UK Politics

Lib Dem conference: Jeremy Browne says party disapproves of wealth

Jeremy Browne
Image caption Jeremy Browne thinks his party can be "excessively interfering"

Many Liberal Democrats are "uncomfortable" about business success and "disapprove" of people becoming wealthy, a Lib Dem minister has said.

Home Office minister Jeremy Browne said his party needed to be more positive about the role of entrepreneurs.

It comes as Nick Clegg attempts to get activists to back coalition economic policies in a party conference debate.

Mr Browne also defended his call for a debate on whether Muslim girls should be banned from wearing veils.

He was speaking at an Institute of Economic Affairs debate on why the Liberal Democrats were not more liberal in their attitudes to personal freedom.

'Ambiguous'

Mr Browne said his party was "instinctively" more liberal than the other main parties but it could be "inconsistent" - and it had a particular problem with wealth creation.

"I can't recall the last time I saw a motion at conference that was critical of the party leadership for showing insufficient interest in enterprise, wealth creation, innovation," he told the meeting.

"We seem, at best, ambiguous about business becoming successful, employing more people. Sometimes we actually sound like we are quite uncomfortable - that we must find ways to demonstrate our disapproval of people becoming wealthy and successful and creating jobs in our economy."

The Lib Dems have been campaigning for a "mansion tax" on high value properties and some on the left of the party, such as its president Tim Farron, have also called for the restoration of the 50p top tax rate.

Mr Browne said he was "not enthusiastic" about the 50p rate because it felt like the party wanted to "penalise" wealth creation "in a way that felt "slightly covetous".

Mr Browne has grabbed headlines with his call, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, for a national debate on whether to ban Muslim girls from wearing veils in public places such as schools.

'Excessively interfering'

Explaining his stance at the fringe meeting, on Sunday evening, he said: "There is a minority on the right of the Conservative Party who are very strongly in favour of a ban on veils on schoolgirls in Britain, who would be in up in arms if there was a ban on Christian minorities in the Middle East wearing crosses to go to school.

"But I am a bit ambiguous about it. We freely accept under 18-year-olds are not capable of exercising choices in lots of other areas.

"Even the most libertarian people don't think 13-year-olds should be allowed to buy cigarettes or alcohol. So why are we assuming that they are able to exercise freedom of choice in terms of religious preferences, rather than feeling a degree, potentially, of pressure and coercion?"

Mr Browne told the meeting the Lib Dems could be "excessively interfering" when it came to matters of personal choice.

He said he was only one of the three Lib Dem MPs to vote against the ban on smoking in public places, because he believed businesses should be free to decide their own policy.

He said he was also against "fat taxes" and minimum alcohol pricing, because it was "a policy which said a person on higher income who drank a bottle of Chablis every evening would be completely unaffected".

"But a person on lower income who drank a bottle of Lambrini every evening, we would show our moral middle class disapproval for that type of feckless behaviour by making it more expensive."

The minister, who is responsible for drug laws, also revealed he was about to visit Colorado and Washington State, in the US, to investigate the recent relaxation of cannabis laws there.

His boss, Home Secretary Theresa May, had been "pretty equivocal" about his investigation into international drug laws but he had received enthusiastic backing from his party leader Nick Clegg.

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