In the General Elections of 1951 and 1955, the Liberal Party won less than 3 per cent of the vote and ended up with six MPs. The party of Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George had joined the political fringe. But by 1974, despite the electoral system and an absence of credibility as a candidate for government, the Party had raised its share of the vote to 19.3 per cent and the number of its MPs to 14. It was clear that the death of Liberal England had been prematurely foretold.
As Chris Cook reminds us in the latest edition of his History of the Liberal Party, it was Jo Grimond who turned round the depleted Liberal ranks and marched them towards the sound of gunfire. It seemed a risible endeavour, with Lady Violet Bonham-Carter and remnants of the Liberal ascendancy shoulder-to-shoulder with a street-wise generation of young Liberals who cared little for conventional politics. Grimond would catch the Speaker’s eye as the Chamber emptied and speak intelligently to a House which liked the man, but thought his party a joke.
Then came Jeremy Thorpe, the flamboyant actor-manager, famous in private for his impersonations of Winston Churchill and in public for a taste for campaigning that seemed larger than his causes. It was Thorpe who helped his party to win over six million votes in the first election of 1974 when, for a moment, it looked as if the Liberals might hold the balance of power.
In the best of circumstances, it would not have been easy for a new Liberal leader to maintain the momentum that Grimond and Thorpe had given the Party. But the tangled web that led to Thorpe’s disgrace and departure, and then to a bitter contest for the succession with John Pardoe, gave David Steel an almost impossible task. He was 39, but looked younger, a slight figure with an easy smile, a son of the Scottish manse, neither obviously at home with scholars, like Grimond, or in London society, like Thorpe. ‘The boy David’, as the Scottish Daily Express called him on his election to Parliament, looked a lightweight.
Events were to show that he was not. His party wanted from him good television performances and a frequent presence in the public eye. He gave them this. They hoped he would learn to play in the big league, and they were not disappointed. David Steel turned out to be shrewd, cool and tenacious.
But the central question, to which he devotes a third of his autobiography, is his role in the creation of the Alliance. Against Goliath, did the boy David win? With the optimism of a man free of the burdens of office, but still immersed in politics, he would like to believe that Britain’s two-party system is now shaky on its feet. But he cannot pretend, by reverting to the blandness with which he sometimes evades unpleasant truths, that it has all turned out the way he hoped. Fifteen or 20 per cent for the Liberal Democrats at the next election, together with a continuing strong base in local government? It would be a poor reward for his career, especially when the potential support for a party of the centre-left continues to grow, sustained by economic and social trends.
For many members of the newly-born SDP – both political virgins and old lags from the two main parties – it was a culture shock to confront the Liberals for the first time in 1981. The leader and the Party seemed to enjoy a semi-detached relationship. Arriving at a Liberal Conference for lunch with Steel, I was bundled off for a couple of congenial hours by a leader who clearly found the whole affair of Conference distasteful. In turn, the delegates showed that they wanted no leadership intervention in policy matters. The Conference was a jamboree, with a succession of circus turns allowed to perform with little thought of their impact on the wider audience of voters. The Liberals had lived too long in a political ghetto. They had ceased to worry about the wall because there seemed little prospect of breaking out. Only a brilliant flair for publicity, which often turned private occasions into public events – to the irritation of the SDP – kept their flame alight.
Later experience in discussing the division of Parliamentary seats between Liberals and Social Democrats confirmed the identity of the Liberals as an entrenched party of protest. Candidates had given up their jobs and abandoned their families to fight constituencies on which they believed they now had inalienable property rights.
It is a criticism of David Steel that he did little to change these attitudes during 12 years of leadership. He does not find easy the warm personal contact that can be persuasive in a crisis, and he welcomes open confrontation no more than most of us. He drew back on more than one occasion from a positive campaign to carry Liberals on defence, which was always his party’s Achilles heel. And misunderstandings arose when he appeared to reach agreements with the SDP which he was either unwilling or unable to deliver.
Despite this, he carried his party into the Alliance, and, after the disappointment of the 1983 Election, through four difficult years of tension with David Owen. He finally carried it into a merger in which the Social Democrats let him down. The trivial irresponsibility of parts of the Liberal Party continued to irritate the pragmatists of the SDP, but most Liberals were tolerant of their sometimes arrogant partners. At its best, in fighting by-elections, the Alliance was a remarkable achievement. Had David Owen not opposed merger in 1987, the new party would now have a larger membership than the Liberals and SDP put together, and would be commanding between a quarter and a third of the vote in opinion polls.
How far does David Steel bear responsibility for a very different outcome? He was leader of half the Alliance throughout the period. He was never the puppet that Spitting Image portrayed. For all his political skills, did he get it wrong at the times that really mattered?
It is necessary, first, to exonerate him from the charge that a premature discussion of merger immediately after the 1987 Election prejudiced success by alienating David Owen. Consistently, from the launch of the SDP, David Owen was hostile to merger. He saw the winning of Proportional Representation, not as a future milestone for the Alliance, but as an opportunity for the SDP and the Liberals to compete against each other. His appointment of a joint Alliance Commission on defence was in the expectation that it would fail. When a unanimous report seemed likely, he found a pretext to undermine it and so provoke the Liberal Conference at Eastbourne into returning to its foolish ways. In the period preceding the 1987 Election, the question of merger was by common consent set aside only on the clear understanding that the issue would be grasped thereafter. In bringing merger immediately into focus, David Steel did no more than upstage David Owen and take the initiative in a matter on which Owen had become irreconcilable. The hope which most of the SDP shared was that David Owen might have the stature to recognise that the Alliance could not continue as two parties and then the grace to accept the outcome of a membership ballot. We were wrong.
In their book, the Williams brothers discuss the character of David Owen, of whom they are warm admirers. Straying onto very dangerous ground, they refer to Owen as ‘certainly the cleverest and toughest politician out-of-power since the days of Sir Oswald Mosley’. Unable to leave the comparison alone, they wrestle with differences while pointing to similarities. ‘Both were “doers” rather than “thinkers”, and either one of them would have made an outstanding prime minister.’ Owen ‘possesses Oswald Mosley’s charm, ability and ambition to break the mould’, although he represents ‘the wholesome side of British politics’.
With friends like these, it is possible to be sorry for David Owen. The fact remains that from his earliest emergence into politics he was a loner, and from the launch of the SDP found it difficult to work on easy and equal terms with his colleagues. Believing that to lose was to be humiliated, and having no deep instinctive roots in the Left, he became increasingly authoritarian in his leadership and impatient of the need to compromise within his party and the Alliance. I sometimes shared David Owen’s populism and urged on him support for the Government during the Falklands war. On defence – until I reached an agreement with the Liberals – I was seen by him to be robust. But David Owen came to regard personal loyalty and unqualified support for his views as a measure of whether you were ‘safe’ as a friend and ally. It was not a tolerable relationship.
Faced with such an immovable force, even an irresistible object would have found difficulties. During the period after 1983, David Steel could have pushed the Alliance forward only if the remaining members of the SDP’s founding ‘Gang of Four’ had detached themselves from Owen and positively supported immediate merger. Steel cannot be blamed for the fact that, out of respect for David Owen and believing that the SDP was not yet ripe for merger, we failed to do so. David Steel acquiesced too readily under Owen’s relentless pressure, but nothing could have prevented a divided and limp election campaign in 1987.
An alternative charge against David Steel stems from the crisis meeting at his home at Ettrick Bridge in the Scottish Lowlands ten days before polling in 1983. In the previous week, as the Alliance campaign seemed to falter, sources close to Steel canvassed support for the idea that he should supplant Roy Jenkins as Alliance leader. Most of us said that this was out of the question in the middle of a campaign, even if it could be justified on merit. We were shocked when Steel raised and pressed the matter in a manner immediately hurtful to Roy Jenkins, who had been his closest ally in building the Alliance. As I drove David Owen back to Edinburgh Airport when all was over, his eyes shone with admiration for Steel’s performance. ‘I never knew he had it in him’ was Owen’s verdict, having sat on his hands and shown no eagerness to defend Roy Jenkins from Steel’s unexpected attack.
There is no doubt that Roy Jenkins found difficulty in adjusting to the unpleasantness of the House of Commons after his return to Parliament in 1982. Following his election as SDP leader, he was leisurely in preparing for the forthcoming general election, allowing a sulking David Owen to block most of his initiatives. There was also a shadow of the illness soon to bother him. But changing Alliance leaders was never a practical proposition.
Ettrick Bridge did little damage to the campaign. But the trust that had been built up between David Steel and Roy Jenkins was seriously weakened. When Roy Jenkins was faced with the question of resignation as SDP leader a fortnight later, Steel’s loss of confidence in him was a factor. If there had been no Ettrick Bridge, it is just possible that David Owen might never have led the SDP and that the merger of the two parties would have been accomplished without pain.
At the declaration of the poll at my own election to Parliament for Stockton-on-Tees in a by-election in 1962, David Steel had been in the crowd, booing. As a Labour candidate, I had held back the Liberal tide that had been flowing strongly since Orpington. But in the House of Commons relations between us were relaxed. We worked together during the Referendum campaign of 1975 (a seminal event for the Alliance) and exchanged passing gossip. Then, in March 1977, the Government was threatened with a vote of confidence, and I was prompted to telephone David Steel with the suggestion that a discussion with the Prime Minister might be to mutual advantage – a thought that had occurred to others. Thus the Lib-Lab pact was born. ‘I had little experience of him as an individual,’ Steel says of Jim Callaghan. He was also up against a political operator of great skill. But Callaghan welcomed an excuse for restraining his more ideological colleagues on the grounds that concessions to the Liberals were a small price to pay for the Government’s survival. A cartoon by Franklin in this book shows Callaghan on a dog lead with Steel his master. Subsequent judgment – especially by Liberals who disliked the pact – has been different. But the pact was a considerable achievement for Steel, and, as he claims, it produced eighteen months of stable policy that commanded a wide measure of Parliamentary support.
It was during the Lib-Lab pact that I met David Penhaligon, whose tragic death in a motor accident three years ago has led to an attractive memoir from his widow. Penhaligon was very much the grass-roots Liberal, deep into the life of his native Cornwall and a tireless local activist. In his crumpled suit, he made few apparent concessions to the House of Commons, sometimes walking up and down the bench as he spoke, often with wry humour. He was suspicious of the old parties and cautious about the capacity of his own to turn from a party of protest to a party of power. During the Lib-Lab pact, his views as Liberal transport spokesman had contributed towards the Labour Government’s transport White Paper, and he became a major influence on the making of the Alliance. Emollience was not his natural quality, but an open mind and a shrewd common sense enabled him to win the trust of both David Owen and David Steel. His sudden death removed what would have been a powerful influence at the time of merger and a serious candidate for the leadership of the new party.
In the event, it was Paddy Ashdown who became the first leader of the Social and Liberal Democrats when David Steel decided that it was not for him. His ‘radical agenda for the 1990s’ is intelligent, civilised and left of centre. His vision of a citizens’ Britain is not unlike that of the Social Democrats at the launch of the SDP in 1981. His emphasis is on health, education and an end to poverty in a more open society where power is widely spread. It is a simple and perhaps predictable formula, but gets closer to what the people want than the Labour Party, even under the new revisionism, can offer.
The question is whether the voters will be prepared to consider Paddy Ashdown’s party credible after the disappointments of the Alliance and the convulsions of merger. During the lifetime of the Alliance, there were many of us who believed that, if it failed, the possibility of realignment would be set back for a generation. This was before the emergence of the Greens and with no expectation of a residual, if ailing, group of Owenites standing on the centre ground. David Steel inherited a demoralised party but gave it a new dimension, first during the Lib-Lab pact and then by leading it into the Alliance. Paddy Ashdown has no such options open to him unless a hung Parliament after the next general election enables him to treat with Labour. For the moment, his task is to prevent the Democrats (under whatever name) looking like the old Liberal Party and to persuade his recalcitrant Parliamentary colleagues that their own future lies with his. Then, when the moment eventually comes, he must fight to win in every Parliamentary seat without pretending that he seriously expects to move to No 10.
Unlike Jo Grimond, David Steel is not loved, and compared with Jeremy Thorpe he has little style. His critics from within the Liberal Party are far fiercer than those who called themselves social democrats. But the surprising fact is that a minority party, offering little to the ambitious politician, threw up a resilient leader with an acute sense of realpolitik. David Steel shares with Roy Jenkins credit for seeing the possibility of a major political realignment when many of us were locked into other parties and had no such vision. Despite the despair of the last two years, it could still come right in the end.
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