1 SEPTEMBER 1984, Page 4

Alliance conductor

Anyone who set out after the last general election to collect the con- tributions to policy made respectively by the leader of the Liberal Party and the leader of the SDP, would now find he had one wafer-thin file, and one so thick that it would make a book. Mr Steel has almost nothing to say about policy. He is all presentation (at which he is extremely good, judging by the opinion polls). He calls from time to time for a mild reflation, for the rest hopes that the Liberal Assem- bly will not pass too many motions so evidently ridiculous that he has to repudi- ate them. When he imitates, as he tried over the Galvin affair, Dr Owen's trick of reacting immediately to some unexpected event, Mr Steel sounds more like an unusually credulous viewer of the televi- sion news than a source of independent, often remarkably judicious advice. He would probably do better to be true to himself than to emulate Dr Owen. Certain- ly we do not want a book on policy from him, while Dr Owen's new book, A Future That Will Work (Viking £12.95, Penguin £2.95), based entirely on speeches and articles written in his first year as leader of the SDP, is very welcome. The dubious claim of the present Government to have brought about a permanent shift in the centre ground of politics rests heavily on Dr Owen. Here is a socialist who opens his eyes to the good in Thatcherism. Here also, one might add, is a socialist with scant prospect of achieving power, an accom- plished debater who may never have a chance to practise what he so cleverly preaches. But it is not necessary to be in power to influence the thoughts of those who are, and accomplished debaters are not so numerous as to be of small value. Mr Steel is unlucky to find himself com- pared to such a man. He must sometimes ask himself how long his party will tolerate a leader who plays second fiddle, and wonder which of his colleagues it might choose to challenge Dr Owen for the post of Alliance conductor.