The Piers Morgan of politics – 30 years since the birth of the SDP

By David Seymour

Can it really be 30 years since the formation of the SDP? What a torrent of political water has flown under the bridge since then.

Younger readers will not have experienced that extraordinary mix of violent bitterness between those who left the Labour party and those who stayed (not to mention the internecine hatred between many of those who remained) and the thrill of something momentous happening in British politics.

The infiltration of the organised left – particularly the Militant tendency (note to younger subs: keep as lower case t) – and the chaos of the disorganised left was tearing Labour apart. Thatcher was in power but deeply unpopular.

It was such an exciting time to be involved in politics, but looking back on it now, you can’t help wondering what all the fuss was about. Was the result of all that angst and agony simply the creation of New Labour and this coalition government?

How different it might have been. By the time of the ’87 election, the fledgling SDP, by then in alliance with the Liberals, came within a hair’s breadth of replacing Labour as the second party and, with Thatcher’s aggressive programme by then in full flow, it didn’t seem completely impossible to foresee an SDP government of sorts. In fact, I actually wrote an article at the time explaining how it could happen, complete with fantasy graphics.

It didn’t, of course. Although the Alliance was only just below Labour in the polls when the campaign started, they had a poor launch while Neil Kinnock got off to a flying start, putting clear blue water between him and the young pretenders.

Although Thatcher beat Kinnock comfortably come polling day, he could be content with having put the SDP in its place. It never recovered and merger with the Liberals followed.

Some commentators say the party, now the Lib Dems, has finally come into its own with its place in the coalition. Not so. It got into government 13 years earlier than that.

What was New Labour if not an SDP variation? The Social Democrats wanted the unions kept down. Done. It was happy to work with Tories. Done. It was generally in favour of close ties with Europe. Well, partially done.

So surely Tony Blair should be described not as the heir to Thatcher but as the heir to Roy Jenkins and David Owen? After all, Jenkins was very much his mentor, though he became sorely disappointed with his pupil.

The Blair No. 10 was stuffed with former SDP-ers – Derek Scott and Roger Liddle – and those whose natural home was the SDP rather than Labour.

It doesn’t end there, either. Even without their coalition partners, the Cameron wing of the Tories is very much in the SDP mould – cuddly on social policies, hard-line on economic ones; and always with an eye on the media.

Could the Social Democrats have done it in their own right? Probably not. The electoral system was weighted far too heavily against them, Thatcher had a resurgence and Labour had the strength of the unions to prevent it imploding.

Besides, the massive ego of David Owen – the Piers Morgan of politics – was always going to get in the way.

The Gang of Four used to talk about “breaking the mould” of politics. Tony Blair had a similar aim, with a permanent centre-left (in his view) majority. Now David Cameron thinks he can form a permanent centre-right majority.

None of this, even if it happened, would be breaking the mould, however grandiosely they present their achievements. They are just reshaping things temporarily to adapt to changes in society.

What the SDP did was create a party for the middle ground which most mainstream politicians now accept is where electoral battles are won and lost. The other parties have moved on to that territory.

Thirty years on, the SDP is just a footnote in political history but their dream lives on.

David Seymour has written more newspaper leader columns than anyone in history. He is a doyen. He blogs here.

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2 Responses to “The Piers Morgan of politics – 30 years since the birth of the SDP”

  1. john reid says:

    I don’t get the Morgan comparison, Has Owen an Ego?, He had argured the case for the right of the party ,when the Left took over all the rage that ad seen his side sidelined He took joy in seeing the left realsie at las tthat their actions were resulting in The Tories winning 2 landslides and then winning the 92 election aswell.
    Actually wasn’t polly toynbee in the SDP and Chris graylinng Danny finklestien, Paul staines?

  2. james says:

    To understand the SDP you need to ditch the abstract terms like “left” and “right” and start thinking about the real divide which defines politics – between little-l labour and capital. Clearly, the SDP wanted to take a more deferential line towards capital. Many SDP activists didn’t find much enthusiasm for this approach within the Labour Party since it was labour that was paying the price.

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