Social Democratic Party

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Social Democratic Party (SDP) was a political party of the United Kingdom that existed nationwide between 1981 and 1988, splitting the Labour Party and arguably guaranteeing that the Thatcher government would be re-elected in 1983. It was founded by four senior members of the right-wing of the Labour Party, dubbed the "Gang of Four": Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams. [1] At the time of the SDP's creation, Owen and Rodgers were sitting Labour Members of Parliament (MPs); Jenkins had left Parliament in 1977 to serve as President of the European Commission, while Williams had lost her seat in the 1979 general election. The four left the Labour Party in the belief that it had become too left-wing, and had been infiltrated at constituency level by Trotskyist factions whose views and behaviour were at odds with the parliamentary party and the Labour-voting electorate.

For the 1983 [2] and 1987 [3] General Elections, the SDP joined the Liberal Party in the SDP-Liberal Alliance. The party merged with theLiberal Party in 1988 to form the Social and Liberal Democrats (SLD), now known as the Liberal Democrats [4], although a minority left to form a new SDP.

Atlanticist project?

The Atlanticist tendency within Labour was not new. But the split in the party in the late 1970s which culminated in the creation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) was encouraged and exacerbated by US linked organisations often connected with the CIA. The US funded social democrats because this was a means of ensuring that European governments 'continued to allow American capital into their economies with a minimum of restrictions'.[5] But, for some sections of the movement for the restoration of corporate power, the Labour Party was not social democratic. It was in the grip of the far left and indeed was said to be 'thoroughly penetrated' by the KGB, by activists like Brian Crozier, drawing on the views of the conspirators in the Wilson plot.[6] Crozier 'had long nursed the idea' that the problem of a 'subversive opposition' which 'might come back to power could only lie in the creation of a non-subversive alternative party of government'.[7]

The interest of the CIA and of corporate funded think tanks and right wing US foundations in an alternative to Labour was clear. But the history books neglect to mention much in the way of trans-Atlantic connections of the Gang of Four and their co-conspirators. They often miss out the well known links of Shirley Williams with the right wing Ditchley Foundation, or those of Robert Maclennan a founder of the party with the Atlantic Council, the pro NATO policy group. Indeed all four leaders of the SDP had been 'career long' members of the American tendency in Labour. When the SDP merged with the liberals to form Social and Liberal Democrats 'one of the authors of the proposed joint policy statement was seconded to the job by his employer (CSIS) a propagandising Washington foreign policy think-tank much used by successive American administrations in pursuit of its foreign policy goals.'[8]

More important are the connections of two of the other founders, Stephen Haseler, an academic at the City of London Polytechnic, who along with fellow lecturer Douglas Eden (a US national) formed the Social Democratic Alliance and issued 'a string of alarmist reports about the inroads being made into the Labour Party by the left'.[9] Haseler had written a book condemning The Death of British Democracy. The SDA attracted the attention and the financial help 'on a small scale' of Brian Crozier, the spook and corporate activist. As he notes, the 'true story of its prehistory has not... been told'.[10] Crozier admits that he already knew both Haseler and Eden, the latter from early meetings of the extreme National Association for Freedom. The three met at Crozier's office in the Institute for the Study of Conflict – hardly an auspicious meeting place for members of the Labour Party.[11] Haseler later worked for the right wing, corporate funded Heritage Foundation and used Heritage money to set up the Institute for European Defence and Strategic Studies, intended to challenge CND in the 1980s.[12]

Once the SDP was formed, several right wing Labour MPs who had decided to join the SDP voted for Michael Foot in the leadership contest with the right winger Denis Healey. Their votes ensured Foot's victory and were intended as the death knell for the Labour Party. 'It was very important' one of them wrote that they 'destroyed' the Labour Party.[13] The creation of the SDP not only split the anti-Tory vote at the 1983 election, but led to the defeat of the Labour left in the local councils in the mid 1980s and before that the decisive blow in the defeat of the miners in 1984–1985.

Even after this the Atlanticists feared that their job was not done. Crozier's view was that the SDP project had been confounded by Roy Jenkins 'unwillingness' to 'use the party for the purpose for which it had been created' and play the role in history allotted to him by the machinations of Crozier, Eden and Haseler. Instead of attempting to 'split the Labour Party' he tried to attract Tory votes.[14]

Prominent members

Tom Easton writes:

Other SDP activists receiving early invitations to join the Successor Project were Sue Slipman, the former Communist president of the National Union of Students; Penny Cooper, an old Communist party and NUS colleague of Slipman's who, like her, was a founder member of the SDP; Becky Bryan, a defence analyst and later BBC reporter who was 1983 Alliance candidate for East Hampshire, and Rabbi Julia Neuburger, a member of the government-backed multilateralist Council for Arms Control in the early Eighties and a prominent member of the SDP national committee.[15]


  1. BBC 1981: Gang of Four launches new party
  2. BBC Politics 97: 9 June 1983
  3. BBC Politics 97: 11 June 1987
  4. BBC Lib Dems look back on a troubled history
  5. Robin Ramsay, (2002) The Rise of New Labour, Harpenden, Herts: Pocket Essentials, p. 33.
  6. Crozier, p147
  7. Crozier, p. 147
  8. Tom Easton, Who were they travelling with? Lobster 31 Review of SDP: The Birth, Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party Ivor Crewe and Anthony King Oxford University Press, 1995, £25
  9. Ramsay, New Labour, p. 35.
  10. Crozier, p. 147
  11. Crozier, p. 147-8
  12. Ramsay, New Labour, p. 36.
  13. Neville Sandelson, MP, Sunday Telegraph 1996, cited in Robin Ramsay Prawn Cocktail Party: the Hidden power behind New Labour, London: Vision, p92.
  14. Crozier, p. ???
  15. Lobster The British American Project for the Successor Generation