Monday, 13 August 2007

Orange book revisited

Anyone who attempts to understand the different factions within the Liberal Democrats by labeling people "left wing" or "right wing" is going to come to some rather strange conclusions. The reality is far more complicated than that and nothing shows this more clearly than the hysterical response to Orange Book.

It was not as many journalists and party members believe a call for the Liberal Democrats to become more like the Conservatives. Instead it is a demand for a return to more fool full blooded liberalism. Its proposals are far less dramatic than often assumed. Much of it is simply a restatement of existing policy, other parts propose things that could be described as 'left wing."

The one truly contreversial policy (in Liberal Democrat terms) proposed in the whole book is the creation of a national health insurance scheme but even this is hardly earth shattering. After all, it would left intact the principle of health care being free at the point of delivery.

Talking about 'local democracy, local accountability and local innovation' as Ed Davey does in his chapter is about the least contreversial that a Lib Dem can do, Nick Clegg's chapter on Europe is little more than a restatement of party policy and Paul Marshall on pensions is not that different from what Adair Turner proposed.

Mark Oaten's plan for more rehabilitation in prisons, a forunner to his plan to 'abolish all prisons,' would normally be considered 'left wing.' As would Steve Webbs call for more state support for families.

Vince Cable's chapter on the economy was widely trailed as a defence of the free market, which it is up to a point. That is, however, far from being the whole story. Dr Cable is a politician all too aware of the fact that there are nuances in any debate. Though he is broadly a free marketeer he acknowledges the need for state intervention in many circumstances. While suggesting we need to cut red tape, he concedes that there is a need for some, well designed legislation and that in some cases it may need to be extended.

Probably the chapter that has the most influence is Susan Kramer's examination of using market mechanisms to combat climate change, which forshadowed the Green tax switch. I doubt this could be seen as reight wing because the defence of the environment is less a question of left and right but of commonsense.

By now it should be clear that there is little that can painted that out and out right wing. So if it is not about creating a right wing party what is it about? The best indicators can be found in the two chapters written by the editors. They constantly refer to Mill, Gladstone, Beveridge and other liberal luminaries and criticise those deviating from the liberal path. In his introduction David Laws attacks those who engage in 'liberalism a la carte' that is 'willing to tolerate illiberal laws so long as they are well intentioned.' The demand for a clear liberal message is not exclusive to the free market wing of the party and does not deserve to be caricatured as "right-wing."

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