Is the SDP really a home for social conservatives?

The abject failure of The Conservative Party to adequately represent its conservative supporters has led growing numbers to consider the SDP, revived and with a slightly different – more right-of-centre- outlook. But is the SDP really an adequate home for traditional conservatives?

We social conservatives are a disappointed bunch. Despised by our natural party’s hierarchy – The Conservatives – for sticking to our principles and seeking to avoid becoming ‘warriors of the dispossessed’, social conservatism has largely been cast to the fringes, only to be called upon to elect a centre-left Conservative Government and supposedly save the country from the Red menace, before being jeered back into our caves for another 5 years while the Blue menace does the Red menace’s work for it.

Of course, we’ve ourselves to blame in part, not least for our continued desire to coalesce around people who hate us and everything we stand for, despite sound calls to the contrary.

The recent introduction by the Conservative Government of price caps on energy – a Labour policy that resulted in Ed Miliband being labelled ‘Red Ed’ by none other than – you guessed it – The Conservative Party, fits the long-standing reality of the party as one of statecraft, not principle. A party that governs for the sake of governing – often with an overinflated sense by its most ardent supporters of its right to exist. First act of business? Steal the oppositions clothes.

Gay marriage, mass immigration, opposition to tough policing and support for the abolition of British sovereignty to the EU are but a fraction of Conservative policies designed to replace socially conservative supporters with progressive, metropolitan ones.

I can’t help but notice, however, that something has changed in the minds of some social conservatives. Growing numbers are now actively looking for a different party that may actually represent our views and articulate our interests. And some believe they’ve found it; the revived Social Democratic Party.

History of the SDP

The history of the SDP is one that suggests social conservatives may be misplacing their hope.

The SDP formed as a breakaway from Labour, in response to the increasingly Socialist positions of its then leader Michael Foot. Particular attention was paid to Labour’s move towards unilateral nuclear disarmament, its opposition to membership of the EEC (European Economic Community) and the increasing threat that constituency MPs faced by Militant Tendency. (Sounding familiar?)

The Limehouse Declaration of 1981 saw the ‘Gang of 4’ (Shirley Williams, David Owen, Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers) outline its general political direction.

The SDP exists to create & defend an open, classless & more equal society which rejects prejudices based on sex, race, colour or religion.

Limehouse Declaration, 1981

It was clear then, as now, that the SDP were a centre-left party pursuing centre-left principles. The joint manifesto of the Liberal-SDP alliance for the 1983 General Election confirmed this yet further.

The manifesto called for large increases in state infrastructure spending, income and price controls and the threat of a full incomes policy, large increases in the public sector including the NHS and unemployment as well as the abolition of pro-family policies such as the Married tax allowance. It was wholehearted in its support for ceding sovereignty to the EEC, sought to supersede the 1689 Bill of Rights with a modern one based on human rights and to abolish the First Past The Post voting system.

It wasnt all bad from a socially conservative standpoint though. The party did commit to tax cuts and a free market in many areas as well as supporting localism and the little platoons, decentralising power, limiting state control of small enterprises and expanding share ownership as well as democratising the Unions. Hardly the social restoration we’ve been so desperate for, though.

There were squabbles even in its more left-leaning days over whether David Owen was ‘too right-wing’, resulting in the formation of the Limehouse Group to ensure the SDPs centre-left philosophy.

Is this the party so many social conservatives are tempted by? This meagre offering of soft-Thatcherism paired with soft-Footism? Well, not quite. The SDP has been revived, but appears to have altered its allegiance somewhat.

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The new SDP and New Declaration

So, what does the new SDP stand for? The honest answer is not so much. There are no manifesto’s to be read or long lists of media to go through – only an About page and a political declaration.

Its about page, though brief, describes it as ‘a communitarian, centrist party’, that believes in a social-market economy. All very familiar. However, it goes on to describe itself as pro-nation and eurosceptic, representing a total break from its history – a break that certainly has a socially conservative appeal.

The political declaration is more detailed. It claims merely to support the referendum result on Brexit – though goes on to say that the nation is “the upper limit of democracy”, suggesting that its top brass may well have supported a leave vote in the referendum – though I’m uncertain.

It’s pro-family and believes in the role of the state in promoting married family life, though doesn’t offer any proposals for achieving this. It’s internationalist (whatever that means nowadays) but is opposed to liberal-interventionism and believes in the free market with a socially conservative proviso – that it is not to the detriment of our social bonds and way of life. It sees a weak state as incapable of maintaining its dominance in the face of international conglomerates, opposes identity politics and sees value in the state ownership of natural monopolies, as well opposing the act of borrowing from tomorrow to spend today.

It would appear the SDP have gone through a miniature revolution in its ideas that make it a much better home for social conservatives than its pre-decessor. The SDP appear to have become a whole lot more right-wing. I certainly can’t see Shirley Williams supporting this new outfit. Perhaps that explains Lord Owen’s reluctance to speak on the matter.

I don’t want to talk about the SDP

Lord Owen
SDP Founder

The image of the SDP as one that could appeal to social conservatives has been helped to some extent by the recent defection of former UKIP MEP Patrick O’Flynn. There’s no doubt that Patrick O’Flynn represented the more pragmatic side of UKIP. Describing himself as a “common sense Centrist”, he often seemed uncomfortable with the more authoritarian element of UKIP, Nigel Farage included. But he also had a key role in the production of UKIP’s 2015 manifesto – arguably the party’s most successful manifesto and one which garnered UKIP 4 million votes in the subsequent election – which blended a belief in more limited government with the understanding that a strong government is necessary to defend and further the interests of the nation and its community.

Social conservatives must remain cautious

I can understand the excitement that some social conservatives have expressed towards the SDP, though I encourage a strong air of caution.

Newer parties always benefit from being vague. They win some support for being new, but most support will be based on principle, policy and electability. I’ve heard some reasonable principles espoused by the SDP, but also some less reasonable ones. It is clear that social conservatives will need to compromise, but that’s politics, right?

What worries me even more is the sheer lack of knowledge available. It would be both a great shame and major embarrassment for social conservatives to find themselves yet again in a socially liberal party, which drops its nice sounding principles for damaging progressive policies. We don’t know where the SDP is going, or what alliances it intends to build to stand any chance of electoral success.

Perhaps those policies and the cementing of its direction are currently underway, in which case I can cast no blame or question on those of us who choose to participate and seek to make the SDP the socially conservative voice this country really needs.

Social conservatives should be cautious in their support for the SDP until it offers us something concrete to buy into. It wouldn’t be the first time a party tried to talk our talk before abandoning us.


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