‘Liberals don’t understand the importance of the nation’

SDP leader William Clouston on the rebirth of his party and the real centre of British politics.


Topics Brexit Politics UK

Many people would be forgiven for thinking that the Social Democratic Party (SDP), formed by four breakaway Labour MPs in 1981, was long gone: it merged with the Liberal Party in 1988 to form the Liberal Democrats. But a core of grassroots activists kept the flame alive, under the guiding philosophy of original ‘Gang of Four’ member David Owen. Since then it has developed a communitarian, Eurosceptic platform that members believe is underserved by the main parties. Ahead of the SDP’s conference in Leeds this weekend, spiked spoke to SDP leader William Clouston.

spiked: Could you briefly explain the history of the SDP?

William Clouston: You can explain it in half an hour or just one line. In one line: the Gang of Four set up the SDP in 1981, David Owen kept it distinct and separate from the Liberals in 1988, so he kept the SDP going separate from the Lib Dems, he quit in 1990, and then the grassroots, the membership, kept it alive until this day. That’s it. A lot of people did think it had gone altogether. I was actively involved throughout the whole of the 1980s, and I was one of those people. I didn’t know it was still around until David Owen told me a few years ago and I got back involved. But it had been kicked back to the grassroots.

spiked: Is social democracy compatible with liberalism, as it is currently understood?

Clouston: I think those of us in 1988 who voted against the merger – and 42 per cent, I think, of Social Democrats did – did so for very good reasons. Social democracy is not liberalism. The merger was a sort of marriage of convenience because of a not very good election result in 1987. But you are putting two things together that are philosophically very different, that was our objection to it then. Liberalism puts first-order priority on the individual. That’s its political heritage and its thinking.

The crude difference between that and social democracy is social democracy is much more communitarian. For liberals, it’s all about individual rights. And over the past 20 to 30 years what has been forgotten is the importance of the group to the individual. So liberals are not really interested in community, not really that interested in family, and there’s a huge hostility to the nation state. We, however, think that the nation is where you convene to do things like the National Health Service, and to look out for one another. Liberals don’t get that.

spiked: Would you call yourselves ‘centrists’?

Clouston: Centrism is such a weird concept nowadays. Political labels have been so debased. To put us in the same category as, say, the Liberal Democrats would be an absurdity. So we are centrist, I guess, because our politics combines different elements. We’re red-and-blue centrists. But the blue bits are pretty blue and the red bits are pretty red.

On economics, we’re to the left of New Labour, considerably. We’re looking at railway nationalisation, a large-scale council-house-building programme, a national care service, more money for the NHS, deliberate attempts to get the national living wage up, and so on. The state has lost confidence in its capacity for direct provision. Everything’s been marketised, and everything’s been outsourced. I think it’s vital that the state regains some confidence in direct capacity. But on the other side, law and order is very important, defence is very important, the nation state is very important, we want lower immigration. So it’s a combination.

This idea that the public have to pick everything from one side is nonsense. And actually most people’s views don’t have that kind of clustering. A lot of people say, ‘I want slightly less immigration, and, by the way, I want some council houses built’. And that combination works really, really well. In fact, if you don’t do one, the other doesn’t work. David Goodhart and Matthew Goodwin have looked at the values divide and where the gap is in British politics, and we’re sitting right on top of it.

spiked: Is there anything else that marks the SDP out, do you think?

Clouston: One of the ideas that I think is very important now is the toleration of differences. In every sphere you’ve got people rushing around talking about the lack of proportionality between genders and backgrounds. We think that in a free society you will get some differences between different groups, and that that is okay. And in a free society it is expected that you will, because we make different choices. If you view every instance of non-proportionality as oppression, you’re just going to start and inflame a culture war, which is very destructive. The SDP’s view on this is that the cure to it is just a little bit of old-fashioned tolerance, toleration of differences. So that’s something that is a little bit distinctive.

spiked: How have the SDP’s views on the EU developed over the years?

Clouston: The party in the 1980s was pretty pro-EEC. But Euroscepticism is something that came from the Owenite split. We are Owenite Social Democrats and Owen became increasingly Eurosceptic because he saw the direction of the EU project. Actually, the SDP’s Euroscepticism can be traced back to 1989, when the Scarborough conference voted in favour of ruling out a United States of Europe. And since then, we’ve become pretty hard Eurosceptics of the sort of Peter Shore / Tony Benn variety. No nation-state democrat on the left should be supporting the EU.

spiked: What’s your stance on No Deal?

Clouston: Of course, no one knows what will happen. But I think No Deal isn’t as scary as No Democracy, put it that way. Our position all along is that we want a Canada-style free-trade agreement with the EU. But the negotiations have been cocked up from the start. So I don’t know where you go from here. But I think if it’s No Deal or No Democracy, we’re on the side of No Deal.

William Clouston was speaking to Fraser Myers.

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28th September 2019 at 4:05 pm

Nationalists don’t understand the obvious dangers of making the ‘nation’, with its primitive blood and iron connotations, the overriding organising principle in society. Adolf and Benito are the culmination of this nationalist hysteria. The ‘nation’ can only be followed insofar as it accords with right reason and innate principles of natural justice, something that your average Essex Man is too damn stupid to understand.

james smith

30th September 2019 at 5:45 pm

Congratulations, you managed to demonstrate sneering elitism, condescension and your own stupidity in 6 lines, do they hand out prizes for that kind of effort round here ?

A Game

28th September 2019 at 12:14 pm

Oh, boy, by the sounds of things, if the SDP can get that message out there, their key principle that people want a mix of policies instead of the choice everyone has to make all the time – how much good is there to outweigh all the bad? Leftist voters are feeling this pain the most.

A New York Hairdresser did a great youtube vid… called “Walk Away” I think. Its a great vid. It was about how identity politics is a monster that is just getting bigger and bigger, that the modern left is hateful and fascistic and many of their traditional supporters are alienated and revolted. I include myself in that group.
The response to his video in America was huge. All of the republicans were saying, “Come over to our side”. But this is the problem. If you are left wing, but in the humanist, classic sense, you just aren’t right wing. You just aren’t.
I’m a life long ALP voter (Australian Labor Party) and the election that they shouldn’t have lost, they think a lot of labor heartland voters, until about 20 mins before the vote, still hadn’t decided… and then they did and voted Liberal. (Liberals are Australian version of the Tories.) I stood at the cardboard booth and had to pause… I went with Labor, but caw, I thought, if something doesn’t give, this will be the last time. (ALP not even as bad as UK Labour… economically not bad at all, but the social engineering etc… quietly selling our civil liberties away and they are addicted to the cheap shots and the green vote. Their current wannabe attention seeker, who just oozes virtue is Kristina Keneally. Labor voters are groaning. They haven’t learnt a thing. And the new leader… party apparatchik in a safe labor seat, but its a three way fight because the seat has become well to do, between Lab, Libs and Greens. Lab and greens help each other with preferences, but the ALP will now be beholden that the new leader keeps his seat, which means his primary vote must always nose head of the Greens. ALP just doubling down on stupid green policies. Their voter base is not impressed. New Leader is also hard left. He would have been responsible for most of the dumbest policies and identity games. Nightmare. Actually, funny article I read recently, about how he needs to step the f**k away from Jezza. Not gonna happen.) So, we still don’t have the bridge between not with Lab anymore, but just not Tory/Lib. (Though for something like Brexit, I’d be Tory, Tory, Tory all the way. You vote all your life… but single issues, that won’t be coming around again… gotta take the plunge.)
But like the Hairdresser… you make that choice… you aren’t economically right wing… who do you vote for? Hope a decent independent stands?
I think the SDP could end up really filling that gap. Public health, public education, but acknowledgement that mass immigration isn’t helping your country, certainly if you want to protect the things I’ve just mentioned. Wages… obviously. You can only create this amazing garden where every plant thrives, if you fence it and control how many plants you are trying to cater to, and never undermine your ability to always provide these things to a high standard. Its been the most baffling thing to see self described socialists wanting to throw open the doors. Socialism is not a bleeding heart. The ideals of Marxism have a goodness, but to implement it… very focussed, ruthless if necessary, otherwise it founders until its completely lost. And again… not enough solid people.
The flip side is, as a percentage of Labour voters reacting to Corb’s horrible splurge on things that will not actually improve the country, but just undirected throwing of money around at such a high cost in the long term.
Our countries are tethered to capitalism. That can never be ignored. Left wing economics MUST work within the capitalist framework, and to change that, its a slow, steady reform over many years. But would you trust these yahoos to do that? Not on your life. And I’m at the point where I don’t think it can ever be achieved. There are not enough diligent people. There never will be enough diligent people.
(I’m still chewing over Phil Mullan’s latest.)
So, I’m very envious that the SDP are rising up and offering the UK some real choice. And it actually sounds like you could be a genuine coalition with Lab or Tory, if you kept a tight rein on them, but have enough pragmatism to find a true middle ground.


28th September 2019 at 4:07 pm

Your comment is almost as long as David Cameron’s autobiography, hence no one will read it.

Wilfrid Whattam

28th September 2019 at 8:20 am

Just because I am naive, I have some romantic wishes:
1. The 24 Labour MPs who wish to honour the referendum, led by Stephen Kinnock, join the SDP.
2. Jeremy Corbyn resigns as leader of the Labour Party and gives an emotional speech about returning to his principles. He slaughters the hypocrisy of the Remainers and the partisan Speaker.
3. Corbyn joins the SDP as its leader in the House of Commons.
4. The SDP supports Boris Johnson’s attempts to achieve Brexit (but not the May BINO Withdrawal Agreement.
5. The SDP wins a huge number of votes at the next General Election.
6. The SDP recognises the value of MMT, and therefore a sovereign nation’s true fiscal capacity.

Dream on young (at 74years) Wilf!!

A Game

28th September 2019 at 11:39 am

No, SDP can’t make an electoral play until after Brexit is done. Your voting system… it would split the leave vote even more, between Tory/Brexit. Again, Britain, if you had a preferential voting system… hey! Go for it SDP.
I don’t think the SDP would be that keen for Jezza’s wacky, vote buying policies.

Mike Ellwood

29th September 2019 at 9:12 pm

Good for you Wilf. Another MMT-er here.

Interesting to read about the SDP. I remember reading an interview with David Owen, in, I think, Guardian Weekend some time back, and was astonished to learn that he was a Eurosceptic Brexiter. I’d just assumed that the SDP, like the Lib Dems were OTT Europhiles, and had imagined that Owen would be the most Europhile of the lot of them. We live and learn.

Janet Mozelewski

27th September 2019 at 9:48 pm

Excellent interview and interesting views. In the light of the monumental disillusionment with parliamentary democracy…by far the worst in my lifetime….we need some fresh views and less entrenched dogma.
I am sick to the back teeth of the liberal elitist/globalist agenda being promulgated in the media as the Only Way.
It is interesting to note that, alongside the original SDP, the Liberal Party still survives. They actually hold very similar views to the SDP regarding Brexit: the referendum must be respected. It seemed when the Lib-Dems formed they stopped being Social Democrays and stopped being Liberal at one and the same time. That is probably why they can’t bring themselves to use the full words…..

Dominic Straiton

27th September 2019 at 7:50 pm

Gandhi, Mandela, Me. All nationalists.

Janet Mozelewski

28th September 2019 at 11:26 am

I recently had a man come fix a satellite dish for me here in the sticks of France. He was a remainer. I find many ex-pats are. (Nothing to do with self-interest oh noooo. It is all about the moral high ground.) He wouldn’t leave it alone (I had not yet outed myself as someone who was now in the ‘leave’ camp.) I didn’t really want to discuss politics in my own home to be honest. He just couldn’t stop spouting on and on the same old chestnuts I’d heard a hundred times…’they lied’ ‘the number on the bus’ ‘some leavers have died now’ ‘it was 3 years ago’ (I know.)
Then he got onto the evil of nation states and how the EU had saved Europe from War. That is when I bit back. ‘No. That was NATO and the Bomb and it was the fact we kept our nation state together through thick and thin that was the bottom line from which victory over the Nazis came about.’ (Or words to that effect.)
‘Nation States!!!!’ quoth he, in tones of loathing. Clearly he has swallowed hook line and sinker the Euro line that Nation States are the devil..
OK I said. Define that makes a Nation State. He gabbled a bit and then started listing them 9I helped him out. lol)Law making and courts. Seat of government and a President/monarch. Civil Service. Taxation and currency. Flag. Anthem. Army.
After the list was concluded to our mutual satisfaction (although by no means exhaustive) I then asked why, if a Nation States was indeed The Devil had the EU clothed itself in all the essentials needed to create one. Bar the Army…which of course it is working on.
He left.

Mike Ellwood

29th September 2019 at 9:09 pm

LOL! – Did he fix your satellite dish?

A Game

28th September 2019 at 12:31 pm

I like it. Its very strange how it became so unfashionable to want to love/care for your patch of ground on the planet. To have that commonality as a people. You see the probs introducing democracy in the middle east. They just don’t get it, they are very tribal. The notion of nation and federation isn’t their cup of tea. Its reflected in how they fight for their nation. Its limp. But on the tribal war front… committed, devoted. (WW1, Ottoman Empire… an exception to my point.)

Patriotism can take many forms that are positive and communal. I’m very hot on buying Australian over an import, every time I can. Its getting harder with manufacturing winding down to a whimper, so you have to look harder… but I like it that I’m supporting an Australian business/farmer etc. Clean air, fight to protect our native animals – the koalas are copping it with land clearing… they live where we do – the eastern seaboard. Patriotism, if nurtured, would help people care more. But identitarian globalisation has killed off so much promise and application.

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