Since the Coalition, the big story in the media has been about a split within the Liberal Democrats, between “right-wing” and “left-wing”, where the former are Thatcherite market libertarians, and the latter are Old Labour-style command-and-control socialists. The differences between these “factions” is exemplified by two books. The first is 2004’s “The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism“, and the second is 2007’s “Reinventing the State” (though 2009’s The Spirit Level seems increasingly to be used to typify the latter camp).
Chances are that if you’ve read anything about the Coalition Government or the Liberal Democrats since the election, you’ll have heard of the Orange Book, or at least its contributors. The “Orange Bookers” are apparently a dominant Thatcherite bloc within the Lib Dems, who have seized key positions and are philosophically opposite to the socialist party membership.
In fact, I’m going to coin a new variant on Godwin’s Law – “As an online discussion about the Liberal Democrats grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Thatcher or the phrase ‘Orange Booker’ approaches 1.” Since the Orange Book is out of print, most people haven’t read it and rely on word of mouth and hearsay about its contents. Given this lack of understanding about the Orange Book, I’m going to coin an equivalent corollary to Godwin’s Law – when somebody uses the phrase “Orange Booker” (or related phrases like “Orange Tories”) in a debate about the Lib Dems, then they have lost and no further rational debate can occur. That’s a bit of a bold statement, so I’m now going to attempt to justify it.
First off, there’s the argument about numbers. The shock statistic is that four of the five original Lib Dem cabinet members in the Coalition Government (Laws, Clegg, Huhne, Cable) were contributors to the book. Clearly this is a right-wing stitch-up! However, Clegg and Huhne also contributed to Reinventing The State, along with other Government ministers like Lynne Featherstone, so this argument doesn’t really stand up – even assuming you can draw statistically significant conclusions from a sample size of five.
Secondly, there’s the argument about actual content. The Orange Book is about how “classical” liberalism, liberalism around markets and competition to improve efficiency, can be used to deliver social liberalism. That’s not unrestrained Thatcherite free-market thinking – that would involve market economics as an end in itself, rather than a means. To demonstrate this, I’m going to quote from the introduction and first chapter. Sure, it’s selective quotation, but it will provide evidence to support my argument, and that’s the starting point for a debate.
I’m not saying that I support the Orange Book in its entirety. I certainly don’t agree with all of its claims and conclusions. But we should treat it, like any discussion on how best to achieve a Liberal society, as a basis for discussion, not use it as a straw man to bludgeon dissent and make misleading claims about the party and its leadership. We need more rational debate about its arguments and conclusions.
Introduction (Paul Marshall)
As we enter a new century […] there is a good argument that Liberalism, and the Liberal Democrat Party, will be more attuned to the aspirations of an educated and self-confident citizenship than either of the outworn creeds of socialism or conservatism.
David Laws is thus able to use economic liberal principles to deliver social liberal goals. Indeed, the chapters reviewed so far all draw on what might be called ‘classic Liberalism’, demonstrating just how much the traditions of economic and political liberalism are relevant to contemporary problems. Other issues tackled in the book, such as family policy, pensions and penal reform, are more challenging and the solutions proposed draw on later strands of the Liberal tradition, notably the thinking of T. H. Green, Hobhouse, Hobson and, more latterly, Sir William Beveridge.
Indeed, J. A. Hobson actually used the idea of citizenship to distinguish Liberalism from socialism: ‘Liberalism will retain its distinction from socialism in taking for its chief test of policy the freedom of the individual citizen, rather than the strength of the state.’
Reclaiming Liberalism: A Liberal Agenda for the Liberal Democrats (David Laws)
The confusion about means and ends was only exacerbated in the 1980s by the Conservative Party’s decision to embrace the language, and some of the substance, of economic liberalism in their economic policies – which put competition, choice, the private sector and the market mechanism back on the centre stage. Since the embrace of this agenda by Margaret Thatcher and her government was not combined with a social liberal agenda of extending real opportunity and freedom to everyone in society, but was merely linked to cutting taxes to give choice to a majority, it was wrongly concluded by some Liberals that economic liberalism must intrinsically be part of a right-wing Conservative agenda rather than a traditional Liberal commitment.
A key question for the Liberal Democrats is to what extent we can draw on our heritage of economic liberalism to address some of the current problems in public service delivery. This categorically does not mean rejecting the social liberalism agenda, as some Liberal Democrats seem wrongly to fear. Economic liberalism does not mean shedding Liberal values in order to pick up Tory votes. The challenge instead is to ask to what extent we can utilise choice, competition, consumer power and the private sector to deliver a better deal for those on low incomes, as well as for those who can already fend for themselves.
I could have done more quotes, but I’ve been hanging on to a borrowed copy of the book for far too long now and need to return it to its rightful owner. But I hope this helps dispell some of the hysteria around the Orange Book, and lets us debate the ideas of economic liberalism as a means to social liberalism, like mature Liberal Democrats.