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Facing the Future? David Owen and Social Democracy in the 1980s and Beyond

Blackburn, D.



David Owen entered the House of Commons as member for Plymouth in 1966. He became a junior minister under Harold Wilson by 1968 and quickly established himself as a leading figure of the Labour right. From 1977 to 1979 he was Britain's youngest post-war Foreign Secretary under James Callaghan. In response to Labour's apparent leftward drift, Owen defected from the party in March 1981 to jointly lead the Social Democratic Party (SDP) alongside William Rodgers, Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams. From 1983 until the 1987 General Election, he was the party's leader, but stood down after being unable to endorse the merger of the SDP and Liberal parties. He re-launched a ‘continuing SDP’ on the 8 March 1988 which, after failing to build a base of popular support, was disbanded on 3 June 1990. Owen resigned his seat at the 1992 General Election. This article argues that understanding Owen's political career, and in particular his political thought and its relationship with his role as SDP leader, is important in comprehending the fortunes of the British centre-left in the last two decades of the twentieth century. It suggests that the task of the British centre-left was defined by Owen and the SDP as a need to create a new synthesis of ideas that could keep the values and attitudes of mind that previous left thinkers had upheld on the political agenda of the 1980s. The outcome was an ideological retreat that demonstrated the difficult conditions in which social democrats were attempting to find intellectual renewal.


Blackburn, D. (2011). Facing the Future? David Owen and Social Democracy in the 1980s and Beyond. Parliamentary Affairs, 64(4), 634-651.

Journal Article Type Article
Online Publication Date May 19, 2011
Publication Date Oct 1, 2011
Deposit Date Nov 18, 2019
Publicly Available Date Jun 4, 2020
Journal Parliamentary Affairs
Print ISSN 0031-2290
Electronic ISSN 1460-2482
Publisher Oxford University Press
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 64
Issue 4
Pages 634-651
Keywords Sociology and Political Science; Law
Public URL
Publisher URL
Additional Information This is a pre-copyedited, author-produced version of an article accepted for publication in Parliamentary Affairs following peer review. The version of record Dean Blackburn, Facing the Future? David Owen and Social Democracy in the 1980s and Beyond, Parliamentary Affairs, Volume 64, Issue 4, October 2011, Pages 634–651 is available online at:


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