Former Lib Dem minister Jeremy Brown speaks in New Delhi on February 16, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Jeremy Browne's manifesto would be electoral suicide for the Lib Dems

Policies such as cutting the top rate of tax, reducing NHS spending and introducing for-profit free schools are politically toxic. 

Jeremy Browne has long distinguished himself as the most ardent champion of the free market on the Lib Dem benches. But even by his standards, the manifesto outlined in his new book Race Plan (subtitled "An authentic plan to get Britain fit for 'The Global Race'") is strikingly radical. The former Home Office minister calls for the establishment of for-profit free schools and parent vouchers, for an end to the ring-fencing of the NHS budget and the possible introduction of patient charges, for a cut in the top rate of tax from 45p to 40p, for the creation of a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary ("Boris island") and for a reduction in the number of police forces in England and Wales from 43 to as few as 10. 

He tells the Telegraph's Benedict Brogan: "The government has allowed itself to default into timidity. I’m of the view that the most credible answer to the question 'How does Britain deal more confidently with global risk?' is unbridled, unambiguous, authentic liberalism." And, in a swipe at Nick Clegg, the man who sacked him last year, he adds: "We are telling the voters that we offer either diluted socialism or diluted conservatism. 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."

Browne's philosophical rigour might be admirable, but it's worth noting just how disastrous it would be for the Lib Dems to embrace his proposals. Far from wanting the top rate to be cut to 40p, most voters (68 per cent) support a 50p rate, while 48 per cent favour a 60p rate. As George Osborne learned to his cost, cutting taxes for the top 1 per cent a time of austerity is politically toxic. It's one reason why the normally mild Danny Alexander was moved to declare that the rate would be reduced to 40p "over my dead body". 

The Tories have, however, been smart enough to recognise that no government with an interest in self-preservation cuts the NHS (accurately described by Nigel Lawson as "the closest thing the English people have to a religion"). As a ComRes/ITV News poll found last year, health is the most popular spending area among voters. Just 5 per cent obelieve the NHS budget should be reduced and 71 per cent believe it should be increased - and with good reason. 

Owing to the above-average rate of health inflation (most notably the cost of new drugs and medical equipment), the NHS requires real-terms rises just to stand still. As a recent Social Market Foundation paper noted, "A ‘flat real’ settlement for the NHS is not what it sounds like since it is defined with reference to an irrelevant price index. To keep up with rising input costs, growing demand, and the public’s expectations for an adequate healthcare system, growth in spending on health has historically outstripped GDP growth." 

By historic standards, the NHS is undergoing austerity. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the current Spending Review it will rise by an average of just 0.5 per cent. As a result, in the words of the SMF, there has been "an effective cut of £16bn from the health budget in terms of what patients expect the NHS to deliver". Should the NHS receive flat real settlements for the three years from 2015-16, this cut will increase to £34bn or 23 per cent.

Browne's education proposals would be similarly toxic. A YouGov poll last year, for instance, found that 84 per cent of parents oppose for-profit free schools with just six per cent in favour. The marketisation of education would do even more to alienate the kind of Lib Dem voters who keep a voodoo doll of Michael Gove by their beds. 

Outside of the City of London, there is almost no appetite for the turbo Thatcherism advocated by Browne. As I’ve noted before, if Ed Miliband is a "socialist", so are most of the public. Around two-thirds of voters support a 50p tax rate, a mansion tax, stronger workers’ rights, a compulsory living wage and the renationalisation of the railways and the privatised utilities (putting them to the left of the Labour leader).

Browne might contend that only his vision can save Britain from inexorable decline, but he should not delude himself that he would ever win a mandate for it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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