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Reclaiming Social Conservatism and National Sovereignty: An Interview with William Clouston of the UK’s SDP by Karl-Gustel Wärnberg

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Reclaiming Social Conservatism and National Sovereignty: An Interview with William Clouston of the UK’s SDP

Photo: Social Democratic Party.

The Social Democratic Party of the United Kingdom had a brief moment of fame in the 1980’s. Recently the party has been re-branded under the leadership of William Clouston. In this interview the party leader gives his views on conservatism, wokeism, national sovereignty, problems facing the United Kingdom, and why the Social Democrats offer a unique and compelling answer in a time of crisis.


Please tell us a bit about the history of the SDP, how it came to be formed, how you became involved with the party, and about your involvement with the SDP today.

The SDP was formed in 1981, originally by four senior members of the Labour Party. It is a Labour Party offshoot. In a sense, it [offered] a critique of the hard left politics of the time. It was founded by Roy Jenkins, who was a former home secretary, chancellor, and chairman of the European Commission; David Owen, who was a former foreign secretary; Shirley Williams, education secretary; and Bill Rodgers, transport secretary. 

My father was a member of the Labour Party, and left it to become a founding member of the SDP. I joined this party as soon as I could, three years later, as I was too young to join it when it all started. But it was a big part of our lives then, and its history as a Labour Party offshoot is very much in the mainstream of European social democracy. 

Philosophically [the SDP is] linked to the social market idea connected to post-war German politics or ordoliberalism, and it was fairly left-wing by modern standards. If you look at [SDP’s] manifesto in the ’80s, it is certainly to the left of anything that is on offer now.

[The SDP] had tensions in it. Because it started at the top, with some of its major figures, it started to work its way down, in the ’80s, and it did not make a breakthrough in the general election in 1983. It needed to break the mould. Because the British political system is based on the first-past-the-post voting system, a smaller party, a new party, has to break that. They made two attempts in the ’80s, and got over a quarter of the votes at the 1983 general election and over 20% in 1987, so they did not manage it.

Then, tensions came out among the people that started it, and a key tension in the ‘80s was, Owen was more of a solid left-wing social democrat [while] Jenkins really was a liberal. It was key. Jenkins wanted a merger with the Liberal Party, and Owen rejected that, and we are the sort of surviving Owenite party. We kept the party separate from the liberals and the party went on until 1990. I left the party in 1990 thinking it was over, but it survived. It is not so easy to kill a party.

I met Owen before the Brexit vote, and he said [SDP] was still going. I had been out of politics for a while and I thought I would join it, and about a year and a half later I was asked to lead it. The point is that the party has survived—the logo, the body of people in it, the branches—and although it got very small, it began growing again. That is the history of it.

Why was it believed that another party was needed when it is so difficult in Britain to overcome the two-party system?

Good question. There is no party in British politics that offers the unique blend of red and blue. There is some political philosophy, and there are some insurgent groups in the large parties, so you have got red Tory ideas and blue Labour ideas, and there are there are some important philosophical differences between both, [and between] them and us, but basically [SDP] is left-wing on economics and what people call right-wing on social issues, but I don’t accept that. I don’t think we are right-wing in terms of social issues at all, but people characterize us as such.

Now, the curious thing is, if you look at the polling, perhaps half the public are where we are. I think it is a difficult task to re-establish a political party, but [the need for one] is crying out, because if you just leave things as they are, about half of the population don’t have a chance to have something to believe in. I think fundamentally that was why we thought we should do it, and partly, just personally, I can’t be the only one who goes into the voting booth and thinks: “cripes, what do we do? Who do we vote for?” So I think that was the reason.

As I understand, you have relaunched the SDP with a new declaration and have rebranded it in a sense. Is there any sense in which SDP is a response to New Labour, which is generally seen as economically more to the Right? For instance, Margaret Thatcher famously said she was happy that Tony Blair came into politics and took over many of her ideas and was more socially liberal, whereas a lot of people view the SDP as socially conservative and more to the Left in economic matters.

Yes, that’s a fair characterization. It is not in reaction to New Labour. It is true that Tony Blair’s impact on politics was not to challenge or to turn back Thatcherism; it was to advance it. In fact, I think what we would describe as the basics of the Left’s economic program were absent in the New Labour program. They did not look at public ownership of power generation or water. For someone who takes a social market view, those are basics.

We are very strongly pro-market in general goods and services, and you can’t tax a loss, but there has been overreach of market fundamentalism or neoliberalism; [the] Chicago School.

I saw your debate with Johan Norberg, another Swede …

Yes. There are lots of ways of describing it. The pocket of normal traditional basic social democratic policy on economics is absent from British politics. One of my arguments was that there are liberals everywhere, and that’s the problem.

You said you do not want to see yourselves as ‘Right’ in social issues, but one might fairly say that you are socially conservative … [YES! interjects the interviewee] … and that seems to be a losing battle at the moment, worldwide. How would you propose gaining momentum when it seems that media and political establishment and industry are against such a position?

It is formidable. There is a lot in that question. I think I would accept the premise that you can’t deny what is called in Britain the “great liberalization,” and I wouldn’t deny that politics, in some respects, is downstream of culture. A lot of the disorientation among many conservative politicians is that they are reacting to the social movement. The Tories in Britain have been in power for 12 years, and even a few years ago we had a lot of Tory MPs who were scarcely aware of [the issue], and it just washes over them.     

I think a consolation [is] that all the basic social conservative truths are still truths: Work hard, don’t get into trouble, have a duty to your fellow men, have a duty to your family—all of these basics still apply, and if that weren’t true, I would not be a social conservative. I think no matter what the world throws at you, it is still the case that those basic truths apply. And I think, interestingly, a lot of liberals apply those basic truths to the way they run their own lives, rather than what they profess. They talk liberal but act conservative. I think I am a realist, but I don’t for one moment think the future of social conservatives is bleak, because I think the truths are still there.

You mentioned the ‘woke movement’ as the ones who now seem to be driving the agenda—at least one gets the sense that that is the case. It is what we hear about, because it is usually the ones who cry the loudest who are heard. But how could one respond to this ‘woke’ agenda and calls to bring down statues and other symbols that shape society in a fundamental and tangible way?

I think the answer partly is, we didn’t make the breakthrough we had hoped to, but partly the answer [also] is that there is normal democratic politics. One of my arguments about the SDP in Britain is that we have quite a few really good thinkers, we have a lot of really good think tanks, and we have a lot of good authors and some good academics, but in the end, you need a political party to get the convened mandate to power.

On statues, it was Sheffield, or it might have been Leeds, that had a vote on what they would do with the colonial legacy in the public realm. They decided they would keep it. That is the answer. I think you have got to be quite robust and much more muscular, because a lot of the problem with the ‘woke’ iconoclasm is that they are clear on what they don’t like but they have no idea what to replace it with. I think the public should have a say. Otherwise, it is just forced onto people. 

It was in Bristol where they tore a statue down in a park. Unfortunately, that went to trial recently, [and] a Bristol jury acquitted the people who were responsible. My reaction is: if that is not criminal damage, then what is? I suspect the jury was intimidated. The jurors may have been told that if you convict these people, others might want to turn up at your house. 

One of the things that is disappointing about the way that ‘woke’ from America washed over Europe, particularly the Anglosphere, [is that] our resistance to it, in the wake of the George Floyd affair, was nothing. There was a cultural movement born in American universities, and all our institutions gave way, from football to the BBC and many of the papers and the media and everyone else. Ιt displayed a cultural weakness. Aris Roussinos commented that there was something slightly Protestant about this, and I think there is. John Gray said that as well; that North Sea Protestant societies, wherever they are, seem more susceptible to these ‘woke’ ideas than the Catholic South. I think there is probably a grain of truth in it.

When one thinks about left-wing politicians, one often thinks about the progressive agenda, the ‘woke’ movement, and so on. But I remember listening to Malcolm Muggeridge, and he said that was an error. According to him, there are two things that define the Left. One is an inherent distrust of authority, and the second is a wish to always stand on the side of the most vulnerable. What do you think about that definition, and how can the SDP, or anybody who would potentially vote for SDP, think of themselves as left-wing but without necessarily embracing a progressive agenda that seeks to reshape society?

I think the problem is that times are shifting, and people understand it. We describe ourselves as left-wing economically, because I think the significant division nowadays is not between Left and Right; it is rather between the individualistic and the progressive, and people have a great sense of solidarity.

So, I don’t dispute what Muggeridge said there, but I think that the real dividing line is [marked by] the people that are just keen on individual rights without responsibilities, and self-aggrandizement and self-development, to the detriment of and without thinking about other people. The key thing that describes the division between us and progressive approaches is that I would never describe myself as a progressive, although, as I say, I’m quite happy to describe myself as someone on the Left. But, people tend to misinterpret it.     

I would argue that the Left tradition, the post-war Left tradition in Britain anyway, if you look at Attlee and Gaitskell, and Ernest Bevin and through to Peter Shore, [is] very socially conservative. Part of the driving force behind it was Bevin, [who] was described as someone with the “majority mind.” So, if the majority is us rather than me, then I think the ‘I-we’ balance, the ‘me-us’ balance, is [the] greater force. 

This is why I get myself into trouble on the other side: we describe ourselves as post-liberals, and I am very critical of liberal thinkers, and some people on the liberal Right get very upset with me, saying that’s not classical liberalism, that’s not what liberalism is about. What I’m really criticizing is this combination of liberal economic overreach of ‘money is everything’ and the liberal social overreach of ‘me first and damn everything else’. It is literally that combination of double liberalism we are fighting against.

Which thinkers, philosophers, or historical figures would someone who would be interested in voting for your party generally look to, or represent the party’s political and philosophical inspirations?

It depends on what you want your philosophers to do. My favourite ancient philosopher is Epicurus. He is right on target, proposing a better description of reality than others. [From] contemporary times, if you want your philosophers to be right, you would read John Gray, because Gray is right most of the time. I think he has influenced us, or me, anyway, more than any other modern philosopher. His critique of liberalism and the Enlightenment is very elegant; a beautiful criticism of civil roles, fabricated rights; a rights-based approach to everything. I think he has been valuable to us as a thinker. More broadly, anything Scruton has written on place, or duty, or patriotism, I would subscribe to. 

The Americans that I like and read [include] Christopher Lasch. He is no longer with us, but I am a big admirer of his. I like Patrick J. Deneen. I think his post-liberal book [Why Liberalism Failed] is very good. I also like Michael Lynn.

I think a British writer who is not a philosopher but who has influenced us a lot is David Goodhart. He is a friend of the family, of the party, and he has helped us a lot. Most Western politics has a tension in it between people who have done well at globalization and people who haven’t. The people who have done well are inclined to be liberal and open, and they have a slight contempt for those who haven’t and feel they have left them behind, and that’s wrong. I think David’s brilliant on that. 

[Also], Michael Oakeshott—you probably would categorize him as a conservative, although Gray interprets him as a liberal sometimes. I think those are the people that have influenced us.

There is something I notice is recurring in your answers now, globalization versus national sovereignty, patriotism, and so on, so that leads me naturally to the question of Brexit. What are the party’s thoughts on Brexit and national sovereignty?

This is an interesting one. The SDP in the ‘80s was solidly pro-EU. I don’t like to use the word pro-European because I am very proudly European. Certainly, in the ’80s, Owen took [SDP] in a slightly Eurosceptic direction. When I do interviews, people usually say, the SDP was very pro-EU. Well, actually, at the 1989 conference, the SDP ruled out a United States of Europe, but all the liberals are still talking about it.     

It is an interesting change … to become quite Eurosceptic and then very Eurosceptic. I think the basic reason for that is that, [regarding] what I would call “bread-and-butter social democracy,” the EU [was] structured to make that impossible, particularly post-Maastricht. It doesn’t occur to a lot of people that that’s the case, and in particular there are [swaths of] the Left in Europe that are unaware of it. But [the EU] is actually structured by a treaty to make state intervention in industry, or immigration, or any of the basics, fiscal policy, monetary policy—it bans them all, so, for a start, you can’t practice social democracy within the EU, and therefore you can’t practice democracy. 

Our criticism is straightforward, down the line. I don’t know what beholds for the European Union, but if you’re a proper social democrat, you really don’t want anything to do with it. Now in Britain, the trouble is that the Brexit coalition is a very broad one, as you know, and on the numbers. Only 17.2 million people voted for it, and in our own reckoning, about five and a half million people voted for it on the Left. I mean, we were tiny at the time, we didn’t influence it, but Labour Leave did influence people a little bit and we are friends with them, and a lot of their activists joined us. 

The coalition on “do we want to be a member of the European Union” was broad, but it was composed of [both] Left and Right, and the real thing that Britain is struggling with now is that you are lumped broadly with the right-wing version of Brexit, which was, I think, totally inconsistent.

To give you an example: the best idea that free trade liberal Tories had during the Brexit campaign was that we would leave the European Union, deregulate everything, have a bonfire of regulations, and then declare unilateral free trade, which to me is as close to insanity as you could get. I mean, what was the point of leaving? For a start, international free trade is a highly utopian idea, but what was the point of leaving an institution that fettered you and told you what to do, only to allow the WTO to do that? I mean, effectively, you would be under similar restrictions [regarding] keeping steel plants open, building ships. It was an insane idea, because de-industrialization has occurred to such a huge extent. You have to be a proper ideological free trade liberal to argue this point, because you could only want more of the same in ten years if you were really strongly pro-China, a real China purist, if you wanted the Chinese Communist Party to literally gut the rest of Western industry. I think it’s insane, it doesn’t work. 

In Britain, we are struggling though, and I’m not sure what the end destination will be. A bit like a social conservative would think, I think a lot of the things that we say happened to be right, so I have heard a lot of the Tories I have met, previously right-wing free-trade Tories, suddenly starting to say, “actually, a bit of national resilience in this area or that area is good” [or] “I’m a bit worried about giving our 5G network to the Chinese Communist Party.”     

Sometimes just the way the world turns might just turn in the direction you argued for, because it happens to be right. Slowly but surely, [it] would be dragged to the sense of a slightly more domestic focus, something that Dani Rodrik called “softer globalism,” [even if] I don’t like that, because I don’t really like any globalism.

This is also interesting, because a lot of people would say that social democracy itself is an international movement, and the social democrats in Sweden often say that. But it seems very clear that the Swedish social democrats are very particular about ‘this is our own movement, this is something unique that we have created in Sweden,’ therefore I’m wondering about the juxtaposition between wanting to preserve national sovereignty and claims to be international.

I think it is philosophically robust to argue that. For a start, there is a line in our new declaration that I wrote, but I took the line from John Gray: “the upper limit of democracy is the nation state,” because that is the highest level where you can have proper solidarity. I think the European Union proves that pretty much every year, and certainly every crisis proves it—Germans won’t share the Greek crisis, they won’t pay for it, and in a sense why should they? I would argue to be an internationalist requires the nation state itself. You have to have nation states to incorporate internationally.

Absolutely. We spoke a bit about Protestantism and Catholicism in relation to ‘woke,’ but there are differences also in having a national church, for example, in Britain, and we had had one for a long time in Sweden as well, while in the south of Europe it’s the Catholic Church. They see themselves as part of the universal church. How do you see the relationship between church and state in Britain in the years to come?

I think it would just continue to be weakened. It is such a broad question that no one really has an answer. I am not sure what European culture is without Christianity, to be honest. Speaking personally, I’m an example of this. I had a religious upbringing, I got married in a Catholic church, but I don’t believe and I can’t believe. And so, I’m a churchgoer but I am not a believer. You end up with the best of cultural Christianity, whatever that is, but it is almost existential.

I don’t know where Europe goes, I don’t know how to cure it; I have always argued that being in a church is about belonging and not only about faith, and again, there are so many links into ‘woke-ism’ and what replaces it. Again, I think John Gray is brilliant on this in arguing that ‘woke-ism’, belief in perfection—there are so many Christian elements to it, you can see that it is rooted in Christian culture without even many of the people involved in it realizing this, but with the good bits taken out. You have the perfectibility, the redemption, but without the salvation. There is no salvation; all it is, is just idealism without any real foundation, so it is a poor replacement. 

[As for] church and state, I think it will be just weakened. The latest evidence on church attendance [shows it] continues to go down; churches are closing. The state may have a role in helping, rather like in France, to maintain some of the architecture in the end, because I’m not sure the Church of England would be up to it. But, I don’t have a clear answer, I don’t know what you can do when your society becomes orphaned in this way, when you are post-religious. Certainly, one of the conclusions I came to was that a post-belief, orphaned Europe is not a sensible place to practice mass immigration.

Another reason I asked this is because I know from your website that you talked about constitutional reform, and one of the things there is the abolition of the House of Lords. Now, for a Swede—we did that in 1865, I believe—so part of the charm of Britain is that you still have the House of Lords. But also from a conservative perspective, a lot of people would want to retain it because it helps with checks and balances. What would you respond to someone who is conservative and wanted to vote for you but thought this might be a difficulty?

The first thing I would say is that we do take a George Orwell sort of attitude towards parts of the manifesto. No one could believe in all of the party’s policies, right? It might include me, actually, but I should not be saying this. Our last chairman, two years ago, an academic at Liverpool University who joined us in the Labour Party, was a proper social conservative and a constitutional conservative, and he argued bitterly against our proposals for electoral reform and argued bitterly against our proposals for the abolition of the House of Lords, but it did not stop him from being chairman of the party. My point is that we are not ideologues about this. Οf the three or four things that were key to the SDP in the ’80s, the spirit of constitutional reform and electoral reform is a strand that goes all the way back, and we haven’t changed on that.

I don’t think one can be a 100% electoral reformer. An intelligent person has got to see that our system delivers catharsis. Someone said there is only a hair’s breadth between the parties, but it’s within that hair’s breadth that we live. You know, people can’t vote honestly. Peter Hitchens has been arguing for this for years, and I think he is right, that you need a conservative party, and I think if you had electoral reform you would end up with one. And you don’t know how popular it would be. If you give it a go, it might end up being very popular, so broadly, on constitutional reform, we are still reformers, rather than conservatives in the sense of accepting the British system as it is.

We are pro-monarchy, because the monarchy doesn’t really interfere with democracy in the sense that it is the link to your past, and it unites the people. Maybe not Meghan and Harry, but people in general. But it doesn’t mean you should argue for retaining the Lords. It is full of cronies. If it would be proper hereditary Lords, it would be better, because at least it would be random. I think the other thing is that it is interlinked with our proposals for the English Parliament. I think the devolution settlement in Britain has left England dangling, and you can’t just leave it dangling. I think if you want to deal with that, you will have to deal with something above it, because you would just end up with too many changes. But it is just in principle. I don’t think anything could justify the Lords in principle.

And going forward, in the next ten years or so, what do you think are the main challenges facing Britain, and what would be your priorities going into the forthcoming elections?

I think the main thing that the government will struggle with is to find an appropriate post-Brexit vision. As I said before, it still isn’t clear what it is looking for. The Tories, and in particular the prime minister, used Brexit as a means rather than as an end. I think [Boris] Johnson used it in a narrow sense, politically, for his own benefit, and I still don’t think he is clear at all about the vision. I think it has to be more protectionist. We [must] have an acknowledgment that you can’t just have no industry. It is better to make things; we will be two nations for as long as that doesn’t happen, [so] you’ve got to re-industrialize. I don’t think you can re-industrialize unless you have some tariffs. And [a] major priority is housing as well. I would hope the bread-and-butter reality of these things would ascertain themselves and that we would have a government that can address them. I’m not sure I’m that hopeful, actually. I wish I were.

On the party: I very much have this sort of long-march view. There is no history in British politics of any party [going] from a position of being quite small to having national recognition, and the best example of that is to have candidates in every constituency in a general election. It took the Liberals more than 20 years to make that transition, and it took the Green Party 20 years from the ‘70s to the ’90s to get it, and it took UKIP [the United Kingdom Independence Party] a similar time from the ’90s. You might make it a bit quicker, but it’s a slow process. We had 20 candidates in 2019, we will have 60, maybe 70, next time. To take a football analogy, you are getting a promotion from one division to the other. I’m very optimistic in that I think if we have the proper foundation in ideas, you are in a much better position than if you are just flailing around in doing politics, so I think that is our biggest strength, and I think people know it is as well.

This is very interesting because you, as a smaller party coming up, have to find your niche and say: these are the questions we think we should be discussing. The Greens were very clear with their name, they wanted to talk more about the environment, and UKIP only wanted to talk about Brexit. What would be the defining thing that people remember when they hear ‘the SDP’?

I think what you are looking for is a party that can speak for the majority in the sense of the Hinterland, the non-‘woke’ cultural elite. I think you are also looking for a party that keeps the high ground. You can’t debase yourselves, you have got to retain respect, moderation, some good traditional values, where people look at your policies and would say “‘thank goodness someone is saying that, because I also believe that.” The blue and red bits, they have to be quite blue and red.

I recently ran into some journalists in London who said, looking at your economics, it’s considerably to the left of the Labour Party. And it probably is, but I would argue we haven’t had any ‘Left’ in economics since the ‘70s in Britain. And I think I’m right in saying that the basic offer the British Conservative Party, or the Republicans for that matter in the States, are making to people is ripped full of inconsistencies. You can’t pretend to be a social conservative if you are a liberal on economics. It makes it impossible to have any paternalistic view on the family or the public realm. 

The public realm is fascinating, because it is something the state does and is responsible for, but in the United States, they have pretty much the worst public infrastructure in the Western world, and it is because they are shot through with liberal ideas. You need to have pride in your village or town or city and in your country, and you can’t have that if the public realm is a disgrace. But I don’t think that this is a single issue. I mean, we are doing a lot on immigration. We have had an open border, and you can’t, so we would hammer that for a quarter, literally three months, and then hopefully people would say, “actually the SDP is quite sound on that.”

What is the policy on immigration from the SDP?

Well, the basics: I just think it is not a bad idea for a state to have a border, for instance. I think the polls have proved the point, and it might become wildly popular. We had 30,000 illegal immigrants coming to claim asylum last year, and it would be 60,000 this year if we don’t do something about it.    

Regarding the Channel crisis, we have to stop blaming the French. You have to accept that it’s your national border, and what we would do is deny asylum. France is a separate country, it is a nice country, so there is no asylum, there is no claim, and so we would deny asylum to any unsolicited person that just turns up, and then we would do offshore processing, and return such people to the country of origin. If we did that, there wouldn’t be any Channel migrant crisis, it would stop instantly, as the Australians have proved.      

Then, you could have a look at UN refugee camps close to wars, where you can select your own candidates for asylum. There are plenty of children and women there who are far more deserving it than the young men that would rock up in Kent. Immigration is part of the modern world, but perhaps 50,000 net is about right [per year], which is what it always was, not 750,000. 

I think David Goodhart wrote it somewhere, putting a point that in the highest years of migration in the new Labour era, more people in a single year migrated to Britain than in the period from 1066 to 1900, which shows you the scale. And again, for straightforward left-wing economic reasons, I think the labour market has been too open for too long. A very open labour market discourages training and depresses wages. Thinkers on the left used to understand that; but, they have forgotten because their heads are [so] full of liberal ideas now they are not even properly Left, really. That’s my point: a lot of the people in the Labour Party are liberals; they are not really even socialist.

That sounds like a great thing one would tell someone who is coming to you saying, “I tend to be a Labour voter, why should I vote for you?” What would you say to someone who says, “I am a small-conservative person, I tend to vote for the Conservatives because that’s the tradition, why should I change my vote?

I would argue that we were more convincing conservatives than the Conservative Party, who haven’t conserved anything. Their record is abysmal. Things like family life, for instance: very, very few conservative politicians are prepared to argue for the traditional family. They just don’t argue the point. So, I would say, if you are thinking that way, then we are already a better fit for you. Usually, what people object to is if you say you will run off and spend more money. Strangely enough, although we are strong advocates of the social market, I’ve never argued for a massive state. Genuinely, most of our problems in public services and in society are cultural rather than economic. We are pretty fiscally conservative. I want the state to do normal things on railways and I support public ownership [of] utilities, because I think it is just more sensible to have a water system that’s geared to providing water, rather than geared to providing returns and profits for different companies. I think the traditional conservative voter could live with our economics but would greatly respect our social conservatism.

Karl-Gustel Wärnberg holds an M.A. in the History of Science and Ideas from Uppsala University. He is the editor-in-chief of Fighter Magazine, Sweden’s oldest martial arts magazine.


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