What it was like being part of a new political party... 36 years ago
PUBLISHED: 17:50 21 February 2019 | UPDATED: 18:13 21 February 2019
The creation of the new Independent Group by breakaway Tory and Labour MPs is dominating the news this week.
It also brings back memories of the formation of the SDP in the 1980s.
John Elworthy stood for the new party in North Norfolk and looks back at what it was like to be a political pioneer.
“Oxford in the early 70s when I arrived to edit my first local paper was a revelation. I was young enough to absorb the culture of university life but old enough to witness and reflect its changing political landscape.
“I met and dined with rising political stars, accompanied Margaret Thatcher when she came to visit Blenheim Palace, drank port with the future education minister John Patten, lunched regularly with Douglas Hurd and reported on turbulent times at Oxford City Council where Labour’s Andrew Smith – also later to become a minister – held sway.
“I took a year off in 1977 to study theology, nearly became a Church of England clergyman, returned to journalism, took on another editorship, devoted Sundays to a BBC local radio programme called ‘Friends and Enemies’ (that allowed sparring with the likes of Pergamon boss Robert Maxwell) but was unsure whose political opinion and judgement I valued the most.
“The emergence of the SDP changed all that – with David Owen and Shirley Williams I had encountered my spiritual and political home. In no time I was given the chance to return to my home county as the SDP/Lib Alliance candidate for North Norfolk.
“Our policies would change the world – we all believed. I immersed myself in those policies, found them to my liking, and began weekends of returning to Norfolk to meet the people of Holt, Fakenham, Cromer, and Wroxham (to name but four of the 40 towns and villages that made up the constituency).
“Our SDP team was fresh, new to politics and full to the brim with diverse, splendid, committed characters. Like the lady from Stalham who offered me a spare room each weekend where we chatted late into the evening about the SDP and where I discovered how she earned a modest living writing romantic fiction for Mills and Boon.
“Cometh the hour, cometh the man and with the calling of the General Election in 1983 I packed my bags, beguiled my boss into allowing me six weeks leave, and headed back home.
“Or to be more precise I travelled to the home of a coastal doctor and his family whose optimism and desire for change had brought them into the SDP.
“We found the money (the thirst for political change doesn’t come cheap) from a mini avalanche of supporters mindful of the cost of creating political upheaval and the national climate hinted at epic change. It was a political party and a political movement with the prize of power the seemingly reachable goal.
“Volunteers poured into our hastily rented office in North Walsham, printed off leaflets of speeches and pamphlets I composed nightly ready for the next day were delivered with enthusiasm and zeal.
“For the latter stages of the campaign we devised a strategy of three public meetings nightly and at each – with audiences of anywhere from six to sixty – my team hand delivered copies of my speech that evening to as many homes as possible before we moved on.
“At Cromer I took my megaphone to near the pier and with the skills observed from being part of an evangelical church I delivered our ‘message’.
“And then there were the public meetings with other candidates – pitting my knowledge of policy and our vision against the sitting Tory MP Ralph Howell and the other candidates. Failure to prepare is to prepare to fail was a guiding principle of my life and held me in good stead – particularly on the odd occasions when a local TV appearance was required.
“David Owen had once told me not to expect to like every aspect of campaigning and so I avoided too many one to one encounters but thrived on the public meetings.
“The thrill of an open top campaign bus roaring around Fakenham screaming ‘we will drive the Tories out of Fakenham just like we will drive them out of Westminster’ as we followed the Conservative Party campaign bus is a moment I don’t think possible to ever forget.
“I lost of course. Coming a respectable second was considered success and I shall always be grateful for the 13,007 who voted for me.
“But the SDP bubble burst quickly. My enthusiasm waned. I never did stand again.
“The best of times; the worst of times.”
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