Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Book review: Reinventing the State

Those nice people at Comment is Free have just asked to write something else for them. While I do, blogging will be light.

In the mean time, here is the short piece on Reinventing the State that I wrote for them the other day...

Chapters Diverse

They are strange beasts, these Liberal Democrats.

Ask what their party stands for and they will tell you it exists to champion liberty. And the Lib Dems do have an honourable record of speaking up for civil liberties.

But you will also find them as keen for government to intervene on the side of equality as any socialist. And the Lib-Lab administration that ran Holyrood before May's election was hotter on the more back-of-the-hairbrush aspects of the nanny state than its Westminster counterpart.

A book published on the eve of the Lib Dem conference tries to make sense of these conflicting instincts.

Reinventing the State, a collection of essays by the party's great and good, is edited by David Howarth MP and two former party policy chiefs.

Howarth himself shows that Liberal Democrats are not libertarians. For them, property rights are human inventions that must be justified by the sort of society they produce. If that society's members are suffering through inequality, then the state should act.

That is clear. The problems start when Lib Dem MPs write about their fields of interest.

After a decade of Labour government they should be discussing why the party's social policies have had disappointing results and explain what liberals would do differently.

But you would never guess from Matthew Taylor that the Lib Dems have had interventionist family policies for more than 10 years. Or from Tim Farron's chapter on farming that the industry has been heavily subsidised for more than 60. Their eyes are still on their local Tory rivals.

Chris Huhne offers a more promising approach, arguing that the British state fails to deliver because it is so centralised. People who fear that localism will increase inequality are wrong, he says, precisely because the current set-up is so bad at delivering social justice.

Lib Dem activists will hope he is right. They like localism in theory, but fears of postcode lotteries and two-tier systems have launched a thousand local press releases.

And they will appreciate the way Huhne's vision of a rich diversity of local provision contrasts with the Tory idea of popular schools taking over the rest: "It's been a good half for the school: the match with Harrow was won, and St Custard's was purchased through a leveraged buy out."

Books like this are often produced (and bought) out of a sense of duty. But the chapters by Howarth and Huhne suggest some Lib Dems understand there is more to politics than delivering leaflets.

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