How we formed the SDP in north London 40 years ago

Roy Jenkins, Dr David Owen, William Rodgers and Shirley Williams, leaders of the Council for Social Democracy

Roy Jenkins, Dr David Owen, William Rodgers and Shirley Williams, leaders of the Council for Social Democracy, at a press conference at the Connaught Rooms in 1981 - Credit: PA

On a Sunday morning in early January 1981, four senior politicians assembled at 48 Patshull Road, Kentish Town, my home.

Then two of them had a major row. One was Roy Jenkins, former home secretary, chancellor of the exchequer, deputy leader of the Labour party and the president of the European Commission; the other was Shirley Williams, who had been a cabinet minister and one of Labour's rising women stars.

Shirley was being difficult because she felt Roy had presumed he would be the leader of a new political party which was soon to be launched. 

In turn, Roy had wrongly allowed publicity for a meeting that was due to take place at his country home.

The other two politicians were David Owen, the young former foreign secretary, and me, also another former cabinet minister. 

Once the argument was over, the Gang of Four returned to the matter of concern – the draft of a manifesto for social democracy, declaring that we wanted "to create an open, classless and more equal society, one which rejected ugly prejudices based upon sex, race or religion".

Given the Winter of Discontent in the closing months of Jim Callaghan’s government and the disastrous 1979 general election, it seemed that Labour was in terminal decline. As a result, it was time to face up to the realignment of British politics.

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By the afternoon of Sunday, we decided to hold a further meeting, again at Patshull Road. But Silvia, my wife – although wholly committed to the project – was a bit fed up with having to feed lunch to the Gang of Four and providing endless cups of tea to the reporters crowded into the road, asked: "Why not somewhere else next time?" 

David Owen grasped at the opportunity so the next meeting was held at his home in Limehouse. In that way, The Limehouse Declaration gave its name rather than The Kentish Town Communique. 

The "Gang of Four" (l-r) Bill Rodgers, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and David Owen outside Dr Owen's Limehouse home

The "Gang of Four" (l-r) Bill Rodgers, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and David Owen outside Dr Owen's Limehouse home, where they announced their intention to set up a council for social democracy - Credit: PA

The Limehouse Declaration announced the Council for the Social Democracy – a step towards the new party - on January 25, 1981 and within seven days of its publication the Gang of Four received eight thousand individual messages of support. Then we chose to place in an advertisement in the Guardian newspaper, naming one hundred names representing a cross-section of those who had expressed their support.

Some were already of the great and the good, like the historian Allan Bullock, the scientist Fred Dainton, the author Anthony Sampson and Michael Young the sociologist. Others included Kenneth Robinson, the former Labour MP for St Pancras, the young journalist Polly Toynbee, the Rabbi Julie Neuberger, David Sainsbury of the famous family grocer and three rising lawyers living in north London who were to make their names, Jeffrey Jowell (to become Professor Sir Jeffrey Jowell), Michael Zander (Professor Michael Zander of LSE) and David Pannick (now Lord Pannick, an outstanding advocate in the courts).

(L-R) Roy Jenkins, Nicholas Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers face the cameras after the break

(L-R) Roy Jenkins, Nicholas Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers face the cameras after the breakfast-time launching of the new Social Democratic Party at the Connaught Rooms, London - Credit: PA

Such was the enthusiasm and support, the Gang of Four moved towards the formal public launch of the Social Democratic Party. This took place on March 26, 1981 in the Connaught Rooms in Holborn and was covered by the huge spread of the international media. Virtually overnight, the SDP had 50,000 members and with half a million pounds in the bank. 

In the years ahead, north London - a group of about five parliamentary constituencies (much covering the readership of the Ham&High) - became the heart of the SDP. Many local voters became members and activists and continued through the SDP/ Liberal Alliance and into the merger with the Liberal party as the Liberal Democrats. Others moved on and pursued their successful careers but remained sympathetic to trying to break the mould.

Within a few weeks of the launch of March  26,1981, Ben Stoneham (now, in 2021, the chief whip of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords) who lived in Rochester Terrace NW1, convened a meeting at The Friends House in Euston Road. Up to 800 people attended and in due course, Camden became the largest in the country of the SDP area parties. Barnet area had another high membership.

The "Gang of Four" (l-r) David Owen, Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins

The "Gang of Four" (l-r) David Owen, Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins - Credit: PA

The dramatic events were not without painful consequences for friends and families, especially for those who had been previously committed to Labour, some joining the SDP and others remaining.

My neighbour in Patshull Road, Philip Whitehead, remained a Labour MP and for years we passed each other on the pavement uncomfortably. Another Labour MP and friend Giles Radice who lived near Parkway, Camden Town, almost came to a blow when he tried to persuade me to remain.

There were several very strained relationships between husband and wife and between parents and their children. My three daughters, Rachel, Lucy and Juliet, educated at Gospel Oak primary school and Camden School for Girls, were of a university age quite able to make their own political choices and were not convinced that the SDP would prove radical enough on social issues. 

But there were contradictions. Given the affection towards their dad, Juliet, a card-carrying member of the Labour party, representing the three sisters, wore an outfit of red, white and blue of the new SDP logo when I spoke at the launch the of March 26. 

Social Democratic Party founder-member Bill Rodgers

Social Democratic Party founder-member Bill Rodgers speaking at the SDP Constitutional Convention at Kensington Town Hall in 1982 - Credit: PA

This is not the occasion to tell the story of the ups-and downs, the successes and failures in the 40 years that lay ahead.

At the peak, when Shirley Williams won a dramatic parliamentary by-election in Crosby, the Gallup poll recorded that 51% of the electorate would vote for the SDP or the Liberals at a general election. The potential leader of the SDP and prime minister, Roy Jenkins pencilled me in as the future chancellor of the exchequer (although fortunately he never told me).

But the general election 1983 was a huge disappointment. Nationwide, the Alliance won 25.4% of the vote, very close to the Labour party vote of 27.6% but the electoral system gave only a modest number of Alliance MPs.

In Hendon South, Monroe Palmer (now in 2021, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill) doubled his share of the vote in the previous election. In Hampstead and Highgate (with new boundaries) Anne Sofer, a high-regarded member the Greater London Council, won a quarter of the vote.

But the social democrats and Liberals were much too few in north London to change the world. 

  • Bill Rodgers - Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank - was a former Labour cabinet member before forming the SDP as one of the "Gang of Four". He later served as the Liberal Democrats' leader in the House of Lords. He now lives in Highgate.
Bill Rodgers MP at the launch of the Social Democratic Party in London.

Bill Rodgers MP at the launch of the Social Democratic Party in London - Credit: PA