Friday, 12 November 2010

What is an Orange Book Lib Dem?

Students at the demo on Wednesday could be heard shouting "Nick Clegg we know you, you're a blank-blank* Tory too!". Certainly, Mr Clegg looks very comfortable in the coalition. He looks, sounds and dressses like his Tory counterparts and  appears to feel no embarassment at the policies he now has to implement and defend.

Since the election I've heard the label of  "Orange Book" Lib Dems applied to Mr Clegg and some of his fellow coalition enthusiasts. But I was not clear as to what exactly an "Orange Book" Lib Dem might be, although I knew that the Orange Book had been published a few years ago and I suspected it might give some clues to Mr Clegg's political philosophy.  I asked a couple of Lib Dem acquaintances, but they seemed reluctant to discuss or explain what it entails.

It seems that to find the answer, and the cut of Mr Clegg's jib, we have to go back to the history of the Liberal Party, before they adopted the name "Liberal" and were still known as "Whigs". One defining attribute of the mid 19th century Whigs was a commitment to laisses-faire economics, i.e. a belief that markets know best and faith in what Adam Smith called the "hidden hand". This faith led Lord John Russell to become one of the most hated men in Irish history when his Whig administration left the solution of the potato famine to the workings of the "hidden hand", Wikipedia records...
"The new Lord John Russell Whig administration, influenced by their laissez-faire belief that the market would provide the food needed but at the same time ignoring the food exports to England, then halted government food and relief works, leaving many hundreds of thousands of people without any work, money or food."
In other words, in the belief that the markets were supreme and would somehow provide the food that the potato blight had destroyed, the Whigs withdrew government support to the starving population. In modern Tory language, they should "get on their bikes" and find some work... or potatos.

It's what you and I might recognise as a Thatcherite position, but it is in fact a classically Liberal position and it was reached a hundred and fifty years before Margaret Thatcher took power. In the 20th century the Liberals (as the Whigs had become) were squeezed from right and left by the Tories and Labour and they quietly buried their devotion to free markets orthodoxy and posed as a soft left-of-centre party. It was the Conservative Margaret Thatcher who revived liberal economics and turned the Conservatives into a free market party. The Liberals, seeing their legacy revived but rustled by the Tories, stayed on the vague left ground that they had inhabited for the previous 50 years.

Then came Nick Clegg and his cohort, and their determination to revive traditional liberal economic values, as they saw it. The Orange Book is a series of essays by prominent Lib Dems including Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and David Laws. In it they argue for the return to the values of Lord John Russell, and indeed Margaret Thatcher.

So there you have it. Nick Clegg and his closest allies are indeed blank blank* Tories, in the sense of the Thatcherites who converted the Tories to free market economics. There's no difference on economic policy between the Orange Book Lib Dems and the Thatcherite Tories.

Another way to look at: the protesters of 20 years ago could just as truthfully have chanted "Margaret Thatcher we know you, you're a blank blank* Liberal too"....

*they didn't actually chant the words blank blank, you understand....

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