The latest issue of the Economic Affairs journal contains a number of articles discussing the effect The Orange Book has had on the Liberal Democrats since its publication eight years ago. There are articles by CentreForum’s Tim Leunig and by one of the editors of the book, Paul Marshall, among others. Perhaps most noteworthy, though, is a piece by David Laws – the other of the book’s editors – which “examines the origins and impact of the book, and sketches out future directions for policy development”.
Here are some highlights.
First, Laws discusses why he and Paul Marshall thought the book necessary:
We believed that there were two reasons for such a volume: firstly, to showcase what we considered to be the undoubted talents of the newer generation of Lib Dem MPs and MEPs. Secondly, we both shared a frustration about the existing policy prospectus of the party in many areas. We were proud of the liberal philosophical heritage of our party. But we both felt that this philosophical grounding was in danger of being neglected in favour of no more than ‘a philosophy of good intentions, bobbing about unanchored in the muddled middle of British politics’ (Marshall and Laws, 2004, p. 42). We wanted to ‘reclaim’ our party’s liberal heritage. We felt that the Liberal Democrats had moved too far away from the small ‘l’ ‘liberal’ inheritance of the party, particularly in relation to economic policy and our attitude to public service reform. Bluntly, we believed that the Lib Dems were not sufficiently liberal.
He then talks about the influence the book had after publication:
The book seemed to be selling well, no doubt lifted by all the controversy. But the Party’s Chief Executive, Lord Rennard, joked to me that it was he who was buying up all the available copies, to store them away safely in his garage! Controversial The Orange Book might have been, but there is no doubt it was also influential. By challenging the existing assumptions in theparty, it created much more space for radical thinking. And it encouraged many liberals who had hitherto been frustrated and depressed by the party’s policy messages. While many of the new generation of MPs had their own differing attitudes to proposals in the book, there is no doubt that the more influential MPs were moving policy in a liberal direction. On economic policy, Vince Cable, Ed Davey, Chris Huhne, Nick Clegg, Jeremy Browne, Norman Lamb, Susan Kramer and I were all strongly liberal. On public service reform, the picture was less clear cut, and the forward momentum relied upon a smaller group, which fortunately included the future leader, Nick Clegg.
Here’s what the paper says on how the book paved the way for the current coalition:
The Orange Book was not written in order to make a Lib Dem-Conservative coalition possible, but without the policy changes which the book and its authors anticipated, it is much more difficult to imagine the present coalition being formed and sustained.
The final part of Laws’s essay looks at the future of the Orange Book agenda, first on the economic side:
Firstly, we must keep the faith with economic liberalism, notwithstanding the problems in the global economy since 2007. Free market capitalism, including competition, consumer power and private sector innovation offer the best prospect for increasing wealth and reducing poverty and poor living conditions – including in the developing world.
The state’s direct role in the economy should continue to decline, with the transfer of assets such as Royal Mail into the private sector, and with further action to restrain public expenditure. But at some stage, the real cuts in public spending will need to come to an end, as public sector pay pressures rise, and as we ensure that there is proper funding for services such as health and education, as well as to meet emerging demographic pressures.
But even after the existing fiscal consolidation, state spending will account for some 40% of GDP, a figure that would have shocked not only Adam Smith, Gladstone and J.S. Mill, but also Keynes and Lloyd George. The implication of the state spending 40% of national income is that there is likely to be too much resource misallocation and too much waste and inefficiency. The liberal ambition should be for long-term total public spending growth to be restrained at below the trend rate of growth of the economy – this probably means decent real growth of health, education and pensions spending, offset by most other areas of public spending shrinking over time as a share of GDP.
And on personal liberalism:
On the agenda of personal liberty, there is no cause for complacency. The ‘meddling state’ has been on the forward march in Britain, and there is still much to do to free citizens from well-intentioned but often unnecessary or counter-productive interferences in individual liberty. The present government is seeking to pursue this de-regulation agenda, and it should do so while ensuring that individuals are still protected from arbitrary abuses of power. In other respects, people are clearly much freer from repression and prejudice than was the case just a few decades ago. But there are difficult and controversial areas in need of reform, such as the debate over ‘assisted dying’, where public opinion is considerably in advance of that in the political parties. In a liberal society, the test is not, of course, whether a ‘national consensus’ in such areas can be secured, but whether the state is entitled to interfere with individual powers of determination and expression, and what safeguards need to be in place.
This is just a snapshot of the issues discussed in the piece – also discussed are NHS, welfare and education reform as well as how the Orange Book agenda wishes to reduce inequalities of opportunity. The full piece (as well as the other articles mentioned) can be read here (subscription required).
* Nick Thornsby is Thursday Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs here.