This is a genuinely exciting political moment. It is the government the country wanted: Cameron, with Clegg; a fired-up blue Quattro, with yellow brakes. It is also uncharted territory. Cameron must now reframe the central narratives of his leadership—the big society, broken Britain, vote blue/go green, the post-bureaucratic age—to create a new “Lib-Con” narrative. Clegg must define his contribution to the government as specifically liberal; distinct enough that the government’s sum total is not the same as Cameron governing alone. The danger for Clegg was put neatly on Twitter this morning: Q: what would have happened if IBM had actually merged with Apple in the 1980s? A: IBM.
In short, this young government needs a theory: a narrative of its own, one which draws on that which unites Clegg and Cameron, but is also mindful of those wings of each party—the LibDem left and the Tory right—that is not comfortable with this unexpected shotgun union. Here are six things I would read to get a quick handle on this unusual liberal-conservative moment.
- Giles Wilke’s “A Balancing Act” Vince Cable is going to have a big role in the future of banking, finance and probably public spending cuts. Giles Wilke’s paper for Lib-Dem think tank Centreforum gives the most through overview of what a liberal approach to rebalancing might mean. The narrative for the first year of this government is going to be overwhelmingly economic—this is the guide to how it might work.
- Nick Clegg’s 2008 “discredited politics of Big Government” speech This was one of Clegg’s first speeches as leader, at a time when he was marking a decisive break with the more social democratic policy inherited from Ming Campbell and Charles Kennedy. He argues: “The big questions now are these: how do we make Britain a fairer place without raising the overall tax burden? How do we promote real social mobility without relying on the discredited politics of Big Government?” And while he is withering about Cameron in the speech, the deeper vision—free markets, free schools, radical localism, a smaller state—is the reason Cameron and Clegg just got married.
- The last quarter of David Cameron’s Hugo Young Memorial Lecture. This is still the most interesting exposition of what Cameron thinks the state is for, and its a vision which chimes with Clegg’s. The Big Society has taken a battering in the campaign for failing to work “on the doorstep”, but don’t expect Cameron to junk its insights: “In the fight against poverty, inequality, social breakdown and injustice I do want to move from state action to social action. But I see a powerful role for government in helping to engineer that shift. Let me put it more plainly: we must use the state to remake society.” The question for today is what, exactly, will this vision mean in government?
- Reinventing the State: Social Liberalism for the 21st Century (PDF)—I would recommend reading the Orange Book, the collection of essays, edited in 2004 by Lib Dem David Laws, which became the set text for the liberal wing of the Lib Dems as it successfully took power from the larger social democratic wing. Unfortunately, the Orange Book isn’t online. So this collection, put together in part by Lib Dem wonk and former Centreforum chief Richard Grayson, is the next best bet, with a number of strong essays trying to craft a modern liberal democrat view of the state. David Howarth’s opening essay “What is social liberalism?” is especially interesting; Howarth being a pro-market LibDem who fought openly to stop Paddy Ashdown getting to close to Labour and Tony Blair.
- The Conservative’s Make IT Better document We know Francis Maude has been leading a team producing quite detailed plans for each area of policy. Most of these aren’t published. But one was, just before Christmas — setting out what the Tories would do to reform the way central government will do IT. It contains fascinating snippets, including this: “In the near term, there will need to be a period of enhanced central control. The centre of any dispersed and decentralised organisation, especially at a time of financial crisis, must be able to control the biggest projects that carry financial, operational and reputational risk.” It provides a good insight into how, in the early days of his administration, Cameron and Clegg may try to grip the problems they face.
- The introductory chapter to Reeves and Collins’ “A Liberal Republic” (PDF) At the beginning of his leadership, David Cameron talked up a “liberal conservative” vision. But the only major speech on the subject dealt mostly with foreign policy. So the notion of what a liberal conservatism can be only lies scattered around in fragments. Some of it can be seen in the writing of certain politicians, like Michael Gove. But the fullest overview of a modern liberal programme for government comes in Richard Reeves and Philip Collins’s “Liberal Republic.” Reeves recently came out as a card-carrying LibDem; Collins used to write speeches for Blair, and is close to David Miliband’s incipient leadership bid—but is nonetheless admired by senior Tories for his strong pro-market, classically liberal views. Though neither is a conservative, their Liberal Republic is as close as we have to a theory of new liberalism.