This review of The Green Book: new directions for Liberals in government first appeared on PoliticsHome.
One of the most comfortable things about being a Liberal Democrat must be knowing where you are ‘centered’ politically. Occupying the middle ground between Labour and the Conservatives means that the question is rarely asked. Indeed the Liberal Democrat offer to the electorate can be summarised as ‘more socially liberal than the Conservatives and more economically pragmatic than Labour’.
This isn’t an option for the contributors to The Green Book, a collection of essays from liberal thinkers, since triangulating between the two bigger parties would lose them their distinctive position on the agenda, and would often result in weaker green policy. Instead their proposition is that ambitious environmental policy is a route to resolving centre ground concerns of restoring growth and creating a stronger economy.
Green as ‘a new frontier’
It’s not a new argument, but liberals are right to repeat it. The authors position the green sector as the ‘new frontier’ for growth, and write with an intelligence and passion which Labour and the Conservatives should envy. Every party needs new intellectual fuel to stay fresh, but the case made in The Green Book is positively bracing. As the former MP and Cambridge academic David Howarth writes ”accelerating environmental degradation is a threat to democratic institutions, and so constitutes a threat to all that modern social liberals hold dear”. It is a sign of our impoverished political debate that this seems a shocking statement to come from a mainstream political thinker. It also raises the question of how Liberal Democrats in government can respond to such systemic risks, when they often appear to have an ambivalent attitude to state intervention.
Howarth suggests coyly that ”the time might have come to reconsider what should count as liberal means” but other authors are more forthright and call for a ”new approach to regulation” which promotes high standards and ambitious goals. That Nick Clegg calls The Green Book a “provocative challenge to our thinking” suggests that green liberals have some way to go before they win the hearts of economic liberals in the party. How they are going to do that is the question left unanswered by the book. There is an honest assessment of the tendency of the party to take a ‘rational-utility-laundry list’ approach to politics, and a call for a stronger narrative on the green economy.
What’s the political strategy?
What is less clear is the political strategy needed to deliver the policy ideas in the book. Unsurprisingly, it is the former heavyweight Chris Huhne who comes closest to laying out a political strategy by proposing that green growth should be at the heart of their economic policy and calling for a bigger, more targeted approach to fairness and fuel poverty before carbon prices rise.
One of the mysteries of the coalition is the silence of Liberal Democrat ministers on localism, a defining passion of British liberalism, and why the party has not challenged Eric Pickles’ contradictory approach to local government, where he flips between an ‘anything goes’ approach and ordering the weekly collection of bins. This book has many localist policy ideas, but misses the opportunity to pull together a reforming programme which might address Britain’s chronic imbalance between local and central government.
It points to the greatest challenge for the authors of this book, which is the culture of ‘reasonableness’ in the party. It is an endearing quality but not a great approach to political negotiations or public campaigning. Liberal Democrats may have to be less reasonable and more assertive in their green ambitions if they want to have a bigger impact. The Green Book demonstrates that liberals have some strong policy ideas, but it does leave the reader wondering whether they have the political strategy to forge a new direction for government?
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