Jeremy Browne’s ‘Race Plan’. I’ve read it, so here’s my review…

Jeremy Browne bookThree points to make right from the start about Jeremy Browne’s new book, Race Plan.

First, it’s a wholly Good Thing that a Lib Dem MP is choosing to think aloud, to set out clearly his views. Nick Clegg having decided that he did, after all, like one of the Beecroft recommendations and decided to fire-at-will his home office minister, Jeremy could have slunk away, tail between his legs, to nurse his bitterness. He’s chosen a rather more constructive outlet for his disappointment. By which I mean this book, rather than his short-lived, C.19th-throwback, gap year beard.

Secondly, there is a fundamental problem with the central conceit of this book: that Britain is in a global race, and that if we don’t get fitter, we’ll be overtaken by or competitors in the coming Asian Century, fall behind, and become poorer. This notion has been debunked by many – Ryan Bourne makes the point very well here:

A race implies having winners and losers: if China is doing better, then we must be doing worse. In trade terms this is a thoroughly mercantilist outlook, which was of course thoroughly debunked by David Hume and Adam Smith 250 years ago. They recognised, rightly, that trading through comparative advantage increases prosperity for all. If you can understand that, then it quickly follows that the rise of a large Chinese middle-class is a huge opportunity for us, not a threat. Economic evidence suggests that as people’s incomes increase, their demand for services increase much more quickly than their demand for manufactured goods. In many of these services, high-valued added manufacturing and creative industries, the UK has potential strengths.

In his (very good) LDV review here Nick Thornsby I think over-generously exculpates Jeremy of this charge, quoting one line from the Race Plan: “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.” But this is just one line – the rest of the book is underpinned by an assumption that, in the ‘Global Race’, if Britain’s not winning then we’re losing.

Thirdly, the title’s a bad title. I don’t just mean ‘Race Plan’ (though the casual readers could be forgiven for inferring the book’s about eugenics rather than economic and political reform), I mean the sub-title: ‘An authentic liberal plan to get Britain fit for ‘The Global Race’’. It’s hard to see that word ‘authentic’ as anything other than a provocation to folk like my co-editor Caron Lindsay, as she punchily but fairly noted here: “Browne’s claim to the “authentic liberalism” mantle is a bit like sticking two fingers up to all the lefties and telling them to all bog off and join Labour if they don’t like it.”

It’s perfectly possible to think that every idea in Jeremy’s book can be termed ‘liberal’ (and I do) and yet not necessarily agree with them all (and I don’t – as you’ll see below). As a classical liberal, Jeremy should be a little less monopolistic of the term; just as those who condemn his views as illiberal should aim to be a little less enslaved by conformity.

Enough of the Preamble. Race Plan itself is what I think many people who never read it assume The Orange Book was, but actually wasn’t: an unabashed prescription for free market economic liberalism in Britain.

The anti-Statist who admires the state and State of China

The first two chapters are a breathless paean to the “multi-dimensional shift in the global order” – not simply the emergence of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) but of many other fast-rising countries in Asia and Latin America, too. He is right that the advances are staggering: “By 2060, it is estimated that 57 per cent of global GDP will be generated by countries outside the OECD.”

And Jeremy is full of admiration for the leaps and bounds China’s achieved in the last couple of decades. Not just the increased life expectancy or reduced infant mortality or the 500 million people lifted out of extreme poverty, but their vision: “… it is not just the statistics that inspire awe. Chinese airports are cathedrals of modernity. Even the train stations feel like airports.”

Not that Jeremy is blind to China’s faults, explicitly recognising its human rights abuses and undemocratic authoritarianism. Indeed, one of the book’s strongest points is the dilution of liberal, democratic values that is taking place as the West’s economic might is challenged:

The liberal values I treasure include living in a country where people are free from oppression and enforced conformity. … These values are not accepted in large parts of the world. … There are many hundreds of millions of people, right around the world, who live in fear and without freedom, and they look to us for the reassurance of knowing that they are not forgotten and are not alone.

There is, though, an odd disconnect within Race Plan. The first section of the book is a eulogy to the vision of China and its fast-paced transformation; yet, paradoxically, the rest of the book is unrepentantly state-sceptic.

Jeremy on Education: must try harder

The first topic Jeremy gets to grips with is education, or more precisely schools. His diagnosis is accurate: the schools’ budget has soared since 1997, yet our children’s attainment has flat-lined when compared internationally. But his prognosis is dubious. He starts from an assertion uncluttered by evidence: independent schools are the best in the world because wealthy parents are able to exercise choice, therefore the only way for all schools to be outstanding is to extend that choice to all parents. There’s a certain seductive logic to this claim, but its causal chain needs to be challenged.

Most independent schools are very good schools, for sure – but because they select their pupils from among the wealthy (in the main) and because those parents are highly engaged (in the main). Here’s what you find when you compare apples with apples, rather than oranges: “OECD data shows that the average achievement in private schools in the UK is the same as that in state schools, once social class is taken into account, even though the average class size is 13 in the private sector and 25 in the state sector” Yes, you did read that right. And if you don’t start from the assumption that independent schools are inherently superior because they operate within a market, the argument Jeremy makes that the only way to improve state schools is through a voucher funding system falls away.

(I’ll note in passing that I’ve no particular objection to school vouchers, nor to for-profit schools. I think Jeremy makes a fair point when he notes that “many aspects of state-funded education are already provided by suppliers that make a profit [exam boards, text book publishers, building contractors etc] … so there is no great principle at stake about profits being made when education providers are paid using public money … so long as they are delivering a high quality service free at the point of use.” But it’s not the priority for improving pupils’ outcomes, and the time and energy wasted arguing about it distracts us from the things that are far more likely to make a real difference: improving teaching and learning in the classroom.)

Hey, Big Spender!

In his chapter on ‘physical capital’ the China-loving, Victorian Age-loving, State-loving Jeremy re-emerges: a new six-runway hub airport in North Kent, HS2, new motorways, housing, flood defences, superfast broadband, nuclear power, renewable energy infrastructure. It’s a dizzying combination of state intervention requiring huge taxpayer investment, and of deregulation, relaxing restrictions put in place by the state to protect the interests of residents in affected areas.

It’s a little hard to know how to square this Big Spending Jeremy with the chapter which follows, on the economy and the budget, where he urges Britain to be cutting spending further to what he calls the “broad sweet spot for having a globally competitive economy … of between about 35 and 38 per cent of GDP”. I’m not sure quite how he’s divined this “broad sweet spot”. As I pointed out a couple of years ago, when David Laws first floated this target, the tax burden tells us very little about a country’s economic performance: there are low-taxing low-productive countries, and high-taxing high-productive countries.

A little more authentic liberalism, please

What struck me most about Jeremy’s budgetary proposals is how conventional they are: cut the deficit by cutting social security; boost growth by lowering the top-rate of tax. There was little here that read as authentically liberal: in fact, it reads very on-Coalition-message.

There is no mention of switching from taxing earned income to taxing unearned wealth, for example, whether through a Land Value Tax or any other mechanism. The only mention of devolution is to recommend the four separate departments for local government, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland be merged to save money – and though there is one paragraph on decentralising services, on the potential for greater local power to boost growth (for example, as argued by Kirsty Williams in ‘Grassroots Economics’ here) Jeremy is silent.

If you read nothing else, read this

The best chapter by far is on international relations: no matter what you think of Jeremy Browne’s views on domestic policy, ‘Race Plan’ is worth reading for this. He makes a persuasive case of how limited Britain’s global outlook is: “Draw a line from London to Moscow, down to Kabul, across to Rabat in Morocco, and back to London. Apart from an obsession with America (sometimes justifiably, sometimes not), the overwhelming majority of Britain’s foreign policy is within the parameters of this box. … It is concerned with perhaps 15 per cent of the world’s population.” And an equally powerful argument for Britain continuing to be a world power:

In my direct experience as a Minister, what was remarkable was not how much Britain’s global influence has declined but how little. We are a treasured ally and an unwanted foe, not primarily because of the threat we carry, but because of the example we set. We are widely regarded as fair-minded, rigorous, aware of our obligations, non-duplicitous and guided by consistent principles.

We need as a nation, he says, to be more internationally engaged (citing South Korea or Mexico as future reliable allies), not less. That includes being more respectful of other countries: British politicians should not, for instance, always “seek out the most destitute Indian slum for the main photo opportunity”, any more than we Brits would appreciate foreign leaders making straight for our most deprived estates.

He defends Britain’s membership of the European Union, but on a staunchly pragmatic (and conditional) basis: it gives us “collective muscle, in trade negotiations for example, or at climate change summits, that individual member states, even big ones like Britain, would not otherwise possess”. And he is a vigorous advocate for the Government’s decision in 2004 to allow people from the new EU states in eastern Europe, including Poland, to work in Britain:

Britain held the line against the Soviet Union in the Cold War because we believed all people should benefit from liberal freedoms and be spared from communist oppression. That we were able to achieve that objective and share our success with people in countries like Poland is a genuine historical achievement. We did not tear down the Berlin Wall only to erect a new barrier between the people of Western and Eastern Europe.

This is the chapter which convinces me Nick Clegg was wrong about dismissing Jeremy Browne: not so much from the Home Office, but from the Foreign Office, his first ministerial post, and for which he was clearly very well-suited.

I get the ‘Race Plan’. Now show me the electoral plan, Jeremy

I don’t always agree with the policy solutions Jeremy Browne proposes in ‘Race Plan’, but his liberalism shines through. He believes in freedom, he believes in fairness. He thinks both these virtues are best promoted within a low-tax free market nation open to the world, and is prepared to argue for it.

There’s a missing chapter, though. It’s this. How does Jeremy propose to translate this classical liberal vision into a vibrant political party that attracts members, activists, and the public?

It’s often said there’s a liberal diaspora, encompassing members from elements of all three political parties: the Lib Dem Orange Bookers, the Tory Cameroons, and the New Labour Blairites. Yet the best known example of a party standing on this platform is Germany’s FDP, eliminated from the German parliament last year and still struggling to reach 5 per cent in the polls. Let’s assume Jeremy Browne persuades Lib Dems that ‘Race Plan’ is the authentic liberal manifesto (judging from our recent comment threads he’s got a job on his hands, but let’s assume for the sake of argument): how will he turn that into a vote-winning mandate?

Jeremy was quoted in The Times yesterday saying “Some argue that the Lib Dems should promote socialism plus civil liberties, but that isn’t liberalism.” He’s right. But liberalism isn’t Thatcherism plus internationalism, either.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • China is moving to develop its service sector.It seems education is the service that Britain is selling the Chinese . Beyond that not may products with Made in England written on them.

  • Very good review, and a particularly important final point about electoral manifestos.

    It is something that our command seem to have lost sight of in wanting to be a ‘serious party of government’ – namely that people will listen to you when your party has almost a quarter of the vote and 50-60 seats, but won’t listen when you are heading for 8-10% and 20-30 seats.

    So I’m not sure how widely Jeremy’s views will be heard beyond the party and a few hacks. While I like some of his ideas, I think much of it sounds like a right-wing think tank report rather than an MP’s book. Certainly it’s unlikely to appeal to the 10-15% of voters who appear to have abandoned us since 2010.

  • I agree with Stephen Tall .
    OK -not always – but I agree with Stephen Tall when he says in his last line —
    “… liberalism isn’t Thatcherism plus ….”

    Liberalism is NOT Thatcherism.

    Are you reading this, Jeremy?

  • Jenny Barnes 13th Apr '14 - 9:15am

    ” ‘We are widely regarded as fair-minded, rigorous, aware of our obligations, non-duplicitous and guided by consistent principles.'”
    In the days when Great Britain was the world hegemon, we were known as “Perfidious Albion” . I expect there’s a correlation.

  • Paul In Twickenham 13th Apr '14 - 9:43am

    A few years ago I was in Riga for the Eurovision Song Contest and took the opportunity to visit the National History Museum of Latvia. In one room there was an exhibition about the repeated failure of the 5 year plans in the 70’s and 80’s to meet their targets, or to deliver improvements in the living standards of the citizens of Latvia. On every occasion the response of the Communist Party was to say that what was needed was more Communism, whereas anyone not ideologically blinkered would have recognized that what was actually required was a bit of free enterprise.

    Jeremy Browne – one of the architects of the great shift in Liberal Democrat strategy – has watched party ratings plunge – down to 7% in two different polls published today. And like a good apparatchik of the Latvian Communist Party he has taken the opportunity to drive his agenda forward by asserting that what we need is more liberalism – by which (according to Stephen Tall) he means the adoption of unfettered free-market economics, and a low-tax economy. Party activists are to reinvent their political identities, keep a copy of The Fountainhead on their bedside tables and gush enthusiastically about the Asian Tigers.

    Thanks Jeremy, but I’ll stick to trusting the wisdom of generations of progressive, inclusive Liberals who understood that community should be the basis of their policy-making, and who knew that equality of opportunity involves more than saying that everyone is free to dine at The Ritz.

  • Lib Dems at 7% this morning. Looks like all Euro seats will go next month.
    We need to be focusing and worrying about that, not this minor discussion points.

  • Paul Reynolds 13th Apr '14 - 10:56am

    Great debate … and for stimulating a debate about the future direction of the party and of British liberalism we should be grateful to Jeremy. It is a debate which may have been glossed over for fear of division. But my fear is the opposite. My own intuitive view is that our ‘opinion poll problems” arise more from a failure to reconcile the different factions in the party (or ‘ideological drivers of membership perhaps) than from insufficient liberalism or insufficient social democracy. Insufficient ‘-isms’ was a problem that dogged the Labour Party for decades, until New Labour decided to cosy up to the media at all costs. I am sometimes taken aback by the antagonism between party factions and worse how matters so quickly get personal and vitriolic… how quickly folk turn to ‘playing the man not the ball’ to use the current popular phrase.

    My real fear is that, without effort to reconcile, factions will become irreconcilable… and the party may fragment formally. There is much that all party factions agree on – a strong dislike of monopoly – economic, social and political. An abhorrence of the rich disdaining the poor and blaming them for their low incomes. Eugenic views of race and ethnicity, The absence of a social safety net. People being sick and not being able to afford health care. There are also many areas where divisions are largely semantic or based on ‘received’ illiberal or anti-communitarian misinterprations of important concepts, such as ‘markets’, ‘freedom’, or ‘equality’. Whilst I do not suggest that all differences are reconcilable, I do suggest that we have created a culture for ourselves where differences are over-emphasised, common ground is avoided, and the efforts made to reconcile perceived differences too weak. It may be too late. We shall see. But after the Euro elections and the 2015 general election renewed efforts to reconcile will be at a premium.

  • Mack (Not a Lib Dem) 13th Apr '14 - 11:39am

    I would suggest that the political attitudes espoused by Jeremy Brown et al and in part already adopted by the Liberal Democrats are the reason your party is now at 7% in the polls.

    I’ll say that again. 7% in the polls. Unheard of, isn’t it.

    The Liberal Democrats are now indistinguishable from the Tories. If you wish to regain your singularity you should leave the Coalition immediately after the disastrous European Election result that awaits you. You would have nothing to lose. Five year fixed term parliaments have been shown to be a completely inefficient use of the legislature. You and the Tories will be hard put to find anything for MPs to do during the following year in terms of legislation and this will provide the perfect conditions for the in-fighting and splits that the public so deprecate. The Coalition has completely run out of steam. That’s why four year parliaments made much more sense. With so little to do it is inevitable that the Tories and the Liberal Democrats will factionalise and descend into civil war. I’d get out now, if I were you.

  • @ Paul in Twickenham

    Hasten over to Jonathan Calder’s website and listen to Michael Ignatieff argue that political philosophy, public policy and winning elections should come in three separate boxes. On his account Jeremy Browne stands guilty of confusing the first two and you are mixing up the second two. A proposed public policy is not wrong on the grounds that it would not improve the electoral prospects of a particular party adopting it. [Which is of course not to say that Browne’s public policy proposals are right … or indeed wrong.]

  • Stuart Mitchell 13th Apr '14 - 11:56am

    This is an excellent review, neatly exposing the contradictions of those who hold up China (a country where the government owns most businesses and employs most of the workforce) as some sort of model to follow for small-state obsessives. You are also right to highlight the nonsense of those who target arbitrary levels of state spending as % of GDP when the evidence does not support such an idea.

    People like Jeremy Browne are far too easily impressed by the shiny façade of China while ignoring some of the grim realities beneath. The next time he’s marvelling at the beauty of a Chinese airport, he should think about the fact that around 80,000 people die in accidents at work in China each year (compared with around 150 in the UK). About another 600,000 reportedly die from stress and overwork :-

    It’s irrational to envy the growth rate of countries like China, because these growth rates generally only happen when you’re starting from a very low base. China’s growth rates have been achieved in part on the back of poverty, high levels of pollution, and appalling health and safety and workers’ rights. We can’t emulate that and shouldn’t want to. Nor is it probably sustainable. China’s growth rates are falling (now at their lowest for 14 years) and their budget deficit is increasing – in part because the government is now having to massively increase spending on clearing up all the pollution that they were happy to create during the years of burgeoning growth.

    In virtually every respect, China should be looking to learn lessons from us, not the other way round. We should have more confidence in our own ways of doing things (while of course always looking for ways to do them better).

  • Stuart
    China is looking for lessons in the UK. Thousands of Chinese students study in the UK.
    Soon they will be finding ways of attracting the financial services from theCity to Hong Kong.

  • Did you find any explanation as to why the cover is illustrated with a picture of Dubai?

  • Helen
    Of course if the UK leaves the EU.Some of the jobs lost Clegg was talking about.

  • @ mack(notalibdem) – a poll rating of 7% is actually far from unheard of. It’s not very good at all, but far from unknown.
    If history is anything to go by it also doesn’t herald extinction for the Liberal tradition, though clearly thin times are ahead.
    My frustration is that much of the lost support has been frittered away needlessly!

  • Tony Dawson 13th Apr '14 - 2:03pm

    This chat would be an interesting diversion on any day after May 23rd.

    I am concerned that selfish politicians throw cats among pigeons four weeks before postal votes go out in an election where those same politicians have drawn the party down to its lowest national level of support ever. This threatens to taint even those handful of areas of the country where, to date, a decent stab has been made at holding and even improving our ground.

  • Peter Watson 13th Apr '14 - 2:29pm

    @Paul In Twickenham
    “down to 7% in two different polls published today.”
    In cheerier news, the third poll reported today (YouGov) puts Lib Dems on 8%. Okay, not much cheerier.

  • David-1
    Lots of British expats live there?

  • Paul Reynolds 13th Apr '14 - 4:05pm

    For esteemed LDV readers I wanted to attempt a couple of clarifications. First Chiba. There are three overlapping commercial – industrial sectors in China – coops, state enterprises and private companies – linked to central, provincial or local government. The growth has come largely from private companies and coops plus a handful of partially state owned global mega-firms like Sinopec. However most of the larger private businesses have some kind of state or party connection – even originating from opaque joint ventures between government and party officials wearing ‘private’ hats. The main 4 state banks are run at province level and are choc full of nonperforming loans. It is the party connection of most larger firms, which end up allowing the pollution to go unchecked.

    My other attempted clarification is that Jeremy Browne is not a libertarian, by way of both the dictionary meaning or by example – libertaraian parties and the most famous libertarian perhaps – Ron Paul. And he is not an anarchist either believing in ‘unfettered’ markets…. maybe less fettered might be true – but if any LDV reader starts a company, depending on the sector, directors will immediately be subject to several million pages of laws, rules and regulations. Whilst some may be too fettering and some not fettering enough I think ‘unfettered’ is going a tad too far.


  • Jenny Barnes 13th Apr '14 - 4:29pm

    The polls…in particular Taunton Deane on current polling will be a Tory gain. Now, if one were the sitting MP for such a seat, and wanted to retain the benefits of being an MP, how better than to join the winning team and make assurance doubly sure? I can’t imagine many LD actiivists rushing to Taunton Deane to help in the election campaign, somehow. And from the Tory pov, why not add the personal vote for a well known constituency MP to a likely win anyway?

  • Thank you Stephen Tall for the detailed review. You have pointed out that private schools are not better than state schools but because more is spent per pupil there are smaller classes. Therefore Jeremy starts with not comparing like with like. Helen Tedcastle has elsewhere made the case that school vouchers do not raise standards for every child. I have made the case that a free market in education could only be achieved if heavy enforced –

    Stephen has pointed out that Jeremy would like to see massive increases in infrastructure expenditure but these will be to the cost of the residents in the affected areas. This is likely to increase the number of powerless people and so isn’t very liberal. It ignores the liberal green argument that the current generation should try not to do things that adversely affect future generations.

    As others have said a smaller government is not a liberal solution it is libertarian. Liberals are not concerned about the size of government they are concerned about what it does to help the powerless and the underprivileged and to reduce oppression. There may be an argument that a smaller state increases the growth rate but increased growth does not seem to help the poor much and so doesn’t address the issues liberals are concerned with, such as the quality of life especially for those who lack it most.

  • From todays Politic Betting site, think it says it all, we need a change next month,

    Which of the following will still be leaders of their parties on January 1 2016?

    David Cameron 131 votes
    Nick Clegg 45 votes
    Ed Miliband 206 votes
    Nigel Farage 227 votes
    Alex Salmond 195 votes

    335 voters free polls

    – See more at:

  • @theakes

    I don’t think even Clegg thinks he will be leader in January of 2016. I’m not even sure if he wants to, I always thought it was understood that he would resign after the election if there is no hung parliament and since the chances of that are very, very low…

    Now him leaving before May 2015 is another thing completely, if the European election’s results are as bad as it seems and the GE polls continue to be as bad as the ones today, I could see a change of leadership but I still think he would need to resign to see that change.

    When I see people saying that Clegg needd to leave as soon as possible I always wonder what do they hope will happen with the Coalition, do they expect the LibDem to leave as soon they have a new leader? Farron definitely wants to be the new leader but he certainly doesn’t want to part of the Coalition, why would he? Getting blamed for everything doesn’t sound like fun, ask Clegg. I would think that any candidate would be fine waiting at least until the end of the year for a contest of the leadership.

  • Absolutely amazed Clegg got 45 votes. Surely his position will be impossible if – as looks likely – the Lib Dems are thrashed in the euro elections. How do Lib Dems think it’s going to get any better at the GE – is there something in the pipeline we don’t know about or are they just relying on Cleggs leadership and debating skills?

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Apr '14 - 9:04pm

    There’s a missing chapter, though. It’s this. How does Jeremy propose to translate this classical liberal vision into a vibrant political party that attracts members, activists, and the public?

    The missing chapter is surely the one with the critical analysis. The one which looks at the fact that our country HAS been going down the path he calls “authentic liberalism” since the days of Margaret Thatcher, yet it does not seem to have delivered the free and fair society he wants (I don’t disagree with that) and thinks more of it will (I do disagree with that).

    This is a lazy book because it doesn’t seem to be doing anything more than delivering what is now firmly established political orthodoxy. I know, I haven’t read it, and have been criticised for having criticised it without having read it, but Stephen tells us it contains nothing challenging, nothing we haven’t read any times in editorials in the Times newspaper, articles Spectator magazine and so on, written up in a more populist way in the Daily Mail and the like, and carefully drip-fed to the proles in THE Sun.

    I’ve always been classical liberal in a sense of someone so fair he won’t take his own side in an argument. I find myself being driven to the left in this newsgroup because the preponderance of lazy right-wing thinking, yet there are other circles where I find I’m driven to the right by lazy left-wing assumptions. What I like most is people who can advance a political argument and yet be aware of its drawbacks, be able to see both sides, have some self-critical ability even if they end up firmly on one side – it does show they have at least though thoroughly through it, and also suggests we can trust them in power, since if they are aware of the drawback of their own case, we might hope if things go wrong and it is apparent they would be able to admit that, or at least out in the necessary patches to avoid the problems.

    I don’t see this in what is reported of Jeremy Browne’s book. Perhaps is there is, and those reporting it so far have missed it his supporter could point it out to me.

    As I’ve said many times, it’s this seem one-track mind that I used to so dislike in socialists, and now I find in these free-market fanatics. They seem so attached to their simplistic theories, and so unattached the real human world where it doesn’t all work out quite like that. When one tries to argue with them, bring in real world arguments, point out flaws, and all one gets is continuous repetition of their old rhetoric, and the line that anything that is wrong with it in practice is that it was not pushed in an extreme enough manner, one despairs. I do here, not just Browne, but as can be seen in previous discussions on his book, with his supporters, not one of whom seems to have much a human side to him (I think they are almost all “him”).

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Apr '14 - 9:23pm


    Yes, there are high-taxing high-productive countries… at the end of a post-war demographic boom and living off the rewards from a time when the west enjoyed a massive technological advantage to fuel industry.

    But is net wealth increasing or decreasing? Your arguments would make sense if everyone was on average getting poorer, but that’s not the case. On average people are getting richer, but it’s the rich getting richer who are pulling the average up. So it’s not the case, as you suggest, of countries on the whole declining in wealth. Rather it’s the case of wealth getting more concentrated in fewer hands – and those hands strongly resisting the sort of taxation that would reach it.

    This won’t continue, so it’s a matter of you you choose to approach this problem:
    1. Matthew would raise taxes to (broadly) maintain services
    2. I would lower services and (broadly) maintain taxation

    The point I’m making is that it’s greater complexity of society that is pushing state spending up. We see just the same in private business – greater complexity means that hugely more is spent now on finance and management and public relations and all sort of intermediate support stuff, than would have been in the past when a much greater proportion of the workforce would have been directly working on the shop floor. So with the country as a whole, greater complexity means much more need for the sort of support services provided by the state.

    What you have failed to note is that if we want the services, we must still pay for them. If we won’t pay for health care through taxes, then we’ll have to pay for more private medicine. The failure of most of the nation to think properly through this is shown by the tuition fees issue. Hardly anyone who opposes the tripling of tuition fees has noted that if they aren’t paid as they are now, they would have to be paid in some other way. Rather it has been written up as if it means three times as much money is going to universities than used to be the case. As a university lecturer, I wish this was the case, but it isn’t – the tuition fees are the real cost of the education, our salary (which is most of what it goes to) isn’t even rising in line with inflation. So, if university tuition were still heavily subsidised it would have to be paid for through taxes, or through government borrowing which would fall just as heavily on the next generation as the current system does.

    So if people decide they don’t want to pay for things through taxes, they won’t have a much bigger sum of money to spend on fun, they’ll have to spend more on things that aren’t state provided any more. University tuition an example.

  • I think the criticism of the quoted central tenet of the book is valid i.e. that mutual free trade is good for all parties. However, there is the underlying issue of the ‘Exorbitant Privilege’ currently enjoyed by the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency that for much of the 19th and early 20th century, was the preserve of the Sterling area.

    The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) made up of China, Russia and the CIS states plus associates such as India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan comprises half of the world’s population and a greater proportion of the world’s working age population.

    At the 2007 SCO summit, the Iranian Vice President offered that, “The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is a good venue for designing a new banking system which is independent from international banking systems”

    The address by Putin also included these comments: “We now clearly see the defectiveness of the monopoly in world finance and the policy of economic selfishness. To solve the current problem Russia will take part in changing the global financial structure so that it will be able to guarantee stability and prosperity in the world and to ensure progress”.

    “The world is seeing the emergence of a qualitatively different geo-political situation, with the emergence of new centers of economic growth and political influence”.

    “We will witness and take part in the transformation of the global and regional security and development architectures adapted to new realities of the 21st century, when stability and prosperity are becoming inseparable notions”.

    With the mass accumulation of currency and gold reserves and concentration of energy resources, raw materials and food production in the territory of these Asian giants – military, financial and economic power is rapidly transferring from the west to emerging markets. It appears inevitable that the terms of trade will shift in favour of these rapidly developing markets and it is incumbent on Western democracies to get our collective houses in order to cope with the geo-political realities of the 21st Century.

  • jedibeeftrix 13th Apr '14 - 11:42pm

    “The point I’m making is that it’s greater complexity of society that is pushing state spending up.”

    No, I do in fact accept that. 🙂

    As I noted in Caron’s post on this book:

    “Sure you do, and as you also point out quite correctly; if an essential service is needed it will need to be paid for, whether it is paid for by the state or in a private capacity.
    This way, we achieve the dual aim of avoiding the situation where the state has undue power over the individual, and we get to have a really good look at what is claimed to be an ‘essential’ service.”

    Given the demographic pressure on budgets right now, i think it is extremely valuable to carefully consider what deserves the title; “essential government service”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Apr '14 - 7:45am


    Given the demographic pressure on budgets right now, i think it is extremely valuable to carefully consider what deserves the title; “essential government service”.

    Yes, so instead of going on about keeping the proportion of GDP spent by the state below a fixed level and pretending this means a steady state level of provision of services, you should be honest and say what you would cut. It would then be possible to have an honest debate about it. As we have seen, payment of the costs of university tuition were taken from the state and made something individuals have to pay. So what next? Would you scrap the NHS? Would you make parents pay fees for primary and secondary school education? Would you put tolls on roads? Would you make people pay for refuse collection? Etc etc. That is what people need to weigh up – if they won’t pay the taxes needed to deal with what used to be state provided, will they prefer to pay fees and costs direct?

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Apr '14 - 7:56am

    Paul Reynolds

    There is much that all party factions agree on – a strong dislike of monopoly – economic, social and political. An abhorrence of the rich disdaining the poor and blaming them for their low incomes. Eugenic views of race and ethnicity, The absence of a social safety net. People being sick and not being able to afford health care.

    Does Jeremy Browne agree on this? His wish to keep state spending to a particular level, and more of it on physical infrastructure if I have read reports on his book correctly, suggest to me that he ISN’T bothered about a social safety net, and isn’t bothered about people being sick and not being able to afford health care. That’s what I’ve been arguing with jedibeeftrix about. The sort of right-wing economics Browne is pushing seems to me to be very much about disdaining the poor and blaming them for their low incomes, because the arguments of people like him seem to be based on the idea that anyone who is rich is a natural “wealth creator”, therefore anyone who is poor it’s just their own fault, and it’s entirely coincidence that those who are rich are predominantly the children of those who are rich. Or of it’s not, well, what were you saying about eugenics?


    Life on the shelf from Jonathan Wallace’s blog is a great antidote to all things Jeremy Browne.

    BTW – the dictionary definition of antidote is —- “medicine taken to counteract poison”.

  • “… The sort of right-wing economics Browne is pushing seems to me to be very much about disdaining the poor and blaming them for their low incomes, because the arguments of people like him seem to be based on the idea that anyone who is rich is a natural “wealth creator”, therefore anyone who is poor it’s just their own fault…”

    Matthew Huntbach is good at encapsulating this stuff . Who can deny that these are indeed the assumptions underlying Browne’s approach?

  • Paul in Twickenham 14th Apr '14 - 10:37am

    @Helen Tadcastle – which takes us – inevitably – to Thatcher’s (in) famous remark that “there is no such thing as society”. You will sometimes hear comments to the effect that Thatcher was quoted out of context but if you read the entire interview it is clear that not only is the quote completely consistent with the tone of the interview, she actually goes further than that quote in isolation would suggest. Parallels here?

  • Peter Watson 14th Apr '14 - 12:08pm

    On schools, I note that the Conservative Party’s long-term economic plan uses similar language to Browne:
    “Delivering the best schools and skills for young people so the next generation can succeed in the global race ”

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Apr '14 - 3:34pm

    I believe that co-operation rather than competition will do a better job of pulling up standards in schools. That is, schools that are doing well should want to advise school that are doing badly on what works, perhaps there would be exchanges of staff and pupils so the weak can learn from the strong.

    The effect of the competitive atmosphere that people like Browne wishes to encourage is damaging. Just today there is news (see here, it’s in other papers as well, but I thought I’d quote a right-wing one) about the stress teachers are under, and it’s the sort of thing that Jeremy Browne wants more of that is the major cause of this stress.

    People working under this sort of stress do NOT do a good job. It encourages a heads-down safety-first attitude in which people dare not be innovative in case it goes wrong, and they lose out. It makes people hate their jobs, and people who hate their jobs do not do well in them. If there’s a real fear of loss of jobs and consequent wrecking of one’s life, then staff are ruled by fear, and that fear encourages negative and damaging attitudes. Managers who are themselves afraid of losing their jobs tend to turn to bullying to try and get those under their management to perform. Staff tend to try and shift workload to others, particularly difficult workload, so that others get the blame for things that go wrong and face losing their jobs. Suppose there is a class which happen to be difficult and disruptive? Who is going to put their life at stake by teaching that class and so take the blame for its poor performance? Not the most able staff, for sure. It’ll be pushed into the rookie staff, or those who are already on the way out anyway due to poor performance, so for them it’s take on that job and get sacked later, or refuse it and get sacked now.

    Competition tends to lead to efforts being put into pointless and shallow things that drive up league table position. Even if you are one of those who tries to look beyond league table position when making educational choices, you are forced to pay attention to them, because the most informed and interested parents WILL make the effort to get their children into the high league table schools, and the least informed and least interested won’t, so there’s a feedback effect which drives division deeper.

    Consider a school which, perhaps for some rather trivial reason, suffers a league table drop and falls to somewhere low down. Now who wants to go to that school? It’ll only attract the kids of those who don’t know or don’t care, and that alone will drive its performance down further even if the teaching and management are good. Competition means it’s in the interest of the stronger school to do all they can not to take on the more challenging pupils, so they’ll make sure those pupils go to the weaker schools, with those at the bottom knowing they must take them otherwise they will have empty places and do face closure.

    Who will take a job at one of these schools which has fallen down? Consider the skilled deputy head, looking for a headship, with several offers open. Is he or she going to risk his or her career by going for a weak school, where there’s a real risk it gets pushed down further, closed down, with staff losing their jobs, the head first? Or any good teacher, he or she would not want to take the risk of working in a place like that. So standards are bound to fall. Competition means its in the interests of the stronger schools to see this happen as well – what incentive is there to co-operate over spreading good practice when co-operation just means boosting one’s rivals?

    People arguing Browne’s case have spoken about Britain’s education flat-lining in standards. This after many years now of the league table mentality that is meant to have made things more competitive and so drive up standards. What one hears about schools doing daft things to rise places in the league tables show this dominates their thinking. The idea that Browne and his supporters give of schools that are complacent because there is no real pressure in them is shown to be utterly false by this. Might it not be the case that the league table mania and competitive pressures we have had already have been the CAUSE of this deterioration that Browne’s supporters observe? If so, his proposed solution will make things worse. Why are his supporters so confident that they are right and their opponents so wrong that they do not even seem to be able to think this way and counter the argument? Surely it’s good business practice to have a risk analysis of any proposed new move, looking at all the disadvantages and ways it could go wrong, rather than just ploughing forward without deep thought.

    Where is Browne’s thoughts when, as Stephen Tall points out, he goes on about Britain emulating China, yet China is not a country which has embraced liberalism, neither the sort of old-fashioned liberalism that people like me thought the word means when we joined the Liberal Party, nor what Browne calls “authentic liberalism”?

    Might one not think that Browne has started with the answer first and then thought of the question later and tried, not very well, to fit the question to the answer? Might it not be that he started with this answer, because it’s the answer being pushed very forcefully by the rich and powerful in our society because it’s an answer that suits them? Might it not be that the rich and powerful have a vested interest in undermining democracy, because its democracy with its force of numbers that challenges the power they have from their wealth? So isn’t it in their interest to undermine any solution involve state action controlled by democracy and instead propose “free enterprise” which they push as “people power”, but in reality is money power as the more money you have, the more power you have in it? Might it not be in their interest, for example, to push the idea that democracy is bad because politicians make dubious expenses claims in the tens of thousands, and ignore the rather higher number of City executive who take bonuses in the hundreds of thousand and millions?

  • Any chance that the party could commission Helen Tedastle and Matthew Huntbach to write a book to provide a Liberal Democrat response to the outmodedd right wing Thatcherite stuff in The Browne Book?

    The comments they have provided in these threads has been grounded in the real world, grounded in the genuine political traditions of the Liberal Democrats.
    They also both seem to have a better knowledge and understanding of China in 2014. Perhaps because neither of them suffers the profound disadvantage in life of being the child of a career diplomat in the Foreign Office ?

  • Graham Evans 14th Apr '14 - 5:43pm

    I tend to agree with Stephen’s comments. However, while I accept that a “Race”implies a winner, there are certainly some who would argue that at least some of the western world’s current high standard of living results from our having exploited the mineral and human resources of communities weaker than ourselves. These communities and countries are now much stronger, and in that sense we have become weaker. Therefore we must run simply to stand still.

    Secondly, I think his comparison with the FDP is false. Historically this was a party strongly associated with big business, whereas the Union Parties (CDU/CSU) were linked to the Mittelstand (smaller and medium sized enterprises). Indeed if you are looking for a party which encompasses “members from elements of all three political parties: the Lib Dem Orange Bookers, the Tory Cameroons, and the New Labour Blairites”, it is probably the CDU/CSU. The main difference would be that on social issues the Union Parties are still quite conservative.

  • Graham Evans 14th Apr '14 - 5:47pm

    One further point, Germany has of course practised a mercantile approach to trade for decades. It has been able to get away with this approach because most other countries with which it trades, most notably the USA, have allowed it to do so.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Apr '14 - 6:13pm

    John Tilley

    Any chance that the party could commission Helen Tedastle and Matthew Huntbach to write a book to provide a Liberal Democrat response to the outmodedd right wing Thatcherite stuff in The Browne Book?

    No, I don’t think so. I’ve long been involved in discussions like this in the party, way back to the days when it was done by snail mail to Liberal News, and have made clear my relevant experience, but never once have I been invited onto any sort of policy development group in the party.

    I did once apply to be an approved PPC, but I was turned down on the grounds I was “poor at communication”. What I think they meant by that was that I’m a naturally quiet person in social situations and I’ve got a working class accent.

  • Peter Watson 14th Apr '14 - 9:29pm

    @Helen Tedcastle
    At least “he [Mr Gove] has done some very good things to help depoliticise education” (according to David Laws, anyway – I can only assume that Laws means teachers dislike Lib Dems as well now. 🙁

  • Peter Watson 14th Apr '14 - 11:26pm

    @Helen “Not sure what the % of teachers is who support us now – it used to be in the high twenties.”
    8% nowadays apparently (, compared to 27% in March 2010 (
    I don’t really know what Laws meant. Earlier he had said, “Some politicians seek consensus, and others prefer their “dividing lines” – they search out controversy and seek to perpetuate it.” Perhaps after delivering a speech to teachers which contained what The Guardian considered “a thinly veiled criticism of Gove” (, for a different audience (journalists) Laws wanted to spin a different message and “denied his comments were aimed at Mr Gove” (

  • Simon Banks 15th Apr '14 - 1:37pm

    Thanks for this very thoughtful review, Stephen.

    I’ll just make one point (so many have been made). It’s about “authentic liberalism”. I think Jeremy Browne can lay claim to being a Gladstonian Liberal (though I suspect the G.O.M. would have taken a more robust stance on Trident and, given his natural attraction to big moral causes, on energy and climate change). But Gladstonian Liberalism was never the only game on the field, and if the Brownist claim to represent authentic liberalism be accepted, some early 19th century Radicals, some Whigs, Asquith, Campbell-Bannerman and Hobhouse would all be inauthentic, and as for Lloyd George as Chancellor…heresy, heresy!

    Jeremy Browne seems to me not to understand the “community” part of “liberty, equality and community”, which it would be easy to forget, our constitution identifies as fundamental Liberal values, and to have a very narrow conception of equality. He co-opts History, but I don’t think his grasp of it is too strong.

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th Apr '14 - 2:42pm

    Simon Banks

    It’s about “authentic liberalism”. I think Jeremy Browne can lay claim to being a Gladstonian Liberal

    No. If one looks at Gladstone and his contemporaries, one does not find the shrill “public bad, private good” attitudes that are core to those who claim to be “authentic liberals” in the Gladstonian style today. One finds a far more pragmatic attitude. State education was introduced by the Liberal MP William Forster in the 1870 Elementary Education Act. Schools were put under the control of local authorities with elected boards, not left to the provision of private finance, there was none of this “drive up quality by competition” rhetoric.

    Private business was a very much smaller affair then, nationwide companies and global corporations of the sort which dominate it now hardly existed. So to suggest that it is “authentic” to have attitudes to private business that existed then without taking account of the way private business now means something very different, is dubious. Gladstone was noted for his opposition to the real power of the day – the landed aristocracy. I believe that if Gladstone were around to day, he would see in the leaders of the big corporations the equivalent to what he saw in the aristocracy of his time, and he would therefore have a very different sort of politics to those today who use his name to justify passing what little democratic power remains to this new aristocracy.

  • I think Mr Browne is who many people think David Laws is. David Laws is actually far more egalitarian and redistributive than Browne, who strikes me as not being egalitarian at all.

  • Mick Humphreys 23rd Apr '14 - 10:17am

    Why is it that the people who have the most to say admit they have not read this book?

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