Limehouse Declaration

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The Limehouse Declaration was a statement issued on 25 January 1981 by four senior British Labour politicians, all MPs or former MPs and Cabinet Ministers: Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams.[1] It became known as the Limehouse Declaration as it was made near David Owen's London home in Limehouse.[1] The four were known as the Gang of Four.

The opening paragraph of the declaration indicates that it was triggered by decisions taken at the Labour Party conference in January 1981.

The calamitous outcome of the Labour Party Wembley conference demands a new start in British politics. A handful of trade union leaders can now dictate the choice of a future Prime Minister.

— The Limehouse Declaration (opening)[2]

In this document the so-called 'Gang of Four' signalled their intent to leave the Labour Party and form a Council for Social Democracy, as they felt the party had been taken over by the left-wing members.[3] This Council became the basis for the British Social Democratic Party (SDP).

The declaration was launched on a small bridge on Narrow Street, Limehouse. Organisation was last-minute, with Matthew Oakeshott being sent to the Savoy Hotel to make photocopies of the statement, and visiting the flat of Shirley Williams to find appropriate clothes for her to wear at the press call.[4]

The four stated that they would soon produce an initial list of politicians and others who would support the new Council for Social Democracy.[5] At this point the 'Gang of Three' (Williams, Rodgers and Owen) had not yet left the Labour Party, but Williams admitted that "almost inevitably" they would take this step. However Williams, whom The Glasgow Herald considered to be the new group's "greatest asset as far as public appeal is concerned", was reported to want to delay the formal split until after the local elections in May in order to avoid upsetting Labour moderates whose support they hoped to win.[5]

One week later, on 5 February 1981, an advertisement was published in The Guardian under the name of the Council for Social Democracy announcing that they had received 8,000 individual messages of support. The advertisement listed one hundred of their names, which included thirteen former Labour MPs, four of whom had been cabinet ministers including Lord George-Brown, former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.[6][7]

The Gang of Four[edit]

Portrait Constituency Previous Office(s)
Roy Jenkins
Glasgow Hillhead (from March 1982) Deputy Leader of the Labour Party (1970–1972)
Chancellor of the Exchequer (1967–1970)
Home Secretary (1965–1967, 1974–1976)
Minister of Aviation (1964–1965)
David Owen
Plymouth Devonport Foreign Secretary (1977–1979)
Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (1976–1977)
Minister of State for Health and Social Security (1974–1976)
Under-Secretary of State for the Navy (1968–1970)
Bill Rodgers
Stockton-on-Tees Transport Secretary (1976–1979)
Minister of State for Defence (1974–1976)
Minister of State for the Treasury (1969–1970)
Minister of State for Trade (1968–1969)
Under-Secretary of State for Economic Affairs (1964–1967)
Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (1967–1968)
Shirley Williams
Crosby (from November 1981) Education Secretary and Paymaster General (1976–1979)
Prices and Consumer Secretary (1974–1976)
Minister of State of Home Affairs (1969–1970)
Minister of State for Education and Science (1967–1969)
Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Housing and Local Government (1966–1967)

The list of 100[edit]

Below is the list of 100 Council of Social Democracy supporters whose names were published in the Guardian advertisement of 5 February 1981:[6]

Cultural references[edit]

The events leading up to the declaration were the basis of the play Limehouse by Steve Waters at the Donmar Warehouse.


  1. ^ a b Ley, Shaun (12 January 2011). "The legacy of the SDP's Gang of Four". BBC News.
  2. ^ Williams, Shirley; Owen, David; Rodgers, Bill; Jenkins, Roy (26 January 1981). "Why Gang of Four Set Up New Council". The Guardian. p. 2.
  3. ^ "Looking back on Limehouse". The Guardian. 21 January 2006.
  4. ^ Campbell, John (2014). Roy Jenkins- A well Rounded Life. Jonathan Cape. pp. 558–9. ISBN 978-0-224-08750-6.
  5. ^ a b Russell, William (26 January 1981). "Gang of Three to form Social Democracy Group". The Glasgow Herald. Retrieved 20 February 2019.
  6. ^ a b "Advertisement - Council for Social Democracy". The Guardian. 5 February 1981. p. 3. Reproduced in "5 February 1981: Support for the SDP". From the archive blog. The Guardian. 3 June 2011. Retrieved 9 September 2017.
  7. ^ Rusbridger, Alan (5 February 1981). "Academics and Councillors Dominate Gang of 100". The Guardian. p. 2.

Further reading[edit]