When the SDP was launched last March it was fashionable to say that it couldn’t grow because it had no roots. Its opponents wrote it off as short-term opportunism that was bound to fail. Few people considered it a serious threat to the Labour-Tory see-saw. But it has grown. Now, less than a year later, it’s got almost thirty MPs, about 70.000 members and is way ahead in the opinion polls. No one is writing it off any more – not even Labour left-wingers who, while continuing to revile the Social Democrats as opportunists, have now got to admit that at least they look like being successful ones.
Will the SDP ‘break the mould’ and, as Shirley Williams predicted after her by-election victory at Crosby, ‘sweep on to victory at the next election’ (The Times, 28/11/81)? The old adage of a week being a long time in politics may apply here just as much as it was seen to apply recently to the apparent fervour for nationalism in Scotland. But supposing the SDP did come to power at the next election is it possible to know what would happen to Britain?
Although the SDP has been widely attacked for having no policies, the criticism isn’t altogether fair. It hasn’t got a manifesto as such but it is possible to piece together the broad lines of what it says it will do as a party of government.
First of all the statement Twelve Tasks for Social Democrats issued at the party’s launch shows a clear commitment to continued British membership of the Common Market and support for active participation in NATO with the aim of multilateral disarmament. And these two platforms have been confirmed on many occasions since. It’s true that many of the other points contained in the launch statement (“consistent economic strategy”, “schemes to conserve energy”, “mixed economy”, “fair distribution of wealth”, “better environment”, “equal rights”, “imaginative generosity”) are, as Ian Bradley, SDP sympathiser and author of the first book to be published on the party,  says, “so vague that they border on the platitudinous”.
But they are no more so than many of the proposals that the other parties commonly advance when they are out of office, and the SDP can point out that some of the suggestions in their twelve-point programme (proportional representation, incomes policy, apprenticeship schemes, decentralisation) have been amplified since they were first made and in some cases even ‘costed’. They can point for evidence of this to the discussion papers issued for the SDP’s first conference last October, to various pronouncements made by their leading figures, and to the idea advocated by Roy Jenkins, the party’s probable leader, of an ‘inflation tax’ which would fine employers for giving workers pay rises beyond a limit laid down by the government.
What is there to be said about the more concrete of these SDP policies? The Ecology Party has described them as a ‘recycling of politics’, and it is indeed difficult, despite the SDP’s claim that they will ‘change the face of Britain’, to find anything in them that hasn’t appeared in one of the other three parties’ manifestoes before and that could possibly make any fundamental difference to the lives of the majority of people in this country in the future.
If we take as an example membership of the EEC, it would be hard, even for the most ardent ‘Europeanist’, to show that it had been of any particular benefit to British wage and salary earners, and even harder to show that future membership will make much difference either. Then, being in NATO, far from helping to bring about world disarmament as the SDP suggests it would, has so far meant increasing amounts of resources spent on bigger and more lethal weapons and the nightmare of nuclear war as near as ever. Incomes policies which aim to punish employers for paying their workers too much have been tried before too (for example by the last Labour government). As they have the effect of depressing living standards and increasing industrial unrest, they founder on opposition both from workers through their trade unions and from employers.
As for the ‘mixed economy’ (part-private, part-state ownership), it’s precisely what the Labour and Tory parties, despite their lip service to other ‘philosophies’, have always practised when in government and it has done nothing to solve problems such as the financial worries, insecurity, unemployment, boredom and dissatisfaction experienced by the vast majority of workers in both sectors. Finally other proposed SDP measures like decentralisation (or regional assemblies) and proportional representation can only be described as new inasmuch as they’ve never actually been tried in Britain. They’re certainly not new as far as Europe goes. Both have been in operation for many years in, for example, Italy, yet Italians (as this writer can vouch for from personal experience) would not think of claiming that this gives them any superior say in the way decisions arc made about their lives.
So why are so many people thrilling to the SDP if all it has to offer are these more-of-the-same policies? Well, first of all, the evidence of two MORI polls was that at least 50 per cent of SDP supporters were ignorant or mistaken as to its probable policies. And it’s hard to imagine that even informed supporters are excited about the specific policies on offer. What’s more likely is that the SDP’s support is based not on policies at all; but on the attraction of the individuals offering them.
The so-called Gang of Four have been carefully portrayed, both by their own expensively acquired publicity machine and by a highly sympathetic media, as sane, purposeful, trustworthy personalities who, if only given the chance, will produce a brand new political broom and use it to sweep spotlessly clean. They’ve been expertly projected as the team capable of doing a job that others, through lack of honesty, integrity or ability, have failed to do in the past. The party that these nice, reliable, sincere, intelligent people are trying to get off the ground is one based on honesty, virtue and common sense. How can such a venture be anything but ‘a good thing’?
It all smacks of an exercise in wish fulfilment and is ironically reminiscent of the hopes so many people had in 1964 when they elected the first Labour government for thirteen years with a leader referred to at the time as a ‘political magician’. That leader’s name was Harold Wilson.
Realities of Government
Will what happened to Harold Wilson also happen to the magicians of the SDP? Well, to an extent it already has, because all four of them are past failures. They’ve all served as ministers in governments which no impartial observer could describe as successful. Will tilings change for them in the future? Is it ‘all different now’ as Crosby SDP voters kept telling reporters who tried to remind them of Shirley Williams’ record as a Labour minister?
In the past governments have failed to deliver the expected goods because the conditions they found once in office didn’t allow them to. And it couldn’t be any different for the SDP. Put in charge of a system which operates through the market, buying and selling and production for profit, the SDP would find, as the other parties have found, that conditions change continuously and unpredictably. Its plan, for example, to reduce unemployment by apprenticeship and job creation schemes would depend on whether its revenue from taxation allowed such schemes to be funded. And this in turn would depend on whether the world market, over which governments have no control, decreed high or low profits for the employing class which funds the government with taxes from those profits. These schemes in any case would be nothing more than a short-term expedient, would conceal a certain amount of unemployment for a time. They couldn’t possibly cope with the rise in the jobless that, if the present recession goes on, will occur whichever government is in power. Employers will not employ people, not even under an SDP government, unless they can find profitable markets for their goods.
So niceness, sincerity, reliability — these things would have nothing to do with the practical conduct of an SDP government. The professional economic forecasters are always divided among themselves on the future conditions the market is going to create and the politicians of the SDP would be unable to read into the future with any greater clarity. Whoever it is that finally formulates the Social Democrats’ election manifesto the leadership, the MPs or their local ‘policy groups’ — the administration called to put that manifesto into effect will find that many of its best laid plans will have to be delayed, altered or simply abandoned.
Duplicity and Deception
For all their need to play it by ear, however, an SDP government would, we can be quite certain, pursue one policy to the bitter end — the policy, unspoken but fundamental and shared with all the other parties, of perpetuating a system in which the vast majority of a country’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small minority of its citizens while the majority of the people — the wage and salary earners — are hoodwinked into believing that this system is run in their interest. The Gang of Four did this when they were members of Labour governments and they will do it as members of an SDP government.
Already they have begun to tarnish their new laundered image, to show the kind of duplicity and deception necessary for running the British profit system. Firstly David Owen, at a public meeting in Swansea attended by this writer (9 July 1981), declared that the two main planks of his party’s foundation were EEC membership and multilateral disarmament but then told a unilateralist questioner that the SDP still welcomed into its ranks those who favoured unilateral disarmament. Then Shirley Williams, in her campaign at Crosby, referred to Graham Page, whose 19,000 Tory majority she needed to overturn, as ‘a healer not a divider of one person from another’ (Sunday Times, 25/10/81). Yet she must have known that this was the man who, three years ago, called for a total three-year ban on all immigration to Britain.
Finally the SDP’s application form for founder membership of the party asked for a £9 subscription and proclaimed: ‘If you really want a party that’s in nobody’s pocket it will mean digging into your own’. It also said that, unlike the Labour and Tory parties, the SDP had ‘no pipeline from big business or trade unions pumping money into its funds. It will belong to its members and no one else.’ Now, articles in the Observer (15 November 1981) and the Sunday Times (6 December 1981) have named a large number of leading industrialists as supporting and making financial contributions to the SDP. The chairman of the SDP’s finance committee is David Sainsbury, finance director of the grocery chain. A trustee is Clive Lindley, millionaire owner of the LCI group and a former longstanding Labour Party supporter. Other supporters include Lord Sainsbury, Sir Claus Moser of Rothschilds, Edmund Dell of Guinness Peat, Cob Stenham, financial director of Unilever, the Rowntree company, John Lambourn of Commercial Union, and John Harvey-Jones, new chairman of ICI. The Sunday Times article also revealed that the party organises lunches for potential donors at its headquarters in Cowley Street, where, according to SDP recruiter Anthony Sampson, ‘the business side is critical’. And this is the party that was to be ‘in nobody’s pocket’.
‘Social Democracy’ is a bright new label but the stuff inside the bottle is as unpalatable as ever. Far from taking the ‘quantum jump’ Shirley Williams talks about in her recent book , her party can only limp along the same well trodden path as the parties that preceded it. Yet social democracy does have another meaning. For the socialist pioneers of the last century it meant a moneyless, leaderless society of free access, voluntary cooperation and complete democratic control — socialism. And this kind of society not the SDP’s — will be the real ‘quantum jump’, ‘humanity’s leap’, as Frederick Engels put it, ‘from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom’.
 Breaking the Mould? The Birth and Prospects of the Social Democratic Party, Oxford, Martin Robertson, 1981.
 Politics is for People, London, Penguin, 1981.