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’.

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