sdpliberalQuick question: Which of the two Liberal Democrat leadership candidates was a member of the SDP? The correct answer is, of course, Norman Lamb who was a member of both the Liberal Party and the SDP (membership of both parties was allowed) while Tim Farron was only ever a member of the Liberal Party pre-merger.

I bring this up because in their endorsement of Norman Lamb for leader, the Economist makes the claim that Tim Farron is a ‘traditional social democrat’ while Norman Lamb is a ‘classical liberal’. (They also shockingly use ‘shoe-in’ rather than ‘shoo-in‘, making me wonder how far their subbing standards have fallen)

The idea that the Liberal Democrats are divided between two factions with pure unadulterated classical liberals locked in a life-or-death struggle with soggy social democrats is one common across many pundits and politicos. It’s based on the solid fact that the party was formed out of a merger between the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party, so naturally one would expect the factions in the party to reflect those divisions. It’s a fine supposition, weakened only by the fact that it’s utter bollocks. On a simple matter numbers I suspect that even before the post-election surge, most of the party’s members (including me) joined after the merger, and a large chunk of them now were likely not even born when it happened.

The narrative also ignores the actual history of and ideology of the two parties pre-merger. The Liberal Party was not stuck in the rut of holding the same policies it had held in Victorian times, and was certainly not a ‘classical liberal’ party. Under Grimond, the party had turned away from electoral pacts with the Conservatives in favour of seeking ‘realignment of the left’; under Thorpe the party had adopted the principles of community politics and the radical ideas of the ‘Red Guard’ of the Young Liberals began moving into the mainstream of the party; and Steel negotiated the Lib-Lab pact, then looked to work with Jenkins to realign the left. The dominant ideas in the Liberals from the late 50s to the end of the party were in the tradition of the New Liberalism of the early twentieth century, not the ‘classical’ liberalism of the nineteenth.

Meanwhile, the SDP was not especially committed to the principles of social democracy as it’s commonly understood – indeed, most actual social democrats remained in the Labour Party and helped draw it back towards the centre. The SDP’s aims were more around creating a party of the centre and realigning British politics (remember that this was after the 70s, when the old institutions of Britsh politics and the two-party system had begun to show their first cracks). Under both Jenkins and Owen, the party was much more about centrism and balancing extremes of left and right than it was about promoting even the mildest form of socialism. If anything, the party’s most symbolic issue under Owen was one of Britain retaining Trident rather than anything to do with economics or society. By the end of its life – and especially in its post-merger rebirth, SDP-ism had become little more than proclaiming the greatness of David Owen and complaining about how all the radical ideas of the Liberals needed to be reined in. The lack of any overriding identity for the SDP other than centrism can be seen in how its members scattered to the political winds – some to the Lib Dems, some to New Labour, others following Owen towards the Tories (and often going further than him in actually joining them).

If there’s any lingering tension within the Liberal Democrats that can be traced back to the two different parties it’s not a fight between right and left but rather one between centrists and radicals (though that was present to some extent in both predecessor parties, and exists in other parties too). Centrism is there in Roy Jenkins and his ‘great crusade to change everything just a little bit’, Owen’s defense of the elite consensus on nuclear weapons, Spitting Image’s early Ashdown ‘neither one thing nor the other but somewhere in between’ and this year’s ‘look left, look right, then cross’ rhetoric. It’s the sort of thing the in-house magazines of the establishment like The Economist love because it’s not about rocking the boat, just presenting a slightly liberal-tinged version of what the great and the good all agree on that doesn’t challenge any existing power. Radicals, on the other hand, are looking to change the system and cause a fundamental shift in the distribution of power, following in the footsteps of many Liberals before. That, I think, is a more fruitful way of looking at any differences within the party, rather than looking for divisions based on irrelevant squabbles from thirty years ago.