Gordon Brown, the unlikely American

Just what is this love affair between Gordon Brown and the US? At a time when most right-on lefties are more sceptical than ever about Uncle Sam, what with George Dubbya's plans for world pollution and crazy Star Wars systems, Brown's ardour shows no sign of cooling. Yet again, he is holidaying on Cape Cod, his sojourns there as much a part of the seaside cycle as the arrival or departure of migratory birds.

This year, the Browns are a breeding pair. But their coastal behaviour patterns will probably follow past years - games of tennis, visits from the other Cape migrants, such as Jon Snow of Channel 4 News and Baroness (Helena) Kennedy; the trip to see Senator Edward Kennedy at his family retreat; the formidable pile of reading by the side of the bed.

This all sounds like gossip, not worthy of even a height-of-the-holiday season column in the New Statesman. Yet, I would argue, there is a wider point to it. Just as Tony and Cherie Blair head off as quickly as they decently can for la dolce vita in Italy or France, and see themselves quite genuinely as Europeans, so the Chancellor's holiday destination says a great deal about his political instincts. He is probably our most heavily US-influenced politician ever - more so even than Margaret Thatcher at the height of her friendship with Ronald Reagan.

Brown is transfixed by American politics, American social and economic thinking, American style. At a trivial level, he knows more about who is up and down on the Hill or in the White House than many US journalists and academics.

More seriously, the policies and programmes that have most shaped his time at the Treasury - the New Deal, the Working Families Tax Credit, monetary independence for the Bank of England - all came from Washington moulds. Ed Balls, Brown's influential chief economist, studied in the US, and introduced him to the best brains among the new Democrats, including Larry Summers and Robert Reich.Washington may have swung sharply to the right since then, but still, the Treasury carpets are worn thin by the tramp of American thinkers summoned to visit. Just six months ago, the American moralist James Q Wilson was feted at No 11 for a day.

Brown's enthusiasm for the private sector is surely fuelled by his transatlantic visits. On Cape Cod, there are swathes of land where everything is private: private estates, private beaches, private roads. Brown clearly has no problem with this. The US is a privatised nation; being pro-American means being pro-private.

Significantly, Bob Kiley, Ken Livingstone's Tube supremo, has the distinction of being one of the very few Americans Brown has not taken to. Indeed, the Chancellor has refused to meet him. Kiley is fiercely pro-public sector; although this feud is perhaps more to do with Brown's loathing of Livingstone, which outweighs even his love for the US.

In contrast, the Chancellor has never much liked the European continent. He does not enjoy the endless round of EU finance ministers' meetings. He is against the idea of a European superstate. He is contemptuous of many features of the high-spending, relatively inflexible European economic model, and believes it needs urgent reform to take it in a pro-market, Atlanticist direction. His political strategy has been about trying to marry the dynamism of the less equal, entrepreneurial US economy with a welfare system that helps the poorest by pitching them back into work at all costs.

So, what happens when corporate America gets into trouble? Where does that leave Brown and his economic philosophy? Just as the rest of the political class started to relax and enjoy the summer heat, Brown went to New York to deliver an under-reported speech on his answer to the growing prospect of world recession. He argued that Europe and the US needed to create a greater free trade area between them, uniting the EU and countries covered by Nafta, the North American Free Trade Agreement. Companies would have equal rights to set up on either side of the Atlantic; there would be mutual recognition of standards; competition laws would be brought into line.

Could it happen? It is frankly unlikely, if not impossible, while the EU is economically so different from the US. But that may be part of the point. The Chancellor was throwing down the gauntlet to the Europeans yet again: reform and open up, or suffer the consequences.

With the US economic slowdown spreading to Europe, he has chosen his moment carefully. His intellectual range is such that, like it or not, the whole government follows. Brown's theme was duly picked up by Blair on his Latin American tour: the EU, he admonished from Brazil, must deregulate itself before telling others what to do.

People who deny that personalities still matter in politics should reflect on how much Britain's US-mimicking destiny is driven by our Chancellor, the Unlikely American. By their holiday plans shall ye know them.

Which is not to say Brown is a Republican, or a born-again Bushman. His social conscience is strong, and would be recognised by the new Democrats who helped develop his thinking a decade ago. The Clintonites might be out of office in Washington, but they are still in power at the British Treasury, at least in spirit. Their great experiment lives on in our small island; Cape Cod is watching.

But it is all bleak news for those who want early British membership in the euro. The Americanism of Gordon Brown and his disdain for the EU are nudging off that gamble in this parliament, just as in the last one. This poses a terrible dilemma for the Europhile Tuscan crowd. They may have been making babies in No 11, but they're having kittens in No 10.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The Murdochs: a family saga