The Orange Book Delusion

The enduring irritation about the Orange Book is not its content, which was broadly uncontentious, but the mythical book which everyone who never read it imagines exists.

So once again my heart sinks when I read Nick Assinder claim:

In his first major speech since winning the job, Mr Clegg has pretty much adopted the agenda set out in the controversial Orange Book, authored by party frontbencher David Laws and others (including Mr Clegg himself) in 2004.

On one level, that is correct; as correct as it is banal. Most of the chapters in the Orange Book do little other than recite existing party policy, with a perhaps a slight difference in emphasis. Very few Lib Dems disagree with the notion that social and economic liberalism both have important roles to play, neither the economic liberals behind the Orange Book nor the social liberals behind Reinventing the State. In that respect, the Orange Book failed to move us forward. You might just as well argue that both Kennedy and Campbell “adopted” the Orange Book agenda.

The real issue is to what extent Clegg has moved in a David Laws direction. The answer to that is, he most certainly has. But adopted the agenda set out in David Laws’ chapter on health? Nope. Adopted Laws’ pugnacious stance in his chapter on liberalism? Quite the opposite. Given that the speech was about public services and philosophy and Laws’ chapters were the main ones on both, these facts matter quite a lot.

This isn’t a debate about a book, it is a debate about a general direction. And if that debate is to be at all meaningful, it should focus more on practicalities than principles: this isn’t an Oxford Union debate. As it stands, I broadly welcome the stance laid out by Nick Clegg on Saturday; I remain deeply sceptical about health insurance. So does that make me an Orange Booker or not?

Perhaps one day someone will publish the definitive book on social liberalism. The Orange Book was not it. I do wish people would stop waving it in my face and actually read it.


  1. time has elapsed and many things happened, but I recall the Orange book when I was living in London. just out of curiosity, to what extent was Vince Cable involved in it?

    anyway, as other readers of your blog are already aware, I’m unpolitely cross-posting the finest British liberal blogs because I aim to link them to mine. so I invite you to visit me and link me back if you like. ciao!

  2. The mirror image to the “Orange Book delusion” is the mythical “left wing Liberal Democrat activist” who we are told hates the idea of choice and wants all public services to be rigidly state controlled. We heard a lot about this mythical activist in the leadership election, and s/he gets regularly bashed by the press and by some senior members of the party who want to look good in the press. Yet I’ve never met anyone who actually fits this stereotype, certainly not amongst real LibDem activists i.e. people who do the party’s donkey work on the ground.

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