In June of 2004, a bunch of up and coming Liberal Democrats together wrote “The Orange Book”, a publication which had the subtitle “Reclaiming Liberalism”. Within Lib Dem circles, it was highly controversial: most of its ideas and outlook were significantly to the right of your average Lib Dem activist (that not being particularly difficult, as Leon Trotsky was to the right of many of them at the time). It also represents the Lib Dem portion of the future Lib-Con coalition in a very nascent form: of the ten authors who contributed to “The Orange Book”, seven went on to become ministers in the government between 2010 and 2015.
Before I properly kick off here, I should note a couple of things for clarity. One, I worked for and was at one point the Executive Director of CentreForum, the think tank that helped “The Orange Book” come into being (although I began working for it ten years after the book was published). While at CentreForum, we briefly kicked around the idea of an “Orange Book II” to mark the ten year anniversary of the original, something I’m glad in retrospect never came off. I know and have even worked with several of the authors, and still think highly of (almost) all of them for both personal and ideological reasons. In spite of all this, I have tried to re-read “The Orange Book” with as open a mind as I could.
I’ll start with the positives. David Laws’ opening chapter on four cornered liberalism still reads like a call to arms for all liberals; perhaps even more so now, post-Brexit, than in 2004. Susan Kramer’s chapter, detailing why markets and environmentalism should not be seen as enemies, is still as vital as ever. Vince Cable has a lot to say, some of it reasonably good.
Sadly, though, there are things to be said in the negative about “The Orange Book”. No, one of them is not that I’ve realised it’s too right-wing; if anything, it is too mushily Lib Demy in places. Take Ed Davey’s chapter on localism. It means well, but it commits the Lib Dem sin of always automatically equating “more local” with “better”. Ed imagines that devolving myriad competencies to councils will not require a massive restructuring of local government itself, something I strongly feel is not the case. Lib Dems are obsessed with electoral and constitutional reform – why can’t they ever see that if you want people to be governed more locally, then you’ll need a German or Swedish style of structuring local government? Ed does hint that perhaps we should have less councillors who are paid more, but this would be the first baby step, not the revolution.
Some of the chapters unfortunately go on and on with little constructive to actually suggest. In fact, one thing the book could use is a rather brutal edit; almost all of the chapters could be 30% shorter at least while losing nothing vital, and a few of them should have been chopped in half. Some of the chapters, like Clegg’s one on Europe, make me sad, not because they aren’t well written but because events have overtaken them in a rather harsh manner.
However, in spite of all that, “The Orange Book” is still famous for good reason: it is one of the only books I’ve ever read that at least puts forth a coherent idea of what liberalism should look like in practical terms, and that it does it coherently for the majority of its length is to its immense credit. It is still worth a read – you may just want to be prepared to skim a few of the chapters.
While you’re here: I’ve written a new book called “One Last Number”, about what happens when the biggest pop star in the world kills himself live on stage, taking some of his fans along with him. It explores what can and cannot be considered real news in this day and age, and how the splintering we see within social media means we no longer have shared, collective narratives when large scale tragedies occur. Anyway, it’s being published through Unbound, where you have to sell enough advance copies before going to print. If you’re at all interested in “One Last Number”, check it out here:
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