LDVideo: Jeremy Browne MP’s final Commons speech – politics must seize the opportunities of the future, not preserve the past

Taunton Deane MP Jeremy Browne, who announced last year that he would not be seeking re-election having served in the House of Commons for nearly 10 years, took the opportunity of the debate following last week’s budget to make what was his final speech in the House. He used it to praise the coalition’s “vision” in its determination to solve the country’s weaknesses and to pay tribute to his constituency. He also returned to the theme of his book, Race Plan, calling for a less timid, more ambitious politics in order to prevent the UK becoming ever more irrelevant on the world stage.

You can watch Jeremy’s speech below or on YouTube here, and the Hansard transcript follows.


Transcript:

I have heard it said that I was the only Minister in history to have been sacked for being too supportive of the Government. Although the decision to determine my future may or may not have been wise—others can judge that—I remain unequivocally enthusiastic about this Government, as I am about the Budget statement made by the Chancellor today. That is what I want to speak about in what will be my final speech as a Member of Parliament.

The reason I am an enthusiast for this Government and their record over the past five years is that we came into office in 2010 in remarkably difficult circumstances. Our country was in a catastrophic position. At our worst point this Government were borrowing £420 million every day. It is straightforwardly delusional of Labour Members of Parliament to think that if only we had borrowed even more, we would not have the problem of a deficit today. We saved the country—the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrat party, working together in the national interest, pulled our country back from the brink when our deficit was more than 10% of GDP. Far from going too far and too fast, as has been charged by the shadow Chancellor and others, if I am critical at all, I think we have done the minimum of what was required, rather than over-extending ourselves, and we can do even more in the future. But it is a good record.

Interest rates are extremely low. We could easily have had a position where houses were being repossessed right across the country. Inflation is extremely low. Unemployment, including youth unemployment, has fallen dramatically during this Parliament, and the deficit is falling as well. In my view, if this coalition Government put themselves forward for election—they will not, but if they were on the ballot paper on 7 May—they would win emphatically and they would deserve to win because they have an impressive record of taking a country from ruin to relative prosperity, with the prospect of further progress.

The best coalitions are those that are more than the sum of their parts. The worst coalitions are those that operate at the level of the lowest common denominator. This Government have not always functioned as effectively as they might have done, and that is true of all Governments, but more often than not the Government have had the characteristics of the best coalitions rather than those of the worst, and the United Kingdom has benefited from that.

It has also been of benefit that we have had two parties in government. This has been a hugely difficult process, wrestling with the massive deficit and many of the other structural problems that our country faces. Two parties coming together, representing about 60% of the votes cast at the last general election, gave a wider mandate for this Chancellor and this Government. If I am honest about our coalition partners, there would have been greater anxiety about the Conservatives adopting a programme of reducing state spending, had it not been done in partnership with the Liberal Democrats. While I am briefly being mildly critical of our coalition partners, I remember sitting on the Opposition Benches—it seems hard to believe that the Liberal Democrats once sat on the Opposition Benches—and hearing speeches from the now Chancellor promising that the Conservatives would match Labour’s spending commitments, even when we were running a deficit and the economy was growing. So I am pleased that this Government have shown a sober awareness of the predicament that we find ourselves in, and that my party has contributed some of the biggest and most enduring economic policies of this Government, not least the dramatic rise in the point at which people start paying income tax. The Chancellor, I am pleased to say, announced further increases in that threshold today.

There is still a long way to go. Many people in Parliament, the media and elsewhere talk as if this huge task was almost over. Even today the British Government are still borrowing £10 million an hour. Our debt interest is about £1 billion a week. Every week £1 billion of the taxes of our constituents goes not on schools, hospitals or the police, but on paying the legacy of overspending in the past, and that figure will rise because we still have a debt that is increasing. However, huge progress has been made.

Where now? Where do we go next? We have huge strengths as a country. Our top level education is among the best in the world, second only to that of the United States of America. Our labour markets are flexible. We attract inward investment. We are a country with a genuine global disposition and we are admired for our innovation and creativity. Britain can be a success; we have reasons to be highly optimistic.

However, we will be successful only if we address some of our serious weaknesses as a country—and we do have serious weaknesses. Our overall education performance, not at the elite level but the general level, is still not sufficiently good for us to be globally competitive. Our infrastructure, particularly our transport infrastructure but also our energy-generating infrastructure, needs to improve. Our welfare costs and welfare dependency are a problem. Angela Merkel has said—I repeat this from memory without the exact numbers in front of me—that Europe has 7% of the world’s population and 23% of the world’s economy but 50% of the world’s welfare spending. That is a very precarious position. The 7% is falling and the 23% is falling, but the 50% is not falling—or at least, not nearly as quickly as the other two numbers. We still have a very high level of Government debt and a high deficit. This Government, whether on educational shortfalls, excessive welfare costs and dependency, infrastructure or debt, have worked systematically to address the weaknesses that will otherwise hold our country back. We have enduring strengths, but in the past five years we have also had a Government with the wherewithal, talent and vision to address our weaknesses as well.

I want us to have a sense of purpose in politics. I want us to think about how we can become the biggest economy in Europe within a generation, as the Chancellor mentioned in his Budget speech. I want us to be able to think about how we, as a country, with less than 1% of the world’s population, can be relevant in an era of much more intense global competition—how we can be world leaders in innovation, skills, and job creation. All these are possible—they are prizes within our grasp—but we must have the level of optimism and vision necessary to realise those outcomes.

It has been a great privilege for me to represent the constituency of Taunton Deane in Somerset—Taunton for five years, and then latterly Taunton Deane—and to serve 10 years in the House of Commons, and also to support a radical and important Government in the history of our country. I want to make my final comments about politics generally and the role of Members of Parliament.

I was listening to the “Today” programme last week when a person was being interviewed—he was French or perhaps a Swiss French speaker—who was seeking to be the first person ever to fly around the world in an entirely solar-panelled plane. It is an extraordinary plane, because it has a wingspan of a 747 but weighs about the same as a family car, so it sounds like an absolutely terrifying undertaking. The interviewer said that he did not doubt his courage and his sense of adventure but questioned what possible application this feat of adventure would have, given that Boeing, Airbus and the airliners were not interested in the technology and did not think it would have any great future use. The interviewee said, with, I imagine, a shrug—it was on the radio, but it sounded like he was shrugging his shoulders in the way that only French-speaking people can—“That is to be expected. The inventors of the candlestick did not invent the light bulb.” It was a rather Eric Cantona-esque moment. However, he was making an important point, which is that we cannot, in our politics, always be risk-averse and always in the business of preserving the past rather than trying to seize the opportunities of the future. If we allow politics, in all parts of this House, in all parties, to be about how we can frustrate, regulate and tax light bulb inventors, and subsidise and prop up candlestick manufacturers, we will find that world events—in a globalised economy with very rapid technological, demographic and economic change—leave the House of Commons behind and trust in politics subsides further. That would be hugely regrettable.

We have made enormous progress under this Government in this Parliament, but, whichever Government are in office after the general election, I urge the people in that Parliament and the leader of that Government to be visionary and ambitious for our country, because we can have a great future ahead.

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20 Comments

  • Tony Greaves 26th Mar '15 - 7:18pm

    Oh dear. And here is a man who is so visionary he wants to go back to the 19th century. Why on earth does anyone think his last meandering speech is worthy of reproduction here?

    I wonder what job he will have in six months time?

    Tony

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 26th Mar '15 - 7:39pm

    Tony Greaves – back to the 19th century in what respect?

  • @ Tony Greaves

    I think you’re maligning the 19th century.

  • Now we know. If there was a Coalition party he would leave the Lib Dems and join that.
    I notice he is bemoaning the levels of welfare in the EU. He considers it puts us at a great disadvantage. I am wondering where he is going with that idea? I would say that other countries are at a disadvantage for not having a welfare state. it puts money in the pockets of the least well off who will spend the money in the local economy. Whats wrong with that?

  • Eddie Sammon 27th Mar '15 - 12:14am

    Jeremy makes some very good points, but he ruins it with his bad ones and he is becoming irrelevant. He needs to start addressing weaknesses. It doesn’t necessarily mean status quo centrism, but it does mean giving up on preaching about how the market is going to solve all our problems.

  • Julian Tisi 27th Mar '15 - 8:18am

    Seriously guys. The man is retiring. Like what he says or not at least he’s motivated by a clear passion and he has a clear liberal vision – we need more people like that and personally I think we’ve lost a real talent.

  • Exactly Julian – even if I don’t agree with all his ideas, I can respect that he has a clear view and a bit more vision than your typical MP. The first couple of comments are cheap shots at a man who worked for us for 10 years in parliament as a good MP and the party for a while before that.

  • Ruth Bright 27th Mar '15 - 9:14am

    Race Plan is passionate on lots of great stuff like teaching foreign languages. Browne’s outward looking tone and internationalism is admirable. However the book is amazingly cavalier on welfare and working conditions. The term “sweat shop” is used in inverted commas throughout. Perhaps that’s what Tony means re a return to the 19th century.

  • Graham Evans 27th Mar '15 - 9:15am

    @ Mark
    So very true. It seems to me that too many old war horses want to create a Labour Party Mark II but without the associations with the trade unions, except perhaps the public sector TUs. This might have been a commendable vision in the 1970s, or even the 1980s when the SDP was formed, but the world has moved on, and vague talk of empowering local communities is no substitute for addressing the fundamental contradictions and conflicts of society today.

  • Graham Evans 27th Mar ’15 – 9:15am
    “…….vague talk of empowering local communities is no substitute for addressing the fundamental contradictions and conflicts of society ”

    Such vague talk was always a waste of words. That is why Radical Liberals worked with people in their communities to “TAKE AND USE POWER”.

    A lesson from the suffragettes one hundred years ago was that if you sit around and ask politely nobody is actually going to “empower” you.

    People need to take power themselves. One way of doing that is through forming or joining a Trade Union and working with people in the work community to achieve common ends to improve conditions of employment.

  • Bill le Breton 27th Mar '15 - 9:53am

    There is a deep hurt here, gnawing away at his insides. I hope he finds comfort somewhere in the future.

  • Steve Comer 27th Mar '15 - 9:57am

    Is any bookmaker (or spread betting company) taking bets on when Jeremy Browne will defect to the Tory Party?
    If so please tell us so I can get a tenner on before the odds drop……

  • Stephen Hesketh 27th Mar '15 - 10:47am

    Tony Greaves26th Mar ’15 – 7:18pm
    ” … Why on earth does anyone think his last meandering speech is worthy of reproduction here? … ”

    I am always puzzled how ordinary contributors are asked, “to be who you say you are.” and yet we have so many LDV Op-Ed writers using pseudonyms.

    On this ocassion though, I can thoroughly understand the persons desire for anonymity having plugged both Jeremy Browne’s book and his final Commons speech as a Liberal Democrat.

  • Malcolm Todd 27th Mar '15 - 12:03pm

    And so to the content:
    “Europe has 7% of the world’s population and 23% of the world’s economy but 50% of the world’s welfare spending”

    So what? If we substitute “spending on foreign holidays” or “gym membership” or “car ownership” or indeed “foreign aid budget” for “welfare spending”, what would the equivalent figure be? The population and economy figures tell us that we are four times better off than the rest of the world. Spending more on the relief and prevention of hardship in our societies seems like one of the better ways to take advantage of that good fortune.

  • Malcolm Todd 27th Mar ’15 – 12:03pm

    Brilliant comment from Malcolm Todd.

    He highlights just how far politics in this country has declined since the first Thatcherite government.
    Some people have slipped so far to the right that they have passively swalloŵed the dogma that spending on the welfare of our citizens is a bad thing!

    Nick Thornsby might reflect that this is the aspect of right-wing thinking from the 19th Century that is brought to mind when listening to a speech by the former MP for Taunton.

    Well done Malcolm Todd for pointing this out.

  • Max Wilkinson 28th Mar '15 - 10:57am

    Say what you like about Jeremy Browne, but he at least has a clear vision of what the party should stand for. I may not always agree with him on the economy, but much of what he says about markets and personal freedoms is worthy of consideration.

  • Graham Evans 28th Mar '15 - 2:54pm

    @Malcoln Todd There is a big difference between “spending on the relief and prevention of hardship” and much of what is classed on welfare expenditure. For instance, state pensions and pensioner benefits such as free bus travel, are part of the welfare budget, but it is questionable whether many of the recipients are in need of such support. Moreover, it is also questionable whether a welfare payment which traps recipients in relative poverty is really in the recipients’ long term interest. It might for instance be better to follow the German example of having much higher levels of unemployment benefit initially, which then drops of after say a year. The money saved could be used to provide high level support or retraining and thereby reduce long term unemployment. Liberals should remember that Beverage’s concept of the welfare state was based on helping people to help themselves, not making them welfare serfs.

  • Graham Evans 28th Mar '15 - 3:11pm

    @John Tilley “TAKE AND USE POWER”. This is a classic, old fashioned, liberal slogan that might sound good but completely ignores the reality that advanced societies have inherent contradictions and conflicting interests. In practice it is impossible to resolve these differences to everyone’s satisfaction. We therefore have to ask ourselves how best we can come up with solutions which most people are prepared to accept, while acknowledging that this may well leave some significantly dissatisfied with the outcome. You do not have to accept every aspect of Jeremy Browne’s analysis, but retreating to quasi socialist solutions, or repeating slogans from the 1970s and 1980s, is no way forward.

  • Graham Evans 28th Mar ’15 – 3:11pm
    Graham, I did respond to your last comment but my response was not allowed by the moderator. Happy to e-mail you a response if you would prefer.

  • Philip Thomas 29th Mar '15 - 9:05pm

    You have only to look at those wonderful countries where there is no welfare state to speak of- such earthly paradises as Somalia- to see how the abolition of welfare would be totally beneficial to Europe.

    While we’re in this frame of mind, we could stop spending money on policing and let armed gangs fight it out, that would save public money too!

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