Believing in the Alliance
‘We have defied the laws of arithmetic,’ declared a buoyant David Steel after he had heard the result of the Croydon, North-West by-election, ‘One plus one really does equal three.’ It is now apparent that the public opinion polls were consistently correct in showing that, while support for the Liberal Party as such remained of a traditionally modest order and support for the Social Democrats alone was a similar or even smaller percentage, backing for the two-party alliance as a third force in British politics was a wholly different matter, and promised the chance of a complete breakthrough under the existing electoral system. The evidence for this in the public opinion polls and on the hustings at Warrington and Croydon has been so over whelming that the response at the grass roots of the Liberal Party had already been recognised as decisive, even before the opening of this year’s Liberal Assembly at Llandudno, by such instinctive opponents of the Alliance as the writers in the radical journal New Out-look. Liberals less weighed down with misgivings have begun sporting party buttons that emphasise the word ‘Alliance’ at the expense of ‘Liberal and Social Democratic’.
Why then run the Alliance as two separate parties? It is not because there is much difference in policy between them. Each partner to the match started off the courtship by expecting to find the other partner to the right of him – an expectation that produced manoeuvres of exquisite farce. In fact, the more the Social Democrats aim at defining their policies in a manner which seeks to convey that they are something different from a party of the centre (which is what many of them had hitherto taken the Liberal Party to be), the closer they find themselves to policies already adopted by the Liberal Party. The Liberals want to make clear that they are in no sense to be taken as endorsing the immobilism they associate with some aspects of the Wilson and Callaghan administrations.
That sentiment is also prominent in the minds of those who have been drafting policy documents and making conference speeches for the Social Democrats. It is to be seen, for instance, in the emphasis placed on freedom of information, and on industrial democracy and de-centralisation – causes that made little progress under James Callaghan. But while the Liberals are by now convinced of the genuine radicalism of the Four, they are unable to share in the hard-headed determination of the same Social Democratic leaders to exhibit themselves as overjoyed whenever a Labour office-holder crosses over. It seemed for a time at Llandudno as if the whole debate on the Alliance, given the realisation that the outcome was a foregone conclusion, was being taken over by competitive repudiations of Michael O’Halloran, the much put-down Member for North Islington who had come over to the Social Democrats in the company of a considerable contingent of councillors. The timing of the Islington cross-over enabled Liberal speakers to put a name to what gave them most concern: the association under the rubric of the ‘centre-right’ of the Labour Party of two types of politician – the social democratic radical and the adherents of the status quo of a centralising bureaucracy, with its localised equivalents.