Kevin Hickson’s volume, The political thought of the Liberals and Liberal Democrats since 1945, may be a short volume from an academic publisher with an academic book price tag to boot (look out for cheaper second-hand copies) but its contributors include many political practitioners. With Vince Cable, Steve Webb, David Howarth , Richard Grayson and Duncan Brack amongst them, this book has a very strong representation of people at the coalface of policy making rather than simply those who know of it only in theory.
As Hickson points out in the book’s introduction, the policies of the Liberal Democrats – even more so than other aspects of the history of the party and its predecessors since 1945 – have had very little coverage in books, an omission which this volume sets out to remedy and which political fortunes in the year after the book’s publication has made all the more useful a task to tackle.
However, the book suffers from two principle defects – only one of which is outside of the editor and contributors’ control. The one outside their control is how the rapid pace of political developments since the book’s appearance in 2009 (and some pieces in it were written earlier) has put into focus areas of policy that the book barely touches on.
Questions such as who should provide public services (the state or a range of other organisations), the role of social mobility, whether power should be devolved to councils or to other local bodies and the relative merits of investing in early years or higher education are not new to the Liberal Democrats or Liberals, but they have traditionally played only a small role in internal policy debates. As a result, the book is very light in discussing such issues, even though the current political situation puts them (or perhaps more accurately, should put them) at the centre of policy discussions in Liberal Democrat circles.
That in large part is bad luck with the timing of the publication. But the other significant defect is the book’s structure, which is also its biggest assumption: breaking the story of Liberal / Liberal Democrat policy into three strands of classical liberalism, social liberalism and the ‘centre’.
As Hickson himself concedes, “It would be a mistake to subsume all political discussion in the Liberals and the Liberal Democrats to such a distinction” as there are both issues which cut across this distinction (including constitutional reform) and ones which do not really fit into it at all (including environmental ones). Given the importance of political reform and the environment to the modern Liberal Democrats, and the Liberals for many years previously, these sorts of exceptions highlight just how limiting that structure is.
In part the book tries to deal with this by adding in the category of ‘centrists’, that is those who do not fit neatly into one or other of the camps. This is only a patch job to the book’s structure, however, as is reflected in the tangled choice of contributors for the last three chapters of the book.
It is Vince Cable who contributes the concluding classical liberal chapter (though it is also he who in recent years has called for large scale nationalisation and regulation in the financial sector). Fellow Orange Book contributor Steve Webb is also there – but as the author of the concluding social liberal chapter, and just to add to the cross-over complexities it is worth remembering that in addition to the Orange Book, he also contributed to the social liberal book Reinventing the State. One of the editors of that book, David Howarth, also contributes a concluding chapter – but not on social liberalism. Instead he gets the centrist chapter, with this tangled web showing how limited is the usefulness of such labels are in explaining people’s views or classifying policies.
Indeed, Richard Grayson’s chapter on social liberalism argues that the distinction between social and economic liberals has little justification save on the question of the extent to which “the state should wage war on economic inequality in order to advance freedom”. Grayson approvingly quotes Hobhouse’s dictum that “liberty without equality is a name of noble sound and squalid result” and Michael Ignatieff’s comment that “freedom is empty so long as we are trapped in physical necessity”.
After Grayson traces some deep roots for social liberalism in the party, he warns “of overstating social liberal influence on the 1945-79 Liberal manifestos” and instead sees the 1992 manifesto as the one where “the agenda began to shift in a more overtly social liberal direction”, with a further move in the social liberal direction following Charles Kennedy’s election as leader in 1999. Even then, he points out, social liberals were muted in arguing for higher taxes for their redistributive impact, instead concentrating on their role in raising funds to pay for policies – a role that became less important as Labour’s high spending moved the debate on from one about how to spend more.
Grayson’s chapter therefore both shows the limitations of the book’s approach, but also its strength – for as with his piece, there are some very strong individual contributions in the book that expertly map parts of the policy history of the Liberals and then Liberal Democrats.
The quality of the contributions – and the sympathy of the authors towards the party – inevitably varies. Even the most sympathetic sharply illuminate issues the party has struggled with, as when Duncan Brack illustrates a continuing tension in the party with his quote from Richard Acland (a Liberal MP who left to found his own party) who criticised the Liberal Party saying: “Mention any injustice and it’s ‘the government will put that right’; mention any restriction imposed by government on anyone and it’s ‘we’ll set the people free’”.
The quality of some of the individual contributions make up for the book’s overall structural problem. The way that political debate has moved on to issues largely neglected in the book makes it better as a history book than as a prompt for current policy ideas, save that it highlights how much serious policy thinking on those neglected areas is needed.