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4 March 2008

A lasting political marriage

Jonathan Calder looks back 20 years to the merger of the SDP and Liberal Party and a result that exc

By Jonathan Calder

Blackpool’s Norbreck Castle Hotel does not lift the spirit at the best of times, and in January 1988 its Soviet ambience was enhanced by the trams and melting snow in the streets outside.

Yet there were those who left the special assembly of the Liberal Party that had just voted to merge with the Social Democratic Party convinced that the last obstacle to power had been removed. Sweep away the Alliance and its pushmepullu leadership (Roy Jenkins and David Steel in 1983; Steel and David Owen in 1987), they reasoned, and the new merged party carry all before it.

They were to be disappointed. The Social and Liberal Democrats, as the new party was briefly known, was to flounder in the polls. At the 1989 European elections it received only 6 per cent of the vote and finished behind the Greens.

But if Liberal enthusiasts for merger were to have their hopes crushed, Liberal sceptics were to be confounded too. There were many who feared the new party would see Liberalism submerged within Social Democracy or junked in an enthusiasm for all things new.

It did not turn out like that. Writing in the current issue of Liberator, which marks the 20th anniversary of the merger, Tony Greaves says:

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“The debate is no longer between social democracy and liberalism – it’s about what it means to be the carrier of the British Liberal tradition in the twenty-first century. We are all Liberals now!”

Greaves exults that former SDP figures like Shirley Williams, Robert Maclennan and Charles Kennedy all now describe themselves as Liberals. And in last year’s leadership election Chris Huhne, an SDP candidate back in the 1980s, missed no chance to boast of his admiration for Lloyd George.

In reality, the outcome that Greaves celebrates owes less to the irresistible coherence of Liberalism than the failure of the SDP to give Social Democracy a meaning outside the Labour Party. For, philosophically speaking, the SDP was all over the place.

When it was launched in 1981 the party looked set to take a more traditionally left-wing line than the Liberals. There was talk of opposition to private health and medicine. Nor were its leading members straightforward moderates. Shirley Williams, for instance, had always been seen as a mainstream Labour figure and used to win substantial trade union support in internal party elections.

Yet the SDP’s chief purpose soon became not upsetting the middle classes. And when David Owen took over as leader it became infected with this obsession with nuclear defence. Its support of an Anglo-French nuclear deterrent was a particular low point.

As one Liberal suggested at the time: “Shouldn’t we try something less ambitious together first, like making cheese?”

If Liberalism became philosophy of the new party, the Liberal Democrats also owe their electoral recovery from the nadir of the post-merger era to a former Liberal.

Chris Rennard – the Lib Dems’ current chief executive and, like Tony Greaves, now a member of the House of Lords – put the campaigning skills he learned as the party’s organiser in Liverpool into practice on the national stage.

Parliamentary by-elections were won in hitherto safe Tory seats and a strategy of ruthlessly targeting winnable constituencies was adopted. As a result the Lib Dems leapt from 20 seats at the 1992 general election to 46 seats in 1997, even though their share of the vote down went down slightly.

But the strategy had some odd side-effects. The Lib Dems are proud of their claim to be a national party, yet they largely represent a scattered archipelago of constituencies in a broad sea of hopeless ones. Norman Baker has turned Lewes into a safe Lib Dem seat, while down the road in Brighton the party trails behind the Greens on the city council.

The fashionable call now in the Lib Dems is for the party to “go beyond Rennardism”, even if no one in the party can quite agree what shape this new strategy should take.

When the SDP was launched its decision to allow members to pay their subscriptions by credit card was treated with a mixture of mirth and disapproval – to some on the left it smacked of bourgeois decadence.

Yet the idea of a centralised, computerised membership was probably the SDP’s greatest gift to the Liberal Democrats. The old Liberal Party’s locally held membership lists were an honourable relic of the age of mass party membership when “being a Liberal” meant more than having a strong desire to deliver leaflets or read policy papers. But it is hard to see how they could have survived into the modern political age and the SDP’s approach, bequeathed to the new party, has triumphed.

So the Liberals bequeathed the party’s its philosophy and strategy and the SDP brought its membership system. The depressed Liberal sceptics who left Blackpool on that chill Saturday evening should have had more confidence in their party.