They say travel broadens the mind, and Ed Miliband needs to travel more. To China, India and Brazil, but also to South Korea, Mexico, Turkey and Indonesia. If he did he would see the evidence before his eyes of a global revolution taking place. This revolution, and how Britain can best be a contender in the global race, is the biggest fact of life in politics today.
To dismiss this phenomenon as a ‘race to the bottom’ is so breathtakingly arrogant, parochial and ignorant that it demonstrates Ed Miliband’s lack of seriousness and suitability as a national leader.
The whole world order, that has existed since at least the Industrial Revolution, is undergoing an upheaval. The change is incremental but it is also fast. In a couple of generations the domination of the global economy by the western nations will end, along with the military, political and even cultural domination that accompanies it.
This is not about what Ed Miliband dismissively calls ‘sweatshops’ or his ludicrous claim that the British government hankers after the lowest common denominator competition. ‘The race to the bottom’ is a complete straw man of an argument. Nobody in Britain is arguing that our economic future hinges on lowering wage rates to the point where we are undercutting Cambodian factory workers.
The reality is much more profound and troubling than Ed Miliband understands. The countries in Asia (and to a lesser degree Latin America and Africa) are aiming for the top. Of course China can produce low-tech items at low cost. But that is not the point. Their ambition is not to be the sweatshop of the world. Their ambition is to be a world leader in science, high-tech manufacturing, engineering, medical research and innovation. And we had better have the humility and worldliness to understand that ambition pretty quickly if we want to avoid being left behind.
And this is not just about China. Take another example of a country closer in size to us: South Korea. Try telling the brains behind Samsung and LG that they are working in ‘sweatshops’. How many smartphones or flatscreen TVs are British companies exporting to South Korea? Exactly. So let’s have a bit less arrogance and a little more open-minded self-awareness.
South Korea ranks 2 and 4 in the world for literacy and numeracy among 15-year-olds. Where is Britain? We rank 25 and 28. Why do we assume we will triumph as a ‘knowledge economy’ if our education system is producing less knowledgeable people than the competition? No-one should be so blinkered and complacent as to imagine we have some automatic right to be more prosperous than people elsewhere in the world?
We don’t. If people in Asia work harder than us, study harder than us, achieve better educational standards than us, are less burdened by chronic public debt than us and have more successful global companies than us – why does Ed Miliband assume they will be at ‘the bottom’, to be vilified and patronised to win empty applause at a Labour conference?
So everything this government is doing is about making Britain viable contenders in the global race. Our very future depends on it. Our ability to enjoy decent standards of prosperity. Our ability to fund decent public places. Our status in the world and our ability to defend liberal values that we cherish.
That is why it is imperative that we raise education standards for everyone. It is why we have to make work pay and address endemic welfare dependency. Why we have to improve the affordability and efficiency of public services. Why we cannot afford crippling levels of public debt. Why we need to invest in improved infrastructure. Why we have to have competitive levels of personal and business taxation. Why we have to embrace the opportunities of globalisation.
And that is why Ed Miliband needs to get out more. Literally get out more, and go and see the world around him. Billions of people are climbing out of poverty. They are working hard, creating wealth and striving for improvement. The Little England views of Ed Miliband – socialism in one country – are irrelevant. People across the globe don’t conform to the theories contained in Marxist text books. They are forging ahead.
This government understands that. Ed Miliband doesn’t. It is not like a school sports day in a Labour-run council where everyone is obliged to go at the pace of the slowest participant. This is the global race.
Jeremy Browne is a Liberal Democrat MP, Home Office Minister and former Foreign Office Minister