London — Britain's Social Democratic Party voted this past week to negotiate a merger with the much older Liberal Party. But the decision was taken amid rancor, and it became clear at the party's annual conference in Portsmouth that the SDP is deeply split, with its former leader, David Owen, determined to form his own political group.
After a rousing five-hour debate at the conference, merger supporters carried the day when they defeated a move to allow SDP members a choice of joining the new party or remaining Social Democrats. The supporters argued that the move would have undermined merger talks.
Until Britain's general election last June, the SDP and the Liberals cooperated in a loosely structured alliance, but immediately after Margaret Thatcher's victory, the Liberals proposed a full-scale merger. Dr. Owen declared himself against this and stepped down as SDP leader.
Ever since, the party has been engaged in a self-lacerating public quarrel that its new leader, Robert Maclennan, described to the Portsmouth gathering as ``midsummer madness.'' The conference broke up with the two factions more deeply divided than ever, and Maclennan committed to merger talks with the Liberals - talks that some believe could end in the virtual disappearance of the SDP as a credible political force.
Owen, one of the original ``Gang of Four'' that broke away from the Labour Party to form the SDP six years ago, told the Portsmouth gathering that he intended to stick by Social Democratic principles. The three other founder-members, including SDP President Shirley Williams, said they favored a merger.
It emerged at Portsmouth that the SDP's future problems may extend beyond an embarrassing rift in its own ranks. The party decided to stick to a defense policy that favors retention of an independent nuclear deterrent. Many Liberals oppose this, and Maclennan, a mild-mannered Scot, could find that when the proposed negotiations open the Liberals will tell him that there can be no merger so long as the SDP's commitment to a deterrent remains unchanged. Alternatively, the Liberal leadership may agree to a compromise with Maclennan and then see large numbers of its own members resign in protest.
The rumpus has heavily eroded the notion that the Liberals and the SDP - merged or unmerged - are a credible force of the center in British politics. One dismayed SDP delegate declared: ``There are two losers in all this - the Liberals and the Social Democrats. And there are two gainers - the Labour Party and the Tories.''