Peter Clarke

It got out some time ago that in politics the medium is the message. It did not take those sharp-suited men stalking the Labour Party headquarters in Walworth Road to discover the name of a game which was already familiar to Daniel O’Connell and William Ewart Gladstone, even if the apparatchiks’ own discovery of the name of the rose had to await the advent of the cordless telephone. They now speak of having provided suitable ‘packaging’ for a new and improved ‘product’. Marketing claims of this kind inevitably encounter diverse sorts of consumer resistance. Has Labour sold its birthright for a mess of potage, or a potted message, or is the medium now the massage? When Tony Benn describes the Party’s new policy document as ‘profoundly anti-Labour as well as being anti-socialist’, not to mention ‘wildly pro-European’, it is an endorsement which many social democrats will find tempting. For those of us who supported the foundation of the SDP in the early Eighties, a question which has steadily become more insistent since the last general election can no longer be ducked: what price the Return of the Prodigal?

How you read this question probably depends on your preconceptions. The Labour Party has won the battle of institutions, as its supporters always assured us it would. In its hour of crisis it hung on and did not fall apart – unlike the Alliance, when it was subsequently faced with ostensibly less intractable difficulties. Now that David Owen’s ‘continuing SDP’ has gone out of business, some gullible newspapers have written as though the party that was launched nine years ago had sunk with all hands aboard. In fact, of course, constitutionally and numerically, the real continuing SDP is now an integral part of the (admittedly waterlogged) Liberal Democrats. It is understandable, though, that those who talked endlessly about the Labour Party’s roots, and the disabling rootlessness of the SDP, should feel vindicated by events. ‘We told you so’ is their homily, and their long-anticipated pleasure in delivering it to those who have tired of riotous living in a far country may even prompt the hospitable suggestion that the fatted calf’s number is up (given that it can no longer be exported).

But there is another way of reading the same question, which will naturally appeal to those who still do not repent for having joined the SDP in the first place. For it is still arguable that it was not their behaviour but that of the Labour Party in the early Eighties which was aberrant and culpable; that it was Labour which sinned against heaven, which devoured its living with harlots, which began to be in want, and which had to fill its belly with the husks that the swine did eat before it was brought to its senses. Though the SDP lost the battle of institutions, is it not clear that it eventually won the battle of ideas? Thus each party to this quarrel might relish the bitter irony of proclaiming to the other that this thy brother was dead, and is alive; and was lost, and is found.

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