Andreas Whittam Smith: They didn't make history, but that's no bad thing

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The Independent Online

First came the pledge to crack down on tax havens. Their existence is, of course, very annoying for the millions of us who pay our taxes and hide nothing away. And I should be delighted to see tax dodgers sent to prison. But hang on a minute. We are going through the worst recession for 60 years and closing down tax havens is thought to be the answer?

Then sticking firmly to the unessential, Mr Brown moved on to hedge funds and credit rating agencies. Yes, they should be more closely regulated. Economic value of such action today? Nil. Precisely nil.

Finally, the Prime Minister announced a major expansion of the funds available to the International Monetary Fund. This number registers. It is economics not politics. It speaks to a major concern. Even so, it is best to discount the big figures attached to various parts of the proposals. They are purely theoretical in the sense that they tell us what would be available if all member countries took up their allotments. As Mr Brown was quick to say: "Britain is not planning to take advantage of the extra cash available from the IMF." Nor is it likely that any of the other advanced economies would do so.

So what you are left with is a useful financial facility that can be used by emerging economies and poorer countries. Those that might avail themselves of this help include Turkey, South Africa, Pakistan and a clutch of eastern European states.

Failing to deal with financing risks and banking sector vulnerabilities in emerging economies would, as the IMF observed the other day, worsen prospects in the advanced economies and trigger a vicious spiral.

So good job, but that is really it. That is the sole worthwhile achievement of the London meeting. For what follows next in the leaders' statement, while grandly entitled "restoring growth and jobs", contains nothing new at all.

Paragraph six states: "We are undertaking an unprecedented and concerted fiscal expansion, which will save or create millions of jobs which would otherwise have been destroyed." Indeed, that is what G20 countries are doing, but their leaders did not need to come to London to tell us. Nothing was said about any additional measures to stimulate growth even though these packages fall short of the IMF recommendations. The IMF specifically advises that countries that can afford to increase their stimulus packages in 2010 should do so.

The leaders' statement goes on in the same, uninspiring manner. "Interest rates have been cut aggressively in most countries, and our central banks have pledged to maintain expansionary policies for as long as needed and to use the full range of monetary policy instruments." Yes, indeed. It goes on: "We have provided significant and comprehensive support to our banking systems to provide liquidity, recapitalise financial institutions, and address decisively the problem of impaired assets." So you have.

I paid close attention to what the statement said about trade barriers. For solemn promises of intent can be significant. It is hard for a head of government to come to London, sign up to free trade and then go home and impose trade tariffs. The leaders said that "we reaffirm the commitment made in Washington to refrain from raising new barriers to investment or to trade in goods and services, imposing new export restrictions, or implementing measures to stimulate exports".

That, however, the possibility of backsliding exists, was revealed by this sentence: "We will rectify promptly any [protectionist] measures." And then the leaders added this sinister rider: "We extend this pledge to the end of 2010." In other words, a number of them (USA, France?) signed up reluctantly but will wait a couple of years.

What, then, can one say about the London summit? It won't appear in the history books. But that may not be a bad thing. Has it helped confidence by showing our governments have got the measure of Great Recession and know what to do about it? Not very convincingly. Has Mr Brown had a success? He did as well as anybody could have done but it was an impossible task.