pull up sharply and Jenkins and Adie were thrown around a bit. Roy can still hear ringing in his ears the words ‘steady driver’ from Jenkins.
* I had read the 3 main party manifestos for the 1979 General Election and concluded I was a Liberal.
** I lived (and still do) in that constituency (now named Sefton Central) and got to know Shirley Williams well. She is indeed a lovely person and the fact that she became a life-long friend of Anthony Hill the already selected Liberal candidate for the seat (who stepped down for her to be the Alliance candidate) says a lot about how well the SDP and Liberals got on in our part of the world back in the early 1980s and indeed many of my friends in the present Lib Dem Party are former SDP activists.