A brief review.
I was delighted to discover that I could download this book from Amazon.ca the day it was published in the UK. This was quite an achievement for a UK publisher. Normally I have to wait several months for British books to appear on the Canadian site.
Jeremy Browne has interesting things to say about foreign affairs. The chapter on foreign policy is both informed and trenchant; for example his contention that our diplomacy in Asian countries is often inept. His overall message is that we have a lot of soft power, and we must use it to promote liberal values in China’s century, both for our own good, and for the preservation of those values in a world in which the dominant world power is a dictatorship.
The rest of the book, however, too often reads as a formulaic setting out of problems and solutions by an ideologically inflexible economic liberal. Sometimes Browne gives the impression that he hasn’t been prepared to think about the issues he is writing about, other than to place them within the parameters of his ideology. For example, does it really matter that a minimum price on alcohol would interfere with the free market? Surely the only important criteria is whether or not it would work to reduce alcohol abuse? Blind adherence to any creed kills common sense.
What I found most disappointing was the almost complete absence of any consideration of the environmental implications of policy:
“The comforting truth is that, just because one country gets richer, it does not follow that one country gets poorer. Global economic growth is not a zero-sum game: we can all get richer” (my emphasis).
True for Adam Smith perhaps, but not in the world of finite resources we live in now. For some resources it is in fact a zero-sum game: there isn’t enough pasture land for us all to eat red meat, and so if China is going to eat more, we may have to eat less, for example.
Browne’s blind spot on the environment is most apparent when he is talking about Britain’s infrastructure needs. He supports a new airport hub for London, new roads, rail and housing on green belt land — and they’d get it all built so much more quickly in China. But you can’t possibly understand the complex issues of infrastructure on our crowded island unless you also consider greenhouse gas emissions, smog, preservation of landscape and biodiversity. If, as a nation, we spend time considering the options and sometimes prefer infrastructure solutions which are not optimal for the economy, but less damaging for the environment, surely that is just our nation practising the same liberal values that he thinks are our strength?
I found parts of the book just plain irritating. There is a section where Browne comes over all Niall Ferguson about our past and tries to out-jingo Michael Gove. If he did some more reading, he would discover that there are other factors to explain the Industrial Revolution, than our intangible ‘national disposition’, and personally I’m not swelling with pride at being part of a nation that built the largest empire ever known.
The reason that supermarkets ran out of products in the nineteen seventies was because high inflation led to hoarding and runs on food. So if that does not happen now, it is not an example of how commercial institutions improve their performance; though bread, which he mentions specifically, used to be a morning product, having been baked overnight. But maybe an ambassador’s wife didn’t do her own shopping often enough to know that? I remember because I was a grown-up in the seventies, not a schoolboy shopping with his mum.