Robert Maclennan is elected last leader of the SDP

Earlier in the month the SDP had voted in favour of merger with the Liberals by 57% to 43%. SDP leader David Owen describing the vote as a folly and a great tragedy resigned the leadership leaving Maclennan as the only candidate nominated to succeed him. Maclennan led the SDP in the negotiations with the Liberals and continued to lead the party until the two parties merged to form the Social and Liberal Democrats in March 1988.

The SDP votes in favour of merging with the Liberals

At their conference in Portsmouth the SDP confirm their support for merger with the Liberal Party by voting on a motion proposed by Shirley Williams and amended by Charles Kennedy in favour of merger. The debate is a bitter one with several SDP members storming the stage in a rage when the vote is announced.

The Liberal Party conference votes to begin merger negotiations with the SDP

Following a disappointing result in the 1987 General Election, the Liberal Party conference meeting in Harrogate votes by 998 votes to 21 in favour of merger with Social Democratic Party and elects a 17 person team to begin negotations with the SDP. After long and tortuous negotiations, the Party at a special meeting in Blackpool on 23 January 1988 votes to approve the merger.

Official launch of the Social and Liberal Democrats

The new party came into being as a result of the merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party. The new party’s birth was protracted and difficult. The merger negotiations were often acrimonious, culminating in a policy document which was roundly condemned by many Liberals and had to be hastily withdrawn. The merger was endorsed by the two parties at meetings in January followed by a postal ballot of all members; however, some members of the Liberal Party led by Michael Meadowcroft and the SDP led by David Owen refused to accept the merger and began to make plans to keep the two parties going. The new party’s name was officially shortened to Democrats though some, less well disposed to the party, abbreviated it to Salads. In either case it proved unpopular and was changed to Liberal Democrats in 1989. The outgoing leaders – David Steel (Liberal) and Robert Maclennan (SDP) acted as interim leaders until a postal ballot could be held to elect a new leader. Poor results in the local elections and a financial crisis saw the party endure a difficult first year but gradually under the new leader, Paddy Ashdown, the party turned its fortunes around and established itself on a firmer footing.

Launch of the continuing SDP

The party was formed by a group of former members who disagreed with the SDP/Liberal merger and was led by the former leader of the SDP, David Owen. Supporting Owen were two other MPs, John Cartwright and Rosie Barnes and 17 members of the House of Lords. The party retained one major financial backer in Lord Sainsbury. At first the continuing SDP had some success, benefitting from the early problems encountered by the Social and Liberal Democrats. In February 1989 the SDP came second in the Richmond by-election coming within 3,000 votes of the Tory victor William Hague. However, a lack of active membership began to take its toll. A wilful decision to contest the Upper Bann by-election in early 1990 ended with the SDP bottom of the poll and this was followed in May by the party’s disastrous showing at the Bootle by-election when the SDP candidate finished behind the Monster Raving Loony candidate. The following week David Owen announced that the party had been wound up.

Paddy Ashdown is elected first leader of the Social and Liberal Democrats

The election was to provide a single leader for the new party to replace the joint interim leaders David Steel and Robert Maclennan. The contest came after the troubled period between the 1987 general election disappointment for the Alliance and the bitter tussle inside the SDP over whether the party should keep its independence or merge with the Liberals. After merger David Owen led a ‘continuing’ SDP which contested elections against the Lib Dems and many independent Liberals continued to reject the merged party. Ashdown secured victory with 72% of the votes cast over the only other candidate Berwick upon Tweed MP, Alan Beith.

Paddy Ashdown delivers his first leader's speech

Given the difficulty of the first months of its existence a lot was riding on the conference at Blackpool and on the leader’s speech. The speech was well received by a packed hall at the Winter Gardens much to Ashdown’s relief as he recorded in his diary. ‘I was surprised at how well the speech [very strong on environmentalism] was received. A five and a half minute standing ovation then a myriad of interviews. Morale has been lifted and I hear that a number of people who were intending to leave will now stay on…the interviews over, I joined the Glee Club, where spirits were very high. Altogether it’s been a successful Conference’.

Death of Donald Wade, Liberal MP for Huddersfield West 1950-64

Wade’s election to parliament came about as a result of a local pact with the Conservatives, the parties each giving the other a clear run in one of the two Huddersfield seats. In parliament Wade served as Chief Whip 1956-62 and Deputy Leader 1962-64. Donald Wade was an effective and popular MP and, although he lost his seat after the end of the local pact with the Tories, he came within 1,300 votes of winning. He was appointed one of the first Liberal life peers – a result of legislation that Wade had sponsored. He was an active member of the House of Lords and in the 1970s was involved in the campaign to incorporate the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law. Donald Wade served as President of the Liberal Party 1967-68.

David Belotti gains Eastbourne from the Conservatives

David Bellotti wins Eastbourne for the Liberal Democrats in a by-election caused by the murder of sitting Conservative MP Ian Gow by the IRA. Bellotti gained the seat with a majority of 4,550, on 50.8% of the vote. Liberal Democrat Leader Paddy Ashdown celebrated, describing the win as his best day as Leader of the Liberal Democrats. Just a week before, at the Conservative Party conference, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had used Monty Python’s ‘dead parrot’ sketch to mock the Liberal Democrats’ newly designed bird of liberty logo. After the by-election, Conservative Party Chairman Kenneth Baker commented that, ‘the parrot twitched’. Six weeks later Conservative MPs removed Mrs. Thatcher as their leader.

Michael Carr wins the Ribble Valley by-election

The by-election was caused by the elevation of the sitting Conservative MP David Waddington to the House of Lords following his appointment as Lord Privy Seal. Carr who had strong local roots in the area, having been the SDP Alliance candidate in 1983 and 1987, exploited public dissatisfaction with the poll tax which the new Prime Minister John Major was reviewing but had yet to announce a replacement scheme. Carr defeated Conservative candidate Nigel Evans by 4,601 votes, seeing a rise of 27% in the Liberal Democrat vote. Carr faced a tough fight at the general election the following year and Evans had his revenge and has held the seat ever since.

Nicol Stephen wins the Kincardine & Deeside by-election for the Liberal Democrats

The by-election had been caused by the death of the sitting Conservative MP Alick Buchanan-Smith. Stephen recorded a swing of 11.4% to win with a majority of 7,824 over the Conservatives with the SNP third and Labour fourth. Stephen did not have long to enjoy his triumph, losing the seat at the general election in April the following year when the Conservatives regained the seat.

Death of John Arlott, writer, cricket commentator and Liberal candidate

From the 1950s to the 1980s John Arlott was, for many people, the voice of cricket through his eloquent Test Match Special commentaries delivered in his rich Hampshire burr. Less well known was Arlott’s deeply held political convictions and his strong support for the Liberal Party. He stood for the Liberals in Epping in the 1955 and 1959 general elections, contributed to a number of Liberal party political broadcasts and was a regular contributor on Any Questions. Arlott was a key figure in the D’Oliveria affair and the boycott of South African cricket during the Apartheid era, supporting campaigns opposing cricketing ties with the regime and refusing to broadcast any test matches involving South Africa. Arlott retired in the Summer of 1980 and moved to Alderney where he lived until his death.

Polling day in the 1992 general election

John Major secures a fourth consecutive victory for the Conservatives. For the Liberal Democrats a poll of 17.8% and 20 seats was something of a disappointment given that the party had run an energetic and effective campaign, however the closeness of the campaign between Labour and the Conservatives led to a third party squeeze. The party lost its three by-election gains from the previous parliament and lost Southport and Brecon & Radnor to the Conservatives and Ceredigion & Pembroke North to Plaid Cymru. In return it gained four seats from the Conservatives – Bath, Cheltenham, North Cornwall and North Devon.

Paddy Ashdown attends a dinner for Boris Yeltsin

Paddy Ashdown attended a dinner for Boris Yeltsin at Chequers at which, he records, Prime Minister John Major made a banal speech and Yeltsin made an even more banal reply. But he took the opportunity to discuss the situation in the Balkans, one of his own areas of specialty, with David Owen who was at that time the EU co-chairman of the Conference for the Former Yugoslavia. Ashdown thought Owen must be desperate to get out of the mire but he stayed on until 1995. Ashdown himself would become High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2002 after standing down from the Liberal Democrat leadership.

Death of Stephen Ross, Liberal MP for the Isle of Wight, February 1974-87

Ross was a popular local figure on the Isle of Wight and was Leader of the Council there twice. According to David Steel, Ross won and held the seat largely through the force of his own personality. He retired from the Commons in 1987 and became a peer taking the title Baron Ross of Newport.

Death of Jo Grimond, twice leader of the Liberal Party

Jo Grimond, Baron Grimond was Liberal MP for Orkney and Shetland 1950-83, Leader of the Liberal Party 1956-67 and 1976. A man of considerable charm and intellect, Grimond’s period as leader saw the Liberal Party undergo a notable revival. Grimond reversed the seemingly inexorable Liberal decline and brought dynamism and ideas back to the Party. His writings, in particular, The Liberal Future and The Liberal Challenge and his formation of the Unservile State Group gave political liberalism a new direction and placed it on the left of British politics. Grimond resigned the leadership after 11 years during which time the Liberal Party’s vote had risen from 722,000 to over 2.3 million and the number of MPs had more than doubled. Grimond returned briefly to the leadership in the wake of the resignation of Jeremy Thorpe when he steadied the Party’s nerves and oversaw the first leadership election that involved a vote of the whole party.

Death of Arthur Holt, Liberal MP for Bolton West 1951-64

Along with Donald Wade in Huddersfield, Holt owed his election to a pact with local Conservatives with each party allowing the other a free run in one of the two constituencies that made up the town. Without a Tory opponent Holt was able to defeat the sitting Labour MP John Lewis at the 1951 general election and held the seat for 13 years until the pact broke down following the Liberals’ decision to contest the Bolton East by-election in November 1960. Holt served as Liberal Chief Whip 1962-63 and President of the Liberal Party 1974-75.

Emma Nicholson MP announces that she is leaving the Tories and joining the Liberal Democrats

In an interview with the BBC the MP for Devon West and Torridge stated why she was joining the Liberal Democrats, ‘The Liberal Democrats conceptualize my own personal philosophy and feelings in a way the Conservative Party no longer does: concern for the poor, for people in trouble, both those at home and those seeking asylum; and, over and above all, a straightforward goal on Europe – namely, involvement as hard and as fast as we possibly can, for the sake of Britain and everybody else – and equally a vision of Britain’s future. All this is sorely missing from the Conservative Government..’ Nicholson stood down from parliament at the following election and her seat was retained by the Liberal Democrats. She served as a Liberal Democrat MEP for ten years (1999-2009) and now sits in the House of Lords. In 2016 she re-joined the Conservatives.

Paddy Ashdown records in his diaries that Prime Minister John Major went to Buckingham Palace to resign that morning and that the general election had therefore formally begun. Ashdown also notes that he received another death threat in the post from the neo-Nazi organization Combat 18.

The Liberal Democrats win 46 seats in the general election

In spite of the increase in seats, their best showing since the 1920s, the Liberal Democrats share of the vote fell by 1% to 16.8%. The party’s decision to move to a target seat strategy, focusing campaigning and resources on a select number of winnable seats, paid dividends. MPs elected for the first time included Vince Cable, Paul Burstow, David Heath, Ed Davey and Steve Webb, all of whom would go on to serve as ministers in the Coalition Government. The election saw the Conservatives removed from office, losing 178 seats. With Labour winning 418 seats, previous talk of a possible coalition or arrangement between the Liberal Democrats and Labour was shelved, although the parties did work together on a number of joint commissions, most notably towards the ‘Jenkins Report’ into reform of the electoral system.