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Remembering the Liberal - SDP Alliance and a stalwart Welsh Liberal MP

February 11, 2008 6:53 PM

SDPOn 10 February 1982, as the heady days of the Liberal-SDP Alliance were being exchanged for dips in the opinion polls, the former Liberal MP for Merioneth (1945-51), Mr Emrys Roberts, wrote to the Times from his home at Dwy Dderden on the isle of Anglesey.

Lord RodgersThe autumn and winter of 1981-82 had seen trouble in the Alliance paradise as the negotiations between the parties over the allocation of seats for the next general election were entering rough seas. In his autobiography, Bill Rodgers, one of the original Gang of Four, who was in overall charge of the seats negotiations for the SDP, recalled that "The Liberals were sometimes leaderless and seldom adopted a common view. Each of them was heavily committed to an individual constituency and had little conception of a bargain by which they abandoned one seat to the SDP in return for another. "(Rodgers, Fourth Among Equals, Politico's, 2000). Exasperated with what he saw as his partners' inability to agree or stick to an agreement. At the start of the Christmas recess of 1981, Rodgers suspended the negotiations unilaterally and went public on the story. The press seized on the splits and divisions in the Alliance as eagerly as they had once reported the surges of support and by-election victories of earlier in the year. David Steel in his memoirs (Against Goliath, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989) recalled that the negotiations were "wearisome and debilitating". He conceded that the growth in opinion poll ratings had been brought about by the creation of the SDP but supported Liberal claims that it was the Liberal party which had the superior numbers on the ground and the better electoral management. Steel understood the reluctance of local Liberals who were refusing to hand over what he described in his book as "well-organised seats to the SDP newcomers".

David SteelEmrys Roberts was politically close to Lady Megan Lloyd George. He, Lady Megan and Edgar Granville, Liberal MP for Eye in Suffolk, had formed a small group in Parliament to fight for what they saw as the Radical Liberal tradition. But this did not mean they opposed attempts at realignment of the left through arrangements with like-minded parties. In his letter to the Times, Roberts said he hoped to see an eventual merger of the Liberal and Social Democratic parties, with a single leader. He went on to recall that in 1951, he and Lady Megan had approached Herbert Morrison proposing a working relationship with the Labour government, with its small majority of eight votes and the parliamentary Liberal party which then had nine MPs. Morrison was apparently well disposed but Attlee decided to call a general election, which the Tories went on to win. Roberts looked back to the Lib-Lab pact of 1977-78, agreed by David Steel and Jim Callaghan with approval. Against the background of the seats negotiations disaster, but noting the optimism at the possibility of a left of centre government after the next election, Roberts made a case for strong, central control of the seats process by the party leaders and a move towards amalgamating Liberal and SDP constituency organisations on the ground to push forward moves towards a national merger of the two Alliance parties.

Lady MeganRoberts did not say if his approach to Labour with Lady Megan in 1951 had been approved by the party leader Clement Davies or would have been endorsed by all nine members of the Parliamentary Liberal Party. It seems unlikely that either is the case. Davies had no arrangement with the Conservatives in Montgomery but they did not usually stand candidates against him. A parliamentary pact with Labour would have threatened that. Bearing in mind the independent mindedness of some of his parliamentary colleagues, notably Rhys Hopkin Morris who represented Carmarthen, it also seems far-fetched to imagine the nine Liberals all voting to sustain an increasingly stale Labour government.

On the anniversary of the publication of Roberts' letter however it is interesting to recall the politics of the Alliance, the arguments over merger (now all safely settled) and the earlier attempts in 1977-78 and 1951 to come to political agreement across tribal party lines.