A left-winger’s medical nightmare might be to look up, drowsing into anaesthesia on the operating table, to recognise that the gowned and masked figure wielding the scalpel above them was none other than Dr David Owen.
Nightmares of the political kind have been induced in many of those treated by Owen since the days when, surprisingly elevated to the job of Foreign Secretary, he was spoken of by adoring hacks as the Anthony Eden of the 1970s. After that, who knew? With his good looks he could have been Labour’s next Prime Minister. But it all went wrong when the voters decided they didn’t want another Labour Prime Minister. Owen decided that this mortal blow to his ambition was the fault of all those left-wingers and their delusion that a Labour government is supposed to be something other than an imitation of a Tory one. Since then Owen has been in and out of the operating theatre, amputating one political member after another until now only three lonely MPs represent his drive to change the face of British politics forever.
How you regard this must depend on your overall attitude to politics. If you are aware that all the parties which want to reform some aspects of the present social system, rather than do away with it, must put winning votes before sticking to principles you will have the basis of an understanding of what motivates David Owen and the other reformists. You will also be aware that what they offer as new and radical policies are really a re-arrangement and a dressing-up of old ones which have been tried and have failed.
For example, Owen’s latest ruse is to tout around the prospect of an alliance. It does not especially matter which party or parties join the alliance—Labour and the SLD would be most welcome—as long as the end result is seen as a presentable opposition to the Thatcher government. According to Owen, when he made his outdoor speech to the SDP delegates after the bomb scare at their Conference (which was widely praised as a brilliant example of extempore oratory but which—if we may say so—was not a patch on the style and delivery always practised by Socialist Party speakers) the worst possible fate confronting us is another spell of Thatcher at Number Ten. So we must all unite to kick her out.
The first thing to be said about this is that it is by no means a new policy. Formal political alliances are not common in Britain as in some other countries but the informal kind often operate. For example, Denis Healey when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer always worked closely and amicably with his Tory shadow Geoffrey Howe, even if he did once say that being attacked by Howe was like being savaged by a dead sheep. The Labour Governments of 1924 and 1929 were kept in office through Liberal support and although these experiences caused what was left of the Labour Party in 1931 to swear that never again would they form an alliance with the Liberals that was just what the Callaghan government did. Between 1931 and 1935 Britain was governed by a ‘National” government of Labour. Tory and Liberal politicians and in 1940 there was the wartime coalition under Churchill, who had swapped sides often enough to be an alliance all by himself. All these alliances were justified on the grounds that the priority was to defeat or frustrate a common enemy; the Lib/Lab pacts were aimed against the Tories, the “National” government was supposed to organise the chaos of British capitalism during the slump of the 1930s. and the 1940-45 Coalition was formed when the enormity of the effort needed to defeat Germany became not just apparent but inescapable.
The second thing to be said about Owen’s desperate fishing for friends is that it is out of step with what he once offered as a political principle. One of the more emphatic reasons given for the founding of the SDP was the urgency of getting away from “Two Party” politics, in which power bounced to and fro between Labour and the Tories. A third political force, it was argued, was essential to counteract the extremism (for that was how some of the Labour and Tory policies for running British capitalism were described by the SDP) of the two big parties. Of course, with the SLD and the SDP we now have four political forces but let that pass. The point is that if the SDP succeed in forming an anti-Thatcher alliance we shall be back with the “Two Party” politics which the Gang of Four once said was so damaging and frustrating.
But could the other parties’ reluctance to rush into Owen’s embrace have anything to do with his infamous personality? When he was Foreign Secretary he was not at all bashful in letting everyone know how lucky we were to have so brilliant a man in charge of British capitalism’s diplomacy. Not only enemies are uneasy about his vanity over that handsome face. His former ally David Steel has given an insider’s story in his book Against Goliath (geddit?) that Owen was not only arrogant, overbearing and difficult but also inconsistent: “What Owenites think on Monday may be different from what they think on Thursday”.
This would be more convincing were it not that when Steel and Owen were in partnership during the last General Election Steel was doing his best to persuade us to vote for this arrogant and inconsistent man and was always being photographed or televised in a state of exultant celebration with him. As things have turned out, Steel has retired from the SLD leadership in good standing, an inconvenient shadow behind Ashdown, while Owen and his party are in tatters. So which of these two Davids wields the scalpel more artfully? Which can cover his inconsistency more cleverly—which the smoother operator? And when will the patient come out of the anaesthetic and wake up to what is being done to them?