David Laws was first elected as a Liberal Democrat MP in 2001, in Lord Ashdown’s old constituency of Yeovil, having failed to challenge successfully Michael Howard in Folkestone & Hythe in 1997. Before that, he was the party’s Director of Policy and Research and earlier still, an economic adviser.
Like other prominent Liberal Democrats (such as Nick Clegg, Ed Davey and Chris Huhne) he has enjoyed what many would frame as a typically Tory upbringing. A pupil at the independent St George’s in Weybridge, he went up to King’s College, Cambridge, and flourished as an investment banker at JP Morgan. So far, so blue.
His public coming of age as a Yellow Tory was as editor of the seminal Orange Book. It is the economic liberalism endorsed by Laws and his fellow contributors that must be most central to any Venn diagram of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. The Orange Book revisits the traditional Liberal approach to the economy, trumping the social democratic philosophies that have predominated since the SDP alliance. Moreover, it was a belated acceptance of the Thatcherite free-market orthodoxy long since endorsed by New Labour.
David Cameron’s own philosophical re-awakening has been to restore the Conservative Party as guardians of a ‘One Nation’ Britain in the realm of social policy. Margaret Thatcher oversaw an economic revolution in the party, one necessary in 1979 but becoming less applicable today. In doing so, the Conservative Party lost sight of its traditional, communitarian ethos. Thatcher’s disciples mistook the complementary notions of personal responsibility and liberty for individualism. In fairness, Mrs Thatcher did in fact allude to the time-honoured concept of Burke’s “little platoons”, when she said that “there is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.” Where I believe she was mistaken was in equating “society” with the “state”. David Cameron has taken the necessary step to qualify this and say “there is such a thing as society, it is just not the same thing as the state.” To Mrs Thatcher’s men, women and families, our newest Prime Minister would also add churches, voluntary groups, charities and others in the third sector. It is these “platoons” on which the Big Society concept is built.
What is the link then between the respective renaissance of Conservative social philosophy and Liberal economic philosophy? Their combination is the nub of the Yellow Tory. The importance of David Laws lies in his re-drawing of that economic philosophy for the modern Liberal Democrat outlook. How this incorporates into David Cameron’s coalition government will be a vital marker of success as our economic regeneration and the tackling of the national debt rely on it.
Equally, Laws’ contributions have made his party more appealing to the electorate. This may not have translated into many more votes in 2010 but it makes Britons more comfortable with Liberal Democrats holding high office. Incidentally, if David Laws does – as is suggested – become the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, will he give confident backing to Conservative proposals on schools? The granting of greater choice to parents and introduction of more flexibility into education are not alien ideas to Liberal Democrats – indeed, the two parties share the pupil premium policy. I am confident that David Laws and his senior party colleagues are flexible and post-ideological enough to come to an agreement over Conservative policies like the free schools, which, for instance, are hardly illiberal. Like the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats want to cut class sizes and they desire greater autonomy for headmasters.
David Laws has achieved a noiseless ascent within his party not dissimilar to David Cameron’s. He shares the same reforming instincts towards fairness, personal liberty and welfare. Like many of his fellow Liberal Democrats, Laws is pro-European and should not be criticised for that. Their policies for Europe are misunderstood and misrepresented by our largely eurosceptic media. That being said, he is a critical supporter of the EU and has insisted on limiting its powers and scrapping the CAP.
In 2007, Laws reputedly turned down the chance to join the Conservatives’ shadow front bench team with the rejoinder: “I am not a Tory.” I suspect that this remains the case, whatever has happened since last Friday. A Yellow Tory, perhaps? A man of Mr Laws’ intellect would undoubtedly dismiss such faddish labels. Does this make him any less of one? If a core tenet of Yellow Toryism is the evasion of categorisation and ideology, it would go some way to confirming it.
If ever a consequence of this coalition government is to be a re-alignment of certain Liberal Democrats with the Conservative Party, I recommend and expect David Laws to be in the vanguard.