UK Politics

Did Lib Dem Orange Book lead to coalition with Tories?

A student fees protestor holds a placard showing a manipulated photo of David Cameron kissing a baby Nick Clegg.
Image caption Many Liberal Democrat voters have expressed frustration at the party's relationship with the Conservatives

The Orange Book, published in 2004, is the unofficial manifesto of the Liberal Democrats' right wing. What has been its influence on both the party's philosophy and its relationship with its coalition partner, the Conservatives?

Its publication passed almost unnoticed before the 2005 general election. But without the Orange Book, the coalition politics of today would not have been possible.

So what was it and how has its influence proved so profound?

The Orange Book was a collection of essays designed to change the Liberal Democrats' political direction decisively.

It was first and foremost about ideas and featured contributions from the rising stars of the party, particularly those identified with the right.

'Insufficiently liberal'

They included Nick Clegg, now the Deputy Prime Minister and Chris Huhne, now the Energy Secretary. Business Secretary Vince Cable and Pensions Minister Steve Webb were also authors.

Like David Laws, the Yeovil MP who jointly edited the Orange Book and was briefly the coalition's chief secretary to the Treasury, the contributors felt frustrated about the emphasis the party placed on its own policies.

These too often talked about the role of the state, they felt, and not enough about the individual and the consumer.

Image caption Leading "Orange Booker" David Laws played a pivotal role in negotiating the coalition deal

"We felt that some of the positions that were being taken were insufficiently liberal.

"The party had lost track of some of its traditions, and we wanted to reassert those strands of liberalism," says David Laws.

The Orange Bookers - as the essay writers became known - also wanted to change the Liberal Democrats' political direction. They were interested in power not eternal opposition.

"We were part of a new generation of MPs who aspired to influence government and potentially become part of it," says David Laws.

However, the Orange Bookers' mission was controversial within the party itself.

Some of their ideas - such as individual insurance to pay for health care - had already been rejected by the party, says Richard Grayson, the Liberal Democrats' former director of policy.

"The overall pitch was that the party was too nanny state. But most members felt it was a noise-off and one that wasn't being made by many people."

'Younger, brighter sparks'

In other parties, though, the reception was different.

David Davis MP, the former Conservative party leadership contender, took the Orange Book seriously from the start.

"It told you where some of the younger, brighter sparks were going in the Liberal Democrats," he says.

Image caption Many of the ideas in the Orange Book were controversial within the party

But what was the view on the Labour side?

Tristram Hunt, the eminent historian and now MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, says the Orange Book represented an end to "feel-good liberalism".

"It's a resuscitation of a long-dead tradition within liberalism," he says.

He argues that, for many, the debate about the proper role of the state had seemed to be settled back in the late 19th Century, after the long Liberal leadership of William Gladstone.

"Then you had the move from classical, Gladstonian Liberalism - a belief in the night-watchman state - to a belief in a more active state as a force for good."

That, says Mr Hunt, led to the social liberalism represented by the great Welsh Liberal reformer David Lloyd George. His People's Budget in 1909 inaugurated both state pensions and death duties on the wealthiest to pay for the new benefit.

However, among today's Liberal Democrats, David Laws argues that the "passion for social justice" which motivated those historic reforms has over-influenced Liberal Democrat thinking in subsequent decades.

"We slipped into a set of thinking which had a bigger role for the state in economic policy than Orange Bookers think right."

From a Tory perspective, David Davis says that the direction of Conservative policy under David Cameron since 2005 has, on issues like crime and terrorism, the environment and economics, brought them closer to Orange Book Liberal Democrats.

By last year's general election "there were pretty sizeable overlaps," he says, which paved the way for the coalition agreement between the two parties.

One of the coalition's most controversial measures - the decision to allow universities to charge sharply increased tuition fees - had originally been opposed by the Liberal Democrats.

'Stockholm syndrome of government'

But David Laws says that opposition was a mistake.

"The tuition fees system has not proven to be an impediment to social justice. The lack of social justice is a consequence of the inequalities of opportunity when people are much, much younger.

"The pupil premium is a much, much, much better way of making Britain a fairer place."

The tuition fees row, however, has underlined the gap between public perceptions of where they thought Liberal Democrats stood on major issues and where their Orange Book leaders are taking the party.

David Davis thinks this could have lasting consequences for the Liberal Democrats as they "grow more sympathetic to Tory opinions and Tory people".

"If they go on television and defend the Conservatives, they will end up believing them. It will be a sort of Stockholm syndrome of government!"

But David Laws is unrepentant about the changes the Orange Book has meant for the Liberal Democrats:

"The party has changed and now the challenge for everybody is to look to the future rather than to re-fight battles from the past."

It is an optimism which may soon take Mr Laws back into the coalition cabinet.

But it is not shared by many of those on the social liberal left of the party - and that may mean any recovery in electoral support for the Liberal Democrats is some way off.

Analysis is on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 21 February at 2030 GMT and Sunday 27 February at 2130 GMT. Listen via the BBC iPlayer or download the programme podcast.

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