In Nick Clegg’s New Year message he promised that “the Liberal Democrats will continue to anchor this Coalition in the centre ground.”
It’s a familiar rhetorical theme that Liberal Democrat and Alliance politicians have wheeled out over the last thirty years, but coming from Clegg it feels a little disappointing.
The Orange Book, which in 2004 brought Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and it’s editor David Laws to the attention of the political classes, was sub-titled “Reclaiming Liberalism”. The liberalism to which the editors laid claim sounds a lot like that of the Liberal Party from Archibald Sinclair to Jo Grimond. Unlike Clegg et al, Grimond wouldn’t have hesitated to refer to himself as a Left winger.
In Grimond’s case he would talk about the Liberal party’s mission as being to realign the Left while simultaneously advocating the privatisation of the railways and the NHS. To some modern eyes this might look like conservatism dressed up as a progressive ideology.
In truth, influenced by Hilaire Belloc, the Liberal Party had adopted a radical alternative to Labour’s postwar state socialism. The idea was to take wealth, property and power from those with the most and redistribute it to those with the least thereby giving everyone the means to live independently of the state. This was opposed to the socialists’ policies to effectively replace wealthy private landlords with council landlords and business owners with politicians and political appointees.
In policy terms, the Liberals advocated extensive worker share ownership schemes and land value taxes aimed at breaking up inherited wealth. These ideas find echoes in the policies adopted by the Liberal Democrats since the publication of the Orange Book.
Nick Clegg should spend 2013 building on policies like the privatisation of the Royal Mail (Lib Dem) and the setting up of free schools (Tory, but first mooted by Paddy Ashdown). Furthermore, he and his team should be fleshing out a radical approach to the economy designed to give power to the people. He shouldn’t retreat to simply seeking to moderate lurches in one direction or another inspired by the other parties.
In the closing years of the coalition it will be vitally important for the Lib Dems to set out their own distinct vision. Failure to do so will compound the party’s problems in 2015.