By Ray Fleming

WITH so much of moment currently taking our attention it might not seem the time to recall the anniversary of a political event of thirty years ago in Britain which promised much but eventually delivered little. The anniversary of the founding of the Social Democrat Party in March 1981 falls this week; it was a party promising to “break the mould of British politics” and it briefly looked as if it might do so.

After Labour's defeat in 1979 by Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives the Labour Party under Michael Foot moved significantly to the left; four former centre-left Cabinet ministers -- Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and William Rodgers, known as The Gang of Four -- resigned from Labour in protest at the direction it was taking and were followed by eleven other MPs. Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams quickly won by-elections from the Conservatives but that early impetus was not maintained and in the general elections of 1983 and 1987 the new party made little impression. Its policies were probably not distinctive enough from those of the Liberals and a merger with them followed. If the Social Democrats can claim to have at least “cracked the mould of British politics” it was probably through its influence on the thinking that led to New Labour in the early 1990s.