Back in 1928, publication of The Yellow Book – the report of a party inquiry “Britain’s Industrial Future” – provided the basis for Lloyd George’s 1929 general election programme “We can conquer unemployment!”. It put the party firmly in the camp of an interventionist economic strategy, with John Maynard Keynes as its intellectual lodestar. With the Great Depression ranging, the party firmly rejected laisser-faire liberalism.
Come 2004 and the Orange Book -subtitled Reclaiming Liberalism and edited by David Laws and Paul Marshall – challenged what some were calling nanny-state liberalism. It promoted choice and competition and argued that the Liberal Democrats needed to return to an older heritage, to ‘reclaim’ economic liberalism.
Since then, the term ‘Orange Book liberals’ has come to denote those seen as on the right of party, comfortable in a coalition with Conservatives. That said, many of the actual contributors – including Vince Cable, Chris Huhne, Susan Kramer and Steve Webb – would no doubt contest that stereo-typing of their views.
Fast forward to today, and the condition of our country and the challenges we face are markedly different to a decade ago. Following the global economic slowdown – triggered by a financial crash due in part to light regulation – those arguing for less state oversight have gone strangely quiet. With the defining feature of public services now one of cuts and deficit reduction, few are still arguing that choice and competition are the most important political or economic priorities.
However this is not a call for a return to Yellow Book liberalism. The global economy today – and Britain’s role within it – is fundamentally different to 85 years ago. Population has risen from just 2 billion then to reach 7 billion today, and rising. Demand for raw materials, energy and food is pushing up prices. Indeed a barrel of crude oil is nearly $100 today, compared to $20 as recently as when the Orange Book was written.
In short, the finite limits of our planet are better understood – as are the threats to life as we know it from severe weather and rising sea levels. The question now is how Britain, a small economy dwarfed by the likes of Brazil, India and China, can prosper and share any fruits of economic growth fairly.
The party – and our country – needs a new approach: one based on building a sustainable economy and a fair society by placing respect for the natural world at the centre of our policy making. What that vision of green liberalism looks like is set out in The Green Book – published next week.
The Green Book: New Directions for Liberals in Government, edited by Duncan Brack, Paul Burrall, Neil Stockley and Mike Tuffrey, is published by Biteback.
This article first appeared in LibDemVoice