Who were they travelling with? SDP: The Birth, Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party

👤 Tom Easton  
  Book review

Ivor Crewe and Anthony King
Oxford University Press, 1995, £25

Few who lived through the launch of the Social Democratic Party are likely to forget the impact of the creation of the Gang of Four in 1981. The avowed intention of the four former Cabinet ministers was to offer Britain a fresh alternative – a replacement for the Labour party in which they themselves had made their name and to which most non-Conservatives in Britain had looked for alternative government for most of the 20th century. Given the ambition of their undertaking and the SDP’s significance in dividing early opposition to a Conservative party now in power for 17 years, it is curious then that we have to wait until now for a detailed account. It is also disappointing that after so long – the bulk of the SDP merged with the Liberal Party in 1987 – its history should be written by two academics who helped found it in the first place.

Not that Ivor Crewe and Anthony King of Essex University were ever members. Rather that they were friendly with many of the SDP’s leading lights and were sufficiently interested in its formation to advise its founders on its likely chances of success. That close personal contact, plus access to the party’s archive, ensure that in 600 pages of text, footnotes and statistical appendices we have the chance to learn a great deal about this comet-like phenomenon, even if it falls some way short of the judgement of Labour MP Gerald Kaufman in the Sunday Telegraph (November 12, 1995) – ‘brilliant history, definitively researched’.

For example, Crewe and King, in giving the first detailed account of the Liberals’ botched attempt to ditch Roy Jenkins as leader in the middle of the 1983 general election campaign, illustrate the alliance’s inherent fragility. In revealing that most working-class constituencies had fewer than 30 members, they show why ‘the Westminster contrivance’ that was the SDP was ‘fated to fail’.

In profiling its parliamentarians, they show how ‘most of the defectors were MPs who happened to be Labour, rather than pillars of the labour movement who happened also to be MPs’. They also tell us – without identification – how some of them, before defecting, voted for Michael Foot rather than Denis Healey as leader in 1980 in order to inflict maximum damage on the Labour party.(1) The authors say, too, that the Labour Party’s constitutional reforms (the mandatory reselection of MPs by local parties; the extension of the franchise for the election of leader beyond the Parliamentary Labour Party and moves to give the party’s national executive committee sole responsibility for drafting the election manifesto) were the occasion of the 1981 split and not its cause. They add that the Gang of Four chose to exaggerate extremist influence in the Labour Party because they themselves ‘no longer had a programme and a theory of how the world worked’.

If King and Crewe are not persuaded that internal changes in the structure of the Labour party were actually grounds for the split as the SDP leaders claimed, what of the second oft-stated reason they gave in 1981 — Labour policy towards Europe?

Labour and Europe?

On the face of it this would seem a more promising and principled basis for launching a new party than fear of the somewhat arcane activities of local party management committees. After all, the leadership quartet were central to that section of the Labour Party which had long supported British entry into the Common Market. David Owen was solidly pro-Common Market. Bill Rodgers had been hugely disappointed when his mentor, Hugh Gaitskell, had failed to share his Euro enthusiasm. Shirley Williams had threatened not to be part of a Labour government which withdrew from Common Market membership; and Roy Jenkins had actually left parliamentary politics for Brussels to become president of the European Commission. But after lengthy consideration, Crewe and King conclude that although some of the defecting Labour MPs shared the Common Market views of the Gang of Four, ‘passionate commitment to Europe was not in fact what bound the SDP defectors together … views on the issue hardly distinguished the Labour right-wingers who did defect to the SDP from those who did not’.

So of the three grounds given for the split by the SDP founders – changes in the Labour party on its own constitution, Europe and defence – Crewe and King rule out two as being wholly unconvincing. To the third, defence, we shall return at some length. But before we do it is worth making passing reference to the role of the Guardian in the history of the SDP.

The Guardian and the SDP

Crewe and King tell us: ‘When the SDP was formed, the Guardian described its principles as a “mix of commitments close to that which this paper has advocated over the years”. Four of its leading journalists were SDP candidates at the 1983 general election – Malcolm Dean, Christopher Huhne, John Torode and Polly Toynbee – and another, Mary Stott, was elected to the party’s National Committee. Peter Jenkins, its senior political columnist (and husband of Polly Toynbee), and Derek Brown, its media correspondent, were known to be supporters. No newspaper had as high a proportion of Alliance supporters among its readers, and many SDP activists regard it as akin to a house journal.’ But having said all this, the authors curiously speak of ‘the Guardian’s lukewarm attitude towards the new party’.

This apparent disjunction between cited evidence and considered evaluation is evident in one other area, that of the SDP and defence, to which I will now turn. But the perspective through which I invite consideration of this comes not from Crewe and King, but through journalist and former Labour MP Brian Walden.

SDP and defence

In the Spring 1987 issue of the Washington-based journal the Public Interest, subtitled ‘Britain on the Brink’, Walden wrote:

The Anglo-American relationship and the future of NATO depend upon the result of the next British general election. This is not a battle between Republicans and Democrats, with a different emphasis here and a slight change of direction there. American political parties are broadly in agreement upon the economic system and about defense [sic] policy. In Britain today, the political struggle is about the very nature of society itself.

The value of the Social Democrats is that if no single party has a majority in the next House of Commons, they can be relied upon to prevent Britain from being unilaterally disarmed. Almost certainly the Liberal party will follow this lead, if not from conviction, then as a matter of electoral expediency.

Walden’s views are interesting not only because in the 1980s he was close to the powerful on both sides of the Atlantic. Before he became a fellow Birmingham MP with Roy Jenkins, Walden had been very active in the Campaign for Democratic Socialism, the anti-unilateralist Gaitskellite vehicle run by Bill Rodgers. Until his retirement from Parliament in 1977, Walden had been part of that pro-nuclear, pro-NATO, pro-American wing of the party which found its voice within the Labour movement through Socialist Commentary and, more widely, through Encounter magazine, one of the wide range of Central Intelligence Agency-funded activities fronted by the Congress for Cultural Freedom from the early days of the Cold War.

His perspective is one wholly, almost perversely, absent from Crewe and King’s account. They make lots of references to the defence issue – principally Trident, the siting of Cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe, the faster growth of CND membership in 1981 than even that of the SDP, and David Owen’s almost pathological distrust of the Liberals on these matters – and to the many events concerning the SDP which took place in the United States. But they make no attempt to establish any connection between them, even though the Gang of Four themselves claimed defence to be the third of their reasons for breaking away from Labour.

Just take these events from the book, for example. The draft constitution of the new party was written in Massachusetts by two of the SDP’s founders, Robert Maclennan and William Goodhart. Shirley Williams came straight to the critical pre-launch meeting of the Gang of Four from one of her regular Anglo-American conference get-togethers at Ditchley Park. When the party suddenly needed a new leader after Owen’s decision to go it alone, Williams met Maclennan in the United States to persuade him to take on the job.

Or again, when a decision was subsequently taken to merge with the Liberals, Maclennan tearfully insisted on membership of NATO being written into the constitution. And in the course of that merger one of the authors of the proposed joint policy statement was seconded to the job by his employer, a propagandising Washington foreign policy think-tank much used by successive American administrations in pursuit of its foreign policy goals.(2)


That Crewe and King do not identify the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) as the source of that secondment funding seems a curious lapse in such a detailed account. King is a familiar figure in Washington DC where the CSIS (for many years associated with Georgetown University) is based: he was, at the time, an adjunct fellow of another influential Reaganite think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute. (The Oxford psephologist David Butler and journalist Peter Kellner are two other familiar names on the British political scene who have been associated with the AEI.)

On the other hand, from a conventional understanding of British politics it might be thought a little pernickety to take them to task for failing to supply the odd American detail and, more widely, for not setting the events they describe in any international context. Their story, after all, is posited on the SDP was ‘fated to fail’ thesis: that given the squabbling incompetence of the Gang of Four, the strength of the traditional two-party system and the subsequent changes in the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair, the ‘mould breakers’ were doomed from the outset.

Yet while all these domestic factors may have some merit we cannot ignore the strategic context in which the SDP was created and briefly flourished, the one alluded to by Walden and not considered by Crewe and King.


Walden was not the only contributor to the Britain on the Brink issue of the Public Interest in 1987. Another was Samuel P Huntington, like King associated with the American Enterprise Institute, but also well-known to David Owen and his fellow Trilateral Commission friends in the SDP – John Roper, Dick Taverne, Evan Luard, Alan Lee Williams and Roderick MacFarquar, the founding editor of the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s China Quarterly. The great fear of David Rockefeller’s Trilateralists was summed up in their Crisis of Democracy (1975), namely that Western society could become ungovernable if too many of its citizens became politically active.


A further contribution to that same issue of Public Interest was a biting attack by Stephen Haseler on Denis Healey (the 1980 candidate for Labour leader defeated by a critical group of subsequent SDP defectors). Haseler was not only a member of the SDP, but a founding member of the Social Democratic Alliance which preceded it. An academic who, as a London councillor, had become a vociferous critic of changes within the Labour party in the Seventies, Haseler had spent some time at the third big Washington think-tank, the Heritage Foundation. With its money he had helped set up in London the Institute for European Defence and Strategic Studies, a forceful and well-resourced foe of both the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Labour Party in the Eighties. Haseler gains just one mention from Crewe and King as ‘a little-known outsider, a self-styled “rank and file” candidate’ for the SDP presidency in 1981.

Now it may be true that Haseler is not the important figure in starting the SDP ball rolling CIA asset Brian Crozier claims in his 1993 book Free Agent, but there can be little doubt that he had a considerable transatlantic role before and during the life of the SDP, none of it mentioned by Crewe and King.

Godsons Jnr. and Snr.

A figure of arguably greater importance at the time earns no mention at all in Crewe and King. Joseph Godson, as US labour attache in London in the Fifties, had played a close supporting role in Gaitskell’s battle with the Left. (His son, Roy, a close associate of both Haseler and former CIA director William Casey, married the daughter of Gaitskell’s principal union ally in the same battle, Sam Watson.) Godson Snr. had stayed on in London after retiring from US government service and with money from the US Congress and NATO had set up the Labour Committee for Transatlantic Understanding with which both Rodgers and Owen had been involved, and whose treasurer for many years had been electricians’ union (EETPU) leader Frank Chapple. (Chapple was the only prominent trade unionist to sign the fund-raising appeal for the embryonic SDP in the Guardian in February 1981.)

Joseph Godson, in an active retirement, was also organising European initiatives for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the proselytising think-tank which funded the author of the SDP/Liberals joint policy statement in 1987. He combined that with running US government-funded educational visits for British trade unionists and editing 35 Years of NATO (Dodd, Mead, 1984) a transatlantic symposium on ‘the changing political, economic and military setting’, funded by Rupert Murdoch’s Times and introduced by its then editor Charles Douglas-Home and NATO secretary general Peter Carrington.

Godson’s foremost British associate in this CSIS/NATO work was SDP founder member Alan Lee Williams, a former Labour MP and junior defence minister who was treasurer of the European Movement from 1972 and 1979. From his office as director of the English Speaking Union he had chaired Godson’s Labour and Trade Union Press Service operation and, with the renewed rise of CND in the late 1970s, had become a central figure in the government-funded Peace Through NATO.

Before we get lost in the labyrinth of titles, organisations and connections, let us step back and try to see what all this networking might be about and where it might help us understand what Crewe and King leave unremarked.

In the Labour party of the late 1970s and early 1980s we have a growing body of fearful Atlanticists afraid both for their careers under reselection and distressed at the direction of the party under the influence of a growing left. Their old Labour Party is embracing the widespread European anti-nuclear sentiments stirred by the renewal of the Cold War just as the postwar boom is weakening and the prospects for redistributive Keynesianism appear to be dimming. In this limited sense Crewe and King are right to say the social democrats ‘no longer had a programme and a theory of how the world worked’.

The view from Washington

Viewed from across the Atlantic this crisis within Britain was viewed with great alarm. Early in the Reagan presidency the US ambassador to Ireland, Peter Dailey, was recalled to co-ordinate both governmental and private initiatives to roll back the growing European opposition to the revived Cold War of which developments in the British Labour party and trade union movement were an important part. Documents declassified during the Congressional inquiry into the Iran Contra scandal, for example, describe a White House meeting at which President Reagan, along with senior intelligence officials, met Rupert Murdoch, Sir James Goldsmith, George Gallup and Joachim Maitre of the Springer publishing group, to discuss ways in which support for the Atlantic alliance could be bolstered.

In this context – one Walden describes with characteristic colourfulness as a political struggle ‘about the very nature of the society itself’ – we can perhaps begin to see the rise of the SDP as a rather more strategic development than the ‘fated to fail’ warring personalities explanation of Crewe and King. It begins to be possible to see where the many assorted Godson outfits, the Haseler activities, the Trilateralists ‘crisis of democracy’ outpourings, and the much-hyped revulsion at Labour and Liberal activism begin to take some coherent shape.

America’s trusted European ally – its ‘floating aircraft carrier’ in Duncan Campbell’s phrase – was getting restive for the first time since the days of Gaitskell and, along with the vitality of political radicalism in the women’s movement as evidenced at Greenham Common, much more dangerously so. The Iran Contra documents make clear that the first Reagan administration was seriously afraid that Thatcher, and even Kohl, might not be re-elected. This was a prospect not to be contemplated if their successful opponents were not to conform to traditional NATO expectations. This is the view of the SDP’s significance so baldly stated by Walden and so clearly ignored by Crewe and King.

In a footnote to the 1987 SDP merger drama the Essex pair refer to the Liberals’ angry suspicion that a deliberate press leak by the Maclennan leadership had bounced them into accepting the SDP’s position. ‘There is no evidence,’ say Crewe and King magisterially, ‘to substantiate this view, and all the available accounts tell against it. As so often, the cock-up theory seems infinitely more plausible than the conspiracy theory.’ At the end of their 23 detailed chapters, cock-up – ‘a study in failure’ – is their considered conclusion. Jenkins, now Chancellor of Oxford University, was an ineffective leader. Williams, now a ‘professor of elective politics’ at Harvard and active in Project Liberty, ‘an American-based organisation devoted to promoting democracy in central and eastern Europe’, was indecisive and invariably late. Rodgers, who first became director-general of the Royal Institute of British Architects and then chair of the Advertising Standards Authority, was a fixer with nothing much to fix. Owen, now a successful businessman after a spell as ‘peacemaker’ in Bosnia, was an arrogant visionary who ran out of followers.

The whole Gang now sit in the same House of Lords as some Labour members who lost their Commons seats in 1983 and 1987 directly as a result of SDP intervention. Yet according to Crewe and King, ‘the existence of the SDP did not materially affect the outcome of either election’.

British exceptionalism

At the height of the Gaitskellite battles over defence Aneurin Bevan told the American press corps how, when big brother turned over in bed, one or two of the little brothers and sisters often fell on the floor. It would be a tale of displacement power lost on Crewe and King and, one suspects, on many of the politicians who have given this book such uncritical praise. The very idea that domestic British politics might in some way be influenced from outside is anathema: Italy, under the Christian Democrats, well of course; and, yes, probably Japan under the Liberal Democrats. But Britain, the home of the mother of parliaments? Never.


I offer two cautionary footnotes to Crewe and King. One of the CSIS’s most active interventionists was not Ray Cline, the ex-director of intelligence at the CIA; not David Abshire, Reagan’s NATO ambassador; not Robert Hunter, Clinton’s NATO ambassador; not Anne Armstrong, former ambassador to the Court of St James and head of Reagan’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board; not even Irving Brown, the CIA man who reconstructed much of Western Europe’s postwar labour movement — all people who the SDP’s CSIS link people would meet. No, the most active interventionist at the time of the SDP’s foundation was Michael Ledeen, Secretary of State Al Haig’s man monitoring the Socialist International and, in particular, Western Europe. The man who helped stitch up the October Surprise subsequently became a key link in organising the illegal sale of weapons to Iran. In Crewe and King’s cock-up world, Ledeen would never exist: in Italy, yes Italy, he was declared persona non grata for his interference in domestic Italian politics.

The second footnote concerns an old associate of Ledeen, who, like him, had a big hand in the Iran Contra scandal. He was known to lots of SDP types from childhood when his dad, Joe, was plotting with Gaitskell against Bevan. Roy Godson grew up and became a great mate of Bill Casey.


Tom Easton is a freelance writer.

  1. Former Labour and subsequently SDP MP Neville Sandelson admitted being one of them subsequent to the publication of Crewe and King’s book: The Sunday Telegraph January 14, 1996.
  2. See 1 Fred Landis, ‘Georgetown’s ivory tower for old spooks’, Inquiry September 30, 1979; David Leigh, ‘ A Friend of Taiwan: Ray Cline, a Scholar-Lobbyist, Wears Many Hats at Georgetown’, Washington Post June 29, 1980; Alison Muscatine, ‘Georgetown’s Media Profs: A University Thinks Hard About Its Think Tank’, Washington Post May 11, 1986; Jim McManus, ‘Georgetown University think tank lures strategists, military contractors: President ponders its future’, National Catholic Reporter October 3, 1986.
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