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Alas poor Jeremy Browne, the man who loved this government not wisely but all too well

8 April 2014

Poor Jeremy Browne. Sacked for believing in the government in which he served*. Then again, no-one claims politics, or life, is fair. So it is good to see Mr Browne taking his revenge. He has written a book and been speaking to the papers, telling the Telegraph that:

“Our lack of self confidence and our willingness to be defined as being a party of timid centrists rather than bold liberals means people look at us and may be reassured that we will be a brake on the other two, but that’s hardly a reason to vote for us.

“Nick Clegg took a risk to take us from being party of protest to party of government, but we look like we’ve turned into a party of protest in government.

“We are the diluting agent. The party shows resilience and fortitude given the battering we have had. But we have defaulted instead to trying to cause the least offence to the most people. We have sold ourselves as a brake in government rather than an accelerator.

“I am certain in my own mind that authentic, unleashed, liberalism is what Britain needs. The problem my party has is we lack the confidence to champion that, despite having liberal in our title. That contributes to our chronic weakness in the eyes of the public who are uncertain what we stand for.”

True that. All of it. The Lib Dems have positioned themselves as the restraining party in this ministry just as they would should they form a government in coalition with Labour after the next election. This is all very well and good but it is not quite enough.

Clegg’s backbenchers and party members bear some of the blame for this. The Lib Dem leader has been held hostage by his so-called friends. And Vince Cable. Nevertheless, Clegg cannot escape responsibility for the predicament in which his part finds itself: blamed for everything, receiving credit for nothing.

One of the problems with the coalition was that, almost from the beginning, both parties kept an eye on the 2015 election. That meant taking positions for the sake of differentiating themselves from their erstwhile partners in government. This made some sense but it came at a heavy cost too, robbing the government of energy, purpose and coherence.


Clegg’s “A Lib Dem in every pot” approach helped ensure that the government moved too slowly where it moved at all (with the possible exception of education) and too often became a ministry of half-measures. At least some of the blame for the shortcomings at health, transport, the environment and the Treasury stems from this.

Did it have to be this way? Perhaps not. Remember, a Tory Lib Dem deal was supposed to be impossible. Almost all the Westminster sages agreed on that.  And yet the sages were not wrong to predict that the government would not be a happy one. It has been held together by external pressure more than by its internal logic. This too has weakened it, draining it of purpose and, as Browne suggests, its reforming zeal.

Again, the demands of party management – for Clegg and Cameron alike – may have necessitated this. Nevertheless it has been unfortunate. There was sufficient overlap between Cameron’s liberal Toryism and Clegg’s Orange Book liberalism for there to have been a de facto, if also temporary, alliance of principle as well as of mere convenience.

Neither leader has had the courage, strength or perhaps even desire to make good that promise, however. The result has been a government that has taken at least a step back for every two paces it has marched forward.

Not a dismal or disastrous government by any means. It has some real achievements. But still, you sense, a government that has achieved less than it could have had it made a virtue of the compromises of coalition instead of accepting them grudgingly and, often, half-heartedly.

Or, to put it another way, if the coalition had made the best possible fist of governing Britain Jeremy Browne would have been in the cabinet and some of his Lib Dem “colleagues” would not.

Roads not taken and all that stuff, you know?

*I suppose I should say that Lib Dem types dispute this. But that’s how it seemed to the rest of us.

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  • David

    Jeremy Browne has always seemed a very sound liberal – in a party whose current instincts are neither liberal nor democratic. Give him a pink gin and a jazz cigarette, and you could almost see him joining UKIP, which is now the natural home for English liberals!

  • DavidL

    If the Liberals could be persuaded to ditch watered down municipal socialism and return to the principles that made them the natural party of Government under Russell, Palmerston and Gladstone, they might be worth voting for. Sad to say, I suspect they won’t.


    A tiny orange dot on a blue tie – the image says it all!

  • dado_trunking

    There is a deeper truth in all of this.
    Small parties in a two party state, even when at the receiving end of 23% (!) of the overall vote, will end up with a mere 8.75% of the seats. That’s just not good enough.
    Why anyone would think this time round it would be different is beyond many. UKIP will command no such figures, and even if they did would return even less representatives in the House that is NOT REPRESENTATIVE.
    That is just not good enough.

  • anyfool

    Time to sit down, a Lib Dem actually speaking some sense, has he had an attack of the vapours or the writer of this article.

    • Count Dooku

      He’s the only true Liberal left in Parliament. A man after my own political heart.

  • startledcod

    Opportunities missed upon gaining power, where have we heard that before? Blair could have ordered the slaughter of the first-born in 1997 but instead went for campaigning to be re-elected.

    As much as I can glean of what Jeremy Browne has written (without actually reading his book) I agree with everything with the exception of HS2 and his attitude to the EU. Could he not switch party and take over from Oliver Letwin?

    • telemachus

      Which actually means he is not

      • startledcod

        Unless, of course, you take my words in a literal sense, the sense in which I, the author, intended in which case he is. I’m assuming that you are a fully paid up member of the ‘ever closer’ coterie.

  • Des Demona

    Don’t think for profit schools, cutting the top rate of tax again and no ring-fencing of the NHS is going to go down too well with voters. Try again Jeremy.

    • Grrr8

      The voters are, sadly, muppets. The NHS ring fence needs to go.

      • HookesLaw

        You and your relatives, parents and children, your friends and all their families, they are not going to get ill are they?
        Its not hard to spot the muppet.
        The NHS is going through a £20 billion efficiency drive.

    • James Strong

      Schools operating for profit, it’s a very good idea. To make a profit they’ll have to provide an education that people choose to pay for. Schools funded directly by the state don’t have to satisfy parents and pupils in the same way.
      Establish a link between choosing to pay and the product on offer. It works in everything from cranberries to cars.
      Cutting the top rate of tax, another very good idea. Slash tax and slash spending as well. Change the mindest and change the answer to the question ‘Whose money is it?’ It belongs to the individual, not the state.
      As for the NHS, so much ‘the envy of the world’ , so why don’t other free countries copy it?
      The NHS doesn’t provide efficient care and it allows authoritarians scope to
      interfere with lifestyle choices on the grounds that being: a smoker/a drinker/ fat/ a hater of 5-a-day etc costs the NHS money.
      I’d like to see the NHS abolished. However, I don’t think that’s going to be easy to do. It might take decades; it might be impossible. That’s because so few people have a thought-out response to it, their attachment is emotuional, irrational and almost religious. That is difficult to counter with calm arguments, expecially since those arguments are so rarely given a hearing.

      • Des Demona

        ”Schools funded directly by the state don’t have to satisfy parents and pupils in the same way.”
        Huh? Parents allegedly have a free choice as to where they send their kids. If a school is underperforming they don’t have to send their kids there. Why is that not the same way?
        In any event your neoliberal agenda simply results in a dog eat dog mentality in my opinion – the price of everything and the value of nothing – which I trust the Uk public will dismiss as quickly as Jeremy Browne’s pronouncements. As no doubt Cleggy will do shortly.

        • Peter Harrison

          Parents do not have a free choice. They have the right to express a preference. Not the same thing at all. Many parents every year find that they have missed out on all their preferred schools and have been allocated a place at a school they were hoping to avoid. Many parents do have to send their kids to underperforming schools. Unless they can afford to go private they have no choice.

          • Des Demona

            And don’t you think parents would also miss out on their preferred ‘for profit’ school?
            If there is no evidence that for profit schools perform any better than state funded in the same catchment areas then the whole notion is simply an ideological preference, and childrens’ education is way to important for that.

          • Milk76

            Exactly Peter. There is only an illusion of choice. If your child is allocated to a bad school you cannot pack up your child and their funding and move them to a better one.

        • Colonel Mustard

          Another view point is that economic freedom, while itself an extremely important component of total freedom, is also a necessary condition for political freedom. As suggested by Friedman the centralised control of economic activities has always been accompanied by political repression. The current ‘Chinese’ model of political repression accompanied by economic freedom is relatively new but unfortunately seems attractive to many Western politicians.

          In Friedman’s view the voluntary character of all transactions in an unregulated market economy and wide diversity that it permits are fundamental threats to repressive political leaders and greatly diminish their power to coerce. Through the elimination of centralised control of economic activities, economic power is separated from political power, and the one can serve as counterbalance to the other. Friedman suggests that competitive capitalism is especially important to minority groups, since impersonal market forces protect people from discrimination in their economic activities for reasons unrelated to their productivity.

          Personally I would not entirely agree with that because of the ‘Chinese’ model but also because economic freedom has been compromised by corporate monopolies. Globalisation has created some unfortunate opportunities for exploitation. For example companies who offshore in a way that causes domestic redundancies in order to service their domestic market. The burden of such exploitation falls on the domestic taxpayer (via welfare) and should really be counterbalanced by a tax implication for the corporate entity making such choices.

          It’s all very well to get hot under the collar about trigger words like “neoliberal agenda” and “profit” but the situation as it has developed is far more nuanced than that. The “not for profit” third sector involves huge taxpayer subsidy which in part pays for inflated staff salaries defended on grounds of market competition. The same occurs in local government where ‘marketing’ is incorporated departmentally and in salaries in what is essentially a captive and taxed consumer base without choice. The old idea of state-owned ‘not for profit’ entities is redundant in the face of such developments because the onus has shifted from ‘profit’ to remuneration.

          • Des Demona

            ”but also because economic freedom has been compromised by corporate monopolies”
            Which in my view would in fact be exacerbated by neoliberalism as a corporate monopoly is the likely consequence of an unregulated market.

            • Colonel Mustard

              It is not as a simple as that. Not all private sector businesses are corporate but many not-for-profit public bodies adopt corporate behaviours. The local government CEO earns more than the PM. This is defended on grounds of market forces in the jobs sector. But her salary is paid for by taxes and her “consumers” have no choice about who empties their bins or what they have to pay in council tax. Her excessive salary (and those of her colleagues) is in effect her profit. But it escapes real scrutiny and reform not just because her “market” is unregulated but because the rhetoric of the public narrative is constrained by outdated notions like yours.

              What adds an interesting irony to this is that many of those public sector “profit makers” and rent-seekers espouse socialist rhetoric like yours whilst happily adopting for themselves unregulated market behaviours.

              I tend to agree that monopolies are the result of an unregulated market but the answer is in more imaginative regulation and tax regimes not the tired old arguments for state ownership. The local government CEO should not be able to monopolise profits from captive consumers whilst at the same time decrying central government “cuts” and reducing services.

              • Des Demona

                Nothing is simple, but living in a ”society” requires a certain level of co-operation which is best engendered by local or central government. Infrastructure development, street lighting, welfare, health, etc and a host of others.
                Neoliberalism can only work in a perfect market, and no market is perfect. What you end up with is an ever extending ”class” gap and lack of social cohesion..
                You’re not rich and you get sick? Tough.
                You fall on hard times? Tough.
                Can’t afford a decent education for your kids? Tough.
                Next step – social revolution.
                Not the kind of society I want to live in. Your mileage may vary.
                You make claims about ”her excessive salary” and ”escapes scrutiny and reform” and other emotive terms with no real proof other than your own opinion. You want to privatise local government? – what makes you think the CEO of a private organisation would work for less? Have you not seen the massive pay rises they’ve been giving each other?
                In the end it is a false equivalence to compare ”tax payers” with monopolistic ”captive consumers”
                If you think your council tax is too high then vote in an authority with an agenda to cut it. Same with the Government.

                • Colonel Mustard

                  “In the end it is a false equivalence to compare ”tax payers” with monopolistic ”captive consumers””

                  Eh? The monopolised captive consumers of councils are tax payers!

                • Des Demona

                  They are not captive consumers because they ”voted” for the local authority and can equally ”vote” them out should they not perform as the general body of voters wish.
                  Democracy is far from perfect but it beats monetization.

                • Colonel Mustard

                  Eh? It’s not about performance it is about choice. “Monetisation” is precisely what the public and third sectors are doing but there is no choice. When taxpayer money is used to fund a charity there is no choice. I don’t get to vote for the CEO of my local council and I have no influence over her salary. If I don’t like my council tax or services I can’t shop around. I can vote for a councillor now and then but it makes very little difference in terms of consumer choice.

                • Des Demona

                  ”But then controlling society for the supposed benefit of everyone is what you people believe in. I’ve yet to see anywhere it worked out like that. The Soviet Union, East Germany, Cuba, Mao’s China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Rumania and more recently Venezuela”
                  Huh? Getting a bit ahead of yourself there old bean. But carry on with the sweeping suppositions if it makes you feel better.
                  There’s a big difference between ”controlling society” and believing in institutions funded by all for the good of all.
                  But hey, if you want to have 15 different bin collection companies trolling down your street in a week because everyone has ”choice” then fair enough.

                • Colonel Mustard

                  “There’s a big difference between ”controlling society” and believing in institutions funded by all for the good of all.”

                  Yes, but the latter always seems to turn into the former.

                • Des Demona

                  Even if that (again) sweeping supposition was true then your solution is? Survival of the fittest?

                • Colonel Mustard

                  But it is true. Give an example of where it isn’t. The perfect society doesn’t exist and never will without coercion whereupon it will not be perfect anyway.

                  I don’t have a solution I’m afraid. The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Somewhere I suppose the pendulum ought to balance but getting it there when it always seem to swing too far one way or the other is the problem. And the leaders however well intentioned are always corrupted by power in the long run.

                • Des Demona

                  Any society follows a set of rules or conventions. Human nature being what it is the difficulty is that that one size doesn’t fit all. Democracy in my opinion is perhaps the least worst option

        • Milk76

          Really Des? You pick a good school. But you and half of all the local families don’t get in and are sent to the crap school. How do you have choice? Only if you can find the £20000 a year for a private school.

          Let us take our child and his state funding to the good school so they can invest in some extra capacity. Maybe they split and run two good schools. That is a market in education. Fair for kids. Rewarding good teachers and leadership.

          • Des Demona

            It’s a nice theory, but where does your kid and his funding go while the marvellous for profit school (on the massive assumption that a for profit school will be better than a state school) has to build more capacity?
            Given the recent failures of high profile ”free schools” the ”market” is far from proven. Is there any evidence whatsoever that en masse ”for profit schools” outperform state schools?
            If not, then why should taxpayers money be given to commercial organisations and be diluted by such things as marketing and promotion, the risk of ”non – profitable” courses being cut thus denying choice, and dividends to shareholders?

      • startledcod

        Spot on.

      • HookesLaw

        Where do youn get the notion that the NHS does not provide efficient care?
        Would you care to pay the costs of French health care? NHS management costs are low.

        • startledcod

          Yep, I’d swap French or NZ or Australian for the good ol’ NHS tomorrow.

          Even before healthcare the most fundamental thing that keeps us alive is food (and red wine) and these are exclusively delivered by the private sector, nobody thinks ths state should be the provider although it ensures that everyone can afford what they need to get by; why not do the same with healthcare, I would be very happy being admitted to a Waitrose hospital.

        • andagain

          Name one country in the world that has copied the NHS.

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