Jon Alexander reviews The Future of Social Democracy for the Social Liberal Forum.
On 25th January 1981, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and David Owen - the Gang of Four - came out of Owen’s house in Limehouse, East London, to announce a set of eight guiding statements to sit at the heart of what would initially be the Council for Social Democracy, and soon the Social Democratic Party. 40 years on from the Limehouse Declaration, the Social Democrat Group within the Liberal Democrats have published a collection of essays to mark that anniversary. It is a mixed read. At times it is hugely uplifting, tapping the same depth of insight and energy that fizzed out from East London 40 years ago and painting exactly the same burning need for a distinctive third voice in British politics. At others, though, it is deeply frustrating, caught in the weeds of technocratic detail that have entangled so much of Liberal Democrat political thinking over the last decade.
My personal highlight is Julie Smith’s essay on foreign policy, which quotes the original LImehouse Declaration in its opening. As Smith argues, this was “a vision for the UK’s role in the world that was collaborative, not competitive, and that understood the importance of multilateral institutions and the rules-based international order. They rejected isolationism and unilateralism on the one hand, and jingoism on the other.” This clarity of distinction is admirably clear, all the more so at a time when we appear once again to be in a battle over the meaning of patriotism in this country; and once again to have Conservative jingoism on one side and a Labour Party in deep danger of looking only inward on the other. Smith’s argument for a strong defence policy is mature and realistic - “evil exists that states may need to be prepared to oppose” - and her analysis of Johnson’s government succinct and compelling: “with the right wing of his party in the ascendant, a dramatic reabsorption of the Department for International Development (DfID) into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and demands that aid support the UK’s national interest, the balance between trade, aid, foreign policy and defence has changed fundamentally.” Her attitude to Starmer’s Labour is correct: we must work together, but that does not mean disappearing into Labour. Her thinking makes clear the role required: painting the space for Britain as a committed citizen of the international community, an active peer among equals, rejecting both isolationism and jingoism.
If Smith’s essay provides the clearest argument in the collection for social democratic thinking in the present context, it is Ian Kearns who provides the best engagement with the big picture of the future. Ian and I have worked together a good deal over the last year under the auspices of the Social Liberal Forum, and his essay on technology and the future of work in this collection is a prime example of the incisive and challenging thinking that has earned him so much respect. Kearns is not afraid to call out the fact that, for all the very serious challenges of this moment in time, there are plenty more to come - and to embrace both the need for big ideas, such as Universal Basic Income, and the need to figure out how to sell them on the doorstep. If social democracy and indeed liberalism are to have a future in this country, Ian’s rare combination of intense clarity as to the challenges we face and big imagination as to how they might be overcome will, I am sure, be at the forefront.
Much of the rest of the collection, if I am honest, leaves me somewhat flat. Wendy Chamberlain, for all her inspirational qualities as a Member of Parliament, disappears into the intricacies of various voting systems rather than giving us a vision for the future. Dick Newby, another politician I admire greatly, holds up the demands of the environment and the economy as if they were in competition, as if the insight offered by Kate Raworth in her already-classic Doughnut Economics - published in 2017 - had not yet arrived in the world. Most frustratingly of all, Vince Cable manages to descend from a helicopter view of the woods of social democracy across the world right down into the weeds of intricate policy detail without stopping for even the briefest glimpse of the trees on the way down - a descent that is made all the more frustrating by the fact that, 30 pages on, Kearns comprehensively dismantles his incrementalist approach.
I believe we stand at a moment when, as in the early 1980s, Britain is desperate for a functional third voice in our national politics. On one hand, four of the five authors of the 2012 neo-imperialist libertarian fantasy that is Britannia Unchained are Cabinet Ministers, with Brexit ever more clearly just the beginning of their project. On the other hand, for all that Keir Starmer is a far better prospect than Jeremy Corbyn, he seems more likely to keep an excellent record of Conservative catastrophes than put a stop to them. I applaud George Kendall, Colin McDougall and the rest of the SDG for bringing some of this thinking together. But I think we all need to raise our game - and fast.
Jon Alexander is the co-founder of the New Citizenship Project and a member of the Social Liberal Forum Council.