Interview with Dick Taverne

Understanding centrism and the history of the SDP

The video interview

The text interview

Today I am joined by Lord Dick Taverne. He founded the Democratic Labour Party, Member of Parliament for Lincoln between 1962 until 1974 1962 until 1974, former member of the national committee of the SDP from 1981 until 1987  and was the first Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Do you consider yourself a centrist and what do you think being a centrist means?

I call myself a Centrist and Social Democrat but regard party labels as a poor guide to centrist views. I consider myself a centrist because I hate extremism and have always felt that, as a social democrat, my natural allies are the liberals, and indeed, a few progressive and libertarian conservatives.

One of the reasons you fought the 1973 Lincoln by-election was due to your support for the European Economic Community. What were the main reasons you supported Common Market membership?

Well, first of all, because that is where our future lies. Dean Acheson once made a fundamental challenge, ‘Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role’. The answer to his question is clearly Europe. Why? The European community has been the most positive development in international relations since the war. Old enemies joined together to form a new institution which would promote trade, and the free movement of capital and labour. Young people from any country in the new union could seek his or her future internationally. The first achievement was a common customs barrier. The second was a single market. It was simply put that, when European countries do something better together than separately, Europe will be stronger when they do. On the other hand, if they could act better on their own, they should act on their own. That was a statement by Mrs Margaret thatcher, the driving force in the creation of the single European market, which has been perhaps the most impressive and effective economic achievement of the Union. We have often been accused of a reluctant member but Europeans tend to forget that we have been the driving force of the most important achievement of economic cooperation – the single European market.

For young people, the new Europe has offered a huge variety of opportunities in a great variety of countries. Former enemies and rivals have forged a new force in world politics. Has there ever been a time when closer integration was more needed? We face an aggressive Russia, an expansive and increasingly assertive China, and there must be serious questions about the future role of the United States. We should now feel our way back to EU membership by developing the closest possible relations with the EU. This means exploring re-joining the ESM (European single market) and or Customs Union, as the best opportunities arise. 

I believe one of Starmer’s errors has been to say that Brexit is here to stay – that it is irreversible. I think he is right not to call for an immediate reversal. That is a battle the Tories would be dying to fight. We should also note that, while there is an ever increasing public view that Brexit was a serious mistake, there is a smaller majority in favour of refighting the referendum. It was wrong for Starmer to copy the conservatives and say Brexit is over and we’re not concerned to reverse it, we must simply make it work. Brexit doesn’t work. To deny this appals all those who argue most strongly about the disastrous effects of Brexit on their lives. And Labour may well find that, in fighting the battle against poverty and inflation, and the decay of public services, the fight against Brexit will be one of the major issues. We should not ignore Brexit but continue to shout from the rooftops about its dire effects.

You created the Democratic Labour Party before the SDP was formed. What was the process like of starting a new political party?

Forming the Lincoln Democratic Labour party was not an attempt at a new party. It had a local purpose only. But it would have been the start of a new party if Roy Jenkins had decided to lead it. For reasons which I have explained, he thought that 1973 was not the time. Of course, the serious attempt was the SDP. 

What attracted you to joining the SDP when it first started?

It could have been, and very nearly was, successful! At one stage, the SDP was ahead of Labour in the polls. But the Falklands transformed Mrs Thatcher’s fortunes, and this effected the SDP as much as Labour.

 Often the reason given for the SDP struggling is First Past the Post. Do you think this was the reason for the eventual decline of the party?

Yes in part but the actual reason for the decline was the Falklands war and the resurgence of Mrs Thatcher and the third, the lack of clarity about what was possible for the SDP. I argued from the start that there was no room for two centre parties. The liberals recognised this. David Owen probably the most forceful member of the gang of four, hated liberals and argued that the SDP should’ve had nothing to do with them. The absurdity of his viewpoint was illustrated by the last gasp of the continuing SDP, one of the by-election, they came behind the monster-raving looney party. We must not make this mistake again, first PR must be central to our aims and secondly we should ensure that there is no conflict between the liberal sub-branch and the liberal SDP group.

About the interviewer and the interviewee

Torrin Wilkins

Director and Founder

Torrin founded Centre in 2020. In the role has written numerous papers including one backed by the Gaps in Support APPG which contained 260 MPs. He has also written policies for political parties and appeared on a wide range of media including TV and radio. He has a Political Studies degree from Aberystwyth University.

Lord Dick Taverne KC

Member of the House of Lords and Former Member of Parliament

Dick launched the Institute for Fiscal Studies and was its first Director. He also founded the Charity Sense about Science and served on the boards of several international companies. Dick also had a long political career and held a number of positions in government as a Minister and as Financial Secretary to the Treasury. He was also founder and leader of the Democratic Labour Party and sat as their MP. He later started the Campaign for Social Democracy Party.