As Sunder has noted, the formation of the Coalition raises the prospect of the Lib Dems shifting from a centre-left party to one of the centre-right. This has a clear attraction for the Orange Book tendency in the Liberal Democrats. Their aim has always been to reassert the credentials of 'economic liberalism' against 'social liberalism' - without, they would say, wishing to deny the truths of social liberalism. In essence, this means: a greater willingness to use markets and to tolerate their outcomes.
One striking feature of Orange Book liberalism is its disciplinary basis. It is to a considerable extent a movement grounded in conventional economics. Key protagonists such as David Laws and Paul Marshall have backgrounds as economic analysts. This is obviously Vince Cable's area of expertise. And Nick Clegg is on familiar ground here too. CentreForum, a think-tank linked to Orange Book liberalism, frequently produces work that is impressively informed by this intellectual discipline.
Orange Book liberalism has much less of a grounding in political philosophy. When Vince Cable wrote a chapter on 'Liberal economics and social justice' in the original Orange Book, he felt no need - so far as I can see - even to define 'social justice', let alone discuss what it might be in terms of rival theories put forward by various liberal philosophers.
And that, I think, is fairly typical. I have looked at every chapter in the two key works of Orange Book liberalism (The Orange Book and Britain After Blair), some 25 chapters in all. Not one of them contains in their bibliographies a single reference to any of the great three works of contemporary liberal political thought: John Rawls' A Theory of Justice; Ronald Dworkin's essays on equality, canonically gathered in his Sovereign Virtue; and Bruce Ackerman's Social Justice in the Liberal State. (Nor, by the way, can I find any reference to the work of Friedrich Hayek or Robert Nozick.)
This does not mean that the Orange Book liberals lack a political philosophy. Their thinking rests on some definite, strong - albeit rather unexamined - philosophical assumptions. Reading someone like David Laws, for example, there is at times a clear sense that the free market produces a distribution of income and wealth which is a kind of natural or moral baseline. It is departures from the baseline that have to be justified. Laws and other Orange Bookers are of course not libertarians, so they are prepared to allow that some departures - some tax-transfers/tax-service arrangements - can be justified. (This is the sense in which they remain social liberals, albeit not egalitarian ones.) But the presumption, for Laws, is clearly for leaving money in people's pockets. [Note of clarification added May 28: I have removed the quote marks from the phrase 'leaving money in people's pockets' at the end of this sentence as misleading. The quote marks were intended to indicate my own distance from/scepticism towards the classical liberal ideological position which I think is conveyed in the phrase, and with which I think Laws is in sympathy - but the phrase is not - repeat not - a quote from Laws's writings.]
This presumption runs completely counter to one of the basic claims of contemporary liberalism as developed in the work of such as Rawls, Dworkin and Ackerman.
For these thinkers, the 'free market' is simply one possible 'basic structure' for society along with an indefinite range of other possibilities. It has no morally privileged position. So how do we choose which 'basic structure' to have? Their answer is that we try to identify principles of social justice and then design a basic structure - including, if necessary, appropriate tax-transfer arrangements - to achieve justice so understood. On this view, taxation and 'redistribution' are not invasions into people's pockets, a taking of what is presumptively already, primevally 'theirs'. Tax-transfers are a way of ensuring that people do not pocket, through the market, more (or less) than they are genuinely entitled to. Tax-transfer schemes define entitlement; they do not invade it.
Simplifying a little, one might say that for these liberal thinkers, it is not the free market that is the appropriate, morally relevant baseline, but equality: it is movement away from equality that has to be justified, not movement away from a free market distribution.
The debate over the Child Trust Fund offers a prime example of the way in which the two liberalisms can come apart.
In the view of the egalitarian liberals, justice requires that all citizens start their adult life with reasonably equal endowments of wealth (again, I simplify, but the nuances one needs to add to this statement are not important here). Policies like the CTF look like a way of trying to secure this. A policy like the CTF comes thus to be seen, by liberals of this type, as an integral part of the 'basic structure' of a just society, an important institution that, by helping to equalise initial asset endowments, frames and constrains the way 'the market' operates. Abolition of the CTF is, therefore, an assault on a genuine moral entitlement - an act of unjust disinheritance towards future citizens.
But for a classical liberal, or an Orange Booker with leanings that way, the CTF is more likely to look like just another government spending program that has been arbitrarily tacked on to the market economy. The working presumption is that income and wealth should stay where the market places them. This presumption can be overriden: but only if the policy in question is really essential: for example, say, if it is needed to relieve poverty. Since the CTF apparently isn't essential in this way, the money it costs should really be returned to the pockets whence it came. I suspect that something like this view underpins the profoundly dismissive attitude that George Osborne and David Laws showed to the CTF.
So when the new Coalition and its supporters, like Julian Glover, argue that something called 'liberalism' is the guiding thread of the new government, we need to pause and recall that they mean by this a very specific kind of liberalism.
Meanwhile those of us who are liberals in the Rawlsian or related sense suffer at present a lack of representation by the mainstream parties.
The Lib Dems have many virtues, but Orange Bookery is a philosophical step backwards from our point of view, and it is this tendency which is now calling the shots in social and economic policy.
Labour, on social and economic policy, has many virtues. But it also has a very poor record on civil liberties and related issues about the quality of state power (e.g., the database state), things which also matter to egalitarian liberals as liberals.
So, far from representing a great Richard Reevsian 'liberal moment', the present political conjecture seems to me to represent a moment in which liberalism - of the egalitarian, Rawlsian kind - has been driven to the margins of British politics. No mainstream party now speaks for liberalism in this sense.
How are those of us who support this kind of liberalism going to rectify this? Will left liberals in the Lib Dems take on their ideological opponents within the party? Will Labour's egalitarian liberals take on their party's authoritarians and anti-pluralists?
How can the two groups work together, across the party divide, to advance the great cause that is (egalitarian) liberalism?