Can the SDP drag Owen to the altar?

Middle-class, middle-ground Social Democrats left this picturesque, floral-bordered town on the edge of the Yorkshire dales last week with this week's Liberal Party conference very much on their minds. The Social Democratic-Liberal Alliance is not yet the fusion of two distinct parties that some of its principal politicians -- with the conspicuous exception of SDP leader David Owen -- are clamoring for.

Nor have the two parties resolved their major differences on defense, a fact that makes the Labour and Conservative Parties rub their hands with electoral glee.

But the SDP will still take comfort from their annual party deliberations here in Harrogate, during which they smoothed out some of the bumps in the relationship, and given the Alliance added momentum for the Liberal Party's conference in the southern coastal resort city of Eastbourne this week.

The conference also demonstrated once more the commanding presence that David Owen has over his party. Some weeks back, a senior Conservative politician privately expressed his view that if the SDP was as strong as its leader, the government would be in trouble. The disparity between Dr. Owen, one of the most savvy politicians in Britain today, and the followers of his new party, who are still learning to cope with the rough and tumble of politics, was caught by columnist Edward Pearce in the Daily Telegraph. ``To have a charismatic leader from a party of professional moderates,'' he recently wrote, ``is like having Napoleon as president of a Knitting Circle.''

While many SDP politicians' talk is conciliatory and consensus-seeking, Owen's approach is far more visceral. Terms like ``jugular instincts,'' ``Achilles heel'' and of wanting to ``going after them'' come easily to him when talking about the Labour Party. While Owen is the strongest vote getter in the SDP, and possibly the Alliance, there is no denying there are major differences between the SDP's strong man and his principal cohorts in the party on key policy issues.

Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins, two of the Gang of Four who broke from Labour to form the SDP, sent signals from the platform that the SDP and the Liberals should fuse for maximum political impact. But Owen, often regarded as a one-man band, shuns an early marriage. The political speculation is that as a leader of the smaller party, he would be eclipsed by the other David, the Liberal Party's David Steel.

But it was the defense issue that posed the greatest risk to the success of the SDP conference. Owen's position, that of a firm multinationalist who believes in Britain maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent is at odds with the Liberal Party. Many Liberals are unilateralists who want to scrap Polaris, Britain's aging independent nuclear deterrent.

Owen believes it would be electoral folly for the SDP to say, ``Yes, it favors replacing the aging Polaris nuclear powered submarines, but sorry we don't know yet what to replace it with.''

What saved the day and finessed the differences was the acceptance of a joint Alliance commission report on defense. The decision avoids a row with the Liberals this week by saying that Polaris need not be replaced now, thus leaving open the question of its timing for the time being. And in helping to divert attention from what to do about replacing Polaris, Owen and Steel have both spoken enthusiatically about possible French cooperation in establishing a minimum European deterrent.

In keeping with its image as a party committed to alleviating poverty, the Social Democrats unveiled a new tax and benefits program. The aim was to remove anomalies in a tax system, which the SDP says is widening the gap between rich and poor. According to the SDP, the number of people living on or near the poverty line in Britain has risen by 42 percent to 16.3 million since 1979.

In an attempt to redistribute the wealth, the Social Democrats propose scrapping the 9 percent employees National Insurance Contribution and merging it with the 29 percent basic income tax rate to form a new 38 percent tax rate. The married man's tax allowance would go. So too would mortgage tax relief above the basic rate of tax.

The Social Democrats have won points from the press for their honesty in outlining their proposals and concluding that two-thirds of Britain would be better off. But the realization that higher wage earners, natural SDP constituents, might have to carry the financial can left party stategists groping to find novel ways to present the reform somewhat less starkly to their supporters.

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