Losing from the Inside

It may seem rather perverse to be reviewing a book first published in 1990 simply because it is newly available as an e-book. It is, however, still an important book with a distinct, some might say idiosyncratic, view of the reasons for the demise of the SDP. Patricia Lee Collins is an American political scientist at the American University, Washington, who spent two years at Nuffield College, Oxford, studying British politics. Since her first edition in 1989 she has added an Epilogue and I have to declare an interest in that she conducted a long interview with me in the preparation of this final chapter. In a number of respects the dust of the changes of the merger of the Liberal party and the SDP and their consequences had not really settled enough to be analysed effectively. One effect of this is that she exaggerates significantly the potential role of the continuing Liberal party I led for some time. She also suggests, erroneously, that I warned in advance that, without a satisfactory merger agreement, I would start a separate Liberal party. This was never the case and the continuing party only came about when I and others realised, following the decisions on the merger, that a number of local parties had committed themselves to continuing whatever the national party had agreed and looked to a means of bringing them together. Inevitably, without representation at Westminster it was a quixotic venture.

The essential heart of Sykes' analysis, and the basis for the book's title, is that the SDP might well have been a young party but was not a "new" party. Rather it had all the fault lines of the Labour party out of which it essentially sprang and it was these that brought it down. Disagreements between leaders, embarrassing press releases, a lack of clarity on its essential philosophy, a constitution that attempted to keep safeguards in the hands of central officers - and particularly parliamentarians - whilst preaching the importance of member involvement and, in addition, the problem that it could not survive without the Liberal party but could not survive with it.

Collins sets out carefully all the details of these inherent organic and seemingly irremediable problems and sets them alongside the polling evidence of the damage they caused. It is certainly circumstantially a powerful argument, though there are occasional times when the evidence is squeezed into her over-riding thesis with some downplaying of other factors, such as the effect of the Falklands war. One key thread running through this book is the disruptive and ultimately malign role of David Owen. From the beginning he had a very different perception of the place and potential of a new party. What is more he saw himself as its natural leader, which, in fact, was the case but had to take into account other key factors, such as party unity, the necessity of holding party elections for the position and the opinions on him of the Liberal leadership. For the latter's inhibitions Owen had no time at all, not least because he had never wanted any truck with the Liberals which he regarded as a incubus and a brake on his vision of the political potential of the SDP in its pure form. In a sense he was the SDP equivalent of Paddy Ashdown - for whom, incidentally, Owen had no time at all - but without Paddy's Liberal pluralism and love of argument.

All the way through Collins' narrative is David Owen's disdain for his colleagues in the Gang of Four, his electorally damaging impetuosity when he thought himself traduced, as for instance when, in 1986, David Steel leaked the conclusions of the Alliance's independent Defence commission, implying that they would demonstrate a defeat for Owen's more hawkish defence line. The bandstanding outbursts of the two leaders led to the 1986 Liberal Assembly defeat for Steel's policy, immediately disowned by Owen and resulting in yet another decline in the Alliance's poll rating. Incidentally, Collins asks why Steel had not got an agreed and sustainable position sorted out with his party before the debate. The answer is that Steel rejected the opportunity. The party's policy committee met with him well in advance and offered him a conciliatory wording that was likely to go through the party Assembly - a line which was essentially the same as had to be agreed after the debate - but David Steel rejected it: "I'm going to go for the high wire act and confront the dissidents." I remarked that with a high wire act it was important to know how to reach the other side.

A weakness of Collins' book is that she does not make sufficient distinction between Liberal, SDP and Alliance and all too often conflates them into the jumbo title of "Alliance" when there were often key nuances, for instance, in the differential poll performances of the two parties. However, her basic thesis is powerful. The SDP would only have been "new" if had unified the Gang of Four following its launch and if it had maintained an external unity and a solidarity of approach to leadership and electoral tactics. No democratic party could ever deliver all this so that the fine words of the SDP's launch about a new approach to politics were unachievable, so that great was the disillusion of the public. In addition, to succeed and to maintain its initial high opinion poll rating, it would have needed the full agreement of the Liberal party to a united approach to the 1983 and 1987 general elections. This was impossible to achieve and, in fact, the SDP from its beginning wholly underestimated Liberals. It had imbibed the media's caricature of the party as a nice, folksy, diffuse and largely ineffective party, a view often purveyed by David Steel. How on earth the SDP thought that Liberal candidates succeeded in gaining and retaining thousands of seats on local councils and even managing to win any parliamentary seats against all the odds, I do not know, but certainly they were surprised by the toughness and political skills of their Liberal interlocutors.

Collins makes a powerful case that the SDP failed because it exhibited all the inherent faults of the Labour party, albeit on different issues, that it had found sufficiently distasteful for many MPs to abandon. Perhaps it was inevitable and it may be that political parties are incapable of avoiding such problems if they are to try and square the circle of assuaging the aspirations of a mass membership with convincing the electorate of its unity and seriousness of purpose.

Losing from the Inside, by Patricia Lee Collins, pub. Transaction Publishers, (Second edition originally published 1990, now re-published as an e-book)