Monday, 25 February 2019

The SDP: Reflections from our Archives

There are some striking parallels between the latest fissure in the Labour Party and the formation of the breakaway Social Democratic Party by the ‘gang of four’ in 1981. Then as now, there was a sense that the two main parties had moved to the extremes of the political spectrum, leaving a large empty space in the centre. But readers of this collection from the archive will be struck by the singular dimensionality of the political argument in the 1980s: the SDP primarily promoted itself as defending liberal Keynesianism against the depredations of Thatcherism on one side and Labour’s plans for heightened state intervention on the other. While the party did adopt a pro-EU position, the arguments about citizens of somewhere or nowhere that have come to define ‘Two Englands’ and have given such heat to Brexit were absent. This has at least one striking consequence. The voices from the past agree that the SDP was handicapped, in the first past the post system, by the wide geographical spread of its support. By contrast, the new group could benefit from the stark geographical divides that Brexit has opened up. This virtual issue gives a sense of the hopes vested in the SDP at the time, along with the sober reflections of some of the participants as they looked back on the party’s failure to break the grip of the two main parties.

Deborah Mabbett


The Social Democrats and the Constitution by Vernon Bogdanor 52 3 (1982)
The SDP and the Media  by Colin Seymour Ure 53 4 (1982)
The SDP’s Plans for Britain’s Constitution by Wilson Finnie 54 1  (1983)
The SDP and Liberal Party in Alliance by William Rodgers 54 4 (1983)
Commentary: Ten Years On by David Marquand 68 1 (1997)



Sunday, 3 February 2019

Norman Birnbaum obituary

Norman Birnbaum, who has died at the age of 92, was a highly valued and regular contributor to Political Quarterly over many years. In 2011 he received the Crick Prize at the Orwell Awards for the best article in PQ in 2010. He travelled to London especially for the prize and delivered a memorable speech. The prize was awarded for his article ‘American Progressivism and the Obama Presidency’ (read it here) (PQ 81:4) and was typical of his writing which always embodied the qualities PQ exists to promote – engaged, direct, authoritative, and written in plain English. Norman was a public intellectual of a rare kind. Born in Manhattan to a Jewish family (his grandfather was an immigrant from Eastern Europe and his father a school teacher) he was raised in the Bronx, graduated at Harvard and taught at many Universities across the Atlantic, including LSE, Oxford, the New School and Amherst College, and for twenty years at Georgetown University. He remained on the political Left his whole life, unlike many of his contemporaries, and was noted for the range of his contacts with intellectuals and politicians across the political spectrum. They included Willy Brandt, Edward Kennedy, Isaiah Berlin, Iris Murdoch, Herbert Marcuse, Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz. He was involved with many journals such as Commentary, Dissent and Partisan Review, but he had a particularly long association with The Nation and was a founding member of the editorial board of New Left Review in 1960. His many books include The crisis of industrial society (1969), The radical renewal: the politics of ideas in modern America (1988), After Progress: American social reform and European socialism in the twentieth century (2001), and his absorbing memoir From the Bronx to Oxford and Not Quite Back (2018). Norman won respect from all who knew him for the breadth of his knowledge and understanding, for his civility and wit, and for his strong and unwavering commitment to radical politics and progressive ideals. He once declared ‘I never believed in a social science made by and for academics, a dispassionate account of the world. I do believe that the present is history, but that we are not its prisoners. Only a God can make the world anew, but humans fail in their humanity if they do not try to make it better.’ His life is an example of how to be an engaged public intellectual even through the most difficult political times.

Andrew Gamble

You can read some of his other PQ articles here: