Leading article: The road to recovery

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The Independent Online

In defence of Gordon Brown, once more. The cynical consensus is already firmly entrenched. The Prime Minister's overblown ambitions for the G20 summit have come a cropper, it is written. He has been humiliated abroad, by an upstart Conservative MEP whose unoriginal yah-boo has become a YouTube hit, and by the President of Chile who accidentally echoed George Osborne's line about "fixing the roof when the sun was shining". He has been blocked at home by his own Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank of England.

He wanted a new Bretton Woods, a "global grand bargain" to provide "the biggest fiscal stimulus the world has ever agreed". Instead, this week he gets a fractious talking shop – the main function of which is to provide a focus for disorderly protest and a repressive overreaction from the police.

This is unfair. Worse than that, it is untrue. Of course, the leaders of the 20 main economies will not solve all the world's problems in a soulless exhibition centre in London's Docklands on Thursday. And Mr Brown has not achieved everything that he hoped for. But he should not be faulted for trying. If the scope of his ambition seemed grandiose, then it attempted to match the unprecedented scale of the shock to the global economy.

Some of those who mistake world-weariness for wisdom said they were puzzled by Mr Brown's setting expectations so high that the summit was bound to fall short. This demand for better spin and cleverer media manipulation sits oddly with the fashionable cry of the moment for authenticity.

Not that we would accuse the Prime Minister of being entirely innocent in this respect. His early hope that the summit would agree a new fiscal stimulus, in addition to what governments had already planned, has been finessed. The co-ordinated stimulus that is already in the draft communiqué in square brackets at $2 trillion is, in Mr Brown's words in New York on Wednesday, "what we have done so far cumulatively".

Yet none of this renders the summit either meaningless or counterproductive. Rhetorical commitments to a co-ordinated stimulus, even if they are largely descriptive of what is happening anyway, help to herd national economic policies in a similar direction. They also make it less likely that countries will resort to protectionism, which was a main cause of global deflation in the 1930s. Far better, then, that the leaders of the world should meet, talk and issue bland communiqués than that they should stay at home and indulge in populist gestures, which often include tariffs on imports and subsidies for domestic producers.

And fitting, too, that it should be the G20 rather than the G8: the broader-based organisation includes the emerging economic powers of the 21st century: China, India and Brazil. As Hamish McRae argues on page 84, this economic crisis marks a further step to a world economy in which China takes its place alongside the US.

Of course, it could be argued that even the loose degree of co-ordination achieved by the G20 this week is around the wrong set of policies. That is the objection of the protesters who took to the streets of London yesterday and who will do so again on Wednesday and Thursday. But there are three strands of protest: two of them, the greens and the poverty-enders, are pushing at open doors, with Mr Brown mostly on their side.

It is only the anti-capitalists that see this crisis as yet another moment when the entire system will be torn down and replaced by, well, something else. The vast majority of people all over the world, on the other hand, recognise that a form of managed capitalism continues to offer the best chance of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The argument that really matters is what form that should take, and specifically, this week, whether we need a fiscal stimulus at all. The argument against is made in a weak form by the Conservatives in this country (by Mr Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, on page 43), and is the basis of the differences of emphasis across the G20. They range from Barack Obama at the splurge end of the spectrum to Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and Mirek Topolanek, the outgoing Prime Minister of the Czech Republic (who called President Obama's stimulus plan a "road to hell"), at the other.

The Independent on Sunday is at the Obama-Brown end of the spectrum, rather than the Merkel-Topolanek end, because the prospect of a global slump is so terrible that it is worth spending money that we do not have to minimise the risk.

For his efforts to tilt the balance of global governance in the right direction, the Prime Minister deserves praise rather than scorn.