The SDP: a social vision for post-Brexit Britain

The SDP: a social vision for post-Brexit Britain

The reborn Social Democrats want to put social solidarity back on the agenda of British politics.

Neil McCarthy

Topics Brexit Politics UK

At the time of writing, Brexit looks as uncertain as ever, with its delivery depending on the results of an extremely unpredictable General Election. If, however, some form of Brexit is to be our future, the reborn Brexiteers of the all-new Social Democratic Party (SDP) could yet make a vital political contribution.

Most readers will remember the SDP as the party formed in 1981 by former Labour MPs Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams – dubbed the Gang of Four. That version of the SDP made a splash for a while, before dissolving itself in a merger with the Liberal Party, to become the Liberal Democrats in 1988. Owen continued with what was left of the SDP, but, in May 1990, his recusant rump received fewer votes in the Bootle by-election than the Monster Raving Loony Party. Owen then sought to decommission the SDP.

However, a legion of the SDP rearguard persisted in local strongholds, such as East Yorkshire, South Wales and Glasgow. And in the past two years something extraordinary has happened. This shell of a former major third-way party has revived, promulgating a politics a very long way away from soggy liberalism.

I spoke to Richard Plackett, the SDP’s London and South East regional organiser. He tells of how the SDP’s membership has expanded over the past 12 months, from the low hundreds to thousands. He talks also of the enthusiastic party meetings up and down the country, and the galvanising effect of celebrity journalists Rod Liddle and Giles Fraser publicly signing up. Plackett attributes this in no small part to the resonance of last November’s New Declaration – a successor to the original Limehouse Declaration, which announced the Gang of Four’s departure from the Labour Party in 1981.

Success is slow. Apart from the splashes of Liddle and Fraser joining, then UKIP MEP for the East of England Patrick O’Flynn defected to the SDP a year ago. But he declined to stand again in the Europearn Parliament elections at the end of May, on the grounds the UK should already have left the EU. It leaves the SDP currently boasting just one district councillor in Nottinghamshire, and a smattering of community councillors elsewhere.

Recent by-election bids in Peterborough and Newport have proven disappointing. SDP leader William Clouston, himself a community councillor in Corbridge in Northumberland, sees the SDP project as one which will take at least 10 years to bear fruit. It is a project of radical centrism, he tells me, which does not ‘split the difference’ between its left and right components. The ‘blue bits are pretty blue and the red bits certainly red’.

Speaking to a packed branch meeting in his local pub in Canterbury earlier this year, Liddle characterised the mission of the party as ‘re-establishing the unifying power of the nation state’. For Clouston, re-establishing the unifying power of the nation state requires major constitutional change. ‘One of the consequences of the political crisis we are in now’, he tells me, ‘is that first-past-the-post and the House of Lords and the Westminster system will not prevail’. Clouston believes there is an unsettled English question whose solution is the abolition of the House of Lords, the establishment of an English parliament in the North of England with equivalent powers to the Scottish Parliament, and a federal parliament at Westminster to legislate for defence and foreign affairs only.

If all this can come in the train of Brexit, then and only then will the aspiration of the majority of ordinary people for, as Clouston puts it, a ‘social future rather than a gated future’ be achievable.

He is a keen follower of the Eurosceptic Portuguese hard left. It brought home to him the pre-political nature of decision making in the EU – ‘the system of having all the important policy levers at the Commission level or at least at the Council of Ministers level – interest rates, monetary policy, immigration and trade policy’. This, Clouston argues, makes meaningful democracy, where such issues are up for discussion and voted on in elections, simply impossible.

For Patrick O’Flynn, the now ex-MEP and current SDP Brexit spokesman, re-establishing the unifying power of the nation state means revisiting the long-betrayed promises of post-1945 social democracy, and the original ideals of the welfare state. Having what he tells me is ‘a kind of working class-influenced sensibility’, he sees a political system which lets down those engaged ‘in clean living in difficult circumstances’. ‘Instead’, he continues, ‘it focuses predominantly on people, who maybe through no fault of their own, are behaving badly and being a problem to society’. The same system also overlooks people who ‘started with very little and want to do the right thing’. The idea of ‘clean living in difficult circumstances’ appears to be his own personal political credo, a saying he attributes to the manager of The Who. In fact, he confesses he is a bit of ‘an old Mod’ at heart.

The problem for O’Flynn is that middle-class progressives in education, housing and many other areas of state social-policy delivery, have lost sight of ‘the importance of demonstrable virtue and constructed a system which undermines the impetus for people from non-privileged backgrounds to get on’. Thus, in education, the idea that it is progressive to restrict the ability of state schools to expel disruptive pupils ‘triggers me’. He notes dryly that private schools suffer from no such compunction. As regards housing, ‘I would have been supportive of people like Bob Crow, and his notorious 100 grand a year, who nevertheless lived on a council estate. It helps everyone if there are successful, hard-working people on the estate.’ Tories, like Grant Shapps, who sought to bring in a policy whereby such people would have to forfeit their council tenancy, O’Flynn likens to ‘well-intentioned, but clueless Edwardian missionaries’.

His attitude to criminal justice can be best summed up by his pointing to Michael Howard, famed for his bang-’em-up prison policy, as his favourite Tory leader of recent years: ‘I guesstimate there are hundreds of people living in this country today who wouldn’t be alive if he had not doubled the prison population.’

O’Flynn thus appears particularly articulate on the ‘blue’ bits of what Clouston calls the SDP’s ‘red and blue centrism’. Those ‘blue bits’ are in fact the glue of the ‘social solidarity’, which Clouston spoke about recently in his address to the party’s annual conference, and which Brendan O’Neill, in a speech at the same conference, identified as the vital corrective to the social-atomisation project of the liberal elites and their allies in the woke, intersectional left. Clouston sees the concentric circles of family, community and nation as the three places in which social solidarity grows. The ‘red bits’ are about making those three places work by ‘building stable communities, with policies enabling people to live and work in the place they are from’.

Are there echoes of Blue Labour, a movement that shadow home secretary Diane Abbot has criticised for ‘wrapping itself in a “Hovis commercial” nostalgia’? Clouston doesn’t think so. He tells me there is ‘no going back to the 1950s’, when it comes to gay rights, women’s rights and racial equality. These gains are, rightly, ‘in the bag’. But he does want to roll back the ‘constant overreach’ of left liberalism and the market, which focus almost entirely on ‘individual desire’. ‘[We] have forgotten about us, about common purpose and our responsibilities to other people’, he says.

What motivates Clouston above all is that ‘we [the SDP] are the only people doing this’. To advance what he calls the SDP’s ‘distinctive blue and red communitarian politics’, the party is going to field between 15 and 20 candidates in the General Election, which will be the biggest slate of SDP candidates since 1987. Motivated by the strategic desire not to harm the Brexit cause, they are only going to target ‘Labour heartland seats with very big majorities’, such as Jarrow, Leeds Central, Tottenham and Cynon Valley in Wales, Ann Clwyd’s seat. They will be offering ‘traditional patriotic Labour voters the sort of programme they would recognise from Peter Shore’s days’. The SDP’s aspiration in this election is to show that they represent the ‘five million people on the left who voted Leave’.

For Clouston, there is no contradiction between this aspiration and his belief that the ‘safest outcome of the election for Brexit and the country is a Conservative majority’. A Corbyn-led government would be ‘disastrous’, he says.

He also criticises the Brexit Party, which he tells me ‘should have taken the win’ of Johnson’s deal. This is interesting, because until recently the SDP, like the Brexit Party, supported a no-deal, WTO-terms Brexit. Clouston stresses that that was only in the context of the May-Barnier deal. With Johnson’s deal, he tells me, he believes that Britain can get a Canada-style free-trade agreement, and so become a ‘normal, independent Anglo country’.

If Boris’s deal does indeed give Britain its freedom, then surely that freedom will only mean something if what Clouston calls ‘the voice of the hinterland’ can make itself heard. And if the SDP is right, the social solidarity Britain is crying out for, will owe as much to Thatcherite aspirationalism as it will to the collective traditions of the left. Or as O’Flynn’s favourite band The Jam put it: ‘These are the real creatures that time has forgot…’

Neil McCarthy is a teacher and writer based in London and Dublin.

Watch Brendan O’Neill’s speech to the SDP conference below:

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Gareth Edward KING

11th November 2019 at 6:22 pm

So, we have a former RCP-Living Marxism member now journalist speaking at a re-kindled SDP conference. It’s all very interesting. Talk about going full-circle.
In the mid-80s, I was involved in Lesbians & Gays Support the Miners in London which was as much about ‘showing solidarity’ with Welsh striking miners as it was about showing solidarity with supposedly isolated ‘gays’ and ‘lesbians’ in Welsh coal-mining communities. I can’t recall which was uppermost but I’ll be generous and assume it was the former outlook. Looking back at those experiences now it’s interesting if one would consider the ‘isolated’ figures in Wales. Were they isolated out there in Wales? or were they surrounded by friends, colleagues and family who knew about but didn’t make a fuss about their deemed sexuality. Contrast this situation with ‘out’ gays and Lesbians in ‘gay friendly’ London (LGBTQ + or ‘Alphabet people’ didn’t exist then) in their carefully honed ‘gay and lesbian communities’ based around the Gay Centre (for example) near Old Street, Islington (if I recall) who may or may not have been involved in ‘raising awareness’ around HIV-AIDS issues with their ‘buddies’ schemes. I can assure you that the former in terms of creating real communities was far superior and far more successful. In short, you can’t create ‘communities’ based on sexualities; communities have to be more organic with a very real footing amongst ‘real’ people. The ‘woke left’ (not known as such then, of course) has a lot of false premises and indirect misery and loneliness to answer for.

Stephen Gwynne

14th November 2019 at 8:26 am

“In short, you can’t create ‘communities’ based on sexualities; communities have to be more organic with a very real footing amongst ‘real’ people. The ‘woke left’ (not known as such then, of course) has a lot of false premises and indirect misery and loneliness to answer for.”

Interesting observation. I guess in a way you can but all that happens is the creation of the in/out group dichotomy so favoured by hard liberals on the left.

In Negative

11th November 2019 at 12:48 pm

Secondly, I worry about this pitting of community against individualism. There is an aspect of this language that contains a deep-rooted war against the individual. That woke hyper-individualism is bound up in capitalism appears to me indubitable. I do think it becomes a problem when it’s imposed as a dominant norm. I also think however that there is a lot of good there too – the Nietzchean creative individual extended across the mass. Do we really want a return of the group constraining all the potentialities of the creative individual? It’s one thing to say that capital is creatively deterritorialising and admit that post-modernism is its obvious metaphysics. It’s something else to make a war all all the potential goods and interesting lives that can appear in that metaphysics.

To my mind, we need some synthesis; a way of accommodating both tendencies. It’s not like mods weren’t/aren’t in fact a part of this whole process.


Stephen Gwynne

14th November 2019 at 8:34 am

You seem to imply a totalitarian community with subservient individuals. On the other hand, a democratic community with engaged individuals who value democracy, shared decision making and consensus is an entirely different reading of a stable community.

Responsive communitarianism.

In Negative

11th November 2019 at 12:42 pm

On Brendan speech 1.

Firstly, “Mother” and “Father” are not concepts founded in pure ‘fact’. Whichever way that Supreme Court verdict went, we were redefining “Mother” and “Father”.

One assumes that the campaigners were working with a definition of “Father” that was not dependent on biological sex. That it referred to the part of “Father” that is role-based (and therefore illusory).

What the Supreme Court here have ruled is that “Mother” and “Father” are now entirely biological categories, the identity and role being subsidiary (if relevant at all).

The verdict excises the social meanings of “Mother” and “Father” from the definition, binding them to biological facts.

Though I agree there were good reasons for the verdict – that is such a change would have revolutionised society in ways most people would not have found acceptable, this wasn’t a question of “truth” and “falsehood”. “Mother” is as much defined by its gender-illusion as it is by any biological fact (if not moreso).

The decision in fact has made “Mother” a more bureaucratic term, pushing it more deeply into the domain of precise and rational terminology. It forces on our language a deeper exorcism of illusion, purging it of its art, and in a sense, this too is a revolution. This is a more invisible revolution however, as it is the way our society thinks it should progress – with language becoming ever more quantifiable.

Illusion is an important part of sociality, and the thing about illusion is that 2 + 2 can equal 5. I wonder if it isn’t more important to defend this fact than further exile it.

madeup name

12th November 2019 at 11:18 am

They really are… and not just based on logic, reason, common sense, and all those ancient and unfashionable things, but based recent legal judgments too.

Blinding with science and lots of long latinate words and complex prolix sentences, just illustrates Orwell’s “politics and the english language” to a tee.

The English language is sophisticated enough to have words and qualifying terms for everything, it doesn’t need a recent mob of smartphone facilitated pseudointellectuals to start newspeaking the language to form thought and public discourse in their own image, inspired by the first burblings of the sociology degree monster that emerged from the primordial snowflake swamp in the 1970s. The unwoke, are smart enough to know better. The writing is on the wall for the invasion of lefty bodysnatchers; once freed from the Mordor of the EU, the deconstruction of the emergent orc police state can begin – the right are on the march, and the wrong are raging about it.

In Negative

14th November 2019 at 11:43 am

“… once freed from the Mordor of the EU, the deconstruction of the emergent orc police state can begin”

Is that you Burzum?

Steve Roberts

11th November 2019 at 9:07 am

Undoubtedly the worst article i have read on Spiked, full of woolly generalisations and contradictions, indicative of a party belonging nowhere and having nothing to say of substance, a paternalistic and patronising attitude of the working class usually reserved for moralistic lefties or wet liberals that seems to be spreading.
Sorry Rod Liddle i like much of what you have to say,in general, but this motley unprincipled crew are not what is needed , get out while you can, why on earth would anyone interested in a radical progressive democratic transformation be interested in this lot, it might have a shell but its contents are useless.
Lets just take one category, one we may consider quite important, one related to “social solidarity ” a “unifying power” or the “community” politics allegedly central to this party, yes that pesky thing called democracy.
Yes you have it ,the will of the people, that’s right the people, the community, demos the people, kratos the power, surely the absolute defining principle in any society of “communitarians”.
We democratically decided to leave the EU, not be in, to leave, the largest democratic mandate in our lives. The most profound statement by the demos in generations, a point of unequivocal principle one that must be defended, no compromise, we decided it is us who rules in a nation where our will is sovereign.
Johnsons treaty is a remain and reform treaty, it hence is undoubtedly undemocratic in its opposition to our democratic mandate and the SDP says accept it, its a “win” ,Democratic content of the community anyone ?
Perhaps they can take solace that this “win” gets us “some form of brexit” what it really offers is an unprincipled capitulation to a treaty and party, the CUP ,that has as its aim the electoral survival of the CUP not the defence of our democratic mandate, and the SDP takes sides with it against the people, not difficult to understand , disgraceful nonetheless.
Like the lib dems they really need to take the democratic out of their name, speaking of which , look at the photo of BON and the words that surround his lower half, social rats it spells. Get out Rod, help to build a new movement of transformative radical progressive democrats, the latter word being unequivocal, not easy but necessary, antidemocrats not welcome.

Stephen Gwynne

14th November 2019 at 8:51 am

I suggest you read

Leaving the EU Treaties is one thing (and I voted leave) but we also need to remain engaged with the wider community that did not wish to leave which means sharing democracy not coopting it for our own hyperindividualistic desires. Building stable communities works both ways and seeks to mediate between what are often contradictory desires. This means the individual is open to compromise and empathy in order to sustain a stable community.

The referendum result of 52/48 means we voted for a democratic relationship with the EU and not a technocratic one. May’s Deal was a technocratic one and was biased towards remain. Johnson’s Deal is a democratic one and is biased towards leave. We should be satisfied with this great improvement although I feel, perhaps like you, that a WTO Brexit would create a sufficient safety zone in that remainiacs would need to campaign for rejoin instead of remain. However, we need to remain democratically engaged to ensure that the election of Johnson and the Tories does mean that the UK leaves the EU Treaties and repeals the European Communities Act 1972 by the end of January 2020.

Stephen Gwynne

14th November 2019 at 9:12 am

In this respect, there is a huge difference between the Liberal Technocratic Party and the Social Democratic Party, the LibDems are selfish to the core whereas the SDP are sharing to the core.

Jonnie Henly

11th November 2019 at 7:30 am

“The problem for O’Flynn is that middle-class progressives in education, housing and many other areas of state social-policy delivery, have lost sight of ‘the importance of demonstrable virtue and constructed a system which undermines the impetus for people from non-privileged backgrounds to get on’.”

Even if we assume that’s true, middle class progressives have only been responsible for state social policy for 13 out of the last 40 years.
It’s it perhaps worth looking elsewhere for the causes of many of this country’s problems?

H McLean

11th November 2019 at 4:37 am

It should be clear to all by now, surely, that the purpose of Diversity and Inclusion is to make society neither more diverse nor inclusive but to get people to shut up and do what they’re told. The activists, academics and politicians who push this authoritarianism have but one desire, to dismantle society and rebuild it in a way more attuned to their political fantasies.

If you ever have the misfortune to read a paper from a Marxist Diversity and Inclusion academic, you’ll instantly notice the language is reminiscent of the convoluted and pretentious 20th century French post-modernist philosophers, and deliberately so. It gives it an air of vague intellectualism and sounds so obscure that people are initially reluctant to challenge it, and typically go along simply out of fear of being mocked for not understanding the ideology or worse, being labelled an -ist or -obe and summarily ostracised from all polite society.

Make no mistake, they play of the basic decency of people, rightly thinking they will be malleable and compliant in the face of potential public shame. Just as the other great moral scare campaign of our time (man-made climate change) is used to scare people into believing the world is going to end “unless you do exactly as we say”, the roots of intersectional politics (Diversity and Inclusion) are firmly rooted in Marxist theory.

Don’t be polite, don’t go along to get along. They might even sack you or arrest you, but just remember, aside for some ignorant over-earnest acolytes on the front lines, these people are deliberately trying to intimidate you into submission. They are the true fascists.

H McLean

11th November 2019 at 6:41 am

Not sure how I managed it but this comment was meant to be on the article ‘The Diversity Racket’.

Stephen Gwynne

14th November 2019 at 8:58 am

Certainly relevant nonetheless. The hard liberal left have, as you point out, descretated the concepts of equality, social justice, diversity and inclusion and turned them into tools of oppression. We need to renown and reimagine these important concepts so that they do not serve the oppressive desires of the hard liberal left.

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