Jeremy Browne spent just over three years as a government minister following the formation of the coalition in 2010, first in the Foreign Office, where his responsibilities included Britain’s relations with countries in Pacific Asia and Latin America, and latterly in the Home Office. However, reading his new book, Race Plan: An authentic liberal plan to get Britain fit for ‘The Global Race’, it does not take long to discover which of these offices had the biggest influence on his political outlook.
Because while the detail of the book focusses primarily on domestic policy, the theme that pulls it together, which provides its context, is Britain’s role in a rapidly-changing, globalising world.
This internationalist outlook is in itself a welcome antidote to the parochialism that too often infects our politics. But the concept of a ‘global race’ is not an uncontroversial one. To Ed Miliband, for example, the suggestion that Britain should seek to maintain a competitive advantage over other countries is to engage in a “race to the bottom”. Even The Economist, the views of which usually closely align with those of economic liberals like Browne, has been critical of the concept.
Browne has little time for much of this criticism. In response to the charge that competing in a global race is to compete to transform Britain into a “sweatshop” economy, he is particularly scathing: it demonstrates, to Browne, a profound ignorance of both the current state of the economies of fast-developing countries, and more importantly of the extent of their ambition:
Their vision for their population is not entrenched penury while people in the West enjoy material prosperity. That is why they are investing so heavily in education and training: to build a work force with the knowledge and skills to be internationally competitive, and in time, to be global leaders.
On the more intelligent critique from The Economist and others, Browne essentially thinks they are misunderstanding what he and others mean by the term, and he is happy to endorse their central point:
The comforting truth is that, just because one country gets richer, it does not follow that another country gets poorer. Global economic growth is not a zero-sum game: we can all get richer.
The fundamental point he seeks to make is that just because it may be true in theory that we can become more prosperous at the same time as China, future economic success in either country is not guaranteed. The danger as Browne sees it is complacency by the West at a time when much of the rest of the world is the opposite of complacent.
There is a final criticism that could be levelled at his thesis: even if it is true that Britain’s complacent stagnation and Asia’s ambitious growth mean the certainty of relative decline, well so what? Why should Britain want to compete on the world stage? Browne’s answer is twofold. First, that this is a false choice: we cannot continue to enjoy the levels of material prosperity to which we have become accustomed and refuse to change our approach in the face of overwhelming world change. And secondly, our ability to influence world affairs in the direction of humanitarianism, respect for human rights, the protection of minorities and greater freedom is, of course, diminished if we simply resign ourselves to marginalisation:
We need to influence ‘The Asian Century’ not just for our own benefit but because we need to be strong if we are to protect the weak.
So much for the problem: what about the solutions?
Browne concentrates on five areas where he thinks Britain needs to be particularly bold: education, infrastructure, the economy and budget, international relations and public services.
In all of these areas, two things are notable about Browne’s proposals. The first, unsurprisingly, is their liberal underpinning: many Liberal Democrats will disagree with at least some of Browne’s ideas, but it seems to me indisputable that he makes a strong liberal case in defence of each of them. Second is the scale of the ambition of his suggestions. Given the nature of the challenge he paints in the book’s first few chapters, one expects boldness, but his restlessness is unusual and captivating in a political culture defined by its consistent lack of both vision and action.
Education is the first topic tackled, and rightly so: it is the area most crucial to Browne’s argument and one of the starkest examples of Britain’s relative decline and absolute stagnation: 2012 was the first year in which Britain failed to attain a top-20 place in maths, reading or science in the PISA world rankings of educational achievement.
Browne’s view is that Britain has a world-class elite education provision (private schools and the 20% of state schools deemed to be outstanding by Ofsted) but a mediocre mainstream. This is not just a challenge in economic terms (“our ranking is incompatible in the medium-term with the widely-stated ambition to make Britain a successful ‘knowledge economy’”) but should be of profound and immediate concern to liberals, particularly given the stubbornly high correlation between poverty and educational underachievement:
The educational outcomes for children from low income families are a national scandal. We politicians need to ask ourselves how this was allowed to happen in the first place and how, more shockingly, it has been tolerated for as long as it has.
Browne welcomes many of the coalition’s changes in education, but calls for much greater radicalism. His vision is of an education system in which every school is a free school, with parents, governors, head teachers and staff making the decisions. But, crucially, he thinks this should be combined with a voucher system to give parents the ability to choose their child’s school, with vouchers weighted towards disadvantaged pupils to give schools an incentive to take such pupils, and to provide funding once they are there (like the pupil premium). If that weren’t controversial enough, Browne is also open to the idea of for-profit education providers entering the sector.
It is a radical vision indeed, of an education system free at the point of use in which the state is the facilitator of real choice for all parents (not just those able to buy it), with diverse providers and competition driving up standards.
Browne moves swiftly on from human to physical capital: Britain’s flagging infrastructure. And he is as ambitious here as he is radical in his plans for schools. He wants Britain to rediscover the levels of enthusiasm for construction demonstrated by our Victorian ancestors. If Britain is to compete in a global economy, it is no good to build one high-speed rail line and take 20 years to do so; it is perverse to set our face against increased air travel just as interconnectivity becomes a defining feature of world economics; and it is short-termist and profoundly unfair to deny this and future generations the opportunity to own their own home.
One statistic from the book that struck me above all others is this: between 2011 and 2015 China will build 82 new airports. It is spending 8.5 per cent of its GDP on infrastructure, while we are spending 2.8 per cent of ours. So Britain needs to wake up and get on with restoring our infrastructure: a new hub airport in the South East, improved roads, more high-speed rail, hundreds of thousands of new homes, renewable energy and digital connectivity.
So far, so ambitious. But there is more: Britain, says Browne, must invest in our people and our infrastructure while also focussing, in the medium-term at least, on reducing the size of the state as a proportion of the economy. To Browne, the “sweet spot” that best balances the often-competing interests of economic competitiveness and growth and necessary investment and social protection is a state equivalent in size to around 35-38% of GDP.
How will that be achieved? Well, Browne does not hide the fact that it will mean more cuts to government spending, in respect of which he makes the very reasonable point that ring-fencing of some of the largest areas of public spending has inevitably meant very heavy cuts to much smaller budgets, including those such as the business department which actually have the potential to contribute to our long-term economic health.
But Browne’s vision is not just for a smaller state, but for one that also delivers better outcomes, primarily as a result of radical decentralisation in the delivery of public services, replicating the sort of choice that consumers now enjoy in almost every other area of their lives, and empowering people to exercise informed choices in a market of competing providers.
A challenge for us all
Two things struck me immediately reading this book. The first was the internationalism of its outlook. Probably not since the leadership of Paddy Ashdown has a senior Liberal Democrat’s thinking been so informed by global events. Secondly was its radicalism and profound ambition. It is amusing to see the headlines marking the book’s publication focussing so heavily on Browne’s call for a reduction in the top rate of tax, because this strikes me as one of the least ambitious of the book’s proposals. But it exemplifies perfectly the inherent critique throughout the book that the real danger facing Britain is not being too radical, too restless for change, but continuing with the small-scale, complacent debate that dominates our day-to-day politics.
On the day of the book’s publication I saw Browne variously called a “Thatcherite”, a “Blairite” and (of course, here on LDV) a “neoliberal” (mainly, of course, by people who have not read the book). Such relabelling seems to me to be utterly unnecessary. I fail to see how a political outlook that supports immigration, the EU, renewables, infrastructure investment, better schools and enterprise, and underpins all of that with a determined radicalism and internationalism, can be called anything other than liberal.
That is not to say, of course, that there won’t be liberals who disagree with some of Browne’s ideas, or that doing so makes those people any less of a liberal. But Browne’s thesis is a consistent and challenging one, and those who call themselves liberals but respond solely with derision only go to prove Browne’s point about the paucity of deep and radical liberal thinking. At a time of astonishing global change, Liberal Democrats do a disservice to our heritage as a party and our future as a country if the challenge Browne sets is not met with the depth and breadth of thinking displayed in this book.
* Nick Thornsby is Thursday Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs here.