Continuing the conversation with Jeremy Browne

It’s fair to say that Jeremy Browne’s book Race Plan has caused a fair bit of controversy in amongst Liberal Democrats in recent weeks. Liberal Democrat Voice has covered it extensively with reviews by both Nick Thornsby and Stephen Tall and an article by me based on Jeremy’s many interviews and the press coverage they generated. I hadn’t read the book, so it couldn’t and never claimed to be a review. I was completely upfront about that and about the basis of my comments.

Jeremy has very kindly taken the trouble to respond to the pretty intense debate that those pieces generated. It’s good when people do that and it would be great to see more of it. My feathers are slightly ruffled because he in relation to what I had to say, he mostly resorted to a few cheap shots rather than substantive arguments:

This is the essence of Caron Lindsay’s review. I say “review”, although that is not strictly accurate, as Caron makes the commendably honest admission before she gets into the detail of her case against the book (“written by someone who comes from an exceptionally privileged background for those who come from an exceptionally privileged background”) when she says “I have not read this book”.

Maybe it is just easiest to suggest that she does (and others who have made similar observations without being handicapped by actually knowing what the book says). She will find that it is a feast of egalitarianism. From the introduction onwards (“It means liberating the talents of all our people, not just protecting the advantages of the privileged minority, to enable our country to realise its full potential”) the book endlessly and restlessly explores this theme: page 88 (“The educational outcomes for children from low incomes families are a national scandal”); page 90; page 93; housing on page 125 (“The millions of people who own homes owe it to subsequent generations not to pull the housing ladder up after themselves”); the budget on page 132 (“The real victims of government financial mismanagement … the elderly, the sick, the poor and the vulnerable”); page 134 and 135; welfare on page 143 (“A comprehensive welfare state is a hallmark of a civilised society”). And it goes on.

Caron’s review is illustrated by a sign which says ‘It is forbidden for Eton boys to cross at this point!’ As Eton is not mentioned once in the book, I did not go to Eton, and I have never even visited the school, I am probably missing some elitist in-joke. But I do remember from my time at school how difficult it is to write a review of a book without reading it.

It wasn’t about the picture or whether I had read the book, it was about whether this book was well-timed, whether he was right to suggest that his ideas were “authentic” liberalism and about whether his ideas were practical for the poorest. My argument in essence is that reducing the size of the state and expanding choice gives an inherent advantage to those who are already privileged.

Here’s the comment I left in response to that:

  • I also am really pleased that Jeremy has taken the time and effort to respond to the fairly intense debate that his book sparked off on LDV. The number of comments and the fact that this is the most read piece of the week so far is a testament to how much that feeling is shared by our readers.

    Stephen Tall has described this piece as “enjoyably robust”. I’d stick a mostly in front of that because I think Jeremy has been a bit unfair to me. My article wasn’t and never pretended to be a review of the book. How could it be? I hadn’t read it and I made that perfectly clear. Unlike many others, including even Liberator, I didn’t get a review copy and, it being school holidays and me not being made of money, I hadn’t got round to buying it. Come payday next week that’ll be a different story, particularly as the price has come down a bit… That line about remembering from school how difficult it is to write a review of a book without reading it might give a few people a bit of a cheap giggle at my expense, and means he can avoid substantive discussion about the actual, quite legitimate, points that I make about how reducing the size of the state might mean that those who are less privileged have less opportunity and about his laying claim to the title of authentic liberalism.

    Anyway, its publication had attracted intense publicity. Jeremy had been interviewed widely talking about his ideas. I made it perfectly clear that my comments were based on those interviews and his piece for the Daily Politics. A major part of my article covered the use of the term “authentic liberalism”. You don’t need to read the book to take issue with that depiction. My view is that anyone who signs up to the values we espouse in the Preamble to our Constitution is a liberal. That makes us a broad church and I have no right to claim that a particular and controversial stream of ideas are somehow real. You can’t do that without implying that all the rest are fake. In his response, Jeremy only responds to one line of the three paragraphs I wrote on this. He had nothing to say when I compared his claim to the sort of debate we are getting up here in Scotland at the moment where some nationalists, even some elected ones, claim you’re not a true Scot if you don’t support independence, or where I said that you can’t really factionalise this party because there are things that bind all of us together even if we are at loggerheads on the economy. The very term “authentic liberalism” is divisive and it does rather look as if its author is trying to set himself above those of us who don’t subscribe to that line of thinking. It is really unhelpful.

    Timing

    I appreciate that events move on. However, I don’t really think that this book would have been out of date if its publication had been left until June, after the European and local elections. At a time when we are trying to show the very clear differences between us and the Tories, in the run up to a crucial poll, extensive press coverage of the type that Jeremy’s book attracted was, frankly, extremely unhelpful. Ok, so he didn’t say the party was pointless, but that headline may well come back to haunt us. In the context of an election where a couple of percentage points can make all the difference, a small delay until June would not have been too much to ask. Jeremy has undoubtedly put discord into our pre-election mood music and therefore can’t just stand by and say “it wasn’t my fault” if things don’t go as well as we hope on May 22nd. There is no law that says you have to publish your thoughts immediately after you have committed them to paper, after all.

    Privilege

    First of all, as Paul has already explained, I didn’t choose the photo. However, I will confess to emailing him and telling him I liked it. Eton does symbolise privilege in this country so it was perfectly appropriate. It was also good to have one of Paul’s own images, a slightly different view. Now, Jeremy has never been to Eton, but he did go to Bedales, something I did check while I was writing my article. When I first read Jeremy’s response, I did actually go and look up the comparative fees between Eton and Bedales, but John Tilley has spared me the bother of posting them. Jeremy’s background is not the point, though. It’s whether he understands the practicalities of life for the poor. He’s quoted a whole load of statements from the book about how he’s concerned for the poor, but I was trying to show in my piece that one idea, every school being a free school with parents having the complete choice of where to send their children might not be practical for a child from a poor background. I don’t think Jeremy has shown an understanding of the realities of poverty and at the same time argues for the size of the state to be cut back, a move which could only adversely affect the poorest. Like I said, the important thing is to pitch the size of your state according to the needs of your society, not by grabbing a figure out of the air. It certainly doesn’t follow that big state means fewer poor people, but you do need a reasonably sized state to effectively give people access to the opportunities that they wouldn’t have otherwise. There is no getting out of that one.

     

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About caronlindsay

Scottish Lib Dem pro UK activist, mum, Doctor Who, Strictly, F1 and trashy tv addict and blogger.
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3 Responses to Continuing the conversation with Jeremy Browne

  1. I have to say, I still think your piece on the book was unfair, given that you have not actually read the thing that the whole debate revolves around – the book itself. I am reminded of the current debate around Thomas Piketty’s “Capital”, which has seen plenty of people who have not read the book enter into the debate from various positions of authority or standing, and seek to give comment on it. Their position is inherently weaker in doing so for not having read the book. Your arguments are inherently weaker for not having read the book. There was no urgency in entering into the debate – you could have waited until you could afford a copy, read it and then contributed to the debate in a complete knowledge of what it is that is being discussed.

    It is flatly insufficient to launch into a debate like this from a position of some authority – as an editor on LDV, and a member of internal party committees – without doing the author the basic courtesy of reading their work. The media reporting on this is not a sufficient base to go on; they are constrained by time, the need to attract an audience and often the need to advance an agenda which is likely separate to that of the author’s. If I were to write a length comment piece for a journal on the debate around a new international relations theory book, stating that some of its assertions were wrong and its recommendations off the mark, and to confess that I had not actually read the book in question, I would hope academic colleagues would not print it; given that it could not possibly be properly informed as to the content of the debate it was entering into, given that it was ignorant of the primary source in question.

    As someone who is looking to go into a career where publications are vital to one’s career path, this sort of post is the kind that scares me out of wanting to publish more stuff. How many other authors must experience the phenomenon of publishing a non-fiction text, only to have people weigh into the debate on various platforms, in full admission of never having set eyes on a copy of their work, to give full-throated critiques – and in less charitable cases, attacks – on their work and their person? What must that do to the confidence of, especially young, authors and writers looking to make their way in the field? I have to say it does very little for my own confidence, and has made me think twice about contributing to the literature on the party, if this is the sort of reception it would get.

    I also think that, if Jeremy’s educational background “is not the point, though”, why bring it up at all? Why approve of a picture aimed at highlighting his background as a part of the debate? Since when was ad hominem an acceptable form of debate – weaponising his background to turn it against him, essentially arguing that his education is a barrier to understanding. This is a remarkable position to take, if we remember that you are facing your own formidable barrier to understanding – not having read the text in question. I am immune to the same sort of attack as Jeremy has faced over this, given that I was state educated, but I do wonder what sort of facts about my background might be used in an attempt to get away from debating my arguments and instead debating me.

    I have not read the book, either, and so I have tried to avoid passing judgement on your comments on the specific contents of the book. I suspect when I do, given what friends have said to me and what I have read, I will disagree with many of his assertions – but I can only suspect things, and I certainly do not want to publish these suspicions under the guise of informed comment until I have read the book. I shall, as is my ‘style’, go through it with highlighter, pen and sticky note, pull out its arguments and come to my own conclusions.

    I do hope that future authors on the party are given a more courteous and scholarly reception than you have given to Jeremy, Caron. As I said, it makes me worry about contributing my own work to the published literature on the party, given how his has been received.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ChrisB says:

    >Jeremy has undoubtedly put discord into our pre-election mood music
    >and therefore can’t just stand by and say “it wasn’t my fault” if things
    >don’t go as well as we hope on May 22nd.

    This obviously applies equally to yourself. I had never heard of Race Plan until you, and pretty much every other LDV author wrote article after article about it! After a while you made it compulsory reading for LDV readers. I agree with Tim, I find it bizarre that you haven’t read the book and yet continue to discuss it; then you make an appeal to privilege yourself by saying “I never got a review copy”!

    E-mail me a postal address and I’ll happily send you my copy, it was only earmarked as toilet paper for camping anyway!

    Like

  3. Ashley B says:

    I have to say that I fully concur with Tim’s comments here. I’m really really saddened by the personalising of this debate. Like Tim I’m from a comprehensive school background but I don’t expect to be held on a pedestal because of it but nor should JB be pilloried because of his b’ground. I’m a similar age to JB and was a contemporary of him and people like Tim Farron. What united us in our younger years was liberalism. JB trudged the streets like everyone else for the cause. And I never judged him nor did I ever feel judged myself by my own background. It was one reason i was in the lib Dems because it truly felt a classless environment.

    Like

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