London — When David Owen co-founded the Social Democratic Party (SDP) seven years ago, his was a fresh and original voice at the center of British politics. Now his future is uncertain. Abandoned by a majority of former SDP members with their decision last month to merge with the Liberal Party, Dr. Owen has embarked on another mission to rebuild his party.
``We've got a rough ride ahead,'' he told the Monitor last week in an interview at his office near Parliament where he holds a seat from Plymouth. He said his first priority is to build the membership of what he calls the ``continuing Social Democratic Party'' and to do ``a lot of bridge building and repair work.''
Owen's Campaign for Social Democracy, which he founded last summer, will emerge next month as the new SDP. The organization began with an initial membership of 5,000 voters who supported his resignation as leader of the SDP over the merger issue. The group has grown to about 22,000 members, and his staff said that new applications are coming in faster than computer operators can enter the names, though the total number so far is well below the estimated 54,000 members of the SDP before it split.
Owen is joined in his efforts to keep the party alive by Rosie Barnes and John Cartwright, two other SDP members of Parliament who did not agree to a political marriage with the Liberals.
Until now, Liberal leader David Steel and the new leader of the Social Democrats, Robert Maclennan, have done the most to help him recruit new members, Owen said. He referred to a well-publicized revolt in January among Liberal Party members when the two-party leaders presented a joint manifesto proclaiming policies unacceptable to the more numerous Liberals. The fiasco almost sabotaged the merger decision and pushed many voters into the Owen camp. Did the center of British politics commit hara-kiri in the process? ``I think that is an open question,'' Owen mused. In his opinion, there was ``not the policy agreement to make a true and happy marriage. I don't believe you will ever carve out the center ground in British politics unless it [the Party] has hard edges, unless it has a core policy,'' said the former medical doctor.
Owen describes the core policies of the SDP as ``left of center,'' though he doesn't like the term. He says he remains concerned with social justice and the redistribution of wealth from his early years as a member of the Labour Party and in posts as government minister for health and social services and secretary of state for foreign affairs.
He clings to the idea, which first surfaced in Britain in the 1970s, of integrating the tax system with the social security system ``with a considerable generosity'' to eliminate the rivalry and reduce the inefficiencies of two unwieldy bureaucracies. He also affirms the need to create wealth and improve Britain's competitiveness in international markets while opposing some government programs that claim to address the same concerns.
He argues, for instance, that the government's plan to privatize the national electricity monopoly will merely turn a public monopoly into a private one.
On defense policy, however, Owen is close to the views of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and his stand on arms control policy has earned him grudging respect on both sides of the political spectrum. The British and French nuclear deterrents are ``positively a good thing,'' he said, and he supports the modernization of Britain's nuclear submarine force.
In a meeting with a senior group of United States senators last week, Owen gave strong support to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and emphasized the need to go ahead with the modernization of the nuclear-armed aircraft for NATO forces in Europe. He told the senators that it was important to make distinctions among different categories of weapons and to give top priority to the development of a stand-off, air-launched nuclear missile, a weapon which he described as ``absolutely sacrosanct.''
``I put it very strongly that it was in the American interest to support the Anglo-French development of such a missile and indeed would be beneficial if the US was prepared to come in as a collaborative partner,'' he said. He also urged President Reagan to approve Anglo-French nuclear cooperation as a ``logical extension of Franco-German cooperation on conventional defense.''
Some critics have said Owen's views on defense have placed him well to the political right, but he disagrees.
``The idea that there is something right-wing about a serious defense policy is absolute, pie-in-the-sky nonsense,'' he said. He recalled that it was under a Labour government that Britain launched its own nuclear weapons program in the 1940s, a policy which was upheld by the Labour Party until 1980.
These are some of the views he and his supporters will carry with them on the hustings this spring as they try to rebuild a splintered party. In the four-year run-up to the next general election, they hope to lead a ``grass-roots uprising,'' drawing disaffected voters from both the Labour and Conservative Parties and possibly seeking new alliances with old colleagues.