Blair lowers the summit for the world's leaders in Brum

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The Independent Online
STAND by for a weekend of politicians prancing about in front of the cameras, for the economic summit is coming to town. But expect this year for them to prance to a different tune.

The show is coming to Birmingham: the Group of Eight, or G8 to the aficionados, comprising the seven largest economies in the world plus Russia. Actually, the additional member ought by rights to be China, not Russia, for the Chinese economy is far larger than the Russian one. But the Russians were offered economic summit membership as a consolation prize for not fussing too much about the eastward expansion of Nato.

The show will sound important, for Clinton and Yeltsin, etc. will be sampling the delights of Brum, and these are people who inevitably command headlines, though not necessarily for the right reasons. Whether the event actually is important ... well, see what you think.

These summits have been taking place each year for more than 20 years - they started in the bleak days after the first oil shock when the world seemed to be facing economic catastrophe and it seemed helpful to try to co-ordinate economic policies. But in recent years they have degenerated into little more than photo-opportunities, treated by the financial markets, where real power lies, with a mixture of disdain and contempt.

The world has changed. Few people now believe that top-down intervention by governments can improve the world economy, whereas in the 1970s that was received wisdom. The great boom of the last two decades has been built on bottom-up, market-driven ideas. The very fact that Russia should now be at the table is testimony to the power of these ideas.

If the world has moved on, the summits haven't. The leaders meet, have their photos taken, produce a tedious communique about the state of the world economy written several weeks earlier by their mandarins, have their photos taken again and go home.

But the UK has to host the summit, for it comes here on Buggin's turn. So what do you do? Answer: you try and rebrand it: turn it, so to speak, into a new economic summit, something that reflects more accurately what politicians can and cannot do in the economic sphere. Ideas are powerful, not governments; but politicians - if they are very clever - can package and sell ideas. That is how Mr Blair will be trying to refocus the summit this weekend.

Stage one is to cut the thing down to size. No longer will the finance ministers attend. Finance ministers are always irritated when prime ministers and presidents try to muscle in on their territory, bang on about economics, get things wrong and leave them to pick up the debris in the financial markets the week after. So here is a neat solution. Give the finance ministers their own G7 (i.e. minus Russia), which they had last weekend, and this weekend the bosses can get on without them.

Stage two is only tackle things where joint government action might be helpful. So there will be no grand visionary stuff about the world economy; no wonder-cure for the melt-down in East Asia; no priggish bullying of Japan to try to crank up its economy (the finance ministers had a go at that last weekend). Instead there will be three or four focused policy initiatives where co-operative action might help a bit.

For example, there will be something on fighting organised crime; for the crime industry, like its more conventional cousins, is going global too. There will be something about coordinating help for the weakest economic region in the world, Africa. There will be something on trying to develop policies that will help people who have been left behind in the 1990s boom; but here the emphasis will be on limited "what works" policies, not the "we can give you jobs" approach that has failed so spectacularly on the Continent, and which accounts for the trouble that Chirac and Kohl find themselves in now.

These all make great sense. Crime is already falling in the US and seems to be falling in the UK too, so give the trend a modest push. Large parts of Africa, at last and achingly slowly, are starting to increase living standards after two lost decades, so give that a further push. As for helping the disadvantaged, note the idea is not to promise blanket welfare solutions, but rather to encourage the wider application of solutions which already seem to be working. These, in general, follow the more innovative US experiments (such as the effort in Wisconsin to get everyone who can possibly work into some kind of job), rather than the unaffordable continental European models.

If this seems a US/UK approach both to economics and to social welfare, it is also a US/UK approach to politics. People like Blair and Clinton no longer pretend to be in charge of things over which they have no control. That is a mug's game because you will inevitably disappoint. People like Kohl and Chirac have not cottoned on to that yet, which is why Chirac is a lame-duck, forced to co-habit with a leftist prime minister, and Kohl will be almost certainly be defeated this autumn. Instead you acknowledge the limits of power, don't try and fix what ain't broke, identify areas where you can sell an already dominant idea, and get the credit for articulating people's hopes and fears.

What we will get this weekend, if it works, is not just a new economic summit; not just New Labour applying its genius for packaging; but an exercise in new politics. The art is to not do very much, but to tackle a few issues where you are likely to show progress and make that sound brilliant. It is sound-bites, sure, but it is also policy-bites: small, limited initiatives delivered in bite-sized chunks. Watch and be impressed.