Problems for the SDP
Six months after its birth, the Social Democratic Party remains an astonishing force in British politics. The opinion polls continue to put an SDP/Liberal alliance ahead of Conservative or Labour – and the SDP ahead of the Liberals. Voting habits have remarkable persistence but the prophecies of last spring that the SDP would soon go the way of all breakaway parties are becoming less confident. It begins to be conceivable that the new alliance will actually break the mould of British politics. Britain is likely to have an SDP/Liberal government after the next election unless one of three things happens:
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 3 No. 20 · 5 November 1981
SIR: Although it was never difficult to assess the political stance of the controllers of the London Review, Vol. 3, No 18 must have caused a wry smile to cross many other faces than my own as it joined the other bourgeois media in publicising the SDP. The review of a book on the party by a party member would not have gone amiss in the SDP’s own periodical – not that the SDP has as yet any need to do its own printing. I am sure that I am not alone in having subscribed to the LRB since its inception with the vague notion that I was helping the arts in difficult times, though realising well that I was helping to provide a platform for many whose ideas and ideology I reject. Many must like myself regret that the Review has opted to abuse their support by helping the careers of a small number of professional political opportunists who rely for electoral success on the bias of media coverage. If the LRB provided a broad political platform then there would be less room for objection. For instance, in LRB, Vol. 3, No 17, the first three pages could have been devoted to a review of Paul Foot’s important new book Red Shelley by a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party. Instead there were only a few paragraphs buried on page 12 by a careerist academic in an Oxford ivory tower. But it was inevitable that this should be so. For my own part, I have decided to let my subscription lapse, and I hope that others will do the same, although it cannot be expected that the editors of the Review will radically alter their position.
Does this fall within the category of speech to which you allow freedom, rather than that to which you do not?
This does fall within the category of speech to which we allow freedom. It is a broad category. Mr Ayers will not tolerate the interest we have taken (from before its inception) in the SDP, and we are sorry to lose his wry smile. But he is wrong to suggest that we do not print a wide variety of political opinions, and that the Social Democrats are exceptional in benefiting from the attentions of the media (whose aversion to Neil Kinnock and Eric Heffer has been well disguised). He is wrong, too, to talk darkly of the journal’s ‘controllers’. Our only controllers are the three members of the editorial staff. We think of ourselves as workers, and some of us think of ourselves as socialists. We are not in the power or the pay of the SDP. They have taken no interest in the paper.
Editor, ‘London Review’
SIR: I did not become a subscriber to the London Review of Books in order to read mindless propaganda for the Social Democratic Party (‘a triumph’, ‘a new kind of party’, ‘a credible alternative’, ‘an astonishing force’, ‘another great realignment’, ‘not likely to founder’, etc, etc, etc.) Please in future spare your readership drivel of this kind.
Vol. 4 No. 1 · 21 January 1982
SIR: Reading the comments on your coverage of the SDP (Letters, 5 November 1981), I regret the stridency in which the criticism was couched. It is nonetheless true that there has been inordinate space devoted to the SDP, not only in comparison to the other major parties (which could be justified), but, more aptly, in comparison to the other major political phenomenon of the past year: the CND (membership, national and local, estimated by the Guardian at 200,000-250,000 versus 65,000 for the SDP). A while back I wrote to you urging there be more debate in the LRB on disarmament questions, but there seems to have been little change on your part, despite palpably changing circumstances.
In little over a year, the LRB has published four articles (Clarke, Butler, two by Marquand) either on the emergence of the SDP or the general thinking behind it; in addition, there have been six pieces (Lever, two by Marquand, three by Peter Jenkins) which readers might honestly construe as espousing Social Democratic views. The first four were written either by actual participants in the SDP or those clearly sympathetic to its aims. The common denominator of the latter six was the reviewer’s animus against Labour and/or the Unions. Two SDP pieces and one anti-Labour appeared in the issue which irked your correspondents.
This is in contrast to the space allotted CND. On the basis of SDP coverage, CND might have anticipated several pieces on its growth, aims and organisation, plus at least a couple of others allowing sympathetic authors space to demolish such opponents as the Ministry of Defence, media simplification, Nato. In fact, there have only been four articles (Naughton, Dunn, Peierls, McKeown) in well over a year on nuclear themes, despite the quite phenomenal upsurge of interest in them over the same period. The LRB rightly claims a prescient interest in the SDP, but its track record on the very much more grave issue of nuclear weapons is relative silence. Two of these articles might be construed as sympathetic to the unilateralist position, insofar as they echo arguments of CND on civil defence and the medical effects of nuclear war; a third reviews scrupulously certain unilateralist options but concludes ambiguously; and the fourth, written by an early investigator of atomic weapons, reels through some well-known and obvious issues, and ends by rejecting unilateralism. In none, therefore, is the CND or unilateralism covered in its entirety as an actual political movement and comprehensive perspective. It rather appears as the propagator of certain piecemeal arguments considered in isolation. This is a crucial point, for the nuclear arms race and CND’s response to it must be comprehended as wholes to be comprehended at all. Whereas the SDP is already presented as a coherent philosophy and an unreckoned new political force, the LRB seems not to have conceded that the CND has become an organisation with over 1,000 local autonomous groups, numerous bookstores, extensive international contacts, a national office with a budget of £540,000, and a huge penumbra of sympathy beyond its actual members. This is despite the fact that the SDP has no defined democratic policy nor tested genuine mass following (unlike CND), and none of the roots which come with a tenacious and often embattled twenty-year campaign.
The LRB should have no problem finding competent reviewers for nuclear and disarmament themes in academe, bureaucracies, industry and the CND itself. The New York Review of Books, which appears less frequently, has managed over the same period seven articles on various moral, medical and technical aspects of nuclear arms, often quite lengthy and without exception deeply critical of the official stance. This is despite the unsympathetic surrounding culture and the lack of a vital peace movement as in Europe.