by Stephen Tall on April 13, 2014
Three 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 Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.