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Fourth Among Equals by Bill Rodgers

27 October 2007

I can’t use the ‘dead politicians’ tag on this post, since Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank is still very much with us. TheyWorkforYou.com has a very nice profile of his most recent activity in the Lords, if you’re interested in such things.

Fourth Among Equals by Bill Rodgers

Bill Rodgers was one of the four founding members of the Social Democratic Party, the ‘Gang of Four’ as the press and the public soon dubbed them. Along with Roy Jenkins, David Owen, and Shirley Williams, Rodgers left the Labour Party in 1980 in response to the growing militancy of the Labour left and their trade union affiliates, particularly the creation of an electoral college that would have given the trade union block vote a definite and potentially deciding advantage on Party policy issues. They formed the Social Democratic Party, specifically distancing themselves by name from the word ‘labour’, which had lost its public appeal in the wake of the strikes and general social discontent of the late 1970s.

Rodgers was never as public a figure as his colleages. Roy Jenkins had name recognition as a former Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and European Commissioner, and had the carefully cultivated air of an elder statesman; David Owen had been the youngest Foreign Secretary ever, with a fiery style and a flare for the dramatic that served him well in debates in the Commons; and Shirley Williams was a committed European-ist and, well, a woman. (Which is not to underestimate her political abilities in the slightest — it is merely a reflection of politics at the time, for when Harold Wilson placed her in his Cabinet in the mid-1970s, his Cabinet was the first to have contained the grand total of two women.) Even the book’s title shows Rodgers’ wry acceptance of his position in the SDP’s collective leadership, since the title is a play on the idea of the Prime Minister as being primus inter pares (‘first among equals’). If his choice of words is a ploy to lend credibility to his idea of himself as being a sort of detached observer of the meteoric rise and rapid decline of the SDP…well, for the most part, it seems to work in his autobiography.

The book starts off as many political memoirs do — the sense of community of the town where he was born, the family relationships and early connections to political life, the experiences that shaped his concept of politics, anecdotes of his time in National Service and at Oxford. (And like many memoirs, the section dealing with Rodgers’ time at Oxford University rather devolves into a list of ‘Eminent People I Might Have Once Seen Whilst Walking Through The Streets’.) Rodgers was a member and would later become a General Secretary of the Fabian Society, that wild-and-crazy pamphlet-producing hotbed of intellectual socialism. What Rodgers does succeed in creating from this long life story is a sense that breaking ties with the Labour Party was not at all an easy choice for him to make. The rise and decline of the SDP would take another book to explain fully, but Rodgers tells his side of the story with rather more regard for balanced opinion than what I’ve read from David Owen and Roy Jenkins. I actually found the parts where Rodgers talks about his work as a Liberal Democrat life peer in the House of Lords to be more interesting than the tales of SDP in-fighting and drawn-out political bargaining with David Steel’s Liberals.

So where do I stand on this book? It’s made me want to go back and reread David Owen’s memoirs (which I haven’t yet posted my review of here) to see where the two men disagree on what happened to the SDP. As a political memoir, it’s very readable and far less tiresome than some other memoirs I’ve read. But I can’t quite decide if the sense of disquiet I was left with when I closed the book was due to the sad story of the demise of the Gang of Four, or the strangely fatalistic calm with which Rodgers recounted it.

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