Sunday, 13 January 2013

The “dead parrot” – 25 years on

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
"This parrot is definitely deceased.  It has passed away.  It has ceased to be.  It is no more.  It's a stiff. He's snuffed it, bereft of life, indubitably extinct.  This is an ex-parrot!"

One Wednesday, exactly quarter of a century ago today, was witness to a episode of such monumental failure, confusion and comic farce that it threatened to not only undermine the respective leaderships of the Liberal and Social Democratic parties but also to compromise the prospect of merger altogether. Indeed, it took some time for the new party to regain its reputation after this absurd event – or, more accurately, a poorly handled sequence of interconnected events – had done so much to negatively inform public perceptions of the merger negotiations and the platform on which the new party was based.

In reflecting on the events of 13th January 1988 political historians tend to focus their attentions on the policy document – Voices and Choices for All – generally referred to as the “dead parrot document” courtesy of an unfortunate quip from David Steel.  Inevitably this statement of policy intention did much to influence proceedings and it is, even twenty-five years later, virtually impossible to assess accurately both its actual and potential impact on personal relationships, the appeal of the new merged party in the minds of voters and the proposed merger itself.  What is clear is that it was a deeply damaging and embarrassing episode in our party’s history that was both unnecessary and avoidable, and one that speaks more about the personalities involved than it does about the policy detail of Voices and Choices.

Merger negotiations had been ongoing for several weeks and had actually overrun.  It was envisaged that talks would have been concluded before Christmas with the two leaders, Steel and Bob Maclennan, triumphantly proclaiming the success of their endeavours to a press conference in mid-January, allowing time for a little reflection prior to the Liberals’ special assembly in Blackpool scheduled for 23rd January.  Unfortunately, due to some key unresolved issues such as the approach towards NATO and the name of the prospective new party (Steel himself expressed criticism of those who “care more about party names than broader purpose”), combined with Maclennan’s lateness in delivering the policy statement the SDP had insisted on, the final meeting of the negotiators would have to take place late on Tuesday 12th January.  This proved to be unwise on many levels and gave little time for proper consideration of the merger proposals in advance of the planned press conference – or, indeed, reaction to the detail of the policy document.

In this sense, the entire project could have foundered on adherence to an impractically rigid timescale.

The final meeting of negotiators had been difficult and fraught.   Michael Meadowcroft had walked out over the reference to NATO, later followed by Tony Greaves, Rachael Pitchford and Peter Knowlson who collectively objected to the use of “Social and Liberal Democrats” as the new party’s name.  Whether the new party should start out life as LSD, as opposed to SLD, was of importance to the Liberals who had wanted more time to consider and who were less than impressed by a Maclennan ultimatum to come to a decision “within five minutes” or risk the SDP calling off the merger altogether.  It was an expression of frustration and negotiation fatigue more than a serious threat, but it did little to improve the general mood in the immediate lead-up to the much hailed press conference.

One by-product of the dead parrot saga is that the merger negotiations themselves have since come to be characterised as bizarre and haphazard – even unprofessional.  Such an interpretation is unfair.  Certainly in the political context of the time – with heightened tensions both within and between the parties exacerbated by the spectre of David Owen who, even in his absence, had a disproportionate effect on proceedings – it is difficult to be overly critical.  The Liberals chose not to make matters easier by electing fourteen negotiators and necessitating the SDP to reciprocate, but the inescapable fact is that the negotiations were successful.   Anticipated hurdles had been tackled with minimal difficulty.  The merger was agreed in principle.  An agreement had been drawn up, a constitution drafted which founded the new party on a federal model and a name had been agreed upon.  In no small measure this had been due to Maclennan’s interest in technical detail and a surprising willingness on both sides to ensure that the venture was successful.

In spite of media speculation, there was widespread commitment to the project.  Both teams realised that failure to deliver an agreement to put to their respective parties would have potentially devastating effects.  And so, after fifteen weeks of frantic negotiations, agreement had been reached.  At least it must have seemed that way.

Maclennan had invested a great deal into providing the new party with a new policy prospectus.  There was, it must be noted, no pressing need for this as the party could simply have adopted the Alliance’s 1987 manifesto and its starting point for policy formulation.  But there was more to Maclennan’s thinking than merely stating a policy stance: his actions were governed by a determination to incorporate a strong Social Democratic character on the new party and reach out to the Owenites who, it seemed, may form a rival party imminently.  It was not his aim to merely reinforce existing policy and he had no intention of Voices and Choices being a tame repetition – rather, this was to be a bold, daring and radical attempt to articulate a new policy platform that, while remaining true to both Liberal and Social Democratic values, was prepared to espouse a new and forward-looking policy direction that would serve to underline SDP input and appeal to disaffected Owenites.  Maclennan wanted to demonstrate that he was willing to be tough and that with its new identity established upon a distinctive policy map, the new party would also be tough and radical rather than a soft, woolly liberal party about which Owen and many SDP members retained suspicions.

This was unwise.  In allowing the figure of David Owen to loom so large in his thinking Maclennan had taken his eye off the principal end goal: the successful merger of the SDP with the Liberal Party.  His determination to ensure that the new party began its life with an initial policy prospectus was understandable but there was little need to do much more on this front than re-hash the Alliance manifesto with some renewed commitment to NATO and a broad, non-specific commitment to tackling poverty.  He should have realised that the policy document should not be allowed to become the story.   Essentially, if a policy statement was necessary to Maclennan’s objectives then additional care should have been taken to ensure it was non-contentious or at the very least acceptable to a majority.  Little was to be gained by an adventurous and radical policy document that would provide all the talking points while appealing to virtually no-one.

Voices and Choices was not a bad document, for all its weaknesses.  It was simply the wrong idea for the wrong time.  The situation simply did not require a bold and radical statement of intention.  It simply required agreement.  Much of Maclennan’s thought in accepting the challenges of leadership at this time was focused on unifying his own party while facilitating the fusion of the Liberals and SDP in such a way as to bring the best of both parties’ characters and traditions into the new party.  It was not an easy task, especially with the media obsession with David Owen and the potential for a breakaway SDP.  In many ways Maclennan proved to be more capable than many had expected and ultimately his legacy was the formation of the new, federalist party.  But in making so much of the policy stance – which was not designed to be a commitment – he had overreached himself near-fatally.  One of the critics of Voices and Choices, Hugo Young, declared that it did not contain “a word that David Owen could disagree with” which neatly encapsulates the folly of Maclennan’s overtures towards Owen’s followers.

Voices and Choices may not seem particularly radical today.  In truth, it was not proposing anything that was overtly radical in 1988.  At its heart was a desire to tackle the problems of poverty via tax reform, including the extension of VAT.  It thus proposed such things as adding VAT to clothing,  domestic fuel and financial services, to abolish universal child benefit (of course, no liberally-minded MP in 2013 would consider doing such a thing), to bring the UK’s tax system more closely into line with our European neighbours and to complete the European Single Market.  It promoted “market democracy” as a means by which poverty and deprivation could be rendered obsolete.  More controversially for the Liberals, it proposed extending the use of nuclear energy.

This was never likely to go down easily with Liberal MPs.  And so, on Wednesday 13th January, when Steel announced that he was unable to “deliver his party” there should have been no surprises. The fact that neither the Liberal leader nor his SDP counterpart had foreseen this suggests that Steel, who on initially reviewing the document had called it “bold and imaginative”, had underestimated his own party on a number of levels.  He failed to appreciate that Voices and Choices was a political liability, that his MPs may strongly object and that the media might regard it as sub-Thatcherite dogma.  This cannot simply be explained by way of Steel’s well-known dislike of policy detail as on 10th January he and Maclennan, with Alan Beith, had spent significant time discussing it.  He was aware of, and had agreed with, the extension to VAT.  Perhaps Steel’s real problem was a lack of engagement with his parliamentary party.  Simply leaving copies of the policy document in “an anteroom beside his be consulted by any Liberal MP who wished to do so”, as Ivor Crewe and Tony King reliably state occurred, is no replacement for constructive dialogue and suggests a misguided complacency in Voices and Choices being inherently acceptable to his party.  Certainly Steel had never given any indication to Maclennan that Voices and Choices contained anything remotely problematic and thus it is Steel, rather than the SDP leader, who is more culpable for the near disaster that followed.  He regarded the document as insignificant; perhaps as a mere SDP indulgence.  But, crucially, he had reckoned without consulting his MPs.  It was not the finest example of Steel's leadership skills.

On Wednesday 13th January, only half an hour prior to the much anticipated press conference,  Steel decided that he could not take his party with him.  It appeared that the lengthy merger negotiations might prove to be in vain.  Would this be the price paid for Maclennan’s commitment to a policy declaration and Steel’s inability to foresee its potential effects?  Liberal MPs, including Alan Beith and Chief Whip Jim Wallace had expressed strong objections with Wallace suggesting that not a single Liberal MP could support Voices and Choices.  This was a huge surprise to Maclennan who had not envisaged any such difficulties.  After a meeting of the two leaders it was decided to call off the press conference until later in the afternoon “pending further consultations”.

What happened in the interim is described as “shocking and harrowing” by Crewe and King.  Meeting in Committee Room 6, the Liberal MPs, Maclennan and Charles Kennedy  met to thrash out a deal that, even now, would keep merger alive.  Emotions ran high and Maclennan at one point had to be retrained from leaving.  Steel, also overcome with emotion, appeared to apologise, his voice cracking: “I think I’ve let you all...” Simon Hughes believed the situation could be rescued and set about redrafting it.  It was eventually agreed to continue negotiations in respect to the policy document while the two leaders faced the waiting journalists.

Unfortunately at this point Paddy Ashdown decided it would be a good idea for the Liberal MPs and Charles Kennedy to line up behind the leaders at the press conference.  Even more unfortunately, no-one seemed to disagree.  As if things could not get worse, what was intended as a show of solidarity instead projected a view of Maclennan and Steel as hostages of a gang of rather menacing-looking men in suits.  It was not the glorious, exultant press conference originally envisaged.  Defeat seemed to have been snatched from the jaws of victory.

Ultimately difficulties with the policy document were ironed out relatively easily which demonstrates that either agreement is easier under pressure or that, with more effective leadership, the entire “dead parrot” debacle could have been avoided.  Actually, I am of the view that both assertions are correct.  Steel took his eye off the ball, and should have either ensured he would “deliver his party” or informed the SDP of the unacceptability of Voices and Choices sooner.  Maclennan was guilty of misplaced optimism for his own personal ambitions to bring all of his party, including David Owen, with him.  That said, both men were to some degree the victims of an impractical timescale, the political circumstances of the time and the inevitable media pressure, intrusion and speculation.  They were also, as leaders, bound to reap the products of others’ sowing.

Alan Beith’s role is a curious one and I find it impossible to absolve him of some responsibility for the saga.  In some respects his responsibility is greater, for surely – unlike Steel and Maclennan – he was aware of the potential concerns of Liberal MPs.  He was also party to discussions in respect to the policy document on 10th January and was fully aware of its contents and, as the Liberals’ policy director, he was well placed to make objections in advance.  In Steel’s absences, he was able to solicit updates on the progress of the policy document.  He would have been aware of Steel’s weakness on relation to policy, while also being in tune with prevailing views within the parliamentary party.  He did not, other than some general points in respect to defence, make clear his objections until it was too late, when he vociferously expressed them publicly.  Unlike Steel, Beith was not noted for dislike of policy or a lack of engagement and it is hard to comprehend why someone is his position would not have taken some responsible actions prior to the mass rebellion by his fellow Liberal MPs.  It is impossible to know Beith’s motivations although many have speculated; what is certain is that consciously or otherwise he contributed to the potential catastrophe.  Questions should also be asked about the Liberal MPs themselves, who had every right to be disturbed by this odd turn of events and their own leader’s role within it, but who had contributed to the mounting ridicule and the potential derailing of the merger with their dismissing Voices and Choices out of hand.  Given the limited time they had to make their objections known their reaction is understandable, but it served in no insignificant fashion to undermine the merger in which they all passionately believed.  It also, in the immediate aftermath, played into the hands of Dr Owen who happily admitted in his memoirs that he "could not resist the temptation to stir the pot a little...this grand new party [was] revealed to everyone as the 'shower'".

The controversy was ultimately not about the content of the document itself, but the various players in the drama – their characters, prejudices, actions and fears.  In Maclennan’s case it had been his eagerness to show toughness and bring the Owenites with him that had contributed to his short-sighted mission – and in no uncertain terms had actually (unfairly) reinforced their view of him as ineffectual and of the Liberals as unreliable and indisciplined.  Steel, true to character, was guilty of overlooking policy detail, of a lack of engagement with his MPs and of failing to anticipate potential concern and communicate it to the SDP.  Beith, either by commission or omission, had similarly failed to voice concerns in time to prevent the situation gaining a momentum of its own and becoming out of control.  Ashdown’s suggestion of lining up the MPs behind the leaders simply made a bad situation worse.  In combination the failures of each seriously threatened the future of the merger project and the new party, should it come into existence.  It all did little for the public image of the party, which struggled in the polls for a couple of years before Tory unpopularity, Paddy Ashdown’s gradually more assured leadership and a couple of by-elections gave the (by now aptly named) Liberal Democrats reason for quiet confidence going into the 1992 General Election.

Voices and Choices was consigned to the history books and indeed the waste paper basket, although I can confirm that, in spite of copies being collected in, at least two survive.  It deserved a better fate and indeed much of it has since become government, and Liberal Democrat, policy. But it was the wrong idea for the wrong time.  Its good intentions, of engaging positively with the problem of poverty, were always a secondary aim to appealing to Dr Owen’s followers and in this it was misguided.  Such a hope was futile, as proved by later events.  What was needed was something that would create agreement, however dull or uninspiring.

But the parrot was not in fact dead.  Life was breathed into it, both as a policy document (albeit as a heavily revised and renamed statement, which proved acceptable to all apart from Dr Owen) and as the spirit of the new party.  Its unifying ethos became present in the inclusive, federalist and pluralistic political ethic of the Liberal Democrats.  The professional approach, so important to the SDP, in combination with with Liberal approaches to community politics made the Lib Dems, at least for a period in the 1990s and early 2000s, a highly effective campaigning force.  And while inevitably blame has been apportioned for this embarrassing situation, after twenty-five years it is also useful to reflect on what grew out of that painful day in January 1988.  We have much for which to be grateful to Maclennan and Steel, who led their respective parties into successful and productive merger while Owen led his rump SDP into the political wilderness.  That there is today a party at all is, in part, a tribute to them as indeed are some its considerable achievements.  As the new party eventually found its feet, Steel worked constructively on the Scottish Constitutional Convention, facilitating the advent of a Scottish Parliament and becoming its inaugural Presiding Officer.  Maclennan for four years served as President of the party, coming “to represent so completely the ethos and values of the Liberal Democrats” according to Helen Bailey and Robert Ingham of the Liberal Democrat History Group, and providing a pivotal role in negotiations with Labour that produced a proportional voting system for European elections, delivered devolution and made progress in regards the Human Rights Act and Freedom of Information.

Today’s Liberal Democrats are a product of twenty-five years of political history.  We are also the product of those negotiations, debates, disputes and compromises – and the personalities of the characters who shaped them – to a much greater degree than we perhaps believe.  For a period the “dead parrot” debacle came to define us.  Now it represents a memorial stone in our political heritage that should be remembered, if for nothing else, for the way in which the apparently insurmountable obstacles were effectively negotiated.  In spite of the obvious setback, there remained a determination to ensure that the merger would not be a casualty.  Said Steel:
“I decided that [the “dead parrot" fiasco] should be treated as a minor setback which could be turned to advantage rather than some sort of final defeat.  I did my best to rally the spirits of Bob Maclennan, who was deeply downcast by what he felt [was] an exaggeration and unreasonable reaction to the paper.  In a strange way, the joint calamity brought us closer together.”
And, for all the significance historians ascribe to the events of 12th-13th January 1988, the "dead parrot" proved to be just that – while in the short term it was undoubtedly damaging, from a longer-term perspective it can justifiably be seen as nothing more than a minor setback. It did not, as many suggested in 1988, finish off Steel and Maclennan as credible politicians.  Neither did it spell the end of either merger or third-party politics.  It simply amounted to labour pains surrounding the birth of a new, and eventually dynamic, political force that would prove to be more effective than the sum of its component parts.  Some births are inevitably more painful than others and the Social and Liberal Democrats entered the scene in a particularly difficult, and some would argue undignified, way.  How that process has had a bearing on our unique character, identity, nature and outlook is something on which it is more than appropriate to reflect twenty-five years later.


Martin Pierce said...

Ah, it's all coming back to me - so much hazy detail remembered! The merger conference (sorry, final Liberal Assembly) was at some ghastly aircraft hanger in Blackpool and the main debate was whether to introduce a constitutional amendment to allow the Party to wind itself up. Surreal. Meanwhile in ULS we all felt very smug because we already had such a provision. I had forgotten though that the dead parrot came up then - I remember it more from Thatcher's 1990 Tory Conference reference soon after we adopted the bird logo - which we then promptly responded to by winning Eastbourne.

Andrew said...

Yes, of course there was also Thatcher's reference to it but I'm not sure that was of such historic significance. I've never worked out why the Liberal special assembly had to be held in such an inappropriate place...I must admit to not being aware of the debate surrounding the constitutional amendment to wind up. Like most impartial observers at the time (I was also only 11, albeit a politically interested 11 year old) I was only concerned with the main vote for merger which was, in the circumstances, remarkably one-sided.