Merchant adventurer

As he toured China and India, touting Britain as the ultimate capitalist destination, Gordon Brown d

The irony was delicious: Gordon Brown, Labour party leader and one-time editor of the socialist Red Paper on Scotland, and Wen Jiabao, premier of the People's Republic of China, standing side by side in the Great Hall of the People discussing how best to invest Beijing's £100bn sovereign wealth fund in the City of London. Accompanied by Sir Richard Branson, the director of the CBI and China's corporate nomenklatura, Brown ushered in the moment when state socialism finally, irrevocably, gave way to state capitalism in both nations.

Since then, the Prime Minister has returned home to face the usual crop of crises - from Northern Rock and the European Union treaty to MPs' pay and various incompetencies from Peter Hain. But amidst the fading state choreography of this month's whistle-stop Asia trip, there could be found new insights into Brown the statesman and, more importantly, his "vision" of Britain. For the kind of political mission statement he has had such difficulty laying out for UK electors here could be discerned far more easily abroad. As he sold Britain, we found his image of the country - and it proved intriguingly at odds with his traditional social-democratic concerns.

On the face of it, there were some immediate and welcome personal differences from Blair abroad: no racy Paul Smith cuffs revealed to the travelling press pack; no smell of money; less glamour and glitz. As the slogan for the-election-that-never-happened put it: Not flash, just Gordon. Indeed, in contrast to the democratic chaos of India, Brown appeared worryingly at ease in the Chinese political mould, with its "correct" party responses, weakness for hyperbolic statistical targets and dull, male, 50-plus, suited demeanour. More significantly, in the same week as Jonathan Yeo unveiled his agitprop portrait of Tony Blair with blood-red poppy, Gordon Brown found the global shadow of Iraq and the baggage of US imperial collaboration happily lifted. To the state-directed Chinese media, he was a colonialist clean skin.

When it came to selling Britain, there was little shift from the Blair years. Maybe less militarism and neo-Christian liberal interventionism, but the same kind of post-imperial, post-industrial identity that has been forged over the past decade. A hundred and fifty years ago, of course, it was all very different. As the British empire accelerated towards its apogee, Whitehall was beginning to take over the running of India in the wake of the 1857 Mutiny and a brief truce had been called in the Second Opium War. British policy then was about hammering open the interiors of India and China for cotton and drugs and, in the words of Queen Victoria, "to protect the poor natives and to advance civilisation". The Royal Navy shelled a passage along China's ports to fend off French competition and secure the East India Company's opium monopoly. Whereas today British ministers pay their dutiful respects to China's ancient civilisation, in the 1850s our army was happy to burn and loot its way through Beijing.

The money from the opium sales helped to pay for Britain's fiendishly expensive outlay at Brown's next port of call, India. Rather than vying for foreign investment in the UK, Britain, by the 1880s, had ploughed £270m into Indian infrastructure - near one-fifth of its entire investment overseas. But none of that found its way into the Indian export sector. As even the staunchly pro-imperial Niall Fergsuon admits, "The free trade imposed on India in the 19th century exposed indigenous manufacturers to lethal European competition."

Barbarians capitulate

Always attentive to the contradiction, Marx and Engels thought the ultimate benefits of capitalist imperialism - the forcible introduction of backward, Asiatic peoples into the revolutionary slipstream of history - far outweighed any temporary brutalities by British troops in Beijing or Lucknow. As the Communist Manifesto put it, "The cheap prices of its [capitalism's] commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate." Engels, the Manchester mill-owner, spoke with positive relish of India's "native handicrafts . . . finally being crushed by English competition" as his own company benefited from the elimination of Indian calico exports and the forcible opening up of south Asian markets. India and China were there to be plundered by the British commercial-imperial complex.

Times have certainly changed when British prime ministers hurtle through Beijing and Delhi trying to lure sovereign funds into the UK. In one sense, this is an obvious story of the rise and fall of great powers: a salutary readjustment to Britain's pre-imperial marginality and, with it, something of an appeal to a mercantile, buccaneering Elizabethan identity. That age of Drake, Frobisher and Gresham, with its Court and City, was pleased to strike any bargain and happy to entertain the most unethical money-making ventures.

But what makes Brown's time in China and India notably different from Merkel's, Sarkozy's and that of other Euro leaders hawking their wares is that Britain was also selling itself as a place, rather than power. And when it comes to this global image, the Prime Minister similarly returned us to a Mansion House version of Britain as a trading nation dominated by the City, the docks and a broadband, coffee-house culture. Gordon Brown, biographer of James Maxton and the Red Clydeside docks, has embraced a Brand Britain strangely devoid of industrial heritage, political inheritance, or socialist virtue.

In a speech to the Fabian Society, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, explained this new destination. Underlining his own retreat from Blair's joined-at-the-hip Americophilia, Miliband rightly positioned new Labour's Britain not as a great power or some form of EU-US "bridge", but as a global hub whose language, public sphere and innovative culture provided a platform for inward investment and European engagement. Central to this was the UK's openness: how our education system, regulatory structure and multicultural networks easily allow for the flow of business, people and ideas. In many ways, this is a different Britain from the one that ministers offer up for domestic consumption; this Brand Britain is composed of leading public schools (opening like fury in China), Golden Triangle universities (accompanying the PM in India), a pioneering arts and music sector, a world-class legal system and financial services second to none.

Free-trade fetish

In fact, the Britain that Brown sold to the steely bureaucrats of China Investment Corp was positively antique in its class apex and focus on finance - the opening of a new Beijing office of the London Stock Exchange only confirming our reputation as clearing house rather than workshop of the world. While Sarkozy came away from China with hard orders for Airbus, our trade representatives were flogging Scottish whisky, luxury goods and, above all, financial services. As Britain's ballooning trade deficit confirms time and again, we are now far happier to repackage products than make them.

Central to this image is the London megalith - the cultural, political and economic fulcrum of new Labour's post-industrial Britain. Its museums, universities, schools and shops provide the soft infrastructure around which the high finance, trade and services of our entrepôt economy cluster. The government's economic policy is clearly hoping to add Asian millionaires to the mix of Russian, Arab and European non-doms. Domestically, ministers still rail against boardroom excess; abroad, they are selling the City as Britain's top asset. Few events have codified this cultural-commercial interface more clearly than Brown's opening of the "Terracotta Army" exhibition at the British Museum - sponsored by Morgan Stanley. Finance rather than industry; London rather than the regions; Oxbridge rather than red-brick: these are the Elizabethan trademarks of Brown's Britain abroad.

Surely this is a simple reflection of economic realities? It has long been clear that conventional British industry is little match for the mass-production Chinese economy and that what they want is British financial, legal and educational services. All of which is true, but it doesn't explain our political obeisance to the City and, with it, Labour's free-trade fetish. From Thames Water and BAA to P&O and even Liverpool Football Club, this government enjoys nothing more than a good foreign takeover, typically accompanied by asset-stripping, outsourcing and plenty of money in Canary Wharf fees. While France, Germany and even the US have raised concerns about the impact of China Investment Corp on domestic industries, Brown has made our wide-eyed susceptibility to foreign cash a virtue. Acknowledging that in some countries "it's controversial", Brown told his hosts: "We want Britain to be the number-one destination of choice for Chinese business as it invests in the rest of the world."

Values trumped

Most disappointing in Brown's sales pitch was the absence of any sense of the political and constitutional fabric that underpinned Britain's economic make-up. At home he delivers speeches on how, "by history and conviction, we - Britain - are bearers of the indispensable idea of individual dignity and mutual respect"; in Tiananmen Square all that was junked as corporate hunger trumped ethical values. While in Delhi, he spoke of a shared democratic inheritance and the virtues of an open society; in China, human rights were parked well down the list next to talks on sporting ties. How refreshing it would have been to hear of Britain's trade union history, free press and rule of law, in place of the Communist Party cant. The irony is that if the Chinese economy is going to move on from its dependence on low-wage, low-skill manufacturing, it needs exactly these cultures of corporate accountability and transparency, and the anti-corruption skills that the British tradition offers. Yet fear of being branded imperialist led the UK delegation to drop this kind of hard-edged exchange from which Sino-British relations could benefit.

Nonetheless, Brown's trip was a success. In both China and India, he swapped the swagger and US bag-carrying distractions that encircled Blair's foreign trips for a hard-headed, realistic advocacy of Britain's small-island purpose. The Chinese embraced his business-focused approach and the Indian government certainly welcomed his qualified support for a seat on the UN Security Council. Helped by the furore surrounding the British Council in Russia, the era of liberal interventionism seemed to be slipping into the age of soft power - of educational exchanges, English-language teaching and museum co-operation. But there remains something troubling about a prime minister, especially one who places such weight on the epic nature of Britishness, serving up an idea of Britain abroad so driven by City interests and so devoid of the political values that comprise its true identity. And then he offers the lot up on a plate to China Investment Corporation.

Tristram Hunt, a lecturer in history at Queen Mary, University of London, is writing a Penguin biography of Friedrich Engels

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer