The ‘London Review of Books’ started with an interest in the Social Democrats, in the days before the party was launched.
David Marquand writes on the eve of their first Party Conference
- Breaking the Mould by Ian Bradley
Martin Robertson, 172 pp, £8.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 85520 469 9
The pregnancy was long, difficult and ridden with anxiety, but the birth was easy and infancy has been a triumph. Unfortunately, however, Mr Bradley’s instant history of the first few months of the Social Democratic Party tells us a good deal more about its gestation before the launch on 26 March than about its development since. This was inevitable, no doubt. Even instant historians have to get their books printed; and Mr Bradley’s would not be in the bookshops yet if he had dealt with the final stages of his story in as much detail as the earlier ones. All the same, the effect is curiously lop-sided: lop-sided, moreover, in a way which obscures much of the real significance of the events which Mr Bradley has set out to analyse.
As everyone knows, the SDP – or, at any rate, the Council for Social Democracy which paved the way for the SDP – started life as a breakaway from the Labour Party. The Gang of Four were all senior Labour politicians or ex-politicians; two of them were Labour Members of Parliament. Most of the signatories of the Guardian advertisement appealing for support for the Council were either members of the Labour Party or past members of the Labour Party; until Mr Brockle-bank-Fowler’s adhesion, all the MPs who sat on the Social Democrats’ bench in the House of Commons had originally been returned in the Labour interest. Some of the non-MPs who had hoped and argued and planned for the emergence of a separate social democratic party before it happened had drifted a long way from the Labour Party before the planning started; all of them drifted further and faster thereafter. But it was from the Labour Party, and only from the Labour Party, that they drifted. There were no former Conservatives or Liberals among us; and if any had sought to join us, I have a nasty suspicion that we would have rebuffed them. We wanted an explicitly social democratic party, with a distinctively social democratic philosophy, not what was later to be termed a Mark II Labour Party. Callaghanite Labourism, with its corporatist kow-towing to the Unions and its Tammany Hall approach to political leadership, was, if anything, even less attractive to us than Bennite neo-Marxism. But even we had not quite emancipated ourselves from our Labour Party pasts or from the Labour Party assumptions which we had absorbed at the political equivalents of our mothers’ knees.
We had been to school with Ivor Crewe and the Essex political scientists. From them, and even more from our experiences as MPs, Parliamentary candidates and party activists, we knew that as the two big parties had lurched towards their respective ideological extremes they had rendered more and more of their voters politically homeless. We could see that these homeless voters – non-Conservatives, non-Labour, yet unattracted, or at any rate unimpressed, by the Liberals – formed a potential social democratic constituency, of impressive size and weight. But although we realised that the central electoral objective of a new social democratic party would be to mobilise that constituency, we were still at any rate half-imprisoned intellectually by the notion that there was some special virtue in winning Labour votes and Labour seats.
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.