Famous Four

R.W. Johnson

  • SDP: The Birth, Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party by Ivor Crewe and Anthony King
    Oxford, 611 pp, £25.00, November 1995, ISBN 0 19 828050 5

In the early Seventies I began work on an analysis of the British Parliamentary élite which made very evident both the decline of direct working-class representation among Labour MPs and the rise of an upwardly mobile middle class. As I ploughed through one biography after another, however, I became painfully aware of the generational limits to mobility. The perfect stereotype of meritocratic success was the working-class dad whose son became a teacher, whose son in turn became a doctor or barrister. But there wasn’t a single case of this being completed in two generations. Only slowly did it dawn on me – for this was a time of Labour electoral triumphs – what bad news these data held for Labour. Take, for example, Bill Rodgers and Roy Jenkins (both grammar school and Oxford, Jenkins the son of a miner MP) not to mention Shirley Williams (professional parents, St Paul’s and Oxford): social mobility had already carried them to Labour’s outer limits. At the least, it had to be expected that they and others like them would put their own children in private schools and that the next generation would move away from Labour altogether. What the data suggested was a terrible haemorrhage of talent away from Labour, listless working-class recruitment, indeed a general disassembling of Labour’s old class coalition, and the possibility of a major schism as the successful meritocrats inevitably broke away. Even allowing for the fact that they represented a more substantial group of meritocrats in the electorate at large, could Labour’s meritocrats possibly provide the basis for a new party? One couldn’t be sure; but the basic sociology of the SDP, I later realised, lay before me a decade before the event.

Crewe and King might not wholly agree with this, for their view of the SDP élite which triggered the schism (and it was definitely a revolution from above) is far too friendly for them to enter into such cold sociological calculation. They are open about the fact that they were summoned at an early stage to advise the SDP leadership on their electoral prospects and gave them a fairly enticing prospectus. But the detailed and sympathetic reportage even of minor players’ motives and feelings makes it clear how close the authors are to their subjects. The main beneficiary is undoubtedly Shirley Williams, introduced as being ‘by common consent, one of the nicest people in British politics – warm-hearted, outgoing and genuinely interested in other people’. After that, every popular criticism of Mrs Williams – that she is indecisive, always late, gets on the wrong trains – is dismissed. Even when the authors have to relate how she refused to run in Warrington; watched Jenkins bring off a spectacular result there; tried to take the nomination at Croydon despite the prior agreement that it was the Liberals’ turn; had to back out of that; and found herself forced to take up the next seat, Crosby, which she was bound to lose in the next election – the term used to describe her behaviour is ‘graceful’.

The treatment of Jenkins and Rodgers will also seem extraordinarily kind to those who remember some of Tony Crosland’s or even Jim Callaghan’s remarks, but Owen is beyond saving, even for Crewe and King. From the moment he is introduced – ‘a tendency to begin by arguing passionately on one side of an issue and to wind up arguing equally passionately on the other without seeming to realise that he had changed sides along the way’ – it is clear that the authors are tiptoeing around the word ‘egomania’. Yet, as is always the way, egomania gave Owen a great advantage when others around him seemed to dither, and at many junctures, starting with the schism itself, his was the decisive voice. The key moment came when Owen encountered angry heckling at Labour’s 1980 Wembley conference: it was enough to make up the former Foreign Secretary’s mind for good. After that he always knew so clearly where he was going that the others had to follow, and a fine old dance he led them. The extraordinary thing is that even when Owen had entered on his most openly mad phase, as leader of the separatist SDP when the bulk of the Party had merged into the Alliance, he still carried with him not only a posse of adoring women – Sue Slipman, Polly Toynbee and Rosie Barnes among them – but even such a seasoned campaigner as John Cartwright. One reads their names and wonders how true believers in Elmer Gantry felt when the charisma wore off.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in