Reference and contact details:
GB 0301 SDP
Title: Social Democratic Party (SDP) Archives
Dates of creation: 1980-1989
Held at: Special Collections, Albert Sloman Library, University of Essex
Extent: 80 metres
Name of Creator: Social Democratic Party (SDP)
Level of Description: fonds
Language of Material: eng
The papers comprising The Social Democratic Party (SDP) Archive collection come largely from the party's headquarters in Cowley Street, London. They trace the short history of the SDP from its birth in the Council for Social Democracy and The Limehouse Declaration of 1981 to its merger with the Liberal Party in 1988, when the Social and Liberal Democrats were formed.
The Social Democratic Party was founded officially on March 26th, 1981, led by the so-called 'Gang of Four', former Labour Cabinet Ministers, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rogers. Earlier in the year the Four had announced their intention to depart from the leftward direction the Labour Party was following. They were to be accompanied by a small but significant number of moderate Labour MPs who were also disillusioned with the increasing influence of left wing ideas and policies and trade-union representatives within the Labour Party, following its defeat in the General Election of 1979.
The SDP positioned itself in the center of British politics and, although founded by a faction of the Labour Party, its ranks comprised former ordinary members of both Labour and Conservative Parties and others who had no prior involvement in British parliamentary politics. There were areas of common policy between the newly formed SDP and the Liberal Party, and the two parties outlined these formally in June 1981, in a statement issued by the SDP/Liberal Joint Working Party, entitled "A fresh Start for Britain". Later in the same year the two parties formed The Alliance, with the agreement that they would fight elections on a common platform and with joint candidates.
Presenting fresh political ideas before the British electorate, including distinctive SDP policies such as the social market economy, maintaining membership of the European community and rejection of non-nuclear defence, the SDP enjoyed initial success and the Alliance had an immediate impact on the nation's politics. Heading the popular opinion polls, the Alliance won a succession of by-election victories in the early eighties. This progress was to continue in the general election campaign of 1983. In the final count, the SDP obtained 11.6 percent of the vote and the Liberal-SDP Alliance total represented 25 percent of the vote, the best '3rd party' result since 1923. Labour was to secure only 27% of the vote, but in the British electoral system this figure resulted in 209 MPs. The Alliance fared poorly in this respect, obtaining only 23 parliamentary seats.
In the years that followed, the SDP was not able to maintain this early impetus. The general election of 1987 was disappointing to both parties of the Alliance, the joint-party share of the vote dropping to 23% and the SDP winning just 5 MPs. In response, the Liberal leader David Steel proposed a merger of the two parties. David Owen, leader of the SDP since 1983, had resisted pressures for a merger between the SDP and the Liberal Party throughout the period 1981-7. But in the wake of the 1987 election Owen's efforts to maintain a distinct identity for the party were finally defeated by those favouring merger. Prolonged negotiations and all-member ballots culminated in the founding of a new party, the Social and Liberal Democrats, which came into official existence in March 1988. Although at this time the unification process was complete a minority of SDP members refused to join the newly formed party. The SDP was consequently re-established in March 1988 and David Owen, who had resigned his SDP membership in August 1987 when the party opted for merger, was elected as its leader. However, the already reduced membership was to dwindle and there was a failure to reach electoral agreement with the newly merged party, resulting in further losses at the polling stations. In May 1990 the Bootle by-election resulted in disaster, and in the following weeks the SDP National Committee decided to finally wind down the SDP as a national party.
The very substantial archive of the SDP comprises a collection of papers, videotapes, film, audiotapes and memorabilia from 1980-1989. Papers include:
Some 17 metres of committee minutes, associated correspondence and administrative records, covering all aspects of party policy, strategy and coordination (the various committees, groups and working parties that produced these papers are listed, alphabetically, at the end of this section).
Papers of prominent individual members. More recently, the papers of Sir Ian Wrigglesworth, Lord Alec McGivan, and Lord Robert Maclennan have been acquired. Maclennan's papers have much to say about merger negotiations with the Liberal Party, while McGivan's include a wealth of information on the by-elections fought by the SDP, and on the Campaign for Labour Victory in the years prior to the foundation of the party. Publications, including policy papers, green and white papers produced by the SDP and Council for Social Democracy records Local SDP files (or Area Party files), including papers arising from the SDP's work at local and constituency levels Miscellaneous items, such as SDP Survey of GCSE Examination
In addition to the collection of party papers the archive holds 8 box files of transcripts of the speeches of The Gang of Four: Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and William Rodgers.
Audio-visual materials, (film, video and audio-tape), preserve many of the SDP's party political/party election broadcasts.
There is also a 'Press Archive', which contains several thousand newspaper cuttings relating to the SDP.
The archive includes papers, minutes, correspondence and publications for the following committees, groups, policies and working parties, (as specified):
The papers of the SDP Archive are arranged in numbered boxes. Minutes, papers, reports and correspondence are, for the most part, ordered by associated group or committee. In addition, a small number of boxes contain items relating to a particular subject or object, for example, papers relating to constitutional issues, including the SDP Constitution.
The majority of the papers in this collection came directly to the Albert Sloman Library from the SDP headquarters in Cowley Street, London. Additional papers were acquired from individuals who were prominent members of the SDP, with Professor Anthony King playing a key role in securing these deposits.
In consultation with academic colleagues, the library special collections acquisitions staff evaluate collections by assessing their relevance to the teaching and research interests of the University.
The collection will not be added to.
By written application to either the Librarian or Deputy Librarian. A letter of introduction may be required and prospective users will be obliged to sign an undertaking outlining the terms and conditions of access to the research materials.
No part of the Special Collections material may be reproduced, published, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the Albert Sloman Library. This may be obtained by application to the Librarian or Deputy Librarian.
Special Collections, Albert Sloman Library, University of Essex.
A record for all materials in the Special Collection is available via the Albert Sloman Library, Special Collections web page.
Also, an extensive outline list for SDP committee papers is available via an online PDF document prepared by the Library, SDP Entry
This record was compiled by David Borg-Muscat, UK Data Archive, using entries from:
Albert Sloman Library (2000) A Note on Special Collections, (University of Essex: Albert Sloman Library), p. 5.
Record entered by Nadeem Ahmad of Qualidata, UK Data Archive, University of Essex.