|David Steel, addressing an SDP conference. |
(Picture: Liberal History)
Twenty-five years ago last Friday, on a cold January day in Blackpool when every sensible person should have been either at home or a Burns Supper (or both), Liberals met at the Norbreck Castle Hotel - described as a giant Fawlty Towers - to decide whether to agree to the terms of the merger agreement with the Social Democratic Party.
Bob Maclennan's party had already agreed to these, but the media believed the Liberal Party would be more difficult to persuade. There was, of course, the "dead parrot" fiasco, which had threatened to undermine David Steel's leadership entirely. The Glasgow Herald predicted a close vote, observing that many Liberals felt that the negotiations conceded too much to the SDP's way of thinking. The proposed name was seen as a potential obstacle but clearly everyone's attentions were on the leader himself.
Steel had endured a torrid few days. There was understandable blame attached to his inability to foresee the problems Voices and Choices would create among his own party. He was perceived as being policy-light at the best of times and at a fatal moment he'd failed altogether. Furthermore, he was viewed by party members as somewhat distant and someone who struggled with notions of solidarity. Steel, never well-liked by the party faithful, faced one of the biggest challenges of his political career- at least if the media were to be believed. The apparently discredited leader now had the unenviable task, only days after the undignified events of 13th January, to appear before his party's delegates and convince them of the merger project.
The final vote proved to be more one-sided than anyone thought possible (91% in favour, requiring a two-thirds majority), although Steel cannot have known that in advance. What he, and other senior Liberals. were aware of was that many Liberals such as Michael Meadowcroft were already expressing objections to the merger. They were furious at "how badly the Liberal Party was treated... the tactical naïvete of David Steel, the eventual supineness of almost all the Liberal Party’s negotiating team, and on whether the final settlement really did represent a compromise too far." (M.Meadowcroft, “The Journal of Liberal History”, No 18, Spring 1998) Some were particularly angry with the leadership as a whole which, it was deemed, had "treated colleagues with barely concealed contempt". It is easy to judge history by outcomes; however, Steel's speech deserves to be viewed in the context of a leader enduring peculiar personal difficulties attempting to convince his party of the merits of his vision. It was a huge risk and he knew it. The stakes were unusually high, with rebellion in the air.
Indeed, Michael Meadowcroft remembers the special Assembly as "unpleasant". He explains: "It was as well 'fixed' as I used to do as Assembly Committee Chair. Those opposed to merger had few big guns and some of those colleagues who were called to speak were not unduly helpful - some were genuinely too upset to cope with the occasion. I suspect that I made my worst Assembly speech ever and the vote was in any event a foregone conclusion." Allegations of fixing aside, it is clear from this testimony that the tension was real and that Steel spoke in the context of a battle he was determined to win.
That leader's speech in full:
"Benjamin Disraeli was once asked to define the difference between a misfortune and a calamity. He said: ‘If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune, but if anybody pulled him out, that would be a calamity.’ I can well understand that there might have been Liberals last week who wished to update the political reference. All I want to say about that is that some political leaders - I mention no names - believe they are infallible. She of course never makes mistakes. I do not subscribe to the doctrine of the infallibility of party leaders, and perhaps that’s just as well in the circumstances.
"In 1906, our party leader Campbell-Bannerman offered the public a succinct and hugely successful manifesto, namely: ‘to undo the mischief wrought in recent years.’ I think we can agree on such a commonsense approach. I want this Assembly to look forward not backward. Yes, the last six months have been arduous. But what did we expect? Yes, the birth-pangs of our new party have been painful. I frankly cannot imagine that anybody but Liberals would have had the generosity of spirit to undertake this difficult process. We have not sat at home jeering from the sidelines like some. It has been hard, but now we have come through. We should look forward to the new life we are about to create.
"During the twelve years that I have been leader, I have been sustained by a vision of a centre-left party, free of the dogma, the class hatred, the arrogance, and the extremism which have haunted British political life since the War. We have never lost sight of the great principles on which this party was founded, which are no less needed in the Thatcher age than they were over a hundred years ago. I have had a vision of a Britain which is very different. Not the tawdry Britain of today, motivated by greed and stifled by autocracy. If a radical government had wasted public money on a case such as Spycatcher, manipulated the truth over an affair such as Westland, produced as cock-eyed, unpopular and indefensible a measure as the poll tax, and steadily accrued power to itself away from local government, imagine what the public outcry would have been.
"As it is, much of Fleet Street is servile, corrupted by the combination of honours and monopolistic ownership, reserving its scorn only for critics of the government, whether in the other political parties, the churches or the universities. The slide to autocracy over this last decade is alarming more and more sections of the population. It is our prime duty to organise effectively to prevent it. And during these twelve years, I have been sustained by the knowledge that many, possibly even the majority of our fellow citizens, were willing us to succeed. When the Alliance was formed I saw, and many of us saw, that this great longing for a new and fundamentally better society based on partnership, cooperation and consensus, was now a possibility. The Alliance was not formed simply as a marriage of convenience. I repudiate this view utterly.
"It was my belief, and that of Roy Jenkins, that the Alliance was the thin end of the wedge in achieving our shared aim of a fairer, and in a true sense a more successful, Britain. Today I must tell you that experience has reinforced that view.
"The Liberal Party founded in its present organisation 110 years ago has so much to its credit. It was we who laid the foundations of the welfare state introducing old-age pensions, sickness insurance and unemployment benefit. It was our Keynesian policies which first showed how to manage an economy so that we could maintain our basic freedoms while effectively tackling unemployment; between the wars we backed the doctrine of collective security and supported rearmament in the face of a supine government; yet we retained the valued Quaker tradition in our midst; we have advocated genuine industrial democracy as opposed to trade union oligarchy; and consistently through our history the need for constitutional reform and devolution within a federal framework.
"We are all proud to be Liberals. Duty to our neighbours and good citizenship are for us the mainsprings of social reform.
"No government of which we were a part would tolerate a Chancellor of the Exchequer grasping buoyant revenues and failing to provide increased resources for our hard-pressed National Health Services, especially for our underpaid and overworked nurses.
"No one understands better than I the deep feelings throughout the party about the decision we have to take. I will be a Liberal to the day I die. I feel myself clothed in the aura of the word Liberal and all the associations which that has. Liberalism is not a creed, a dogma or a fixed ideology. It does not prescribe how people should live or limit what they can become. Liberalism is about developing people’s potential and enlarging their freedom. It is the spirit which sustains the adventure of progress. Last year I spoke to the students at Cape Town University, urging them, in the face of increasing intolerance of left and right, to hold fast to their liberal traditions. I did it because being a Liberal is not simply a title, it is a way of life. Liberalism is an attitude of mind. It has a noble past, and, I believe, a noble future.
"During that visit I met the writer Alan Paton, who was President of the Liberal Party of South Africa when it was closed down because it was multi-racial. He wrote this: 'If Liberalism died, if those sentiments that we call liberal were no longer cherished by men and women then the countries of the world would soon become tyrannies, whether of the left or right. The joy of being human would disappear from the earth.'
"For twenty-three years I have been in the House of Commons fighting for this great party of ours, not to further a career in politics, but because I believe in those Liberal principles. My fellow Liberals, the people of Britain need them now more than ever. Perhaps not the complacent rich, or the arrogant powerful, but the weak, the needy, the sick, the struggling minorities, the young, the unemployed. The Liberal Party more than any other party is like a great family. Sure, we have our occasional rows and our upsets, but we are held together by a great sense of belonging, of tolerance, and dare I say of warmth. As a family in recent years we have enjoyed moments of great success, triumph and elation. As a family we have suffered times of setback, despair, and even, at Christmas a year ago, tragedy. We have laughed together at times and we have cried together at times.
"Many of the commentators find us difficult to understand, so easy to poke fun at. It’s a lot easier to base a political party simply on the haves, the get-rich-quicks, the self-appointed establishment on the one hand or the organised trade union votes and funds on the other. The great strength of our party is that it has never been exclusive, but always comprehensive. The Liberal Party has throughout its history included those who believe fervently in one or two particular aspects of Liberalism, and this party has never sought to crush colleagues who happen to think differently from ourselves. The new party of Social and Liberal Democrats must sustain that tradition.
"There is another tradition which it must sustain - our more recent but impressive dedication to practical Liberalism. So many have pounded the dark, wet streets. Others have been up to their elbows in printer’s ink - working week in week out to help people improve the communities where they live. The very fact that Liberals and Social Democrats are already united in groups in so many local authorities is itself a powerful argument against now attempting to put them asunder.
"But we must not wallow in our own longevity, history and traditions to the extent that we ignore the qualities of the SDP. The freshness of their approach and the strength of their ideals brought many into politics whom we had failed to attract and enabled a large slice of talent to abandon the fruitless struggle to reform the Labour Party. They have taught us the modern techniques of direct communication with their membership. They care about the same things we care about. They have become our brothers and sisters in an enlarged family. The assets of the two parties taken together will provide the basis for a formidable force.
Our new party will have to be realistic. Of course it will. We shall need sound policies, based on sober deliberation. But we shall need something else even more important if we are to succeed. We shall need commitment. The soul of Liberalism must shine through.
"The commitment to restore Britain to self-government; to insist on freedom of information and a bill of rights; to let people make their own decisions locally. It is Liberalism which gives people a voice. The commitment to tackle poverty and squalid housing, not as an act of charity but as a recognition of the common humanity we all share. It is Liberalism which will unlock the trap of deprivation in which two million families are locked in this prosperous country. The commitment to usher in a society prudent in the use of its resources, not profligate; in harmony with the natural world, not at war with it; caring about what we hand on to future generations. The commitment to end discrimination between people based on the colour of their skin. It is Liberalism which stands against the street bullies mugging Asian Britons, it is Liberalism which reunites families divided by cruel immigration laws, and it is Liberalism which says there is no hope in South Africa until Nelson Mandela is free. The commitment to international interdependence, and the recognition that the nation-state is obsolescent. It is Liberalism which believes in one world. It is Liberalism which strives for international peace and security based on mutual respect and confidence and it is Liberalism here in Britain which helped get us into the European Community, helped keep us there, and which alone wants the Community to develop and integrate as far and as fast as possible.
"It is Liberalism which will awaken the conscience of the developed world to the famine, disease and hunger of the poorer countries. And it is Liberalism which knows we cannot enjoy our freedom while half the world is enslaved.
"I speak now, not as leader but as a member, an activist member, of the Liberal Party. And however great the majority in this hall today - and I believe it must be 2:1 or more - let us not forget that the final decision is up to each and every member of the Party throughout the country.
"There is no shortage of tasks for brave Liberals. There are still giants to be slain, the ogres of war and fear, intolerance and prejudice. There are still mountains to be scaled, the grim peaks of poverty and privilege. There are great prizes to be won as well: peace and prosperity, freedom and justice, opportunities for each and dignity for all. At the end of my very first speech as your leader in Llandudno in 1976 I described the kind of country I wished to see. I have returned to many of these themes today. In some ways we are actually further removed from a Liberal society now than we were then.
"I have spoken this morning as a Liberal about liberalism. That is as it should be. Opponents of merger sometimes talk as if the Liberal Party is going to be abolished, that the new party will not be Liberal. If that were so, I should be voting against merger. I don’t consider every aspect of the constitution to be perfect, but like everybody else I know we can amend it in the light of experience.
"But it is precisely because we shall carry our Liberalism proud and intact into the new party, because our chance to achieve Liberal aims will be increased and because the SDP are our natural partners that I do support merger now. The choice is a simple one. Yes, for the chance to put Liberalism into practice, or No, for decades of division and a diminution of Liberalism. I say YES, for the next step in the adventure of Liberalism and to provide a new hope for Britain. Our Assembly has been required over these years to make many vital decisions, but none so crucial as the one we are called upon to make today. Yes, it is going to affect us in our constituencies, in our councils, in parliament.
"But today’s decision affects more than us. It will affect the millions beyond this hall who have been yearning for us to get together and provide a truly effective party able to challenge the Tories at the next election. Let Labour remain the official opposition. Our people want us to become the electable opposition. The country demands it. We cannot fail them now."There will have been those at the time, both in and outwith the Liberal Party, who believed that merger was the wrong choice. Whether they felt that merger was a "betrayal" as did Michael Meadowcroft or, as other critics believed, that it was an unnecessary and impractical project doomed to failure by incompetence of its leaders, the evidence twenty-five years later shows that they were wrong. That is not simply because the "continuing" Social Democratic and Liberal Parties failed, but because in the quarter of a century following the Special Assembly the Liberal Democrats have progressed into a significant third force of UK politics, have become a more effective and professional campaigning unit than either of its predecessors and have ensured a growing parliamentary presence election after election (at least until 2010 bucked the trend). This is the legacy not only of merger itself but of the efforts of Maclellan and Steel to bring it into being.
Of course the previous 25 years have not been all glorious ones for the Liberal Democrats. But the story of the party is not one of survival, as some predicted, but of steady growth and increasing social and political significance. The way forward might not be altogether clear and obviously in the immediate future it's highly possible that a few setbacks may be experienced, but it an undeniable fact that the party in 2013 is healthier than that Paddy Ashdown inherited in 1988.
There is much in Steel's speech that remains true and relevant today. I have no desire to over-interpret other than to state that it reads well a quarter of a century later. The historical context is of vital importance, but if any of today's Liberal Democrats are looking for some encouragement for the challenges ahead they could do worse than reflect on David Steel's timeless truisms.