Not while I'm alive, he ain't - Part 3
Presented by Brian Walden
Broadcast on The Westminster Hour, Sunday April 14 2002
Between the general elections of 1983 and 1987 the Social Democrat/Liberal Alliance was led jointly by the two Davids, David Owen of the Social Democrats and David Steel of the Liberals. The Alliance claimed to represent a new kind of politics, based on sensible co-operation rather than partisan confrontation. The personal relationship between the two leaders was meant to encapsulate the new values. Soon after he became SDP leader Owen addressed the 1983 Liberal conference.
I will not allow the press and the media who only want to report division to ever drive a wedge between David Steel and myself.
And the pair posed at informal photo opportunities as if they were best mates. But despite the proclamation of eternal loyalty, it turned out that it did not need the media to drive a wedge between the two of them. They did it themselves. Richard, now Lord, Holme was one of David Steel's key advisers throughout this period
I think the general public saw the two lads in their cable-knitted woolly jumpers standing over farm gates being chums and so on, and the general public probably thought they get on pretty well. They didn't get on pretty well. In fact, they got on quite badly.
When Owen became SDP leader after the 1983 election, he succeeded Roy Jenkins. Jenkins had generally got on well with Steel, although at the end he had been ousted by Steel as chief Alliance spokesman half-way through the '83 campaign at a famous meeting at Steel's home in Ettrick Bridge. Even at the time he assumed the leadership, Owen already had doubts about Steel's character, according to his close adviser and fellow SDP MP, John Cartwright.
I remember after the 1983 election when of course there was this famous Ettrick Bridge summit, I remember Owen coming away from that and saying to me that he was absolutely staggered at the brutality with which Steel had dealt with Roy Jenkins. It took his breath away.
Steel was indeed a skilled behind-the-scenes operator. But Owen soon discovered that the manipulation wasn't the only side of Steel that worried him. John Cartwright again.
He just didn't like the politicking that one associated with Steel, but he also came to regard him as not a serious figure, which for Owen was the absolute damnation. I remember going to a number of policy meetings where it was quite clear that Steel hadn't read the papers. Steel wasn't terribly interested in policy, and that I think Owen found very difficult.
And Steel certainly didn't find Owen easy to get along with. In this of course he was far from alone; many people who have worked closely with Owen have found him to be a prickly and arrogant colleague. Steel's supporters argue that it took all his reserves of affability and compromise-seeking to cope with Owen's determination to get his own way. Richard Holme.
David Owen certainly found the routine arts of politics in terms of persuading colleagues and acknowledging their presence and dealing with them and being a team player and a team leader even, he found those very difficult. David Steel was fortunately a great deal more equable than David Owen and more in the let's get it done mould. The relationship if I can put it in marital terms was like one partner who is given to periodic explosions of temper and throwing crockery but then calms down and goes sulky, and one partner who smiles and carries on.
The contrast in their personalities resulted in the public impression that David Owen was the dominant half of the partnership. This did not go down very well with many Liberals, and it was a charge which Steel found himself tetchily having to deny in interviews.
It's not in my nature to play second fiddle to anybody. I think what we are playing is a very effective duet, and that's what we intend to go on doing.
Matters were made much worse for Steel by the way this perception of their relationship was exaggerated and popularised through its satirical portrayal on Spitting Image. This presented Steel as a small puppet in David Owen's pocket, invariably meekly caving in to Owen's dictatorial whims. In this famous sketch Owen is explaining to Steel what, if their two parties merged, would be the name of the new party.
Well, we'll take one word from your party and one word from my party. / Which words? / From mine Social Democratic, and from yours, Party. / So we'll be called the social democratic party? / Has a ring, don't you think, David? / Oh yes, it's very fair, thank you very much indeed, David. But who will be the leader? / Again, one word from your name and one word from mine. / I see, which words? / From yours, I'd thought we'd take the word, David. / And from yours, David? / What about Owen.
Steel himself believed that this caricature was highly influential and harmful to him. Owen probably rather relished it. But the problems between them were not limited to the consequences of their contrasting personalities. Steel was pressing all the time for measures which would bring the two parties closer together, such as joint selection of local candidates and having joint parliamentary spokespeople. Equally, Owen resisted all these plans, determined to maintain the separate identity of the SDP. And, although the two parties were largely and comfortably in agreement on policy issues, one crucial topic did dramatically come between them, as Richard Holme explains.
Certainly there was a problem on defence. The Liberal party had been notably a pacific party, semi-unilateralist, certainly very concerned with the issue of nuclear weapons, but was on the move. The SDP had been partly formed out of disagreements on defence in the Labour party, so the origins of it were profoundly pro-NATO, pro whatever hardware was around, a very tough position on defence.
Aware of the damage this issue could do, the two leaders had established a joint commission on defence to hammer out a common policy. The trickiest issue was the question of what - if anything - should replace Polaris submarines as Britain's independent nuclear deterrent when they came to the end of their life. Most of the commission resolved that this was a decision which the country could safely postpone for some time, so the question of replacing Polaris could be left open. Before the Commission had finished work, however, in May 1986 David Steel had lunch with some journalists from the Scotsman. The next day the newspaper reported that the commission would reject the notion of a new independent deterrent, and presented this as if Steel had outwitted the strongly pro-nuclear Owen. John Cartwright was one of the commission's SDP members and describes Owen's reaction.
He was pretty angry, angry on two counts. One, that the defence commission was moving towards what he would characterise as a fudge and mudge solution to the problem which wouldn't work. And secondly because he felt there had been a deliberate leak in order to cause trouble inside the SDP. Those of us who were in charge of defence policy were trying to hang on, come hell or high water, to the clarity of our position on defence. It was anger there was a deliberate attempt to undermine our position within our own party.
Owen was determined both not to be bounced by Steel and also not to be seen to be publicly humiliated. He decided he had to blow this proposal out of the water, as he later recalls.
It was a policy that was not only against the policy of the SDP, it was a policy that could not in my judgment, and I think later events have proved me to be correct, have stood up to serious examination in a general election campaign. It was a policy which I had gone to David Steel 4 times in the previous 6 weeks telling him that this was the wording that was in it and asking him to talk to his representatives on the commission and come up with a wording that was clearer and more definite.
And he revealed how he saw the whole incident.
It was one of those naked battles in politics. It was a power battle. That was what it was about.
Owen was never one to shirk such a battle. He announced that rather than accept this fudge it would be better for the two Alliance parties to go into the forthcoming general election with two quite distinct policies on defence. For Steel the fixer, the wheeler-dealer, Owen's notion was disastrous, as at the time he made clear.
He's right of course to say that it isn't the end of the world if that happens, but in my view it's pretty close. I don't think that we could go into the election with one set of candidates saying one thing and another set saying the other. And I think we are duty bound to debate this report in a manner which will reach a common conclusion for the election manifesto.
This open disagreement was made worse when later that year the Liberal assembly defied the party leadership and passed a motion in favour of non-nuclear defence. The Alliance appeared to be in chaos. In the end Steel and Owen agreed on a policy that Britain would remain a nuclear weapons state, but the nature of the Polaris replacement was left unspecified. The whole affair was extremely damaging in the run up to a general election in which the unity of the Alliance would be tested even more rigorously. For the election the Alliance formed a joint campaign committee. Its chairman was John Pardoe, a former Liberal MP. He said afterwards that he thought he was given the job because he was the only Liberal acceptable to David Owen whom David Steel was prepared to countenance. Pardoe and his campaign team knew they had to have a strategy for dealing with the possibility that the two leaders might convey different messages to the electorate.
What we did was to make sure that at all major events the two leaders were in the same studio or on the same platform at the same time, so that if they did even by a tiny whisker disagree they could sort it out there and then. It was an absolute disaster really.
It didn't work, firstly because the two Davids didn't like being kept in such close proximity to each other. Pardoe and his team groaned in despair, imagining what the cartoonists would do, when Steel complained to journalists that their joint appearances made them seem like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. After their fears had been fully realised, they could hardly believe what he said next.
What David and I suspected from the beginning is that if we're stuck on chairs side by side with one camera pointing at us, then we end up looking like a pair of garden gnomes.
The second problem was that they did from time to time find themselves sorting out differences in public. In a joint interview with Robin Day on Panorama, Owen first went off message and indiscreetly revealed that he would regard a Labour government a worse evil than a Tory one due to its anti-nuclear stance on defence. Steel then had to cope with the same question addressed to him.
I don't see why I've got to start getting out the measuring rod and saying well, one would be slightly better on this, the other would be slightly better on that. I'm not going to do it. / Dr Owen had no hesitation in bringing out the measuring rod and saying defence. / He brought out one very good issue. There are others as well about which I would feel equally strongly.
The truth indeed was that Owen despised Neil Kinnock's Labour party much more than he disliked the Tories, while Steel had much more contempt for Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives. And, in a later interview in the campaign, Steel departed from the agreed line when he let slip that he could not imagine doing a deal with Thatcher in the event of a hung parliament. The disunity was obvious. By the end of the campaign those party officials with the task of running it had despaired of the two Davids. The SDP's national organiser was Alec McGivan.
They both had their own agendas which the Alliance tried to bring together and I think looking back that was a very optimistic scenario, and in a general election when you're faced with two other parties trying to do you down, the media who let's face it love to pull people up only to tear them down again, the scrutiny was there in a general election, and the alliance partnership simply didn't hold, and that must have been largely down to the two individuals at the top, because that's what leadership's about. At the end of the day, they couldn't do it, they couldn't work together.
The result of the election was deeply disappointing for the Alliance. Despite high hopes a few weeks earlier it lost support during the campaign and failed to make any breakthrough. Many of its supporters were convinced that having two parties with two leaders was an unnecessary burden. These included David Steel, who on the day after polling day made it clear to the media that he would be pressing straight away for a merger of the two parties. For Owen's supporters the speed of Steel's move was further evidence of untrustworthiness, and battle commenced between those in favour of and those opposed to merger. John Pardoe observed it.
I found the 87 election the most disillusioning experience of my whole political career, until the weekend that followed it, when they took the knives out of course.
Three months later the majority of the SDP voted to merge with the Liberals. Owen refused to go along with it, leading a minority into a party which he persisted in calling the SDP. Thus Steel and Owen remained in separate parties and returned to competing against each other. A few weeks after the merger vote Steel and Owen met up for the first time following the election for a well-publicised lunch. After the meal journalists asked Steel how it had gone.
Well, I think you know that we've decided not to enlarge on what was a very happy meeting. It was a private lunch. / Yes, have you reconciled yourselves? / We still agreed to differ but we're going to agree to differ pleasantly.
It was clear that Steel and Owen had different personalities, different views of how to conduct politics, different underlying philosophies, and different strategic approaches. It is hardly surprising that in the end they had no option but to agree to differ.