Who are the Lib Dems ‘unconventional men (or women) whose mad ideas make us think’?

Andrew Rawnsley, writing in today’s Observer under the surprisingly un-PC title In praise of unconventional men who make us think, sticks up for those iconoclastic thinkers who challenge their parties’ conventional thinking, citing as paragons the Tories’ Steve ‘Big Society’ Hilton and Maurice ‘Blue Labour’ Glasman:

Conventional is not a description you could apply to either of these eclectic thinkers. … There are many big differences between these two men and their philosophies, but something interestingly common to them is anti-statism, a deep antagonism to bureaucracy and managerialism. … It would be a shame if either were to be silenced. All the parties need more provocative thinkers. …

David Cameron has been in professional politics for nearly all of his adult life. So has Ed Miliband. [And Nick Clegg. – Ed.] So have the great majority of the senior politicians of their generation. It has generally made them a cautious, calibrating breed. They need the spark that is brought by people who don’t think of politics just in terms of the latest focus group or polling result.

We need more of these intellectual agitators on both sides of the aisle. There’s a shortage of stirrers who can shake things up a bit and jolt arguments out of ruts. They are often wrong, they can sometimes sound bonkers, but you can say this for Steve Hilton and Maurice Glasman: they make everyone think. Would that there were more people in British politics like them.

Few of us would dispute Mr Rawnsley’s analysis. And yet in reality political parties are notoriously unforgiving of those among their ranks who challenge prevailing orthodoxy, viewing it as a mix of disloyalty and distraction. It is never “the right time”. Until, perversely, an election is lost, nearly always as a consequence of stale thinking.

The Lib Dems are as prone to this as either Labour or Tories. Witness the visceral reaction to the publication seven years ago of The Orange Book, edited by David Laws and Paul Marshall. ‘Orange Booker’ has become a short-hand for ‘a return to classical liberalism’ / ‘an attempt by free-marketeers to take over the party’ (delete acording to preference).

Yet perhaps its most important legacy has been to spark a genuine debate within the party. It prompted a group of thinkers on the ‘social liberal’ wing of the party to band together, initially through the publication by David Howarth and Duncan Brack of Reinventing the State, and then later through the formation of the Social Liberal Forum.

You don’t have to be a fully signed-up ‘Orange Booker’ or ‘social liberal’ — the majority of party members would probably be a mix of both — to welcome this healthy dialectic of constant challenge and counter-challenge.

All of which invites the question laid down by Mr Rawnsley, who are the Lib Dems’ unconventional men or women whose mad ideas make us think? Your nominations, please…

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  • Andrew Suffield 31st Jul '11 - 10:17am

    This would be a good moment to remind people that almost half (4/10) of the authors of “The Orange Book” are also authors of “Reinventing the State”. Stop and think about that for a second.

    Now consider which is more likely: these essays are staking a claim to a side in a fundamental split in thinking, or they are advancing the case for the utility of things mentioned in both wikipedia articles and a belief that they are compatible. (If the split into two sides has any existence today beyond having two wikipedia articles, there’s no evidence for it that I can see)

  • Jeremy Davis 31st Jul '11 - 3:07pm

    I don’t think the Orange Book counts as radical thinking. It did cause a stir but because some people thought that they were being told “we’re all Thatcherites now”, but it wasn’t from mavericks it was from the leadership.

    Radical thinking was banned by the men and women in suits because it was part of the beards and sandals image that made the Liberal Party almost unelectable.

    The “newness” of Red Tories and Blue Labour ideas when many of them were being campaigned for by Liberals thirty years ago is partly the fault of the lazy two-party political reporting in the media (especially the BBC) but it is also because it has been buried by Lib Dem “realists” who thought having some power to do good might be useful.

    Some key popular policies based on simple stand-alone beliefs, for example PR and no tuition fees, got us into government. Unfortunately selling them off for the realists’ dream of useful power hasn’t left us with much in the eyes of the electorate.

    I’m not sure that being fiscally tougher and socially nicer will be enough for a distrusted third party in what remains a two-party constitution. I think there will have to be more genuinely alternative thinking.

  • Daniel Henry 31st Jul '11 - 3:31pm

    Jeremy, have you read the Orange Book?

    I’ve not gotten round to reading it yet (it’s in the post) but I keep getting the feeling that most people judge it by reputation rather than content.

    Didn’t our policy of raising the tax threshold come from it? Have you read David Howarth’s chapter in “reinventing the state”?

    He certainly didn’t interpret the “orange bookers” as Thatcherites?

  • I have to say – the Orange book doesn’t strike me as exactly radical; and most of its authors are leading politicians – exactly the kind of people who can’t engage in really radical thinking in the current political and media environment (as Rawnsley points out, correctly, I think).

    It’s true that the debate and reaction the book sparked has been lively and surely fruitful, but even Laws’s much disputed article on the NHS can hardly be called radical in the sense Rawnsley is looking for in his article.

    To be sure, radical and sometimes wacky thinking for the LibDems is more likely to come from the Conference floor – and I think we should be grateful that we have a process to channel such ideas and give them some serious thought, too. Perhaps it’s healthier anyway to come by radical ideas in this way, rather than having to pay wacky self-important ‘gurus’ who are surely in danger of taking themselves too seriously? I am rather happy that because of their democratic mode of policy-making, LibDems can draw on a deep and colourful resource of creative thinking without having to waste scarce resources on individual ‘gurus’.

  • Maria makes a good point that many of our wackier ideas tend to be aired at conference – LDYS always used to be good for a few ‘stirring it up’ type motions, usually on things like pornography and drugs.

    Tbh, though, I’m not that bothered that we don’t have a prominent figure coming up with brilliant ideas like ‘let’s abolish maternity leave and see what happens’, however facetiously the proposal was intended.

    Vince Cable is IMO a good example of someone who can be a bit radical and ‘out of the box’ without crossing the line into completely loopy territory.

  • Dominic Mathon 31st Jul '11 - 5:39pm

    I like provocative, interesting thinkers like David Boyle and Tim Leunig. People I don’t always agree with but who come up with interesting new ideas and get us all thinking (& debating).

    Among our elected representatives Julian Huppert seems to have taken up Evan Harris’ mantle – and Chris Davies MEP is also (constructively) provocative.

  • “Radical thinking was banned by the men and women in suits because it was part of the beards and sandals image that made the Liberal Party almost unelectable.”

    I think what makes Hilton and Glasman so intellectually unconventional is that their thinking ostensibly goes against the common perception of their Parties. I would argue that the beards and sandals ideas don’t represent radical Liberal Democrat thought because their thinking chimes with the common perception of the party. The most obvious example of a radical Liberal Democrat policy in the vein of Hilton/Glasman would be stronger opposition to the EU, which would be entirely removed from how the public perceives us.

  • In those far off days when anyone could walk in off the street and vote at the Liberal Party Conference (I should add mythical to that as well) there always seemed to be plenty of people around peddling eccentric views. Somewhere I’ve got a pamphlet exhorting the party to work towards an androgynous society. One of the good things about the coalition has been that more people in the party are actually discussing politics – for about the last twenty-five years most people I met only seemed interested in talking about how they won this or that council by-election. I agree with Dominic Mathon that David Boyle is one of the few people in the party who consistently come up with interesting ideas. Perhaps we need the return of the eccentric pamphleteers.

  • I don’t know, Clegg’s approach to leadership certainly seems unconventional in a way, as are his decisions. Such as the decision to negotiate for an AV referendum from the Tories whilst the very fact that he was going into in a coalition with the Tories- the one group of people where there was no support for electoral reform, made the prospect of a favourable outcome doomed from the start, as many people (such as myself) pointed out at the time.

    I think Nick Clegg is very unconventional. He has almost single handedly managed the feat of reducing the projected percentage of the vote for the lib dems from over 30% (pre-election) to the 9% it resides at currently. Not only that- but he tells us that staying in this coalition will gain us credibility and more support than we had previously!

    Certainly an unconventional character in his own way. Not to worry I’m sure he’ll be proven correct in the end- like he has been with everything else.

  • Daniel Henry 31st Jul '11 - 9:30pm

    I think Maria got it spot on in her post.
    I love the idea how our party can draw from a wide range of talent, and given that the grassroots ultimately decide policy through conference motions, there’s potential for a “nobody” to formulate an idea that becomes party policy, compared to other parties who tend to be run from the top.

    I also noticed a few people mentioning Europe here.
    Despite the public perception that we’re blind Europhiles, when discussing in our forums it seems that most of us actually want to reform Europe, especially where centralisation and waste is involved. Unfortunately our image doesn’t seem to reflect this. Not sure whether it’s a lack of reform-policy on our part or whether we’ve just really badly failed to communicate on our vision to reform the EU, but either it needs to be worked on.

    I’d like to invite anyone with access to the LDV forums to check out this topic:
    I’m hoping that someone a bit more knowledgeable on the issue could start a campaign so we can use our grassroots power to improve our policy (and public perception!) on this issue.

  • Grammar Police 1st Aug '11 - 9:31am

    @ Rob “He has almost single handedly managed the feat of reducing the projected percentage of the vote for the lib dems from over 30% (pre-election) to the 9% it resides at currently.”

    And who took the opinion polls to 30% in the first place ;o)

  • LibDemMember 1st Aug '11 - 12:20pm

    Glasman and Hilton are both thinkers. Chris Davies is not a “thinker”. An example of his being “constructively provocative” can be found here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4974808.stm Anyone who writes to a constituent saying: “I hope you enjoying wallowing in your own filth” should be removed from the candidates’ list.

  • David Allen 1st Aug '11 - 6:36pm

    Glasman and Hilton can be described as “unconventional” thinkers because their parties have “conventional” views which the “unconventional” can disagree with. Glasman’s anti-immigration stance can be described as unconventional thinking because he is a Labour member. If he was a Tory, such opinions would just blend boringly in with the crowd.

    Once upon a time the Lib Dems had a “conventional” view that the state should promote fairness and prevent a free-for-all in health and education. To suggest that David Laws’ Orange Book proposal for an insurance-based NHS did not cause consternation at the time, and was not seen as an “unconventional” Lib Dem view, is to rewrite history.

    Well, we don’t have a “conventional” viewpoint any longer. We have fervent campaigners for and against tuition fees, for and against the Lansley NHS, for and against shrinking the state. This makes it rather difficult for anybody to be an “unconventional” Lib Dem.

  • Andrew Suffield 1st Aug '11 - 7:51pm

    He has almost single handedly managed the feat of reducing the projected percentage of the vote for the lib dems from over 30% (pre-election) to the 9% it resides at currently

    The election proved the first of those two numbers to be complete nonsense, so it is reasonable to assume that the second one is also complete nonsense.

  • I’m also with Charlie Brooker – as far as I’m concerned Steve Hilton seems to be full of tossy ideas and his reported aversion to conventional footwear doesn’t impress me much. If he is the person that promoted the big society electoral strategy we should probably give him a medal for losing the Tories an outright election victory, but he shouldn’t be in Number 10, he should be in Clarks.

  • Bob Wootton 2nd Aug '11 - 8:33am

    I have been blogging unconventional ideas for years. But because they do not fit the prevailing world-view or paradigms of other politicians and activists, the ideas have been totally ignored.
    So we will continue to have a dysfunctional, disintegrated governmental regulatory system that is no longer effective.
    Government departments will continue to be “not fit for purpose”. The NHS will continue to crumble; educational standards will continue to fall; the health of individuals will continue to decline.
    If the science of effective organisation was applied to the source of these problems, the problems would be dissolved.

  • Daniel Henry 2nd Aug '11 - 10:30am

    Tell us more about the “science of effective organization”. I’m interested.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Aug '11 - 12:24pm

    Andrew Rawnsley wrote “Conventional is not a description you could apply to either of these eclectic thinkers. … There are many big differences between these two men and their philosophies, but something interestingly common to them is anti-statism, a deep antagonism to bureaucracy and managerialism”, but it seems to me this marks them out as very much conventional.

    Anti-statism has become the dominant ideology, it has held this position for many years now, and so is very much the political convention. I am old enough to remember when socialism was the political convention – when politics was oriented around how socialist you were, those who were not socialist tended to be defensive about their position, people who wanted to appear clever tended to adopt socialist ideas and language, and the way to be seen as a wacky “unconventional” person was to spout out particularly extreme socialist ideas. Now it is the other way round.

    I do not see anything unconventional at all about these two characters. Having an arrogant personal attitude, and a personality which enables one to get away with breaking a few social conventions, while spouting extreme version of current political orthodoxy is the way to get a reputation for being a clever person, it always has been. My own feeling, however, is that it is the mark of a second-rate mind, one whose “cleverness” is really about seeking attention than about deep thought. Rawnsley says these two “make everyone think”. They don’t make me think, they make me yawn. There was a time when anti-statism did make me think, but that has long gone. What would be really unconventional now would be someone who argued the case for big state and/or that bureaucracy and managerialism are good things. I might now agree with them, particularly if the argument took an extremist position on these issues, but wouldn’t it be so different from what has become the convention and therefore thought-provoking if done with some intelligence?

    I am reminded of the classic cry of the teenager: “I want to be different, just like all the others”. There is often this time-lag in ideas, so that what the naive think of as “different” has actually become convention. I am reminded too of former revolutionaries who have been decades in power, still spouting out the old revolutionary slogans, unwilling or unable to see that they have become the establishment they once sought to overthrow. Sometimes it really is stupidity or naivety, but sometimes, particularly when it comes from those in power or advisors to those in power, it is a calculated way to defend that power.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Aug '11 - 12:26pm


    I might now agree with them

    Ouch, that was not a good typo! The word “now” should have been “not”.

  • LondonLiberal 3rd Aug '11 - 1:11pm

    I believe that Nick’s SPAD, Polly Mackenzie, sits next to Steve Hilton. Could her role be to think the unthinkable? I don’t know.

  • Oranjepan – had you just come in from the pub, here? Because I imagine I am not the only one who can’t follow your argument here. Has it anything to do with the issue of who the unconventional Lib Dems are, or whether Glasman and Hilton are or are not unconventional?

    Personally, I think the Grauniad is rather more liberal (or certainly Liberal ) than the Observer these days. The big difference I have seen over the last few years has been the approach to the Iraq war and more generally so-called “liberal interventionism” (ie Blairism, and apparently Cameronism, following the Libya debacle – exam question: Is liberal interventionism neocolonialism?). Most Lib Dems, and the official line, were anti-Iraq war, and profoundly sceptical on the interventionist Blair policies. The Guardian has fairly reliably lined up with Lib Dem thought whereas The Observer has taken a diametrically opposed line. The two papers seem, IMO, to have similar approaches on domestic social and economic issues, and both are keen to highlight both human rights abuses at home and abroad, and environmental problems. The fact that the LD leadership is now considerably less vocal on a whole raft of these issues, and implicitly supports Tory policy, is something different!

  • I am flattered to be compared with David Boyle, who I was about to nominate…

  • david thorpe 8th Aug '11 - 11:46am

    the first thing to say is that blue labour is not really a radical new direction for labour, kier hardie would have had much more in common with blue labour than with new labour……..a better ecxample of a publication which is radical by labour standards is ‘the third way’ in that it genuinely created a new path for that party.
    the tories had keith jospeh and peter jay ploughing a new furrow, a furrow which tahtcher partially follows.
    the orange book was an attempt t oto make the liberal in the classical sense so not a new idea, but some of the articles in it were challenging conventions that the party hold dear.
    one of the things which surprises me most as a member of the lib dems is the amount of time people bring up their length of service in the party as a back up to the valdiity of their arguments, when intellectual liberalism says that arguments base don tradition and heirarchy should be rejected in favour of emprical analysis……i
    do we have radical thinkers? yes
    but the aree usuallyt called scloset toriesd or have the party cosntitution quoted back at them…and a party which does that cannot embrace radical thinking or indeed liberalism

  • I agree, David Thorpe that I bring up my years of service in the Liberals and Lib Dems too much, and I also agree that I should try to argue things from principle more (I assume you are “having a go” at me). I have a couple of reasons why I believe I do that – firstly to try to suggest that it is only a half truth that 19th Century Liberalism was what you have described (and other OB thinkers also) as Classical Liberalism (something like mercantilism, or “globalisation”). Another is to suggest to those who newly style themselves as Liberals that it wasn’t the merger withthe SDP which “imported more economic thinking of the left” into the modern party – it has always held some sway in the Party (certainly all the way back to the 1876 Constitution). Some in the Party now see the SDP as some sort of new import of left ideas, and we must now show our independence of Labour by rejecting ideas from the left. Actually, when merger came about most of those who tooka while to sign up, were those on the radical left of the Libs, Tony Greaves, Michael Meadowcroft (the latter for many years, of course), David Morrish in Exeter(never reconciled with the Lib Dems) etc. The SDP were “the soggies”, a bit centrist.

    I wasn’t quite sure what to make of your last couple of sentences. You are certainly right that we have a number of closet Tories in the Party now – more so, I think than at any other time I can remember. How I see it is that they are hanging on to economic orthodoxy as dictated by ReaganThatchernomics, and as kept alive in Britain by nuLab. I would certainly be interested to hear your analysis of why you think that the economics of the OB is radically different from that?

  • david thorpe 8th Aug '11 - 6:34pm

    @ tim

    the first trhing I want to say is I wasnt havnga go at you specfically. I was referring to people I have met in person,
    The rest of your post is very informative.
    Talking about the 1876 party constituion being left leaning, well was that left leaning by the sdtandards of 1876, or by the standards of now?
    Given that a majority of the oRANGE book people were SDP, the idea that the orange book are dragging the party to the right and away from the left wing sdp is not one that has much crdednec, and I has havew written about in an article on bthis sirte, the liberal party were at the heart of the creation of the welfare state.
    Your points about what the liberals made of the sdp at the time of the mereger is soemthing which I am interested in, given that its before my time in this or any other party, and would love to hear more from you about it.
    I auppose if I am regarded as anything, its as someone on the ‘right’ of the party, but thats because those on the left dont articulate a enw vision, the rold has changed social democrats havent

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