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Bill Rodgers (Lord Rodgers), 1928-

Bill Rodgers – one of the Gang of Four who founded the SDP, and now (as Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank) the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords – was born in Liverpool on 28 October 1928 and named William Thomas Rodgers. His father was employed for forty years by the Liverpool Corporation, rising to the responsible position of Clerk to the Health Committee, which ran the city hospitals in the days before the NHS.

The young Bill Rodgers was taken by his father to see the city’s hospitals and slums and was deeply influenced by his father’s commitment to public service. Rodgers attended Quarry Bank High School (to be made famous a few years later by the Beatles) and was caught up in the excitement of the 1945 election, when he worked for his local Liberal candidate. In 1946 he joined the Labour Party. He went up to Magdalen College, Oxford, in January 1949 and became one of the leading figures in the University Labour Club; he was Treasurer when Shirley Williams¬†was Chairman.

On leaving Oxford in 1951, Rodgers almost became a journalist, but accepted an offer of the post of Assistant Secretary to the Fabian Society. In 1953 he became its youngest ever General Secretary, an office which he held until 1960. In 1955 he married a remarkable woman, Silvia Szulman, the daughter of a Communist couple of Polish-Jewish origin who had settled in Berlin and fled from it only months before the outbreak of the Second World War. Rodgers and his wife have three daughters.

Rodgers fought a byelection at Bristol West in 1957 and was a member of the St. Marylebone Borough Council from 1958 until 1962. In 1960 he became the principal organiser and executive chairman of the Campaign for Democratic Socialism, a party group set up to support Hugh Gaitskell in his fight against a party commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament. The Campaign’s founder members included Roy Jenkins, Dick Taverne¬†and Tony Crosland.

At a byelection in 1962 Rodgers was elected to Parliament as MP for Stockton-on-Tees. Following the Labour victory two years later, he was appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Department of Economic Affairs. He worked closely with George Brown and moved with him to the Foreign Office in 1967. In 1968 he was promoted to Minister of State at the Board of Trade and moved to the Treasury the following year.

In 1971 Rodgers acted as whip for the pro-European group of Labour MPs, led by Roy Jenkins, who ignored a three-line whip and voted in support of the Heath Government’s decision to join the European Community. As a result, Harold Wilson sacked Rodgers from his post as a shadow minister. However, following the election in February 1974 Wilson appointed him Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence. He played a leading part in the Yes Campaign in the 1975 Referendum on Europe. In 1976 Jim Callaghan appointed him to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Transport.

After the Labour Party’s defeat, Rodgers was elected to the Shadow Cabinet in 1979 and 1980. Although he first discussed the formation of a new party with Jenkins at the end of 1979, he was initially sceptical, and is generally thought to have been the most reluctant of the Gang to leave the Labour Party. He did not finally decide to break away until New Year 1981, when, during ten days spent in bed as a result of severe (and probably psychosomatic) back pain, he decided that remaining in the party would be living a lie.

Following the agreement in principle that the SDP and the Liberals would fight the next general election in partnership, Rodgers took charge of the SDP side in negotiations over the allocation of seats. His public criticism of the Liberal Party’s approach to the negotiations at the beginning of 1982, by revealing the tensions between the parties, pricked the bubble of euphoria that had followed the spectacular byelection victory at Crosby. During this period he outlined his political views in his book The Politics of Change.

Rodgers lost his Stockton seat in the 1983 election, but remained active in the SDP as the party’s Vice President and a member of its National Committee. He worked closely with David Owen, but in 1986 relations between them broke down when Owen publicly attacked the conclusions of the SDP-Liberal Joint Commission on Defence, which Rodgers had been appointed to chair. After the disappointing result of the 1987 election, in which he had unsuccessfully contested Milton Keynes, Rodgers became convinced that the SDP and the Liberals had no future except as a single party, and he became one of the leaders of the merger campaign.

The need to earn a living and to find an outlet for his outstanding administrative skills forced Rodgers to look for a job outside politics. In 1987 he was appointed Director General of the Royal Institute of British Architects, a post which he held for seven years. His success in that job was recognised by his appointment as an honorary fellow of RIBA on his retirement.

During this period Rodgers’ political activity was, inevitably, much reduced. However, in 1992 he was appointed to the House of Lords as Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. On his retirement from RIBA he was able to become active as spokesman on home affairs. On the retirement of Lord Jenkins of Hillhead from the leadership of the Liberal Democrat peers at the end of 1997, Rodgers was elected to succeed him. He has also been, since 1995, the Chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority.

Bill Rodgers’ career has been dominated by the concept of politics as public service. He was from the start, and remains, a social democrat who tore himself away from his roots in the Labour Party when it abandoned its commitment to social democracy and moderation. Although less in the public eye than the others, he was a crucial member of the Gang of Four.

 

Lord Goodhart is a lawyer and Liberal Democrat peer. He drafted the SDP constitution and was closely involved in the same exercise for the Liberal Democrats.