Frankly, the Alliance hasn't much choice. When the Liberals and SDP shared out constituencies before the 1983 election (or had their quotas foisted upon them, whichever you like), they gave up their rights to be considered as national parties. It was an extraordinary gesture which made sound tactical sense, but still has to prove itself strategically or philosophically

The pact thus cobbled together for the purpose of breaking the mold isn't likely to last for another four years. In SDP constituencies, the Liberal organizations will start to wither away, while in Liberal areas, the SDP will have difficulty in getting off the ground. The temporary sacrifices made tactically for the last election will start to look permanent. In the meantime, Labour is unlikely to continue to tear itself apart. Its current revival, having bought the dream ticket, may not last, but the electorate will be deciding in its own mysterious way as to whether Labour or the Alliance will prove to be an effective alternative government. The rivalry between the opposition parties will be conducted on a 'more-unified-than thou' basis.

What both the Alliance and Labour most fear is an outbreak of internal feuding. But unity cannot be always imposed from on high, however much Steel and Owen may wish to do so. The external show of unity needs to be supported by internal methods of reaching agreement, which, practically speaking, will draw the two Alliance parties towards merger. The policy panels will have to be in close and continual consultation, which has not been the case until now. The constituency parties, Liberal or SDP, will have to consider the views of both sides before choosing their candidates: the Liberals favour joint selection, the SDP do not, but whichever view prevails, there will have to be de facto joint selection if local bickering is to be avoided. And, for this nettle also has to be grasped, the Alliance will have to decide between the two leaders as to which will lead them into the election as a Prime-Minister-in-Waiting.

If the Alliance parties remain unmerged, they will be offering an indecent number of hostages to fortune; and the voters will be puzzled as to why they should choose to do so. If the Liberals and the SDP are saying essentially the same things, then there is no logical reason why they should not merge; at least until such time as proportional representation allows for shades of opinion. If they are putting forward different policies, then the electorate are entitled to know whose views will prevail.

Dr. Owen may not have been exactly talking through his hat when he said that the British public like the idea of two political parties cooperating together for the good of the country, but perhaps his hat was too close to his lips for comfort. From my experience of canvassing, I found that voters were indeed confused by the idea that while Steel was leading the campaign, Jenkins would head a Alliance government. 'Get yourself sorted out,' one said to me, a former Liberal voter, 'and then I'll consider voting for you.

Merger, in short, is the obvious next step; and the obvious time to discuss such a merger was in September, 1983, at the time of the two party conferences. The atmosphere between the two parties was warm rather than cordial. Steel and Beith were well-received at the SDP's Assembly in Salford, home of the disenchanted.

Owen was cheered on the last day of the Liberal's Assembly at Harrogate, an appropriate place for a rejuvenated Liberal Party, a Victorian baroque town with a massive new conference hall, straddling nearly everything. Various motions were floated whose general direction drifted towards the discussion of the possibility of something which might be considered, without being absolutely definite, as a tentative half-merger.

The Liberals could afford to be trenchant about Northern Ireland, the SDP could pass solid resolutions on the economy and the social services; but when they came to the possibility of a merger between the parties, well, the wisest course was to leave the options open.

An effective stalemate was reached on joint selection of candidates. The idea that the Alliance leader should be elected from a poll of both parties was mooted-and shelved. The old Labour Party used to fudge and mudge: the new Alliance is a vast improvement. It merely dodges and shelves. Let grass-roots cooperation thrive! Then the leadership will come along to mow the lawn. Let policy consultations flourish! Then the joint campaign committee will decide on the manifesto.

The sad message left from both party assemblies was that the Alliance are not so determined to work for political power that they are prepared to take the necessary steps to set their joint houses in order. Perhaps the reason behind this alarming reticence lies in a mixture of short and long-term considerations. Neither party is convinced that its future rests with each other.

They have accepted the tactical arguments in favour of the Alliance: they have considerable doubts and differences of opinion about the strategy and the philosophy. The SDP and the Liberals share certain general aims; and it may be still true to say that the common ground between the two Alliance parties is greater than that which lies between the two wings of the Conservative and the Labour parties. But would they landscape the common ground differently? Have they similar aims in arguing for proportional representation and an incomes policy?

Let's start with short-term considerations. The SDP has its image to maintain, that of a radical, young, dynamic party, composed of people who are bored with the entrenched attitudes of old political parties with their antediluvian vested interests. Does it really help their cause to be linked with a party like the Liberals, renowned since the First World War for losing elections nobly? The Liberals, on the other hand, as befits theirĀ·age, regard the SDP's enthusiasm with something akin to paternal cynicism. The Liberals have been here before, after Orpington, after the 1974 (first) election, when only one more heave was necessary to break the system.

The substance of the SPD's policy, including PR and an incomes policy, has been Liberal policy for years. Both parties want devolution; but the Liberals have seen so many campaigns for devolution collapse under the weight of entrenched interests. This is not to suggest that the Liberals are any the less determined to achieve their goals than the SDP, only that they approach these matters with a caution bordering sometimes on weariness.

They may be weary, the Liberals, but they tend to be tough. Many years ago, during the 1960s, the Liberals decided that the way to break through lay in community politics, the slowest and rockiest road to power, but the one which they believed in the long run would lead to success. Furthermore, community politics was not just a matter of looking for cracked pavements and, as it were, de-cracking them. It was directly in the Liberal Party's philosophical tradition, whereby central government was to be considered as a 'service industry'

The Victorian Liberals firmly believed that good government depended on a proper recognition of the worth of an individual. Society was a collection of small communities; and the community in which an individual lived and worked had what can be called natural boundaries, those people whom the individual could actually come to know, trust, work with and love.

Naturally, these communities were small, naturally they might conflict with other communities; and the Victorian Liberals distrusted those didactic politicians who wanted to transform the world, without necessarily helping their neighbours. The only true human values lay within the community, through which personal moralities could be expressed. The role of government was to reconcile the conflicting interests of different communities, to set the common laws by which the communities could individually live. The natural targets of the Victorian Liberals were monopolies of power, economic or political, tyrannies and their opposites, anarchies.

Their descendants, the modern Liberal Party, inherited many of these instincts, without always sharing or even recognising the Victorian philosophy. Even Gladstone took a somewhat laissez-faire attitude towards national poverty, believing that governments could not exactly create wealth, only maintain those conditions in which wealth could be created and through the free market distributed.

The vision of socialism which believed that governments could create wealth and fairly distribute it, was the nineteenth century Liberal heresy. It allotted to government potentially dictatorial powers. Keynes reconciled the laissez-faire traditions of the Victorian Liberals with the new political demands of the twentieth century. He expected a more forceful role from government,which could be interventionist and within limits dirigist.

The SDP, on the other hand, are a party of management. They may reach the same conclusions as the Liberals, but they do so from an opposite direction. Whereas Liberals are reluctant to concede to central government more powers than it plainly needs, the SDP continue to talk in dirigist terms, even when the subject is devolution of power.

This difference of approach is noticeable in a comparison between the Liberals' arts policy and the as yet unpublished SOP version. Both parties have much in common in their general aims. Both believe, for example, in a Ministry of Culture, in a tax on video- and music cassette tapes, in encouraging local and community arts.

In their methods of approach, however, there are drastic differences. The Liberals believe that broadcasting and telecommunications should be included within the general mandate of the Ministry of Culture. They stress the importance of the arm's-length principle separating the Ministry from the proposed Central Broadcasting Authority which in turn is at arm's length from the broadcasting companies.

The SDP wants to keep broadcasting still within the aegis of the Home Office. The SDP believes that education is the key to a successful arts policy: the Liberals do not want to give the appearance of dictating to the education authorities that they should emphasise one area of training rather than another.

Education is firmly left out of the Liberals' arts policy, firmly left into the SDP's version. And so on. The SDP talk of the new wealth created by the SDP's technology-led economic policy. The Liberals are much more cautious. At Margate, in 1980, the Liberals passed a resolution to the effect that economic growth as normally defined was neither attainable nor desirable. When Liberals talk about wealth, they often mean something vaguely ecological, like natural wealth or even the quality of life. When the SDP discusses wealth, they usually mean the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is always expressed in terms of money.

Thus, there are major philosophical differences between the Alliance parties; and in this case, philosophy is not something which can be brushed aside as vague abstraction. It affects that muddy central section of party political life, half-way between the policies on which all are agreed and the local details on which everybody can afford to differ.

The instincts of the Liberals are anti-authoritarian, politely or rudely so. Steel had to win his support from the party conference, which he did with a mixture of gentleness and toughness. Owen faced no such challenge; but I suspect that the SDP will have more difficulty in coping with dissent within its ranks. The Liberals are a party which respects the dissenting tradition, which may be why they seem so untidy but retain through hard times a resilient core.

But can the tidy, market-minded SOP link arms for long with the cheerful, loyal but anarchic Liberals? Can they do so, with or without a formal merger? With a merger, they may stand a chance. Without one, I fear that they do not. If there are no formal methods of resolving their natural differences, then the squabbles, now muted, will grow. And what will drive the Alliance parties apart are the strategical, rather than tactical or philosophical differences. If, for example, the Labour Party stages any kind of significant revival, it must do so at the expense of the SDP-if only because, in the original share-out of seats, the SDP were mainly allotted Labour seats to challenge.

The Liberals will see that the SDP has failed to maintain its challenge to Labour, and will wish to take over. From the Liberal view, the SDP failure at Darlington called the whole theory of the Alliance pact into question. It had been assumed that the SDP would do better than the Liberals in Labour constituencies. But the Liberals won Bermondsey and the SOP lost Darlington, and with it the bandwagon impetus which could have led to greater success at the general election.

Equally, the Liberals are fighting more Tory seats than the SOP; and it may well transpire that the young, radical image of the SDP is more successful than the Liberals at winning Tory votes. As one party in the Alliance shows signs of failing, the other will make a bid to take over; and if the strategical pattern stays consistent over a period of time, then inevitably the two parties will be drawn into conflict with one another, a conflict exploited by their opponents.

To forestall such a situation, the two parties must think of new ways to cement the Alliance. Perhaps they should start by building upon the Joint Campaign for Fair Votes. If that campaign is successful, even to the extent of merely building up the pressures for proportional representation, it can lead to other joint campaigns. Gradually the SOP and the Liberals will become so accustomed to meeting each other on one barricade or another that the formal merger will come as a matter of course.

In the meantime, Liberals like me who have worked for twenty years to break the mould, without much success, watch with bated breath to discover whether the Alliance, having so nearly succeeded at the last election despite the poor tally of parliamentary seats, will build upon or throw away the opportunities that the SOP and the Liberals have created for themselves.

Their time may yet come.

November 1983