The 'Dead Parrot' became the nickname of the policy document due to be issued, alongside the new party's constitution, at the successful culmination of merger negotiations between the SDP and the Liberals. In fact it proved a disaster, nearly upsetting the whole merger process, after its controversial contents were disowned by Liberal MPs and activists on the very day it was due to be released.
Voices and Choices for All, the real name of the document, was essentially the work of the Alliance leaders, Robert Maclennan and David Steel, although it was Maclennan who assumed the main responsibility for its drafting. Work began on the document in late November 1987, alongside the main negotiations on the new party’s constitution.
The SDP leader was keen to provide a distinctive programme for the new party that would emerge from the merger negotiations. He was also minded to avoid proposals that would be condemned by Owenites for demonstrating an overwhelming Liberal influence. Unfortunately the resulting document contained various elements which departed substantially from previous Alliance positions and offended not just Liberals but many Social Democrats.
Among other proposals, the document argued that Britain should maintain support for the Trident nuclear missile force and also supported the development of the country’s civil nuclear power facilities. Resources to fight poverty were to be found from the imposition of VAT on products such as children’s clothes, newspapers and financial services, alongside the abolition of universal child benefit and the phasing out of mortgage tax relief. Its tone and language have been described as ‘vacuously sub-Thatcherite’.
Unfortunately, the Liberal leader, David Steel, failed to recognise that many of these proposals would be offensive to his party (Steel tended not to display much interest in policy detail, and may not have read the draft carefully; he was also abroad when it was being finalised). Work on the document continued unabated by Maclennan’s advisers over the Christmas period.
It was not until 12 January 1988, the final day of the merger negotiations and the night before the document’s official launch, that Steel’s colleagues realised the full horror of what was being proposed in their name. A meeting of the Liberal Policy Committee overwhelmingly rejected the programme – the Liberal President Des Wilson called it ‘a gratuitous insult’ to the Liberal Party – and insisted on significant changes. By 4am, substantive changes had been made and the Liberal team were confident that the redrafted document would prove acceptable when it was revealed at a press conference later that morning.
Unfortunately, their hopes were shattered when they awoke to find the morning headlines. Copies of the original draft had been placed in an anteroom next to Steel’s office for MPs to consult the day before; on the evening of 12 January someone leaked the key proposals to the press. MPs and activists alike were horrified by the overall tone of the document and its specific proposals, and made it clear that they would not accept it, even in its redrafted form. Steel was forced to tell his SDP counterpart that the launch could no longer go ahead, just one hour before the planned press conference in the House of Commons. Amid much embarrassment, the leaders withdrew the redrafted document.
A new six-member team was put together to draft an alternative policy statement, based on the Alliance’s 1987 manifesto; the outcome, A Democracy of Conscience, was an anodyne as possible. Emphasising how firmly the old document had been buried, Des Wilson coined its much-better-known nickname by referring to it ‘as dead as John Cleese’s parrot’, in a reference to the well-known Monty Python sketch. The new document was adopted by both parties as part of the conference votes and ballots on merger.
The episode was particularly damaging because it threatened the final completion of the merger between the SDP and the Liberals at the very last moment and marked a difficult beginning for the new party. The events also jeopardised Steel’s leadership of the Liberal Party and undermined the standing of both Steel and Maclennan amongst the public and their own members.