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How the SDP failed the Jews

With Steve Waters's political drama Limehouse opening at London’s Donmar Warehouse, Robert Philpot takes a another look at a remarkable period in British politics

    On route to the City Hall Perth for the Social Democratic Part conference, the original 'gang of four' left to right: Dr David Owen, Mr Bill Rogers, Mrs Shirley Williams and Mr Roy Jenkins.
    On route to the City Hall Perth for the Social Democratic Part conference, the original 'gang of four' left to right: Dr David Owen, Mr Bill Rogers, Mrs Shirley Williams and Mr Roy Jenkins.

    The winter of 1981 was particularly bleak. As a deep recession continued to bite and unemployment grew relentlessly, the country had rarely seemed more divided. Those divisions were starkest at Westminster where Margaret Thatcher signalled her determination to break with the post-war consensus, while Labour lurched violently to the left.

    But for many British Jews, the feeling of being left politically homeless by this sharp polarisation contained an additional twist. Even before Menachem Begin’s election in 1977, a wave of anti-Zionism had gripped Britain’s campuses, with student unions passing a string of resolutions calling for the destruction of Israel and backing the PLO. This assault soon began to infect the country’s wider bodypolitic, with attacks on Israel becoming one of the hallmarks of the hard-left activists whose grip on Labour’s grassroots tightened after James Callaghan’s electoral defeat in 1979.

    For a community which had traditionally had strong links to the party, such attacks were particularly painful and disorienting.

    At the same time, despite Mrs Thatcher’s personal sympathies, the new Conservative government was proving itself somewhat less than stalwart in its support for Israel.

    Under pressure from her Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, the Prime Minister had, for instance, overcome her misgivings and signed the EEC’s Venice Declaration in 1980 which called for the PLO to be “associated” with any future negotiations. Protest meetings in north London — including one in Finchley attended by more than 1,000 people — echoed to warnings that, as one prominent rabbi publicly put it: “If Mrs Thatcher meets with the terrorists, she must know that, north-west of Baker Street, there are many voters in Barnet who will think twice about re-electing her.”

    Launched in March 1981, the Social Democratic party, which was designed to occupy the now-vacant political centre-ground, might thus have seemed to have a particular appeal to disenfranchised Jewish voters.

    Indeed, the party — the subject of a new play, Limehouse, which opens at the Donmar Warehouse this month — swiftly managed to attract a number of prominent Jewish Labour defectors, including the former Labour Cabinet ministers John Diamond and Edmund Dell, MPs David Ginsburg, Edward Lyons and Neville Sanderson, and the publisher and peer George Weidenfeld.

    Eric Moonman, a senior vice-president of the Board of Deputies and former Labour MP, would also later join the party, while the actress Janet Suzman added a touch of star dust.

    Within four months of the party’s launch, an SDP Friends of Israel had been formed with Weidenfeld as its chair and one of the founding “Gang of Four” — Bill Rodgers — as its president. Another of the quartet, the former Labour Foreign Secretary, David Owen, promised that the SDP would be “zealous in the preservation of the State of Israel.”

    One of the few Conservative parliamentarians to defect, the Duke of Devonshire, was a former president of the Conservative Friends of Israel. With controversy around Israel stoked by the war in Lebanon, the SDP made a conscious effort, in sharp contrast to the Labour party, not to fan the flames. “The SDP does not want to be known as a party of contention,” reported the JC after witnessing a notably even-tempered debate on Israel at its 1982 conference.

    The SDP also attracted some rising Jewish stars. Sue Slipman had become president of the National Union of Students in 1977 at the height of the rows over anti-Zionism and antisemitism on campuses. She left the Communist party to join the SDP, twice standing unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate for it. Alongside the barrister Anthony Lester and the then-minister of the South London Liberal Synagogue, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, Slipman was one of three Jews to sit on the committee of the SDP’s think-tank, the Tawney Society.

    A member of the SDP’s National Committee and president of Social Democrats for Gay Rights, Neuberger was one of the 100 signatories of the party’s prototype manifesto and contested Tooting for the SDP in 1983.

    Another youthful recruit, Danny Finkelstein — now a Conservative peer and JC columnist — joined Labour as a schoolboy. Delivering literature for the party during a local election campaign, he found some SDP leaflets stuck in a letter box. He fished them out, intending to throw them away but, having read them instead, promptly joined the new party. Two years after the SDP’s launch, Finkelstein became chair of the Young Social Democrats. He went on to become a political adviser to Owen, a member of the party’s National Committee, and fought Ken Livingstone in Brent East in 1987. Indeed, fighting that year’s general election in alliance with the Liberal party, the SDP fielded more Jewish candidates than Labour.

    It was, however, to be that alliance with the Liberals which hobbled the SDP’s ability to win the backing of significant numbers of Jewish voters. Over the previous decade, the Liberals had hemorrhaged Jewish support. The primary cause was the provocative anti-Israeli activities of the Young Liberals, encapsulated by its former chair, Louis Eaks, who had publicly declared that “Jews see themselves as a master race” and accused Israel of “brutal atrocities.” Despite issuing a public apology, the then-Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, appeared powerless or unwilling — in 1974, he welcomed the defection to the Liberal benches of the virulently anti-Israel former Labour minister, Christopher Mayhew — to halt what Eaks had unleashed.

    Thorpe himself was a friend of Israel. By contrast, his successor, David Steel, would have nothing to do with Liberal Friends of Israel and was the only major party leader willing to meet with Yasser Arafat before the PLO leader’s renunciation of terrorism in 1988.

    Whatever the warm words of its leadership and the civility of its debates, the SDP could thus not escape the fact that it had shackled itself to a party which had come to be viewed by many Jews as riddled with anti-Israeli sentiment.

     

    Robert Philpot’s book on Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with the Jewish community will be published by Biteback this summer

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