SDP: The Birth, Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party

SDP: The Birth, Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party

SDP: The Birth, Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party

SDP: The Birth, Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party


Launched on a wave of euphoria in 1981, the SDP aroused the hopes and enthusiasm of millions of people. Promising to break the mould of British politics, its leaders included four of the most respected figures in British public life - Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers, and Shirley Williams.But the SDP failed. Despite winning with the Liberals a quarter of the vote in two general elections, by the autumn of 1987 it had disintegrated amidst acrimony and bitter in-fighting.This book, based on unprecedented access to the SDP's archive and extensive interviews with all the leading players, chronicles the party's short but turbulent history and analyses in detail the reasons for its early success and its ultimate demise.


This book bears a disconcerting resemblance to a biography of someone who showed early promise but died young. The SDP existed for only seven years. It has taken us rather longer to complete our book about it.

We decided to write the SDP's history on 26 November 1981, the day that Shirley Williams won the Crosby by-election. We were not sure that the new party would survive, but we thought that it might and that, if it did, someone ought to be on hand to chronicle its early years. We were conscious of the fact that at the beginning of this century no one had taken the formation of the Labour Representation Committee very seriously, with the result that historians of the Labour party (as the LRC soon became) have had considerable difficulty ever since in piecing together the early history of what soon became a major political force.

In the event, of course, our analogy with the Labour party proved wrong. The SDP did not survive. It went up like a rocket but came down like the stick. We believe, nevertheless, that its story is worth telling, partly for its own sake, partly for what the SDP's failure tells us about the British political system and partly because the episode can be read as a series of cautionary tales. There must be many former members and supporters of the SDP who, to this day, are wondering what befell their old party--a party in which so many of them had vested so much hope. Many others outside the party must be equally puzzled.

Both of us were initially attracted by the idea of the new party and knew many of those who set it up. Without ever formally joining the SDP, we sat on one or two of its committees in the early days. However, once the party's headquarters had been established, our involvement gradually ceased. For most of the party's short history, we viewed it from the outside as intrigued--and sometimes astonished--spectators. In the endless quarrels between the Jenkinsites and the Owenites, we usually found it easy to see both sides' points of view. We also found it easy to see why some people stayed in the Labour party in 1981-2 while others felt forced to leave. Our detachment probably unfits both of us to be politicians. We hope it does not unfit us to be sympathetic political observers.

Several of the early chapters of SDP were drafted soon after the events to which they relate, and we have largely resisted the temptation to revise them in the light of hindsight. The narrative chapters, in particular, are meant to catch the mood of the time, however false to reality that mood may now appear. The book is a genuinely collaborative effort. Although one or other of us prepared a first draft of each chapter, every chapter is the result of our joint efforts.

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