TONY BLAIR'S ambition to create an intellectual "cool Britannia" has been boosted by the first signs that the excitement of New Labour's arrival in power is helping to reverse the brain drain of top minds.
The Prime Minister's favourite academic, Anthony Giddens, has managed to entice leading professors from the United States and the rest of Europe to the London School of Economics, where he is director.
Professor Giddens accompanied Mr Blair to Washington this month to take part in a think-in at the White House. "The purpose is to craft and define centre-left philosophy for the world of today," the Prime Minister said.
Professor Giddens told The Independent: "Wherever you go in the world, people are discussing the same problems, which was just not true 20 years ago. There is a globalisation of the debate.
"Now, if Britain could be a sparking point, as it was for Thatcherism, as it was for the creation of welfare states, it would be a brilliant thing to achieve. I would like the LSE to be at the centre of that."
Heading the return of the exiles is Linda Colley, who is leaving Yale to become professor of history at the LSE in July. Author of Britons: Forging the Nation, she has advised Peter Mandelson, the Minister Without Portfolio, on the "re-branding of Britain".
Her husband and fellow-historian David Cannadine is also returning, to take up a post at London University.
Professor Giddens has also signed up Perry Anderson, the founder of New Left Review, from Los Angeles, and five visiting professors, including Richard Sennett of New York University, who will spend one term a year at the LSE's sociology department, and Oliver Hart, professor of economics at Harvard.
"It is possible to get people back from North America, but only if they are Europeans who want to come back to live," Professor Giddens said. American universities are still able to make "extraordinary" financial offers which cannot be matched in Britain. But he feels the "quality of intellectual community" has been "energised" by Mr Blair's attempt to promote new thinking about social change and the global economy.
In addition, the "attractions of London" as a place to live, recently highlighted by American hype about the "world's coolest city", can help recruit academics, especially younger ones. "But it is still a struggle to keep the best people here," he added.
Professor Giddens has been touted as "Blair's guru", although he modestly denies that he is part of the inner circle. He has established himself as the prime theoretician of the "third way", a phrase which Mr Blair has used and which also cropped up in President Clinton's State of the Union address last month.
The phrase is used to mean "beyond left and right", which was the title of Professor Giddens' book, subtitled The Future of Radical Politics, published in 1994, the year that Mr Blair became Labour leader. He contributed the opening chapter to a collection of essays edited that year by Mr Blair's chief policy adviser, David Miliband, called Reinventing the Left.
Professor Giddens took his "third way" message to the seminar convened by Mr Blair and Hillary Clinton at Chequers last November, and was invited back to take part in this month's follow-up session in the White House.
He is famous as the man who gave sociology intellectual respectability in the Seventies, and who was canny enough to set up a publishing house, Polity Press, which actually made money. He no longer drives a Porsche, however. He has now traded down to "more ecological bottom-of-the-range 1.8 litre Mercedes".
In December, he conferred an honorary degree on a former colleague, President Cardoso of Brazil, whom he cites as a prime example of the globalisation of the New Labour style of thinking.
The President, who was once a world-famous sociologist and espoused the "dependency theory" that Latin America could not develop until it had rejected capitalism, is now a born-again disciple of the radical centre who has written the introduction to a collection of Mr Blair's speeches in Portuguese. "I got the introduction translated and I was really amazed when I realised it was straight-down-the-line New Labour," Mr Blair said in Washington.
But the "brainy Britannia" effect is not simply confined to politics and related subjects such as economics, sociology and history.
There are also tentative signs of a reverse brain-drain in sciences, funded in part by big corporations interested in the commercial application of breakthrough technologies.
Last month, Lord Sainsbury's Gatsby Foundation gave pounds 10m to University College, London, to set up a neuroscience unit headed by Geoffrey Hinton, a former Cambridge don who is returning after 16 years in North America.
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