The global order is being transformed as wealth and power spread into the new emerging economies. Incrementally but remorselessly, “The Asian Century” is taking shape. The implications for our prosperity, security and influence will be immense.
The question for Britain is whether we have the imagination, boldness and urgency needed to succeed. The stakes could not be higher: our private wealth, our public services and our international standing are all at risk. We either respond by embracing innovative change or live with the consequences of our inertia.
Britain enters the global race with many advantages. We are a trading nation with a global disposition; we have a vibrant and inventive population; our elite education is among the best in the world; we have a proud tradition of freedom before the law; our language is the global language.
But the financial crash of 2008 also exposed a number of significant structural weaknesses: a dangerously large deficit, an oversized and unresponsive public sector, high welfare bills, creaking infrastructure, a long tail of educational failure and the burgeoning costs of an ageing population.
The changes Britain requires must work with, rather than against, the forces of globalisation, and go with, rather than against, the grain of our national character. That is why liberalism – pure, undiluted and authentic – provides the best guide for the years ahead.
Only authentic liberalism can unleash the attributes that Britain will need most: individuality, creativity, originality and a willingness to challenge stale thinking. And only authentic liberalism can position Britain to benefit from the market forces that drive globalisation and the internationalist politics that shape it.
We must champion our economic liberalism if we are to keep our markets open for business. A vibrant capitalism is lifting the living standards of billions of people around the world. Yet competition, choice, wealth creation and profit are, for many in Britain, seen as a problem rather than a template for success. That needs to change.
We must be committed to personal liberalism if we are to foster the creativity and innovation that feed off individual freedom. A misguided paternalism has entered our politics, but at the cost of stifling both freedom and personal responsibility. That too needs to change.
And we need to rediscover the true meaning of social liberalism. The era of big state social democracy has ended. The task today is to push power, money, information and choice down to the individual citizen, so that everyone can enjoy the opportunities that a fortunate few take for granted.
We cannot afford the political procrastination that is too often our default mode when faced with big decisions. Instead of a new hub airport, we have a new hub airport commission. Instead of returning the top rate of tax from 50p to 40p, we uneasily split the difference at 45p. Instead of addressing the real causes of low wages – low productivity and educational failure – we pretend that artificial distortions of the labour market will painlessly make everyone wealthier.
We have the capacity to compete in and contribute to the outside world. A nostalgic yearning for a Britain insulated from globalisation will only lead to marginalisation and failure. We need to look beyond such false comforts.
The global race will test the resolve of every nation. Some will fall short while others will achieve greater prosperity and influence. Britain needs a self-confident national attitude that refuses to accept failure and resolves to take the difficult decisions needed to succeed. Britain needs a race plan.
Jeremy Browne is the Liberal Democrat MP for Taunton Deane and a former Foreign Office Minister. His new book – ‘Race Plan’ – is published today