TCS Daily

Pied Piper of Anti-Americanism

By Tim King - June 26, 2002 12:00 AM

LONDON -- Anti-Americanism is currently enjoying a mini-vogue in Europe. The Bush administration hasn't exactly curried favour in Europe by hiking tariffs on steel imports and announcing a new raft of farm subsidies. Now Will Hutton, a British economics journalist, is piling more fuel on the anti-American fire.

His book, "The World We're In", sets out in stark Manichean terms a choice between American and European traditions of political economy. Hutton's fear is that continental Europe is about to follow Britain and succumb to the evil influence of America. American conservative principles have, he writes, begun to encroach on Europe's liberal social democratic principles.

"The march of the conservative right and the eclipse of American liberalism have helped to undermine our own distinct conceptions of the public realm, citizenship and the proper relationship between the market and society. It is time we recognised that Europe has something very important to offer -- something much better than the US."

And again, (Mr. Hutton favours repetition): "the triumph of American conservatism has entrenched an uncritical acclamation of what is by European standards an eccentric and particular view of what makes capitalism work over time".

Hutton claims that his book was conceived and largely written before anti-Americanism became fashionable in Europe. The reception of the book has, he says, "something to do with events post September 11". Hutton argues that those events have reinforced "the US predisposition to unilateralism" and that anti-Americanism in Europe is in part a response to that unilateralism.

The peculiar upshot of all this is a book that is fashionably unfashionable. It is superficially fashionable in that it is rude about America. But underneath it is, as Hutton boasts, "going against the tide", by championing the European social model against the prevailing orthodoxies of liberalization and deregulation.

Fashion has long been important to Hutton's oeuvre. To enjoy his book to the full and to appreciate the waves it is making, it helps to know the author's background.

Hutton was a familiar figure in British journalism, as an economic correspondent and commentator first for the BBC then for The Guardian. But in 1995 he scored a palpable hit with "The State We're In", which was his indictment of the economics of the Conservative government and his manifesto for "a stakeholder society". His publishers modestly claim that the book was "the biggest selling politico-economic work for a generation". Undoubtedly, it was well-timed: the book was swept along by the same swell tide that brought Tony Blair to power, searching for that much talked-about, elusive Third Way. Those who were trying to understand what Blair stood for turned to Will Hutton's book.

In due course, Blair's New Labour party woke up to the impracticalities of Hutton's suggestions, but not before he had become a publishing phenomenon and been promoted from columnist for The Guardian to editor of its sister Sunday newspaper The Observer, largely on the success of his book. As an editor he was a failure, chiefly because he is not a good manager. So now, curiously, Hutton has moved on to head the Work Foundation, an organisation in London that advises on good management. (It used to be called The Industrial Society, in the days when Britain had some industry.)

Hutton's antecedents in an English domestic debate are worth dwelling on because they have their impact on The World We're In. Hutton's world, as various reviewers have noted, is strangely circumscribed. If its intention was thoroughly to discuss rival models of economic growth or of welfare provision, then it might be expected to give at least some attention to Asian experience.

The reason that he concentrates almost exclusively on America and Europe is possibly that this is, he believes, the choice facing Britain. And in the political debate forever simmering in the UK, Hutton sides with those wishing that Britain would commit itself more wholeheartedly to the European project, including the euro. "The British are so fixated with what happens across the Atlantic that they cannot see the merits of what is happening across the Channel, and how it might be adapted to deliver the productivity growth that business, government and society want and need."

Although he has employed some European researchers, Hutton's perspective on events is clearly rooted in England. From where Hutton is sitting - contemplating Britain's crumbling transport infrastructure, creaking public services and watered down welfare state - perhaps the European social model does look attractive. But there are some in Europe, enduring cripplingly high tax rates in, for example, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium, who might think they were looking down the other end of the telescope.

Hutton rails against those who want European governments to espouse lower tax rates and slimmed down social protection. But as he piles assertion on assertion the more free-thinking of his readers may wonder why it is that so many in Europe have lost faith in the economic model that he champions. Can they all have been brainwashed by American conservatives? Is it just a coincidence that those European economies with lower taxes, such as Luxembourg, Ireland and the Netherlands have boasted higher growth rates than their EU partners?

Hutton's book is best read as a polemic: the effect is often entertaining even when the evidence is selective and anecdotal. The broader question is how well Hutton has judged the mood of the moment. His cheers for liberal social democracy ring out over a western Europe that has consistently been voting for centre-right parties rather than the left - in Portugal, Ireland, the Netherlands and France. His plaudits for greater integration within the European Union come at a time when the national governments are blowing noticeably cooler for the project.

But Hutton is not entirely out of tune with the times. The debate to which he contributes is very current. The battle over the European social model is being played out in myriad spheres of European Union legislation week by week and month by month. The EU's agenda of economic reform - including liberalisation of energy and telecoms markets - is still being balanced, for political reasons, by promises of government action to increase employment. Social protection is alive and flourishing. Hutton exaggerates the extent to which the European way of doing things is under threat. The American victory that he so fears is a long way off.



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