If you take yourself back to 2004 you probably think of Blair, the Olympic games in Athens or the Iraq war. You probably do not think of a gaudishly bright orange book, entitled ‘The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism’, written by a team of young (ish) Liberal Democrat MPs starring Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, and Ed Davey.
Although the ‘Orange Book’ can hardly claim to an absolute page turner, and I’m sure that at no point will it win any Booker Prizes, it is nonetheless a very important book for the Liberal Democrats as it inspired much of their new centrist policy taking them away from the more centre-left approach and the legacy of Ashdown. This new centrist approach focused on an aspirational future, and a modern twist on old liberal ideas. One such example is Vince Cable’s modern adaptation of Economic Liberalism, as he highlights the fine balance to be struck between over-regulating and complete deregulation, and that free trade will only prosper when this balance is struck.
For a while this new twist on liberalism was an absolute success. Nick Clegg and other Orange Bookers managed to propel themselves into giddy new heights of public popularity for the party which was previously known as ‘that other party’, or ‘the party that doesn’t really stand for anything’. Instead they were now the party of ‘Cleggmania’; a party that at times led the polls running up to the General Election. It looked like the Liberal Democrats might control the balance of power in the election, and many even spoke of them potentially becoming the second largest party in the UK.
Although the coalition was heralded as the beginning of a new dawn for the Lib Dems, it turned out instead to be the beginning of a slow and painful death for the Orange Bookers as well as the Lib Dems as a whole. Many of the promises and expectations in the lead up to the election seemed to fall flat in the reality of government, such as the Tuition Fees scandal.
No matter what the reasons behind the Lib Dems’ inability to keep these promises, either as a result of the constraints of coalition, the naivety of politicians who had never had any serious power before or perhaps even that the Lib Dems straight out lied to gain power, these broken promises without a doubt destroyed the Orange Bookers’ reputations as is evident through the devastating outcome of the 2015 General election which saw them reduced to 8 MPs.
This collapse saw the inevitable resignation of Clegg, and a leadership election which saw Tim Farron, a member of the centre-left Beveridge Group, taking on the leadership role. This could potentially have instigated the rebirth of the Lib Dems and a move away from the tainted image left by the Orange Bookers, a chance to rebrand and distance themselves from the past.
The timing was good. There was a massive gap left in the centre ground by the Labour party who were becoming more left-wing whilst the Tories were being pushed to the right as their back-benchers gained more and more power and influence. Simultaneously there was the very real opportunity to represent the 48% of the population who voted to remain in the EU referendum. This, however, did not come to fruition. Instead Tim Farron managed to butcher his opportunity and made the election about his religious beliefs around gay sex and spaniel sniffing. Although the Lib Dems gained seats, it was widely acknowledged that they should have done far better and this soon led to the resignation of Farron.
Farron’s resignation saw potentially the least inspiring leadership contest imaginable, as Vince Cable took power without opposition. The return of Cable is the return of one of the Key Orange Bookers, and potentially the chance to resuscitate old Orange Book ideas. Although it is likely that Vince Cable will try to implement this ideology, it is also hard to see how effectively these ideas will be driven forward. Although Cable claims that he can offer ‘exactly the formula’ of Macron delivering the same success in elections there is very little evidence of that so far.
Instead the evidence would indicate that the Lib Dems are politically treading water as they seem to be stuck hovering around 6-8% in the polls with little indication of movement. The only slight glimmer of hope for the Lib Dems is their relative success in the council elections, although this is a comparatively minor victory when looking at macro politics. Even the most avid of Orange Bookers will struggle to claim that these small victories are entirely down to them. Whilst nobody would deny that local politics was an important part of their policy, the hard work and determination of the grass roots local politicians should take the majority of the credit.
So while the ideas presented in the Orange Book are not quite dead, they are very close to death (and maybe should be dead and gone when you consider the baggage that comes along with the reputation of the Orange Bookers.) Instead they are clinging on to life, but how long they will last is yet to be determined. In order to address the issues of an, at best, stagnating party, the Lib Dems should not be looking to the past and trying to recreate the success of ‘Cleggmania’ but should instead be looking to rebrand and build for the future.