Saturday, February 11, 2006

Letter from London 11th February 2006

As published in the "Bahrain Tribune"

The new leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, is intent on imprinting on the minds of the electorate that he is to be the new master of the ideological and pragmatic centre ground – in effect Tony Blair’s logical successor. Keener students of British politics will not be surprised by Cameron’s stance – although it is unusual for a Conservative leader to embrace a broadly social democratic agenda quite so openly. “Social justice and economic efficiency are the common ground of British politics” Cameron said recently and modern history (not just Blair) teaches us that he is right. Certainly if it is power that you want then it is in the moderate centre ground where you have to be seen to live.

Apart from a brief dalliance with Labour when I was a student in the 1960s I have only once joined a British political party. That was in 1981 when I became a founder member of the newly formed Social Democratic Party (SDP) – a party which promised to “break the mould” of British politics. The party was formally launched on 25th March 1981 by the so-called gang of four (Shirley Williams; Bill Rodgers; David Owen and Roy Jenkins) all of whom were politicians I admired - particularly Jenkins who was my political hero.

The attraction of the SDP to me, and to the thousands of others who became involved in politics for the first time with the SDP, was that the policy positions of the new party seemed rational, moderate, pragmatic and unideological at a time when the main parties had vacated the centre ground. Labour had bizarrely elected the old socialist firebrand Michael Foot as leader the year before signalling a major shift to the hard left. And the Conservatives had in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher a leader who had contempt for the consensus politics of the post war years and who was determined to instigate a radical revolution driven by her belief in unbridled capitalism and her conviction that there is there was “no such thing as society”.

In the 1983 General Election the SDP, now in alliance with the old Liberal Party, garnered nearly 8 million votes - more than 25% - but (scandalously) the “first past the post” electoral system gave them a paltry 23 seats in parliament. The party was never a force in British politics again and faded away. But its influence was dramatic because over the next years Labour reformed itself and colonised the centre ground whilst the Conservatives squabbled amongst themselves and generally, until Cameron’s arrival, positioned themselves well to the right of centre.

Twenty-five years after the SDP burst on the scene we now have a broad acceptance of a political ideology by both major parties in Britain that is little different from what the Social Democrats were proposing. So whilst David Owen and his friends never gained power they do have the consolation that the centre ground that they once occupied alone is now very crowded indeed!