In praise of the retiring Jeremy Browne

by Stephen Tall on October 15, 2014

Jeremy Browne and I should, I guess, be ideological soul-mates. We both self-identify as Orange Bookers. We both believe in free and fair markets and that access to those markets are often the best way by which social injustice can be righted. We both want to see the Lib Dems self-confidently making the case for Britain as a proudly open and liberal nation.

Yet when I read his book, Race Plan, I was, to be honest, a bit disappointed. Most of the policies put forward were notable more for being conventionally right-of-centre (for-profit schools, cutting social security and the top-rate of income tax) than radically liberal (no mention of shifting tax from income to wealth or decentralising power, for instance). And Jeremy’s passion for an active state – through massive infrastructure investment – is one area where I’m much more cautious (governments have a very bad Big Project track record: see The Blunders of our Governments for details).

But – and it is a big but – here was a current Lib Dem MP actively thinking out loud. Whether I agree with the details of his policy ideas is largely beside the point. Parliament needs more intelligent MPs prepared to think and speak for themselves. It’s all too easy to opt for the quiet life of regurgitating the latest key lines supplied by Party HQ. Much harder to think through from first principles what you believe in and why, and to be prepared to argue for it.

I spoke at a fringe meeting with Jeremy at last week’s Lib Dem conference. He seemed to be enjoying the freedom to make his case for what he termed “360-degree liberalism” (a name he openly admitted he hated). He looked relaxed and engaged, liberated even. I guess now we know why.

There are a handful of Lib Dems – those who relish internecine warfare – who have openly welcomed Jeremy’s resignation. (I’ve even previously seen a Lib Dem peer openly express the hope he’d lose his seat: nice, eh?)

Others, including some of his admirers, have regretted it but attacked him for its timing (just seven months from the election leaves the local party scant time to ensure his Lib Dem successor can bed in within the constituency).

But standing as an MP is not like most other jobs. Most of us can quit and work out our notice and no-one will think twice. Standing for re-election, especially in an age of five-year, fixed-term parliaments, means committing yourself to the crazy you-must-be-mad life of an MP until 2020. Given Jeremy’s been working for the party more or less solidly since 1993, I think we should cut him some slack. If his heart’s not in it any more – and that’s not something you can carefully plan in advance – he has to do what’s right for him and his family. Nick Clegg’s ungraciously terse, luke-warm acknowledgement of Jeremy’s resignation could at least have acknowledged that.

I might have ended up disagreeing with Jeremy more than I’d have expected, but I’m sorry he’s going. The Lib Dem parliamentary group will be weaker for his absence. Even those who’ve always felt (righteously, wrongly) that he should have joined the Tories might come to miss him more than they expect: internal debate is how you sharpen your arguments before you try them out on opponents much less sympathetic.