Saturday, 22 January 2011

Limehouse Lives On?

In his New Statesman article to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Limehouse Declaration, David Owen is highly critical of the Lib Dems for going along with the dismantlement of the NHS. But he oddly declines to mention that Andrew Lansley, who was far better in Opposition, started out in the SDP.

Owen also suggests that Ed Miliband seek a multi-option referendum including STV, and speaks very highly of Miliband generally, rightly commending him for moving away from the worst of New Labour's assaults on civil liberties, and rightly urging him "to identify more with public concern about greater European integration". However, he need not worry about "flirting with membership of the eurozone", since it was in fact the Labour victory in 1997 that put an end to any such flirtation, while actual British accession has always been economically and politically impossible, although that would not have stopped Ken Clarke or Tony Blair from doing an Ireland on us and trying to fit into it anyway. Thank heavens for Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls.

It is interesting to consider Owen's claim that there would have been a hung Parliament in 1992 if the Alliance had still existed. But when he points out that there were and are four parties in Scotland and four in Wales, he neglects to mention that each situation was and is an awful squeeze even without a fifth element, and that that will always remain the case this side of electoral reform.

Furthermore, read the Limehouse Declaration now, and see the consequences of its prematurity, which led to the SDP's over-narrow base both within the Labour Movement and, as a result, within the electorate at large. The last thing that needed to be said against Bennites and Trots on one side, and against the forces around Thatcher on the other, was that "We want more, not less, radical change in our society". As Owen's article continues to make clear, "more decentralisation" disappeared down the blind alley of Scottish and Welsh devolution instead of issuing in the vigorous defence of the municipal order, and indeed of Parliament against the Executive, the Judiciary, Brussels, Washington, and global capital; in any case, decentralisation is not the same thing as subsidiarity, which requires decision-making at the lowest practicable level, not at the lowest conceivable.

Minor parties have put environmentalism, Scottish separatism and the Welsh language on the agenda. But the SDP's subscription to European federalism (most un-Gaitskellite, and no longer Owen's view) and to Liberal constitutional agenda barely distinguishable from those of Tony Benn, together with its scorn for the unions and its weak links to local government, so alienated much of its potential base that the party was never able to gain the same prominence for "a healthy public sector and healthy private sector, without frequent frontier changes", nor perhaps for "competitive public enterprise", nor certainly for "co-operative ventures and profit-sharing". What a shame. What a waste.

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