'Little by Little, the "Social" Element in Social Democracy Has Drowned out the "Democratic" Element. Freedom, Tolerance, Human Rights, Civil Liberty and the Rule of Law Slowly Fell off the Radar Screen. It Is Time to Redress the Balance'

Article excerpt

Twenty-five years after the SDP was born, it is fashionable to say that Blair and new Labour are the party's true heirs. Nonsense, writes DAVID MARQUAND, who was once a leading SDP figure. They have betrayed that heritage


Twenty-five years ago this month, the Limehouse Declaration signalled the deepest crisis in Labour history since the split of 1931. The Social Democratic Party was born a few weeks later and, for a brief but brilliant moment, the SDP-Liberal Alliance dominated the political debate and the electoral battleground. As late as 1983, it came within an ace of equalling Labour's share of the popular vote and for four more years it continued to attract media attention out of all proportion to its slender parliamentary presence. Labour did not recover from the crisis which had given birth to the SDP until the end of the decade. It was not until 1997--more than 15 years after Limehouse--that the electoral and rhetorical territory which the SDP had set out to occupy was unmistakably under "new" Labour control.


The long-term significance of the SDP's rise and fall is much more complex than it seems at first sight. In some quarters it has been blamed for splitting the anti-Tory vote and giving the new right two crushing majorities. In others, it has been credited with forcing Neil Kinnock's Labour Party to embark on the long journey that led to Tony Blair, while Blair himself has been seen as the political son of Roy Jenkins. Charming though the last thought is, none of this holds water. Labour would have suffered catastrophic defeats in 1983 and 1987 even if the SDP had never been invented; "new" Labour came into existence to jettison the version of social democracy that the SDP was founded to save. The true meaning of the story and its true moral for our own day lie elsewhere.

In this country, unlike its Continental counterparts, social democracy was the child of a marriage between the labour movement and the radical intelligentsia. Before 1914 most radical intellectuals were Liberals in politics. The nascent Labour Party was little more than a trade-union pressure group--all brawn and no brain. What turned it into a serious contender for state power was the collapse of the Liberal Party during and after the First World War and the radical intelligentsia's revulsion at Lloyd George's grubby postwar coalition. Asquithian Liberals seemed fixated on the lost glories of Edwardian progressivism; Lloyd George Liberals were little more than the praetorian guard of an opportunistic populist, desperate to cling to power at almost any cost. Some radical intellectuals stuck to their Liberal allegiance, Keynes among them, but most threw in their lot with Labour. No big battalions followed them, but they brought something even more precious--ideas, moral authority and intellectual elan.

In the 1970s and early 1980s the marriage broke down. Labour was swept by a wave of resentful anti-intellectual proletarianism and half-baked quasi-Marxism. The old Callaghan-Healey right did its best to withstand the wave but this resistance was purely mechanical, not moral or intellectual. It had no ideas to offer, only the tired old tricks of machine politics. The point of the Limehouse Declaration and the SDP was to offer a refuge to the alienated radical intelligentsia, where it could regroup its forces and recharge its moral and intellectual batteries. In those terms they were astonishingly successful. Thanks to Neil Kinnock's tactical skill, Labour slowly dug itself out of the electoral pit of 1983, but the SDP easily outclassed it in the battle of ideas. Not until the 1990s did the radical intelligentsia begin to drift back to Labour.

Now there are ominous signs that the cycle has begun to repeat itself. New Labour's authoritarian populism, disdain for legality, attempts to curtail free speech and assaults on judicial independence appal today's radical intellectuals as much as the Lloyd George coalition's unprincipled opportunism appalled their greatgrandfathers and the quasi-Marxist enrages of the 1970s appalled their fathers and elder brothers. …