A Time for War

Peter Clarke

  • The Rebirth of Britain edited by Wayland Kennet
    Weidenfeld, 275 pp, £12.00, October 1982, ISBN 0 297 78177 4
  • Claret and Chips by Hugh Stephenson
    Joseph, 201 pp, £8.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 7181 2204 6

The SDP is just now at a critical juncture in its career. But then it has been at one critical juncture or another virtually throughout its brief existence. As much as the Labour Party, it has lived for two years in a state of endemic crisis, but whereas crisis has reinforced Labour’s chronic debility, so far the SDP has been able to thrive upon it. Roy Jenkins talked of an experimental aircraft in adumbrating the idea of a centre party in the early summer of 1980: a ‘dangerously caricaturable analogy’, as he admits in a retrospective comment in The Rebirth of Britain. He said then that it ‘might well finish up a few fields from the end of the runway’. At the time he was looked at askance by many social democrats within the Labour Party (people like me, as I readily admit) for supposing that there would be so much as a runway. Within a year, however, we had all strapped our safety belts, magnificently unprepared for life after take-off. Actually, it was called a ‘launch’ by then, and we realised that we were in for a heady but stomach-churning diet of mixed metaphors for some time to come.

Well, let me see, what came next? It was really one damned thing after another. In one’s memory they have been collapsed and conflated into each other, making perfect sense as, first, the inevitable easy rise of the SDP, and second, the equally unsurprising, equally predictable bursting of the bubble. But it was never like that. The greatest merit of Hugh Stephenson’s dispassionate account of the first eighteen months, from the Limehouse Declaration to the election of Roy Jenkins as leader, is to make sense of what was happening without retrospective distortion. (The greatest lapse of the book is its silly title, Claret and Chips). The author has been mocked for writing in his preface ‘as a historian’, but although only a professional journalist might have been in a position to exploit his contacts and cuttings so effectively, he was well justified in his claim. It is, curiously enough, a journalistic weakness to capitulate to hindsight in regarding the present as inexorably determined: historians, by contrast, are often haunted by a sense of the open-ended possibilities of a situation.

It is notable, in this connection, how many historians of early 20th-century British politics have been attracted to the Alliance. It is almost as though those painstaking years of research, examining the origins of the Labour Party, entwined with the achievements of Keir Hardie and Ramsay McDonald, and appraising the fate of the New Liberalism, as it unfolded in the era of Asquith and Lloyd George, had served to open their minds to the historic frailty as well as the inherent strength of Labour’s position. In looking at the displacement of the Liberal Party by Labour, one cannot help but be aware of the long-term shifts in the British social structure which it manifested. Some take it as inevitable that, once class cleavages of a national character underpinned voting habits, the Labour Party was bound to come into its inheritance and fulfil its destiny. It seems more plausible to others of us, conversely, to regard the downfall of Liberalism as, at least in part, fortuitous and contingent.

The Liberal Party’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances in the early 20th century thus emerges as the crucial issue. Could the ideology of classical Liberalism be given a new economic dimension and acquire a social democratic thrust? Could the Liberal Party take organised Labour into a broader progressive alliance? Could the leadership of the Liberal Party show the judgment, the imagination and the magnanimity, as well as the tactical shrewdness, necessary to retain the political initiative? In short, could the Party pull off a reorientation of its goals and its support so that it was working with the grain of social change instead of against it? These are surely the sort of questions worth asking about the Liberal Party before 1914, confronted with the challenge of Labour.

A mere ten years later, most of the answers had been foreclosed by subsequent events. The political crisis of the war shook the Liberal Party. It fell, within a short space of time, into a condition of virulent factionalism. Lloyd George, who had once been the second man in the Party – deputy leader is how it would sound today – put his prestige in the scales against his old colleagues. A changed electoral system was partly a product and partly an agent of new political alignments. A unique fluidity in political allegiances allowed the Labour Party to burst through, giving the Tories a bad fright and permanently undermining the Liberals. By 1924, what with the bizarre workings of triangular competition under a first-past-the-post rule, a minority Labour government found itself in office; and the Party’s credibility was thereby established. These profound and sudden changes inaugurated a new era in British party politics, one which was to prevail for over half a century. It meant that the Liberal Party had lost for ever its chance to adapt to circumstances. It meant, too, that the Labour Party was strategically positioned to capitalise upon the emergence of clear-cut class divisions as the basis of electoral support.

Historians, like Marx’s philosophers, have pored over such matters in order to understand the world; and one or two may have come round to his conclusion, that the point is to change it. This seems an unlikely role in which to cast Roy Jenkins. But when the urbane biographer of Asquith undertook the 1979 Dimbleby Lecture (now reprinted in The Rebirth of Britain) he was clearly prompted by his historical studies in broaching his theme. Rereading the lecture today, one must acknowledge that it was, within its compass, pretty decent as history – and not half bad as prophecy. Jenkins pointed to the way the Labour Party ‘achieved a remarkable feat in breaking through the defences of the system to replace the Liberal Party’. He was among the first to popularise the measurable decline in the electoral hold of the two-party model in the last thirty years. He banged home the point: ‘the Labour Party in 1951 polled 40 per cent of the total electorate, including those who stayed at home, and it just lost. In October 1974 it polled 28 per cent of the electorate and it just won.’ The sharpening polarisation of the Labour and Conservative parties was thus accompanied by a shrinking of their islands of support, as social class became a less adequate guide to political allegiance. The inference was put rather tentatively – ‘the possibility that a break-out might now succeed’ – but the message was clear for all that.

Anticipating the charge that his was ‘an unashamed plea for the strengthening of the political centre’, Jenkins simply retorted: ‘Why not?’ Coupled with the break-out strategy, this identified him from the outset with the notion of a centre party. He knew what he wanted; and he foresaw one side of the SDP fairly accurately in surmising that ‘such a development could bring into political commitment the energies of many people of talent and good will who, although perhaps active in many other voluntary ways, are at present alienated from the business of government, whether national or local, by the sterility and formalism of much of the political game.’ But there is another side to the SDP, as it subsequently took shape, consisting of social democrats who, in 1979, saw no advantage in leaving Labour for a putative centre party. Shirley Williams spoke for many when she said it would have ‘no roots, no principles, no philosophy and no values’.

Today there are still many social democrats who remain in the Labour Party, hopeful of reversing the balance of fortune and of reinstating their principles. Moreover, their attitude towards the SDP now is very similar to what Shirley Williams was saying a couple of years ago. The reason many of us have changed our tune since then is fairly simple. It is not just that we have also turned our coats, though admittedly some elementary tune/coat correlation is de rigueur in politics. The fundamental reappraisal has concerned the question of whether the Labour Party is in a remediable condition. We always knew, while we were members of it, that the Labour Party was in a God-awful mess; we even found peculiar ironical reasons for loving it on that account. But it makes a radical difference to the argument when one accepts the premise that the Labour Party is in a God-awful irremediable mess.

On this point, regardless of the centre-party implications in which it was wrapped, the Dimbleby Lecture again stands up as rather more prescient than was allowed at the time. ‘If you remain in a beleaguered citadel you must necessarily look for a relieving force,’ Jenkins argued, since the only other possibilities were stalemate or surrender. But the only source from which a relieving force could come was ‘the power and money of the trade-union leadership, increasingly irritated by the intransigence of the left’. He dismissed such a development as unhealthy in 1979, because it would make Labour ‘more and not less of a trade-union party’. A remedy which is worse than the disease is hardly a remedy at all.

The cynical deals which piled up the block votes at the Wembley Conference in January 1981 were a graphic illustration of how the system worked. The election for the deputy leadership at the October 1981 Conference, with a million votes labelled TGWU flopping to and fro at the whim of the power-brokers, showed the price at which the Left could be stopped. The elections for the National Executive at the 1982 conference have proved even more wonderful. Were 600,000 NUPE votes mislaid? Hardly surprising with so many millions of vicariously regimented members to account for. Had the NUR really failed to deliver its mandated vote to the NUM candidate because the NUM had renounced a long-standing reciprocal agreement to back an NUR candidate? And was the outcome a defeat for the Left, or a defeat for the Right, or just a defeat for political integrity? When the deals that have been stitched up in private come unstitched in public, the system is exposed as a democratic veneer upon trade-union vote-jobbing. Has this development become any less unhealthy with more evidence of its methods in action?

It was on this issue of trade-union control of the Party that the decisive rupture within the Labour Party occurred. It was a good issue on which to make the break – never as easy a business to manage as one might suppose. By January 1981 the Gang of Four had effectively decided that a new party must be created, but a strong section of the Manifesto Group, led by Roy Hattersley, was still committed to continuing the fight within the Labour movement. Clearly no step could be taken until after the Wembley Conference, summoned unseasonally for Saturday 24 January to decide how the leader should be elected. ‘One man, one vote’ had belatedly become the social democrats’ cry, which was to be upon their lips as they rehearsed a noble death. There was only one possible hitch at this stage. As Hugh Stephenson puts it, ‘if, by some fluke, they managed to hold the day, then it would be difficult not to stay on, at least until they suffered some further reverse.’ It was all right on the night, of course; and indeed a bonus that the Left swept home upon its blatantly manipulated block votes.

The Limehouse Declaration, on Sunday 25 January 1981, was thus perfect in its timing, for the morning after the night before. ‘The calamitous outcome of the Labour Party Wembley Conference demands a new start in British politics,’ it declared. ‘A handful of trade-union leaders can now dictate the choice of a future Prime Minister.’ There was, to be sure, one inconsistency in the position of these old Gaitskellites, and only time could remove it. For, if they were questioned on their own record in the Labour Party, had they not relied upon these very methods themselves? How had Gaitskell turned defeat into victory over unilateralism in 1960-1, except by squaring the union bosses? The Campaign for Democratic Socialism, with William Rodgers as full-time organiser, could never have been vindicated without assuring itself of trade-union support. In later years, Shirley Williams sat on the National Executive of the Labour Party, and was able to conduct her long defensive action, precisely because the block votes had been sewn up, conference by conference, in order to put her there. There is little point in dissimulation on this score. But though these charges may have been embarrassing eighteen months ago, today they are so utterly spent and dead and devoid of spark that it can do no one any harm to rake over the ashes.

The instinctive force of revulsion against the notion of ‘democracy’ as enacted in the Labour Party Conference, by contrast, is as potent and immediate as ever. The founders of the SDP may legitimately be asked why they compromised themselves by staying on in the Labour Party so long: there are no grounds for reproach that they did not hang on long enough, for the pleasure of eating dirt as a way of life. This need not cast the SDP as an anti-union party. Indeed, it had better show itself responsive to the wishes of the many trade-unionists who are sympathetic to it, and not take them for granted. They are ready to support the SDP, not because they have turned against trade-unionism, but because they are disillusioned with the current politicisation of the trade-union leadership. Labour’s experience surely demonstrates that this is no way to run a political party.

The SDP’s own constitution is an exercise in extrication from the prevailing practices of caucus control, mandated delegates, indirect representation and conference sovereignty. At every stage, the weight is thrown instead upon direct ballots of the whole membership, whether to elect officers, representatives and Parliamentary candidates, or to take important decisions about the structure of the Party. That the inclinations of the members run in this direction was made clear over the SDP’s own leadership issue. ‘One man, one vote’ had proved an excellent stick with which to beat the Labour Party and had landed telling blows against the proposed electoral college. But during 1981 it looked less well suited to another purpose even dearer to the hearts of some prominent members of the SDP: namely, getting Roy Jenkins elected as leader. Hence the elaborate contrivance of proposals which would presumably have permitted the great man to be foisted by a presumably amenable Parliamentary group upon the presumably deferential membership.

At this point, ordinary members for the first time made their presence felt and their voice heard. The constitutional convention at Kensington in February 1982 is justly recognised as the moment when the SDP came of age. Hitherto its progress had chiefly depended upon the inspiration of four famous politicians with a common vision of what needed doing, who had gathered a self-selected larger gang around them. One of the first ways in which the new members showed their gratitude to the man whose brainchild the Party had first been was to kick away the ladder by which he hoped to climb to power. First the convention, then the national ballot of members, pushed aside the mediation of the existing MPs and opted for the simplicity of ‘one man, one vote’. In the end, it made no difference to who was chosen, but all the difference to how the choice was received. Jenkins came through in July 1982 as the candidate whom a clear majority of SDP members actually wanted on his own merits, and his potential authority was enhanced accordingly. The difference between this election and the manner in which Denis Healey became Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, by a fraction of a per cent of nothing in particular, was an object lesson in itself.

It needs constantly to be recalled that the SDP is astonishingly new. This was its first election of a leader, and the first elections for president and national committee are even more recent. The first meeting of the Council for Social Democracy, the Party’s supreme body, is currently taking place. This structure has been put together over the last year or so, with laborious democratic consultation, participation and ratification. For those who walked out of the Labour Party because of its inveterate constitution-mongering, the SDP has proved a home from home. The whole process may have been necessary but has certainly become wearisome – magnificent in its way, but not war. And it is war that people now want – war on the Tory Government, to which Labour offers such a feeble alternative.

The need to turn outward, after a period of putting its own house in order, is now widely recognised in the Party, and one can only hope that Roy Jenkins continues to give it his highest priority. For he was elected leader, I believe, not because he is the darling of the Party, but, above all, because his judgment commands the respect even of those who regard him as insufficiently radical. It is not so much that he is knowledgeable and experienced, circumspect, adroit and mellifluous: these attributes mean that he naturally carries weight and is able to keep out of unnecessary trouble. But it is more than that – partly a matter of style and partly of substance. He may not be the greatest living exponent of the grand manner in politics – not while Harold Macmillan is happily still with us – but he has made it his stock-in-trade. It does not make for intimacy of collaboration, as David Owen recognised in coining the soubriquet ‘le Roi lean Quinze’. The point about the grand manner is that it only really comes off in context, when the level of events rises to match it. They laughed at Macmillan, until he became prime minister, and at Churchill, until 1940.

What Roy Jenkins has done since 1979 is to persuade a good many people that he, too, is walking with destiny. He had left British politics in 1976, if not under a cloud, at least under a misapprehension. It was by no means clear where his brilliant career was then heading. To be sure, he had been a great Home Secretary – in the 1960s. He had been a successful Chancellor of the Exchequer: no mean feat, given the underlying state of the British economy. But was it difficult to look better than the two Chancellors, Callaghan and Barber, between whom he was sandwiched? Jenkins had taken his stand on Britain’s entry to the Common Market in the early 1970s, fighting an unholy alliance between the Left and xenophobic populism. In retrospect, one can see how this issue brought together the nucleus of the SDP, but at the time it impaired the popular credibility of the Jenkinsites. All that their great crusade had apparently achieved was an opportunity for their leader to push off to Brussels. At this stage, to borrow an epithet of Beaverbrook’s, he looked like a busted flush.

The journey back has therefore been all the more impressive. This is the biggest exercise in political rehabilitation since Richard Nixon – with worthier results, it is to be hoped. It has not happened because of any random stroke of luck but, as we have seen, because Jenkins’s course has had a clear rationale. He has had luck, of course, but mainly the sort of luck that determined people make for themselves. It was not, in fact, at all lucky that the first by-election after the launch of the SDP cropped up in Warrington; nor, with Shirley Williams unavailable, was it an obvious blessing to find the candidature on offer. It required decisive action to seize hold of a disintegrating situation and dogged professionalism to hang on until the prospects ripened. Old Smoothie-chops was on a hiding to nothing, as his former comrades in the Labour Party gleefully pointed out. The impact of the Warrington result in July 1981, when the SDP for the first time ripped open the soft underbelly of the Labour vote, was thus a milestone in the SDP’s advance. It certainly increased Jenkins’s own stature, but also made him a prisoner of his own success. After Warrington, anything but a by-election victory would have been an anti-climax for Jenkins. He knew this when he took on Hillhead six months later; and he knew, too, that he would be left out in the cold if he could not prevail upon enough Scottish voters to back this Welshman from England. It worked; and it worked because Jenkins worked.

In one of Roy Jenkins’s historical essays, published years ago, he defined persistent ambition as the crucial ingredient in the achievement of supreme power in British politics. As Nye Bevan used to say, why look into the crystal ball when you can read the book? But this is only half the story. The other half concerns the Liberal Party and in particular the role of David Steel. It may not be true that Jenkins was dissuaded from joining the Liberal Party by Steel, but plainly the two men were working together from the Brussels days onward to create a new opening on the centre-left. The Alliance is thus peculiarly the result of their efforts. From the start of his leadership, Steel had been educating his party ‘to be an altogether tougher and more determined force’ rather than ‘just a nice debating society’. This was a declared commitment to live dangerously in pursuit of a really big prize: governmental power. ‘The road I intend us to travel may be a bumpy one,’ he warned, ‘and I recognise therefore the risk that in the course of it we may lose some of the passengers, but I don’t mind so long as we arrive at the end of it reasonably intact and ready to achieve our goals.’ This was what he told the Liberal Assembly at Llandudno in September 1976, and he was able to quote it back to the Assembly when it returned to Llandudno in September 1981. By then, the political landscape had been changed by the unveiling of the Alliance, a conception undoubtedly forged under the steady and intense ambition of two men who knew their own minds.

It is the Alliance that offers the Liberal Party a prospect of promotion from the periphery of British politics to a central role. Equally, it is the Alliance which makes the SDP more than a transiently interesting splinter group. The proverbial alternatives – hanging together or hanging separately – are sharply posed. Thus the electoral system constitutes the tactical imperative on which the Alliance is founded. Dedicated as it is to electoral reform, it is numbly aware that reform can only be achieved by working within the constraints of the unreformed system. How nice to be able to opt for exactly the shade of Liberal or Social Democrat one prefers, once the single transferable vote ensures that the result will be proportionately fair as between them! How silly to ensure that no such option will ever be offered, because Liberals and Social Democrats cannot agree which is to be first past the post in the existing constituencies! Logically, those in each party who are keenest to preserve their distinct identities in the long run ought to be readiest for any sacrifice necessary to keep the Alliance together in the short run up to the next election.

The Alliance is founded, however, not only upon a tactical imperative, but also upon an ideological affinity. Admittedly, some deep and dark mutual suspicions have surfaced from time to time. It is true that there are irreconcilable elements: on the one hand, Liberal purists with a recipe for anarchy, and, on the other, uncomprehending machine politicians intent on rebuilding a Labour Party Mark II. On either side, however, such views are well outside the mainstream of ordinary opinion. The stereotypes have steadily broken down wherever Liberals and Social Democrats have actually come face to face, to talk and work with each other. Indeed, the difficulty now is finding a convincing answer to the question of what really distinguishes them. At the outset, it was plausible if unflattering to suppose that the Liberals were a cranks’ party whereas the SDP was a prigs’ party. As time has gone by, such characterisations have had to be discarded.

The Alliance, then, has encountered surprisingly little philosophical difference between its constituent parts. In a democracy, however, philosophers are not kings: they have to select prospective Parliamentary candidates instead. This is where the friction has arisen. Not so much, it should be said, because of the personality or outlook of particular candidates – though that has come into it – but because each constituency has had to be allocated to one party rather than the other. This has proved an intractable business, and it is the one respect in which the different nature of the two parties has shown up sharply. The Liberal Party is old and established and particularist. It has fought the good fight over the years and has carved out its niche in British politics; or rather it has carved out hundreds of little niches up and down the country, each one the product of sweat and self-sacrifice. And while this patient, painful, unglamorous groundwork was being done, the people who now call themselves SDP were either trying to undo it or else professing that politics was a dirty game. The Little Red Hen had much the same experience, and when she was asked, at the end of the day, to share the fruit of her labours, her memorable reply was: ‘Oh no, I shall eat it myself.’

The SDP was founded with the possibility of the Alliance already in view. Its members did not sign up to work against the Liberals, but with them in a common endeavour. The structure of the Party was centralised, built round a national plan of campaign. Area parties covered several constituencies, in some of which the Liberals would obviously be stronger than in others. Above all, the SDP started with no electoral capital, unless one counts the local following of those MPs who defected to it. In entering negotiations with the Liberals over the allocation of Parliamentary constituencies, therefore, the SDP found that its weakness was its strength and that its strength was its weakness. It had no vested interests to defend and could hammer out a rational scheme of priorities which gave each area party some consolation to anticipate. But because it was easier to identify common desiderata on the SDP side, and to accept the consequences, it meant that the negotiations repeatedly stalled because the Liberal side was unable to match this flexibility. In the bargaining unit in which I was involved, it rapidly became apparent that the SDP negotiators could make offers which they knew would be honoured, and suggest alternatives, which would also be acceptable, in order to resolve an impasse. But when the Liberal negotiators started ruminating about whether this or that would be tolerated in, say, Peterborough, they were not simply playing for time. They were playing under different rules. When the SDP assessed the cost of a quid pro quo, it was a possibly foregone chance, or an opportunity cost, that it had to consider. When the Liberals faced a cost, it was an actual cost, which involved giving up something tangible. Rather like Lenin, they asked: whose quid?

At its most extreme, the conflict has been between local and national priorities. Forced to choose, most Liberals would probably put local considerations first, whereas most Social Democrats would look to the national implications. And both would thereby be taking a view in accord with their own self-interest! For if the Liberals were allowed to field the candidates in each constituency where they had built up a strong local following, this would give them a virtual monopoly of the seats which the Alliance could reasonably count on winning at the next general election. At Crosby levels of support, of course, the SDP could afford to ignore such calculations in a bald-headed storming of the lines. But the next general election is not going to be like Crosby, though it may well be quite like Hill-head. The Liberals will, come what may, constitute the bulk of an Alliance Parliamentary group under any likely outcome. The negotiations have protected their interests in all the ‘golden seats’ where they are poised for victory. It can hardly be claimed that the SDP has secured a spectacular list of prizes on the cheap. Even where it will be fielding the Alliance candidate in winnable seats, like Cambridge, which have attracted considerable publicity, it has a long way to go in building upon the previous Liberal vote – which is not to deny the real magnanimity it requires of local Liberals to relinquish their own keenly felt ambitions. Such examples merely illustrate the complex intertwining of conflicting interests which the negotiations have had to face. It was bound to be a long job.

What is surely clear now is that this particular argument must be put behind us if the Alliance is to recover momentum. When Steel and Jenkins got together to settle it, whether it was over lunch, or a cup of tea and a bun, or even a glass of claret, they were responding to the heartfelt wishes of their supporters. Only the most petty-minded constitutionalist would wish the due processes of lengthy arbitration to be further prolonged. There are occasions when rough justice is better than waiting for the day of judgment in a wicked world. Haggling over a few notionally winnable seats only reduces the number of seats that are notionally winnable. The survival of the Alliance itself will come into question unless Liberals and Social Democrats now start campaigning together for their agreed aims.

If they do so, they will find once again that the big things on which they agree, and even the things on which they disagree, cut across the party lines. The Liberal Party would not be recognisable or true to its traditions if it did not contain sufficient diversity to gratify the ghost of John Stuart Mill. The SDP likewise spans a spectrum of views, as the essays in The Rebirth of Britain abundantly confirm, from the thoroughly decent noblesse oblige of Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler to the radical pluralism of Sue Slipman. Roy Jenkins is presumably in the middle, as usual. But he should now recall that in the Limehouse Declaration he rejected ‘the politics of an inert centre’ and endorsed the call for ‘more, not less, radical change in our society, but with a greater stability of direction’. Roy Jenkins can be proud to stand on his record, but this is not the time he can afford to rest upon it. We all owe him a great deal in the SDP, and recognised our debt in making him leader. But the time has now come when he owes us something – leadership.