To some it is just a conference to promote warmer ties between two great nations. To others it is proof of the continuing stranglehold of American interests over the British establishment. The British-American Project, like the United States itself, plays to British desire and prejudice.
That's if you have heard of it at all, so rarely is its name whispered in the press, other than in recent comment by John Pilger in the New Statesman. Cloistered American groups with influential memberships fascinate and scare the left - always troubled that the most powerful nation on earth, sworn to defend the right to freedom of speech, exercises it against them.
The British-American Project for the Successor Generation (as it used to be known before it quietly contracted its title) was founded in 1985. Each year the project invites 24 American and 24 British delegates to take part in four days of dinners, parties and discussions (ranging from the nature of the "special relationship" to security and economic issues). Delegates enjoy comparative luxury (the class of '98 stayed at the $285-a-night Omni Royal Crescent in New Orleans). The aim, to quote the report of the 1985 conference, is "to create, at a time of growing international strains and stresses, a closer rapport between Britain and the United States among people likely to become influential decision-makers during the next two decades". Delegates are nominated by existing fellows; once they have come through the process of selection (in the UK, this is based on competitive debating sessions with other nominees), they have their travel and other expenses paid to the more or less exotic locations of the conference. Last year New Orleans, this year . . . Harrogate.
The plenary session introduces the weighty topic of the conference - "The politics of identity", or "Present alliance, future challenges" - and then the group splits up for discussion. In many ways this is a conventional if high-powered conference, but the newsletters impress upon delegates the networking possibilities.
It is the directory of alumni that both opponents and supporters of the project point to as proof of its clout. "Big swing to BAP" trumpeted an article in the project's newsletter following the 1997 general election: three members of Tony Blair's cabinet - George Robertson, Chris Smith and Mo Mowlam - appear next to Peter Mandelson and Liz Symons. Powerful figures from the world of policy - Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief of staff, Matthew Taylor of the Institute for Public Policy Research and Geoff Mulgan of the No 10 Policy Unit - are listed with big names in the media: Jeremy Paxman and James Naughtie of the BBC, Trevor Phillips, and the Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore. With graduates like these, it is no surprise that the project is viewed with alarm by some as central to the Americanisation of British foreign policy.
The project was first suggested in 1982 by Nick Butler, a Labour Party insider of the old right and a research fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House). Along with many others in the US and Britain who viewed the special relationship favourably, he had become concerned about the growing tide of anti-American sentiment, particularly within his own party. This was the time of Greenham Common, CND and the battles over US deployment of cruise missiles in Europe. Vietnam and Watergate were fresh in everyone's memory.
Butler's response was to propose a series of conferences, similar in format to the annual get-together of the Anglo-German elite at Konigswinter, developing personal relationships between the participants and broadening understanding. This rapidly gained backing from Chatham House, then from other establishment bodies, such as the Royal United Services Institute and the US embassy in London. But at this stage there seemed little prospect of funding.
It was Sir Charles Villiers, the former chairman of British Steel, who overcame this obstacle by roping in two American anglophile friends of his, Lew van Dusen and Isadore Scott, who were able to secure $460,000 through the Pew Charitable Trusts, the second biggest grant-making body in the US.
Opponents of the project would protest that its origins were political, not philanthropic. For John Pilger, the project is a very low-profile "casual freemasonry" with a right-wing background and funding. Many from the so-called left who are now in government, he notes, have attended. His conclusion is that this government is as much a part of the right-wing security and foreign affairs establishment as every previous British government and just as likely to commit crimes of diplomacy - and its friends in the media are just as willing to excuse and overlook these crimes. James Naughtie retorts: "Not everyone who talks to more than one intelligent American at a time is automatically involved in a conspiracy." He says he finds it hard to see how attending a conference for one week, ten years ago, puts him under any obligation to anything.
Pilger mentions a White House meeting in 1983 at which Ronald Reagan discussed his anxiety about increasing anti-Americanism with supporters such as Rupert Murdoch and James Goldsmith. Reagan spoke of the urgent need to "build the infrastructure of democracy . . . A special concern will be the successor generations, as these younger people are the ones who will have to work together in the future on defence and security issues."
The outcome of this meeting actually received considerable publicity at the time. A front-page article in the New York Times, entitled "US is planning bid to win over Europe's young", quoted government officials as detailing Reagan's "broad strategy" to target "a new generation of European leaders . . . known here as the 'successor generation' ".
The project, however, categorically denies that it was established under any such Reaganite influence, claiming that the phrase "successor generation" was in common use at the time. Judging by the report of its first conference, which often refers to criticism of American abuse of power, it seems unlikely that it was consciously pursuing a political agenda. Many different interests had coincided in the promotion of the special relationship: an aggressively anti-communist US foreign policy, the Labour right wing's frustration with the anti-Americanism prevalent in their party and an almost nostalgic desire to see old ties restored.
The first concern about the project was expressed in a Tribune article in 1989 suggesting that the earlier conferences were specifically designed to co-ordinate or subvert Labour policy away from unilateralism - these were the meetings attended by Mandelson, Smith and Mowlam. But the 1985 report suggests otherwise: "The British were surprised that there were no Reaganites on the American side . . . The Americans explained that there was a reaction in their country to the hard-line position many people associate with President Reagan."
This is not to say the American right wing has been under- represented. The predominant tenor of the debates of the eighties was conservative - more recently, many participants were shocked by a homophobic speech at the 1996 Dallas conference. But in the nineties the whole event has become, in the words of a recent delegate, "something of a politically correct orgy". Evan Davis of Newsnight also found this: "The person who sponsored me to go said, 'make sure they know you're gay, because you're much more likely to get in if they know that'."
Unfortunately for the BAP's image, its sponsors are a roll-call of media bogeymen: Monsanto, Philip Morris and Camelot have all contributed, as have the arms manufacturer GEC Marconi and the Texan giant Raytheon - purveyor of Tomahawks and Patriots to Uncle Sam. The extent to which these corporations influence proceedings at the BAP remains unclear - they contribute to newsletters but are not invited to attend conferences.
BAP supporters would argue that there is nothing very wrong in developing good ties with another country. The Americans inspire the British with their "can-do" optimism. The British broaden the world-view of the Americans. But the project is only one of many schemes through which the British elite learns to love and live with America: the Kennedy scholarships, the Fulbrights and Harknesses, the International Visitor Program, together with more overtly agenda-driven institutions such as the Atlantic Council and the Trades Union Committee for European and Transatlantic Understanding. Taking all these into consideration accounts for almost every minister and adviser in the Labour Party.
The concern some might have is that the US is the only country in the world able to fund this kind of communion of the elites. For those convinced of an insidious American grip on public life, the BAP has become the focal point of their suspicions. Yet BAP alumni like Mandelson or Mowlam will have paused only briefly to bask in their week of recognition by the transatlantic aristocracy before shooting on. Ultimately, the success of the BAP says more about the willingness of the British to embrace and elect American values than the power of institutional propaganda.