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January 20, 2006

So what does The Orange Book actually say? The Orange Book - (Eds.) Paul Marshall and David Laws

Posted by Harry Phibbs

The Orange Book
edited by Paul Marshall and David Laws
Pp. 224. London: Profile Books, 2004
Paperback, 8.99

I read The Orange Book, a collection of essays by Lib Dem politicians, when it first came out in the summer of 2004. It was largely ignored at first because the lobby correspondents flitting about Westminster had little interest in the Lib Dems and still less in ideology. Like everyone else I had got used to the Lib Dems positioning themselves as a less liberal more statist alternative to the Labour Government. It was interesting that here was a book which instead offered some policies and ideas less statist than those advanced by the Conservatives. (To refer to Left and Right would make the whole thing even more confusing.)

Let us begin with goldfish.

The previous year's Lib Dem conference voted to ban giving goldfish as prizes at fairs. Thus it was official party policy. But in his Orange Book essay here was the Lib Dem Treasury spokesman and "shadow cabinet" member, David Laws MP, denouncing it as "nanny-state liberalism". He wrote:

If freedom means anything it must surely include the freedom to engage in activities which others may consider unwise. This includes smoking, overeating, not exercising, driving "off road" cars in cities, even winning goldfish. A Liberal society is one where people should be free to "make their own mistakes". The Liberal Democrats must surely be consistently rigorous in applying the principles of personal liberalism in the future.
Laws also calls for a dramatic change in health policy. He proposes a compulsory "national health insurance scheme" which would require everyone to sign up either with the NHS or another insurance provider. The annual fee would be the same and paid for by the state out of income tax. This is what Laws says:
In many continental European countries (often regarded as dangerously left-wing by commentators in this country), a totally different model of health care provision does exist, which does offer citizens greater choice and variety. The model is usually described as representing a "social insurance" approach, where the state funds all health care out of progressive taxation but people can choose between different providers.

In many of these European countries, waiting lists are regarded as an absurd British eccentricity, and the fixation with having only one state provider is regarded as absurdly out of date. The social insurance systems are identified with greater choice and competition for patients, better funding and health outcomes.

This is surely a model which we in the UK could be learning from. Could we not have a more meaningful and adult debate about how to build a health system fit for the 21st century, on the basis of the very principles which underpinned the foundation of the NHS? For example, why not switch from a monopoly NHS system to a National Health Insurance Scheme - with the NHS remaining in place, but as only one of the options available to all citizens?

It sounds like something from the Institute of Economic Affairs, doesn't it? One of the great advantages of the Lib Dems espousing a policy of greater choice in health is that it is harder for people to dismiss as extremist, or uncaring, or designed just to help the rich. Focus groups suggest (or used to suggest before David Cameron's leadership) that this is the objection raised to any Tory health policy even before the policy is seriously looked at.

But one shouldn't get carried away. An insurance based health system is not Lib Dem policy and is not likely to become so whoever wins their election. Often the media talk about "Orange Bookers" as if they are a cohesive faction. In the current Lib Dem leadership race, candidate Chris Huhne and former candidate Mark Oaten are both contributors to The Orange Book. But they wrote two of the most cautious essays. I very much doubt that Chris Huhne would bring in a policy of greater choice in health care or offer the slightest resistance to the tide of EU directives.

Apart from Laws comments on health the most startling material was the willingness of Lib Dem politicians to take a swipe at the EU. Nick Clegg, now the Lib Dem MP for Sheffield Hallam, went so far as to question the Lib Dems uncritical acceptance of everything coming out of the European Union. He argues that power over agricultural, social policy and regional policy should be restored to Westminster. Clegg writes:

Liberal Democrats must urgently explain and explain again that to be pro-European does not require an abandonment of basic critical faculties.
He warns against conforming to a stereotype as:
doctrinaire, fanatical foot-soldiers of the European cause willing to trample all domestic considerations underfoot.
Lib Dem Treasury spokesman Vince Cable argues for a:
tougher, more sceptical approach to European institutions and legislation.
Cable writes that it was the Lib Dems "unimpeachable European credentials":
that enabled the party to "to speak out forcefully against illiberal damaging European measures.
In particular he describes the CAP as:
an economic, environmental and moral disaster.
Cable makes clear that there is far too much regulation.

Sir Menzies Campbell was among those who gave a nervous response to the book's publication. He declared:

The so-called young Turks, some of whom are a bit thin on top, may be setting out a stall and I will be reading it with interest. But the fact that they have set out a stall will not mean that what they say is automatically accepted. They will have to argue it through the party, just as a political party has to argue its case through the country.
One of the pleasing aspects about the outbreak of classical liberalism within the Lib Dems is that previously it had seemed that it had died with the former Liberal Party leader Jo Grimond. In 1980, in one of his last speeches, Grimond caused shock waves in his Party by praising Thatcherism. Grimond declared:
The state owned monopolies are among the greatest millstones round the neck of the economy. Liberals must stress at all times the virtues of the market, not only for efficiency but to enable the widest possible choice. Much of what Margaret Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph do and say is in the mainstream of liberal philosophy.
Not much more of that message was heard in his Party, until The Orange Book was published.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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