America is being invaded by rugged Western values

The self-confidence that economic success brings is nowhere so evident as in America's west
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DENVER, COLORADO - western American values - that combination of self-reliance, local civic responsibility and non-intervention by the federal government - have become the new mantra of more and more US politicians. We heard them a generation ago from Barry Goldwater, the presidential candidate from Arizona, then reviled, now regarded by many as a hero. At the moment you hear them from the supporters of Ross Perot's Reform Party, in particular its one state governor, the former wrestler Jessie Ventura. But that is still on the fringe of US political ideas. If, however, the Texas governor George Bush Jr does become the next President (and at the moment that seems likely) then western values become mainstream.

Whenever a set of political ideas suddenly becomes more important, there is usually an economic reason for it. And so it is with America's west. It is booming. Anyone who has visited a place such as Phoenix or Houston will have picked up the buzz of success, for both are growing with astonishing speed.

Up here in Denver it is much the same. Hi-tech firms are attracted by the fact that Denver ranks near the top of most US "quality of life" league tables. The old downtown area bristles with new hotels; turn-of-the-century warehouses are becoming apartments for young professionals - and, of course, there are the Rocky Mountains on the doorstep. America as a whole is booming - this year the growth forecasts have been upped to 4 per cent - but nowhere is the self-confidence quite so evident as in America's west.

How does this translate into politics? Well, the great divide in US politics has always seemed to me not to be between left and right (as in Europe) or even between Republican and Democrat, but between the two embedded attitudes of the people: on the one hand, the rugged, individualist "let's do it our way" approach to life, and on the other the legalistic, rule- based, "let's find someone to sue" blame culture.

For many years the latter has been in the ascendancy. President Clinton's cabinet is 60 per cent lawyers. Any large company (not just the tobacco firms) faces potentially enormous product liability suits. The law has always provided an essential glue in the US, for such a diverse society needs rules to hold it together. But what any Briton would see as abuses of the law not only redistribute wealth in a capricious way, they also add a great, continuing burden to the economy.

Here are two examples, given to me by a top Republican economic adviser. One concerns ladders. If you buy a ladder in the US, more than half of what you pay has nothing to do with the manufacture or distribution of the ladder. It is to cover the product liability insurance that the manufacturer has to pay against lawsuits from people who fall off the ladders and injure themselves. The other concerns water slides, the things that children slide down into a pool. Apparently for about 15 years it was impossible to buy one in the US because manufacturers could not afford the product liability insurance and simply stopped making them.

We know virtually nothing about what a George W Bush administration might do, or even much about the ideas of Mr Bush himself, beyond the fact that government should be lean and competent. As the front-runner, raising astonishing amounts of campaign capital without making any commitments, it is not surprising that he should keep mum. But it was suggested to me that the burden of excessive legalism was one of the things that a new Bush administration would have to tackle. It would have, so to speak, to reassert the individualist side of American values, the side represented by the western states.

But excessive legalism is only one aspect of the rest of America that westerners resent. The other is excessive central government. What about that?

Governments do not find it easy to slim down. Despite the rhetoric, Margaret Thatcher managed only a small decline in the size of government, as measured by public spending as a proportion of GDP. Under Ronald Reagan, the US government in fact got bigger, though now, thanks to this long boom, US public spending as a proportion of GDP is a little lower than it was 20 years ago.

But if you are casting around for a new big idea about the nature of and proper role for government, the "western values" one has great attractions. In a nutshell, it is that central government should focus on the things that only it can do (such as defence) and leave other functions to local or state government and to individual responsibility. It is not a complete "devil take the hindmost" philosophy, for if people are not rugged enough to cope, then the local community steps in. But it does mean a downsizing of the federal welfare programmes of the last four decades. Could this really happen?

Conventional wisdom says no. The power base in American politics in not in the west, for these states are not populous enough to swing it. Power lies in the big-population states of the East Coast and in California. (Yes, California is in the west but West Coast values are different from the rugged, traditional ones of Texas, Arizona and Colorado.)

But in the American psyche the west, the Wild West, has always punched far above its weight - so many of the myths of America are rooted here. The west is fashionable for its lifestyle, not just for its history. Now it has economic success to back the emotional appeal. It has a new story to tell.

Whether this translates into political power is another matter, but at some stage in the next few years the individualist streak of America will reassert itself. In fact, I think it is already happening, for most people perceive that their present prosperity is not due to the federal government, but rather to their own ingenuity and hard work.

And us? All this seems a million miles from the concerns of European politicians; there is no need to hunt for the "third way" in the US, for the present way is doing pretty well. And if American attitudes seem far from those of the UK, they are on a different planet from continental Europe.

But there are close practical links between US and UK politicians. Tony Blair applied Bill Clinton's techniques to the election process. If a western-led, Republican party were to control both Congress and presidency, it would be astounding if some of its ideas about the proper role for government were not aired by conservatives in Britain. Maybe it's time for William Hague to get that baseball cap out again.