On June 24, a group of Liberal Democrats gathered in central London to mark the tenth anniversary of the publication of a book that very few voters have probably even heard of – but whose effect on British politics has been profound.
The Orange Book was hugely controversial in the party at the time of its original publication, so much so that the launch party had to be cancelled. But the publication of The Orange Book marked a major shift in the Liberal Democrats’ ideology, one that would decisively move the centre of British politics.
Under the leadership of Charles Kennedy, the party had staked out a commitment to higher taxation and investment in public services, a strategy that many thought placed them to the left of Labour at the 2005 general election.
It was this strategy that provoked the ire of the The Orange Book’s editors, Paul Marshall and David Laws. In a provocative opening essay, Laws argued that the Liberal Democrats had neglected their party’s pro-market economic liberal tradition, and had instead lapsed into a policy mindset little better than “soggy socialism”; they had placed too much faith in the power of the state to improve people’s lives, and too little faith in the power of choice and competition. The Orange Book, Laws wrote, was an attempt to reassert these economically liberal traditions.
In truth, the Orange Book was rather less radical and rather more pluralistic than its editors claimed at the time. But its call for a return to economic liberalism did have an impact on Lib Dem policy in the years after 2005.
Fight for your right
In 2007, the party abandoned its longstanding pledge to introduce a new 50p tax rate on the highest earners, and the following year called for a reduction in the overall burden of taxation. This was a far cry from the Lib Dem manifestos of previous elections, which had all revolved around a high tax-high spend model of service provision.
Around the same time, many senior Liberal Democrats began to display a greater enthusiasm for diversity of provision within the welfare state. In January 2008 Nick Clegg used his first speech as leader of the party to call for the introduction of “free schools”, and urged the “vast monster of Whitehall” to withdraw from the day-to-day running of public services.
Others began to call for similar policies, with both Laws and Cable using their contributions to a collection of essays for the IPPR to call for experiments with the extension of consumer choice and quasi-market mechanisms into health and education. This was another big break with the party’s 2005 line, when the manifesto had struck a sceptical tone about the potential for choice in public services.
This shift towards economic liberalism had a major impact on the subsequent coalition with the Conservative Party. While the coalition itself might have been the product of pure parliamentary arithmetic, the changing policy profile of the Party after 2006 meant that by 2010 a Liberal-Conservative coalition was substantially more viable than it had been for decades.
If the Orange Book’s “economic realism” persuaded many Conservatives to take the Liberal Democrats seriously, it also cleared common policy ground for the two parties to share.
While the 2010 coalition agreement was hardly a sure thing before the election returns forced the parties to forge it, their convergence had begun years earlier. A 2008 paper from CentreForum noted a “significant congruence of opinion” between the two parties, driven in large part by a shared critique of an over-mighty state and shared instincts on the potential for reform of public services. For the first time in recent history, there was shared ground between Liberals and Conservatives.
Of course, not all the policies mooted in the Orange Book have matured into political reality. Vince Cable, for example, might have made good on his promise to privatise the Royal Mail, but he’s made little progress with his plan to abolish the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills, which he now runs.
Nevertheless, the Orange Book liberals have left their mark with Coalitions policies such as free schools and the pupil premium. And seven of the nine original contributors to the book serve or have served in ministerial roles; an eighth (Marshall) serves as a non-executive board member at the department for education.
For a book that couldn’t even sustain a launch party, the Orange Book’s legacy is very momentous indeed.