Who are the Lib Dems ‘unconventional men (or women) whose mad ideas make us think’?

by Stephen Tall on July 31, 2011

Andrew Rawnsley, writing in today’s Observer under the surprisingly un-PC title In praise of unconventional men who make us think, sticks up for those iconoclastic thinkers who challenge their parties’ conventional thinking, citing as paragons the Tories’ Steve ‘Big Society’ Hilton and Maurice ‘Blue Labour’ Glasman:

Conventional is not a description you could apply to either of these eclectic thinkers. … There are many big differences between these two men and their philosophies, but something interestingly common to them is anti-statism, a deep antagonism to bureaucracy and managerialism. … It would be a shame if either were to be silenced. All the parties need more provocative thinkers. …

David Cameron has been in professional politics for nearly all of his adult life. So has Ed Miliband. [And Nick Clegg. – Ed.] So have the great majority of the senior politicians of their generation. It has generally made them a cautious, calibrating breed. They need the spark that is brought by people who don’t think of politics just in terms of the latest focus group or polling result.

We need more of these intellectual agitators on both sides of the aisle. There’s a shortage of stirrers who can shake things up a bit and jolt arguments out of ruts. They are often wrong, they can sometimes sound bonkers, but you can say this for Steve Hilton and Maurice Glasman: they make everyone think. Would that there were more people in British politics like them.

Few of us would dispute Mr Rawnsley’s analysis. And yet in reality political parties are notoriously unforgiving of those among their ranks who challenge prevailing orthodoxy, viewing it as a mix of disloyalty and distraction. It is never “the right time”. Until, perversely, an election is lost, nearly always as a consequence of stale thinking.

The Lib Dems are as prone to this as either Labour or Tories. Witness the visceral reaction to the publication seven years ago of The Orange Book, edited by David Laws and Paul Marshall. ‘Orange Booker’ has become a short-hand for ‘a return to classical liberalism’ / ‘an attempt by free-marketeers to take over the party’ (delete acording to preference).

Yet perhaps its most important legacy has been to spark a genuine debate within the party. It prompted a group of thinkers on the ‘social liberal’ wing of the party to band together, initially through the publication by David Howarth and Duncan Brack of Reinventing the State, and then later through the formation of the Social Liberal Forum.

You don’t have to be a fully signed-up ‘Orange Booker’ or ‘social liberal’ — the majority of party members would probably be a mix of both — to welcome this healthy dialectic of constant challenge and counter-challenge.

All of which invites the question laid down by Mr Rawnsley, who are the Lib Dems’ unconventional men or women whose mad ideas make us think? Your nominations, please…