Why is Mr Brown so fascinated by America?

'Central to Brown is the belief that the demolition ofBritish class barriers isabsolutely necessary'
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The Independent Online

Wherever Gordon and Sarah Brown were spending their honeymoon, we would be wishing them well. But it's highly appropriate that the Chancellor has chosen to spend much of August, as he has for several years, in Cape Cod. It would be inconceivable, most of all in an American election year, for Brown to stay away. For his fascination with the US is genuine, deep-seated and sometimes rather misunderstood.

Wherever Gordon and Sarah Brown were spending their honeymoon, we would be wishing them well. But it's highly appropriate that the Chancellor has chosen to spend much of August, as he has for several years, in Cape Cod. It would be inconceivable, most of all in an American election year, for Brown to stay away. For his fascination with the US is genuine, deep-seated and sometimes rather misunderstood.

For a start, there's nothing new about it. The idea, for example, that he found Atlanticism as a late substitute after allegedly cooling on the European single currency is simple nonsense. Way back in the 1980s, there were few British politicians of any kind, let alone Labour ones, who followed in such exhaustive detail as Brown did the twists and turns of Ronald Reagan's failure to control his budget deficit; Brown devoured several books on the subject. Today, there are few who are as conversant with the US political scene as he is.

Brown is, anyway, notorious in the Foreign Office for preferring, on official visits abroad, hotels and freedom to the constriction of staying with ambassadors and surrendering to a round of embassy dinners and cocktail parties. But nowhere is it less necessary for him to depend on diplomats than in Washington, where he has a ready entrée of his own to many of the key figures in the US administration, strongly reinforced by the visit he and Tony Blair made to the US in the early Nineties.

It would be well-nigh impossible, of course, for any intelligent European finance minister not to admire the extraordinary dynamism of the American economy. Maybe we should not overdo the parallel between the granting of independence to the Bank of England and the role of the Federal Reserve in the US; nor between the equally important reduction of the British deficit and Clinton's success in the same department.

But there are certainly echoes of America's traditionally more aggressive approach to trust-busting in Brown's inspiration of the plan to take competition policy and merger regulation out of the hands of ministers. There is more than a hint of it in Brown's interesting and under-reported decision to refer (in May) the often close-knit vested interests of the professions - from lawyers to accountants, from actuaries to surveyors - to the Office of Fair Trading.

But nowhere is Brown's interest in British contrasts with the US more apparent than in his recent, controversial forays into higher education. His decision in January to inject £43m into a link-up between Cambridge University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - which he had visited on his own initiative - arose precisely because he was fascinated by MIT's ability to generate entrepreneurship and jobs. Brown's subsequent attack on Oxbridge for discriminating against state-school pupils, personified by Laura Spence - about which he is, to put it mildly, unrepentant - provoked a ferocious reaction by a spectrum of critics that, unusually, covered both Lord Jenkins and the Tory press.

It is difficult to imagine another country in which it would have done so, as the figures were plain to see. There is an alarming discrepancy between the proportion of private-school pupils with three A-levels and those from state schools with the same qualifications.

The common criticism was that it was an opportunistic attempt by Brown to make Labour seem less consensual by challenging the universities to lower their standards in the cause of half-baked egalitarianism.

That badly missed the point. First, it did a real injustice to Brown to think that his impatience with the old school tie was simply tactical. He was deeply sceptical of the idea that the all-important entrance interview - held before the A-level results are known - properly found the best pupils, rather than those best prepared for just such interviews. Brown was impatient that the lottery of the Oxbridge college system meant that Laura Spence failed where she might have succeeded if she had applied to a different college. And finally, he was impressed by the way in which Harvard, which he also knows well, had for many years employed squadrons of recruiters whose job was to winkle out the brightest pupils from deprived backgrounds.

It had nothing to do with falling standards. The theory was purely meritocratic: that only by a genuinely non-discriminatory admissions policy could the universities be sure of getting the best - rather than the best-connected - pupils. Which is where, perhaps, the real roots of Brown's interest in the American dream are located: the absence, on the other side of the Atlantic, of the class barriers that hobble social mobility here.

The contrast is lucidly described by Jonathan Freedland, who in his book Bring Home the Revolution, reportedly admired by Brown, points out that while only one in 10 of Britain's highest earners had a father in the bottom fifth, four out of five US millionaires are self-made. Indeed the much greater expectations among Americans than Britons of a better life - shown by polls - may account for the relative lack there of contempt, tinged with envy, for the self-made man. "Nouveau riche" simply isn't an American concept.

One of the many Scots who interest Brown - besides the great socialist James Maxton, about whom he wrote a biography - is Andrew Carnegie, who was born in the Chancellor's own constituency, and who, after his family emigrated to the US, rose from being a messenger boy to run the largest iron and steel business in the country. Carnegie not only personified self-made American entrepreneurship; while he was a Republican in the US, in Britain, to which he frequently returned after his retirement, he was a Liberal who despised the British class system.

Carnegie was also, of course, a philanthropist on a fabulous scale. And here we come back to educational opportunity. For, by the second decade of last century, Carnegie was paying for about half the higher education system in Scotland to ensure that poor young Scots had the opportunities he had been denied.

It would be wrong to exaggerate Brown's enthusiasm for the US, and not just because it is only one aspect of the outlook of this complex man. Brown can hardly overlook the existence of an American underclass or the dislocation from American society felt by many blacks, to which Colin Powell eloquently testified at the Republican convention last week. Brown's political roots remain distinctively British and Labour. Nor, of course, does Brown - nor, for that matter, Blair - have the remotest affinity with the minimal levels of social provision and health care for the poorest in the US.

Brown and Blair have a strong belief in the state, which eludes most modern US politicians. But part of the Brownite make-up is the belief that the demolition of British class barriers, while not a sufficient condition of a society at once fairer and more economically successful, is an absolutely necessary one. And for that he draws a good deal of sustenance from his visits to the United States. Even, perhaps, on honeymoon.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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