THE SHITEHOUSE DECLARATION

As tribute acts go, I’ve probably seen worse, though it’s hard to think where off the top of my head. Let’s compare: Roy Jenkins – twice Home Secretary, once Chancellor of the Exchequer, a man on whose watch homosexuality was decriminalised, abortion was legalised, capital punishment was abolished and archaic divorce laws were reformed; Chuka Umunna – Shadow Business Secretary…and…er…well, that’s it. And yet, at the press conference held to announce the resignation of seven Labour MPs this morning, Umunna did his best to remix the speech Jenkins made at the launch of the SDP in 1981 so that it could become a defining signpost along his own path of vainglory.

When a mere four ‘moderate’ MPs staged a similar split from a Labour party that had been seized by the hard left thirty-eight years ago, the quartet consisted of the aforementioned Jenkins as well as a former Foreign Secretary (David Owen), a former Education Secretary (Shirley Williams), and a former Transport Secretary (Bill Rodgers). Rodgers was perhaps the only member of the quartet whose public service didn’t quite resonate with the heavyweight cache of his partners, though seeing today’s events on TV made me think of legendary US rock critic Lester Bang’s response to the question, ‘Are Slade the new Beatles?’ – to which he had replied, ‘Sure; they’re all Ringo.’ What we witnessed today was seven Ringos who hadn’t even formulated the concept of an actual political party, merely a ‘group’. The Gang of Seven, perhaps.

Various reasons were served-up as motives for the split, varying from individual to individual. The case of Luciana Berger (Liverpool Wavertree) seemed the most understandable, subject as she has been over the past five years to unpleasant anti-Semitic abuse that the leadership of the Labour Party appears either incapable – or unwilling – to get an effective grip on. Her resignation was perhaps the most anticipated and probably would have happened with or without the simultaneous walk-out of six fellow Labour MPs. But while dissatisfaction with the direction of the party has been brewing amongst those who graduated from the Blair academy ever since Corbyn took control in 2015, the shadow of Brexit hangs over the whole affair like the ‘I’d give it ten minutes if I were you’ post-toilet warning of an unwelcome houseguest.

Three or four Tory MPs are currently facing threats of de-selection thanks to their Brexit stance and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to picture them joining their ideological cohorts who have just exited Labour; and, somewhat predictably, the Mr Barrowclough of British politics, Vince ‘I sold the Royal Mail’ Cable has offered the hand of friendship to the ‘Independent Group’, echoing as they seem to do his own perspective on Brexit. Whether or not this means all three strands will coalesce into a new third party remains to be seen, but – a bit like Jacob Rees-Mogg’s melodramatic misfire re Theresa May’s leadership last year – the timing of this decision could well prove to be somewhat ill.

One of the criticisms levelled at Jenkins & co in 1981 was that they should have remained in the Labour Party and engaged in a battle that could have seen them eventually wrestle control from Foot and Benn; their exit was viewed in some quarters as a cowardly cop-out, being all-too aware that the structure of the British political system meant their Social Democratic experiment was destined to ensure a further two Election successes for Mrs Thatcher. The last time a third party was able to command more than 100 seats in Parliament was way back in 1923, and since then the role of a third party has essentially been to prop up the winners, most notably in 2010. At the moment, this Independent Group haven’t even got to the stage where they can call themselves a party, which makes their little collective more reminiscent of an even older Parliamentary model, one that stretches all the way back to the eighteenth century, when Whigs and Tories were ideological groupings at Westminster rather than organised political parties as we would recognise them today.

It’s hard not to be cynical towards the motives of Umunna in particular. He quickly threw his hat in the ring following Ed Miliband’s resignation as Labour leader after the 2015 General Election defeat and withdrew it just as quickly, suggesting he lacked the bottle to push himself forward as a potential Prime Minister when he belatedly realised the level of scrutiny he’d be subjected to. Since his hissy-fit departure from the frontbench in the wake of Corbyn’s 2015 election as Labour leader, his evident irritation with being shoved to the margins of Labour has rankled with his ego, something that’s been on constant display during his regular television appearances over the last couple of years. He’s also had to stand back and watch his own elitist outlook take battering after battering across the Continent, yet his denial over precisely how out of touch he is with the prevailing European trend echoes his guru Tony’s equally deluded sermons on the subject of Brexit. The world has moved on, but these people simply will not accept they are now standing on the wrong side of history.

Along with his kindred spirit in the blue half of the Commons, Anna Soubry, Chuka Umunna has been prominent in doing his utmost to block Brexit progress, emerging as one of the leading cheerleaders of the ‘You plebs didn’t understand what you were voting for’ mindset. In Chuka’s world, the Third Way approach that worked in the 90s is still relevant, whereas most of the electorate see it as meaningless an approach to today’s problems as the Gold Standard or any other archaic political foundation stone upon which to build a system of governance. Few are arguing that a satisfactory successor has taken hold of this century; so far, there seem to be a series of competing ideologies, all of which are fighting to make themselves heard without any emerging as a distinct frontrunner. Such a climate is commonplace in the prelude to war, though that’s hardly a comforting thought.

All seven members of the Independent Group have fairly secure majorities from the last General Election, so it’s no wonder they’re reluctant to call on their constituents to endorse their walk-out via a series of potentially fascinating by-elections. Many hail from Leave constituencies, which (considering their shared stance on Brexit) is no doubt another factor in hesitating to put it to the people – unless it’s a second Referendum, of course; that’s different. Oh, well. We’ll see what happens in the days and weeks to come. At least if they’ve achieved anything, they’ve prompted me back into action; and that’s an achievement in itself.

© The Editor

HAPPY EVER AFTER

divorceIn the first of his two stints as Home Secretary during the mid-60s, Roy Jenkins oversaw perhaps the greatest reform to some of England’s most antiquated laws than any other person to hold that post in living memory – the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the legalisation of abortion, the abolition of the death penalty, and much-needed upgrading of the complex process surrounding divorce. Right-wing revisionists might like to lay the blame of the ‘Permissive Society’ and its subsequent social fallout at his door, but society had already changed even before Jenkins kick-started legislation to reflect the shift in mores. Of all the reforms Jenkins oversaw, perhaps the most historically neglected is the one concerning the dissolution of marriage. In some respects, I only wish he’d gone further and outlawed the whole rotten institution.

I admit I’m a biased cynic on the subject and this is a wholly subjective piece as well as an extremely cynical one. Please accept my apologies. I had to attend a lot of family and non-family weddings as a child and I yawned my way them all, even if attendance gained me a welcome day off school. And now your humble narrator has been named as co-respondent in a divorce case – well, I’m not actually named as such; I am ‘Mr X’, the wicked seducer in the cock-eyes of the law; and the law is a ass, as someone once famously observed. Actually, I bloody well wish said accuser would name me; what an addition to one’s Outlaw CV that would be! I demand to be named! Instead, I have to settle for anonymity and being a bystander in a case that needed instigating, even if it has been instigated on an utterly farcical premise that enables the accuser to maintain the moral high-ground.

If it can be said to end in farce, the beginning is no better. There may have been a little fashionable tweaking to the old ceremonial aspect of the union, but it essentially remains an archaic and outdated ritual that has no basis in the life to follow. Like Christmas Day, a wedding belongs to a fantasy industry that various parties with a vested interest in its continuation act as brainwashing cheerleaders for. Loathsome celebrity couples with more money than taste have served to promote it to a new generation of deluded little Disney princesses raised on a diet of Bridget Jones bollocks, though the inevitable nasty divorce that is the natural climax of the ill-matched marriage is something the starry-eyed in love with the theatre of the event always choose to turn a blind eye to.

The idea of a woman as a possession of the father that he then hands over ownership of to the husband is a ludicrous anachronism in this day and age, and has been for decades; yet still, even in Twenty-bloody-Sixteen, there has to be the father (or the next best thing) surrendering his property in a laughable mock-legal transaction. It may be chic for the condemned to now insert their own sappy vows in place of the official spiel, but beyond the day they’re uttered before an audience, their relevance is akin to a fading suntan two weeks after the return from an overseas holiday. But, hey, let’s not quibble over irrelevancies. Mum gets to wear her new hat and call on the Kleenex when the ceremony reaches its gut-wrenching apogee, and the local church is able to pay for the new roof as a consequence of hosting endless gatherings of this nature that are crammed with people who wouldn’t be seen within half-a-mile of the venue come Evensong. And let’s not forget there’s always the reception, the entertainment value of which consists of an aunt who drinks too much and an uncle who fondles a bridesmaid; and everyone plays their allocated part in a badly-scripted sitcom that should have been cancelled forty years before.

However, if one can just about stomach the OTT frivolity of the ceremony when two become one, what comes next is just as meaningless and has little to do with love; the breeding machine for the future society is switched-on and the wife endures ongoing physical traumas in order that the post-nuclear family can keep buggering on with its 2.4 children. The statistics regarding divorce demonstrate how futile an institution marriage really is – 42% of them in Britain end in divorce; and whilst divorce levels are currently at their lowest for 40 years, the failure rate remains high and the likelihood of a marriage lasting until one of the spouses passes away in old age is fairly rare these days, certainly since couples no longer have to be chained to one another till death do them part.

Before the reforms Roy Jenkins oversaw in the 1960s, divorce went through various stages of complicated legal and moral changes; indeed, until the middle of the nineteenth century it was the exclusive province of the Church of England and Parliament – an expensive and protracted process undertaken not by barristers, but by civil law advocates and proctors in Doctors’ Commons; an annulment required an Act of Parliament, which restricted divorce to the wealthy, if they were prepared to weather the scandal as their most intimate marital details were discussed in the House.

Anyone familiar with Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ will recall the agony of the working-class character Stephen Blackpool, whose estranged alcoholic wife walks back into his life and he cannot rid himself of her or marry the woman he loves until his parasitic spouse dies. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1937 at least made the process easier for women, even if the ridiculous employment of private detectives to prove infidelity kept divorce in the realm of the absurd; and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 – a direct result of Jenkins’ reforms – democratised it considerably. A marriage could be now dissolved after three years; the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 reduced that period to twelve months.

I find it hard to understand why anyone would feel the need to adhere to an irrelevance like marriage in 2016 when the old stigma of ‘living in sin’ has been mercifully consigned to history. The only question that passed through my mind when gay marriage was the hot topic keeping the classes chattering was ‘Why do gay couples even want to buy into this heterosexual museum piece?’

When the inevitable separation and eventual divorce comes, the legal minefield it opens up (and the pound signs it sparks in the eyes of solicitors) drags on and on to the point whereby both weary parties must find it hard to recall why on earth they bothered in the first place. Add children to the equation and you may as well look upon a marriage contract as a death warrant. The woman I stand accused of conspiring with in order to douse a deceased marriage in the flammable liquid of adultery will be free again one day, but until the day actually arrives the legacy of the tumour upon individual freedom that marriage represents will remain an impediment to that freedom. It is not ‘the wife’ who is the ball and chain, but marriage itself.

© The Editor

FOUR LEFT FEET

SDPIn retrospect, it was inevitably destined to fail in its original incarnation; it was a fragile four-way partnership from the beginning. Like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young recording one landmark LP before internal conflict ceased to inspire creativity, competing egos scuppered any chances of long-term success. But hopes were certainly high in some quarters 35 years ago today, when Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers issued the Limehouse Declaration, a media event that confirmed the Gang of Four’s split from Labour and the formation of a new centre-left political party, the SDP. Who can forget that logo – a post-punk graphic classic? Using the same font ‘Melody Maker’ was then employing as its masthead, it made an instant impact at a time when political parties weren’t branded as they are today. In its own small way, that logo said as much about the desire to break with British political tradition as the party’s policies. For a brief moment in 1981, some saw the birth of the Social Democratic Party as the light at the end of the gloomy tunnel the nation had been travelling through for far too long.

From the mid-70s onwards, there had been a series of defections from the Labour party – whether the likes of Dick Taverne and Eddie Milne standing against Labour candidates as independents, having been threatened with de-selection by their local branches as they were infiltrated by Trotskyites, or the likes of Christopher Mayhew and Lord Chalfont joining the Liberal cause – something that suggested Harold Wilson’s largely successful role at playing the pacifist parent keeping his warring offspring on the Left and the Right from engaging in ideological fisticuffs was not entirely effective. It was evident that trouble was brewing beneath the united front, and even the election of moderate Jim Callaghan as Wilson’s successor couldn’t prevent growing dissatisfaction from other moderates within the party over the increasing influence of the far Left. As the Tories took the country to the Right in the wake of the 1979 General Election, the appointment of Michael Foot as Labour leader was the last straw for the Gang of Four.

Despite the shaky start Margaret Thatcher made as Prime Minister – there were even rumours of a coup at one stage in 1981 – the Labour party was already regarded as unelectable; its move towards the far Left in the wake of the 1979 General Election defeat had been a disaster for Labour in popularity polls, with only its most loyal, diehard supporters sticking by Michael Foot, a principled and passionate politician, yes, but one utterly unsuitable for the task of leading the country. The public had blamed the industrial chaos of the late 70s on the more militant tendencies of the Left, and a Labour party still in thrall to the unions, led by a wild-haired eccentric who resembled a mad professor from a Children’s Film Foundation movie, was never going to be elected to office. The calamitous drubbing Labour received at the 1983 General Election had been forewarned by a quartet of Labour moderates stranded by the party’s lurch leftwards.

Jenkins, the avuncular old-timer, Owen, the suave matinée idol for the housewives, Williams, the bossy headmistress, and Rodgers, the Ringo of the band, were all former Labour Ministers who had become disillusioned with their party’s self-destructive policies and felt there was an unoccupied middle ground within British politics at a time when Labour and Conservative were positioned at ideologically-opposed extremes. Some still argue they bottled the challenge of wrestling control of Labour from Foot and Benn in a civil war they perhaps knew they could never win. But the formation of the Social Democratic Party, coming when Thatcher’s popularity was at her lowest ebb and Michael Foot was Public Enemy Number One in the eyes of the right-wing tabloid press, was generally well-received as breath of fresh air.

There were plenty floating voters around in 1981 whose faith in Labour and the Tories was waning after the two had swapped places over the past decade without any discernible improvement in the country’s fortunes, and they welcomed something different. Twenty-eight Labour MPs and one Tory eventually joined the SDP, and a series of by-election victories leading up to the 1983 General Election suggested the new party was a force to be reckoned with, achieving an opinion poll rating of 50% at one stage in 1981.

The arrival of the SDP had also been welcomed by several senior members of the Liberal Party, including their leader, David Steel; it was felt by many Liberals that the two parties were far more ideologically matched than the Liberals had been with Labour during the short-lived Lib-Lab Pact of 1977/78. Perhaps a partnership between the SDP and the Liberal party was inevitable, and the two entered into a mutually-beneficent union at the end of 1981 as the SDP-Liberal Alliance. Although their instant popularity received a knockback when Thatcher’s standing rose considerably in the wake of the Falklands War of 1982, at the 1983 General Election, the party polled 25% of the national vote – though the ‘first past the post’ British electoral system only resulted in 23 Alliance MPs being elected. They fared worse at the 1987 General Election, by which stage the party’s honeymoon period was long gone and Mrs Thatcher was at the peak of her powers.

A complete union between the SDP and the Liberals had long been mooted, but disputes over who should lead them, and growing ideological differences, continued to plague the two parties as the initial promise of the SDP appeared to have floundered in the eyes of voters. Splits within the SDP were compounded when they and the Liberals officially combined as the Liberal Democrats in 1988, a new party that drew most of its numbers from the SDP, yet was led by a former Liberal, Paddy Ashdown. SDP members who opposed the union, most prominently David Owen, staggered on before eventually disappearing from the mainstream political map in the late 1990s, whereas the Lib Dems gradually became the most significant third party in British politics for more than a generation, peaking with a tally of 62 seats at the 2005 General Election under Charles Kennedy.

Some have reduced the SDP to a footnote in British political history, buy there’s no doubt that the SDP proved to the ailing Labour party that it was possible to move towards the middle ground as the warring extremes of Left and Right began to turn many potential voters away from politics by the mid-80s. Labour’s own ideological shift started in earnest during the aftermath of the humiliating ’83 Election hammering, with the appointment of Neil Kinnock as party leader, the first step on the long and winding road to New Labour and power. 35 years on, with the Lib Dems reduced to eight measly MPs (even less than the Liberals had in 1981) and Labour again led by an old-school Socialist with his head in the clouds, could history repeat itself? If so, any breakaway from Labour would require the presence of figures with a little more clout than Chukka Umunna, Liz Kendall or Tristram Hunt. But there aren’t any.

© The Editor