Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Me Vs Stephen Tall: An Open Letter About (Oh Joy!) The Orange Book

Stephen Tall today celebrates the tenth anniversary of the much-maligned, much-magnified and in my view surprisingly dull Liberal Democrat essay collection The Orange Book with a provocative article: “Why looking back on the 2005 Lib Dem manifesto depresses me. And why The Orange Book means the 2015 manifesto will be better.” So…

Dear Stephen, you’ll be delighted to know that you’ve provoked me into thinking (and so much that it would be overdoing it a bit to submit this as a comment to you). You may be less delighted to read that I didn’t agree with very much you said…

I might summarise your article as saying ‘The Orange Book came up with some new ideas and provoked lasting debate in the Liberal Democrats, while the party’s 2005 Manifesto was largely coasting along on old policies and not very interesting*’. I’d mostly agree with that – which shows the problem with short summaries, as I mostly don’t agree with your article, and where for me you fall down fatally is in basing all your arguments on short or partisan summaries rather than at any stage examining the documents themselves.

*[Though some might ask which of those two is more useful for a political party to campaign on in a General Election.]

It’s terribly tempting to demonstrate that today’s article isn’t up to your usual standards by cutting and pasting your own words: individually, most of the criticisms are defensible. Collectively, it’s shockingly lazy and lacks all credibility except when based on hindsight.

But I’ll provide some of the context you don’t instead.

My Own Biases and My Review of The Orange Book

I’ll start with a little about my own biases. I read both The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism and Freedom, Fairness, Trust: The Liberal Democrat 2005 General Election Manifesto when they were new; I’ve not read either in any detail for a few years. In my much more active and much less ill past, I spent a few years as a ferocious critic of the Lib Dem policymaking process, getting more amendments passed by Conference than anyone save the party’s Federal Policy Committee… Then spent about a dozen years as a directly elected member of the party’s Federal Policy Committee, including some as its Vice-Chair, trying to write my amendments in at source rather than from the outside, and including work on three General Election Manifestos, of which the 2005 one was the last and in my view the least interesting (or most honed, for campaigning purposes).

One of my first substantial articles I wrote on starting this blog in early 2006 was what I think of as an even-handed review of The Orange Book (your mileage may vary). You can read it here in full, but here’s another partisan précis. I didn’t see it as anything like the coherent package it would suit its admirers and detractors to be; I thought its timing was a deliberate and cynical attempt to advance its authors rather than to advance its ideas; I praised David Laws much more than some of its contributors; I thought some chapters dull, silly or disturbingly authoritarian, but most in the Lib Dem mainstream; and I thought two chapters were absolutely crucial. One of them was by David Laws, defining Liberalism, which I said was well worth a read, mostly interesting, and wholeheartedly Liberal – with some significant caveats. The other was by Paul Marshall, who in your article comes across as your main source for framing both documents, and his introductory chapter was one of the most leaden failures in any book on Liberalism I’ve ever read.

In The Orange Book’s defence, the authors did at least get their fingers out and try to come up with some big ideas – and whether it’s truth or legend, they did win a reputation for setting off debate. That’s no mean feat, though I criticised crucial writers for “leaving [their] philosophical innovation stalled somewhere around 1908”. To be fair, although poor health gets in the way, it is also true that I’ve not only failed to launch the big idea for the party I keep meaning to, but that its philosophical innovation arguably hails from 1859. So the most remarkable thing about The Orange Book is that they did it, and then managed to get lasting attention for it.

Either way, when it comes to The Orange Book: Rewriting History, I was around for that history and require more than Paul Marshall’s highly spun hindsight as the sum total of evidence.

The Orange Book, the 2005 Manifesto and the Context

Stephen, you quote glowingly a speech by Paul Marshall long after the fact in which he puts down the 2005 Manifesto and praises his alternative by highly selective presentations of each. Let me provide a little more revealing context.

I called The Orange Book an alternative manifesto because in its timing and in its introduction (to say nothing of the editors’ spin all over the press) that is precisely how it was promoted. So it’s not unreasonable to make some direct comparisons. Way back when I reviewed The Orange Book myself, I said that Paul Marshall’s introduction was the weakest single chapter: a dully written and incoherent attempt to make an alternative manifesto of a series of disparate essays (to the obvious embarrassment of some of its authors), Mr Marshall showed more effectively than any other Lib Dem just how difficult it is to write a manifesto, because his attempt at one was so pitiful.

Not only was The Orange Book a shambles as an alternative manifesto, it was utterly useless in every regard (save to our enemies) as any basis for the actual manifesto. It was published to coincide with the party’s own pre-manifesto that was the culmination of two years’ consultation. I mean, how much “foresight” was that? Any ideas in The Orange Book, good or bad, could only be portrayed as ‘splits’ and completely useless as contributions. Imagine what the current manifesto co-ordinator – David Laws, I think his name is – would say if you were to publish an alternative manifesto in Autumn this year when his own carefully negotiated version had already been printed and circulated to every Conference representative? Had The Orange Book been published either a year earlier or a year later, it would have been timed to make a genuine contribution to ideas and been the target of far less opprobrium. In context, deliberately timed to get attention rather than to advance its ideas, it wasn’t taking part in a debate. It was merely willy-waving.

Then there’s the Manifesto itself. I’m sure you’ve read both the 2005 Manifesto and The Orange Book, but your article gives the impression that you’re taking Paul Marshall’s skimpy press releases as the entire basis of your critique of one and praise for the other. Well, I’ve said what I thought of Mr Marshall’s introduction to The Orange Book: now for the Manifesto, which I also read in full (many times, back then, as I was one of the many with a hand in writing it). Was it unambitious? Yes, in some places it was. There was a drive to cut down the length and the promises of 2001 and 1997, each of which I thought were more interesting manifestos, and I was exasperated at how hard I had to fight to get even a tiny box about our ideals into it, but as for “unrealistically high spending commitments”?

It turned out some of them were, in hindsight. In context, they weren’t. Like the 2001 and 1997 manifestos, they were based on months of hard arguing and hard costings to cut down our promises to what we could afford – as our (and the IFS’) understanding of the general economic framework went at the time. No other party bothered. It turned out that the general economic framework of the time was a bloated absurdity that vanished in a puff of debt, but no-one knew that yet. Let me turn back to sage, prophet and incredibly boring wordsmith Paul Marshall: hilarious that he now attacks that manifesto for “unrealistically high spending commitments” when his own alternative manifesto took exactly the same general economic framework as truth (just swapping what turned out to be “unrealistic” tax cuts for the spending, all based on an understanding of wealth we didn’t have).

One of my key criticisms of The Orange Book – unlike Mr Marshall’s conveniently partial claims today, from before the financial crash – was in its flagship approach to financial markets, one of the less convincing arguments written by David Laws. I wrote:
“He mentions opposition to monopoly and 1930s market failure, but that brief aside merely draws attention to this as his biggest blind spot. While many Liberal policies over the years have been directed against private monopoly, he fails to address other monopolies than state ones, or what to do in the event of other market failure – as well as raising the question, if he admits the market failed in 1930s (and that’s the only point at which he’s prepared to admit any such thing), does he have any alternative answer to such catastrophic failures or would he just have shut his eyes and hoped it would go away?”
Which, though ‘I told you so’ is never very appealing, is why The Orange Book had no predictions and no solutions when a massive market failure inevitably came along all over again.

Neither did the 2005 Manifesto, you might rightly point out (though you didn’t, merely implying by elision that it lacked the foresight that The Orange Book had, and which I’ve just noted that it didn’t). What the Manifesto did have was a lot more than the ten points you published as if they were the Manifesto in its entirety. I’ve read through your article twice and I still can’t believe you’re writing as if that’s all there was, and certainly as if it was all you’d read. That’s bizarre, because you link to the whole thing, which sets out the costings right at the front and then has 38 more pages than the one you present as if it was the whole thing.

What Was the Point of the Ten-Point Plan?

Ironically, after a two-year consultation process in which the Manifesto was written between the Leader’s team, the Federal Policy Committee and the Parliamentary Spokespeople, the ten-point list was presented at the last minute by the Campaigns Department as a fait accompli, and none of the people who’d written the full Manifesto liked it. It was literally given to the FPC at the final meeting (again, after two years) to sign off the final draft of the Manifesto, and when FPC members started to move amendments – this one’s not a priority, this one doesn’t get across what the policy means, this one’s actively misleading, and so forth – we were told that we couldn’t change a single word because the posters had already been printed. So rather than a representative summary, even, of a far longer document, this list was something cobbled together in haste by the Campaigns Department without consultation because for the first time in any election the party literally had more money than it knew what to do with, as a very large donation (best not to say whose, in retrospect) had come in long after the local spending caps had come into force and so the only thing left to spend it on was posters.

I didn’t think they were very good, but whether they were or they weren’t, Stephen, what they certainly were not was the full Manifesto.

So that’s the context of the time. If you want to make up your own mind, the 2005 Liberal Democrat General Election Manifesto is here, The Orange Book is… Hey, where are all these libertarian pirates putting bootleg pdfs of it online? Well, I bought and read a copy, anyway, and you can still buy it at full price long past its sell-by date and bore yourself silly typing out long chunks to support your case. Just don’t make up your own mind on the basis of toytown spin and abuse from either side.

The Orange Book – The Legacy?

I wasn’t at Centre Forum’s meeting this week to – what? Celebrate? Commemorate? Build on? Bury? – The Orange Book, but I’d be fascinated to hear what people had to say, and to what extent that was based on the book itself, or merely on the legend. Stephen, you seem to be firmly a champion of the legend, and so your most interesting paragraph is your last, despite its assertions not being based on anything in the rest of your text:
The Orange Book helped wake up the party, stimulating a much better quality of debate across the spectrum of views. Without The Orange Book, it’s doubtful we’d have the Social Liberal Forum. Without SLF, Liberal Reform wouldn’t exist. I like dialectic in political debate and the challenge and counter-challenge which often (not always, but often) ratchets up standards. Certainly it gives me confidence that our 2015 manifesto will be a marked improvement on its 2005 version.”
I’m not convinced that it did. If anything, the self-indulgent timing of The Orange Book’s publication harmed its case and set back debate in the party. Most of it wasn’t of very good quality anyway. But I’m prepared to go along with your conclusion that it helped factionalise the Liberal Democrats into opposing teams shouting vituperate caricatures of each other – which is, obviously, always a sign of “a much better quality of debate”. Personally, I find both the self-identified “Orange Bookers” and the self-identified “Social Liberal Forum” and others depressing, lazy and unambitious for Liberalism – as well as each far smaller within the party than their self-importance would suggest. I agree that dialectic, debate and challenge and counter-challenge can ratchet up standards, but if carried out mostly by organised factions it can also lead to groupthink, entrenched positions and a lazy, never-ending exchange of misrepresentation instead of a thousand positive ideas blooming.

So here’s my own caricature: rather than arguments about the basis of Liberalism, what we all stand for and how we can inspire more people with it, much internal debate has become a values-free mud-fight about short-term economics, where one side is mean (but against debt) and the other generous (except to future generations), both say they are the only true Liberals while saying little recognisably Liberal, and neither has much to say that appeals to me.

Once again, my favourite contribution to Mark Pack’s “What do the Liberal Democrats Believe?” is on the basic conviction that unites social and economic Liberals:
“All POWER (be it government, business or other people) can both PROTECT and THREATEN LIBERTY.
“Economic and Social Liberals put different emphasis on the BEST DEFENCES and the BIGGEST BULLIES.”
Stephen, what would you say that unifies rather than divides, and yet remains interesting? That’s the sort of inspiration I hope for from the 2015 Manifesto.

Yours always in hope, despite curmudgeonliness


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When The Orange Book appeared at home, I asked my wife why we had "this filth" in the house.

Of course it isn't that it contains no good ideas. From memory, the bit by Vince Cable was interesting.

But the problem is that Laws and the group around Clegg cherry picked the unambitious and anti-state bits.

As a fellow member of the parliamentary research team, Laws was on a mission to collect and promote for central use only eye-catching ideas that didn't cost much - that reinforced the message that the state could be smaller, and that didn't scare people by sounding too socially progressive.

So prison reform (I was legal affairs researcher), which I pointed out could save money, wasn't of much interest to that crowd.

In retrospect I think Clegg's election, and the coalition deal, was a coup d'etat - from this perspective, by people who'd only read their own chapter in The Orange Book, and not bothered too much with other people's.

Eduardo Reyes
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