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The Liberal/SDP Merger Negotiations 1988

Contribution to "Liberal History Online"

by Michael Meadowcroft

It is difficult to realise that it is now sixteen years since the trauma and angst of the merger negotiations. As far as factual accuracy is concerned the book by Tony Greaves and Rachael Pitchford (Merger – The Inside Story, Liberal Renewal, September 1989) is an excellent record of the proceedings. There were only a few points of difference that I took up with them at the time (photocopy available).

The context of the Alliance and of the merger is important. The Liberal party had been badly led since Grimond's time. First by a autocratic showman who never wrote anything and whose personal affairs got the party into a horrendous mess, and then by another autocrat without a particular understanding of Liberal philosophy who ran the party by edict and who had no respect for the party's democratic machinery. For myself, the Liberal party had been my chief occupation from the time I joined the HQ staff in 1962 at the age of nineteen. Having been at HQ for five years I was asked to take on the Yorkshire Federation secretary's post. Being frustrated with the defeatist attitude of the Leeds Liberals, who hadn't won anything for thirty years, I "crossed over" from the "backroom" to the "front line" and fought, and won, a city council seat nine months after arriving in the city. Having somehow to forge a Liberal identity in a very competitive council chamber forced me to start reading and thinking about modern radical Liberalism.

I believed then, as I believe now, that there is a clear, coherent and identifiable set of beliefs that are distinctively Liberal, and that one need have no lack of confidence, or be inhibited, in promoting them. The party's record in Leeds at that time bore witness to that fact. To some extent I have always written books, pamphlets etc in order to clarify my own thinking as well as to assist others. I firmly believe that politics, and particularly Liberal politics, need intellectual rigour. In 1980 I was asked to produce the booklet that became "Liberal Values for a New Decade", and then, in 1981, as the SDP was being formed, I wrote a second booklet, "Social Democracy - Barrier or Bridge?" analysing the differences between Liberalism and Social Democracy and pointing out the dangers inherent in the newly formed party. Alas, it turned out to be too accurate for comfort. There then followed in successive years, "Liberalism and the Left" (dealing with the Labour party's new dominant left) and "Liberalism and the Right" (dealing with Thatcherism). Thus by 1983 there existed four booklets providing a basis for Liberal thinking in the current political situation for anyone interested in defending and promoting the party. It soon became apparent that very few in the party were interested. The party fell for the Alliance with the SDP, but at least the party at that point remained independent.

There followed four years of battling against David Steel and his inner circle to try and protect the interests of the Liberal party against the predatory efforts of the SDP to dominate the Alliance. I spent too much of my time in parliament in this thankless task and it inevitably contributed to my defeat in Leeds West in 1987, as did the declared preference of David Owen for Mrs Thatcher. Mine was the only seat won from Labour at a general election for fifty odd years and the SDP and its style were not going to go down well in a northern industrial city.

The problem of the Alliance was always much more Steel than Owen. If one has a leader who neither understands his party nor respects it, it is not surprising that he is not going to defend its interests. Unlike Owen, who ran his party more democratically than people realised and who, in my time, never deviated from the line he and his colleagues had agreed in his party caucus, Steel would ditch the line agreed in advance with his parliamentary party. We would often be left high and dry at joint meetings, and Steel simply didn't understand that loyalty and consistency were important. This, crucially, was at the heart of the failure to ensure the Liberal party's dominance in the merger negotiations.

I recall often walking across with Owen from our adjacent offices to a division and Owen saying to me, "What can you do with a leader who isn't interested in policy?" I had to agree. And at the time of the Croydon NE by-election, Steel wanted to ditch the Liberal candidate, Bill Pitt, and put Shirley Williams in. The party council meeting in Abingdon had to be used to pass a motion of support for Bill. I went to see Steel on the Tuesday after that meeting to ask what he intended to do. He replied, "I suppose I'll have to bow to democracy." Steel had never spent time in the mundane but important work of the party before he was pitchforked into parliament at a fortuitous by-election - and it showed. I was happy to accept all invitations to speak at SDP conferences and to debate with anyone. I was certainly not reluctant to enter into the arena.

When Steel launched his pro-merger initiative immediately after the 1987 election, it was clear that it was going to be very difficult to safeguard the Liberal party's interests in what was inevitably about to unfold. I deliberately stood for election as party president in order to have a popularly elected position within the party at that crucial time. I need not have bothered! The party centrally disappeared before I could come into office! The party leader was determined to have a merger at whatever cost, as were a number of other members of the negotiating team.

My aim within the process was to try to ensure that whatever emerged from the negotiations maintained the integrity of Liberalism and was in the direct line of succession from the historic Liberal party. Given the intellectual weakness of social democracy, and the organisational weakness of the SDP - without Owen by this time, it must be remembered - it was quite possible to achieve this, and, indeed, there were a number of moments in the negotiations when, had the Liberal team wanted it, we could have delivered it. The key moment was when John Grant resigned from the SDP team. Robert McLennan literally burst into tears and said that he couldn't go on and that he and his team would have to withdraw from the proceedings. The Liberal team went back to the National Liberal Club to discuss the situation. I was elated. We were clearly in a very strong position and could - and should - have exploited it to ensure that the content and style of what emerged from the negotiations was manifestly Liberal. I was astonished to discover that this was not the aim of a majority of my colleagues. Alan Beith's opening question was, "What do we have to do to get them (the SDP) back to the table?" Further concessions were produced when none were needed. Thereafter the outcome was a foregone conclusion, and I was painfully aware that it was likely to be the end of the road for me. The Blackpool special assembly was a miserable occasion but even after that I didn't finally close the door on joining the new party until Alan Beith was defeated for its leadership.

Finally, having spent so much time and energy over twenty years arguing and campaigning for Liberalism and setting out as clearly as possible how different it was from other political philosophies - including social democracy - I could hardly then turn round and declare that it had all been a mistake. The merger was a compromise too far. The new party was, and is, intellectually fraudulent and is incapable of tackling the huge political challenges that have faced politicians over those years and which still face them. Consistency and integrity dictated that I could not join it. I had done my best over a long period of time in the party to match theory with practice and, sadly, it had not been enough.

In retrospect, it is clear that I and those who shared my view of the Liberal party had too high a view of the average party member. We assumed that enough of them had an awareness of the basis of the party and understood what was at stake. Far from it. Alas, most of the party wanted their politics on the intellectual cheap and saw first the Alliance and then the merged party as a quick way of winning elections. I didn't share this inferiority complex about the Liberal party. I saw the party as philosophically sound and as a vehicle well able to persuade concerned citizens to join it and to win elections. I regarded the Liberal party as capable of winning the arguments and winning support. After all we had proved it in Leeds over the years in exceptionally difficult circumstances. The political agenda then, as now, cried out for radical forthright Liberalism, not for a compromise between two parties from different political "families". A huge opportunity was thrown away.

12 September 2004

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