Historians' Watch

First as Tragedy…?

The SDP’s David Owen, 1981. LSE Library.

The defections of eight Labour MPs and three Conservatives (numbers accurate at the time of writing!) from their parties to an as yet undefined ‘Independent Group’ has inevitably drawn comparison with the foundation of the SDP in 1981. The backdrop of divisions over Europe, intra-party democracy and ideological polarisation seemed very familiar. The re-admittance of Derek Hatton to Labour late on Monday night and re-expulsion on Wednesday only seemed to confirm that history had somehow looped back on itself.

For the original Gang of Four, time also seemed to be behaving oddly. Bill Rodgers and Roy Jenkins both described feeling that ‘the times were out of joint’ in the late 1970s. This temporal attitude can be seen in the phrase most associated with the SDP: ‘breaking the mould’. There is a clear sense here that the natural political order, the party system and the relationship of the present to the past and future had been unsettled.

SDP rhetoric veered uneasily between making this novelty an intrinsic part of their identity and denying it in order to demonstrate their essential continuity with Labour’s ideals and policies. As Stuart Hall observed at the time, their ‘strongest card will not be the promise to “restore the Centre”, but the vaguer threat to “break the political mould”. In so doing,’ he went on, ‘they inherit, not the mantle of Attlee, but the legacy of Mrs Thatcher’. Indeed, Hall himself had written of Thatcher’s intention to ‘break the mould’ of British politics in his famous description of the terrain of ‘Thatcherism’ in January 1979.

Yet, for all their claims to be breaking with the past, the defectors from Labour were extremely keen to assert that their political position – and, consequently, their personal character – had not changed. They also laid claim to Labour heritage. Peter Hall, the former Chairman of the Fabian Society, reflected that ‘every leader down to Jim Callaghan, as well as a majority of every Labour cabinet in history would be on my side.’ A letter sent on the eve of the Party’s foundation claimed that it was defending ‘principles which democratic socialists have fought for since the days of the Chartists.’ Later, they drew on the history of the Edwardian Lib-Lab ‘progressive’ alliance to frame their partnership with the Liberals. Breaking away from the Labour party was thus understood as an act of loyalty – an attempt to carry the legacy of the past into the future.

Unsurprisingly, the SDP’s opponents did not accept this narrative. As one letter from a grassroots member put it:

is this Roy Jenkins the same person that the Solihull Constituency, I among them sweat blood and tears for in 1945? The same person that Clem Attlee assured us “was steeped in true socialism”. Who was a product of the valleys the very cradle of Socialist thinking. Whose father was PPS to Clem[?] […] I bet that Clem is turning over in his grave.

Shirley Williams was frequently accused of betraying her mother’s memory. One correspondent claimed that ‘Vera Britain [sic] would be shocked at her daughter’, another that Brittain and her friend Winifred Holtby were ‘turning in their graves’. However, Williams also received letters from members of the public – and particularly from women – asserting personal and familial continuity on her behalf:

You personally must remember the stand your mother had to make during the war. The isolation, from people she thought to be her friends, must be very much akin to your own position now, she remained true to her values, this must be you now.

For 50 years I have admired your mother Vera Brittain […]. She would have been very proud of you today.

Reading the correspondence of this time, it is striking how much the past mattered. This was not just rhetorical strategy. It was an intrinsic part of the culture of the party, rooted as deeply on its right as its left.  One of the letters written by a former Labour member traced a moving account of personal hardship and political service stretching back to 1926, and concluded ‘I write this letter in tears, with memories so deep that they are inexpressible. It is with bitter regret and anguish of mind that I cut myself off from the Party that has been my life for so long, remembering my dead comrades’.

Several of the MPs leaving Labour this week prefaced their resignations with stories about their working-class backgrounds, labour movement roots and decades of service. This is undoubtedly central to their own identities, not only as political actors, but as individuals. Luciana Berger’s slip in introducing herself as ‘Labour Member of Parliament for Liverpool Wavertree’ was a poignant reminder of what was at stake, psychically as well as politically.

Yet, in the years since 1981, the party’s sense of itself and its relationship to its own past has fractured and splintered. As I have shown in my book, a more self-aware, self-referential sense of the past has replaced the sense of deep obligation to ongoing tradition. The SDP were on the cusp of this shift; the Independent Group lies well beyond it.

The sense of being stuck in an eternal self-referential loop is of course a feature of post-modernity, but it is takes on a particular resonance with respect to Labour politics. The supposedly linear inevitability of the transition from ‘Old’ to New Labour (or History to post-History) has been broken by the emergence of the Corbyn project. And so we see attempts to replay the tape – whether to emulate the original ‘modernising’ project, or to reverse its effects.

This is not a form of history that imposes obligations on us. It is history as self-aware repetition. As Penny Andrews has pointed out, contemporary political uses of the past can be understood as a form of fan culture – a way of projecting our own identities. Whichever side you take, the 1970s and ‘80s provide a simple point of reference for a political situation that is otherwise alarmingly fluid and unpredictable.

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