Watching Gordon Brown dodge questions over the "Buy American" clauses in the US stimulus a few days ago, I was reminded of just how much he is gambling on the US strategy. Obviously keen not to jeopardise the progress of Obama's plan in any way, Gordon Brown - long an arch anti-protectionist - limited his comments to some fuzzy warnings over the dangers of trade wars. He clearly cannot bear the idea that the US stimulus might not be passed, denying him the chance to stand in the 'stimulating' shadow of the mighty Obama.
But while both the UK and US Governments have bet the farm on this 'stimulus' idea, it is striking just how sorely lacking in both ambition and realism our Government is in comparison to that in the US. While Washington is awash with talk of health care and education reform, discussion here is limited to gloomy forecasts on the future of our banks, or the chance to create a few more construction jobs.
There is also a realism in the US that is just not sinking in here. The stimulus is quickly becoming a protectionist pork feast, but leaders among both the Republicans and the Democrats acknowledge the need for serious reform of federal services. Neither the US nor the UK can continue to maintain governments on the present scale. Obama himself, a big-government Democrat, has stated that entitlements and other expenditure must be cut back if the US hopes to ever get out of the crippling deficit it carries. Gordon Brown has not admitted as much. Far from it. The most he is looking for is ‘efficiencies’. In the US they are aware that cuts are needed, and that although the battles over these wont be easy, that those battles must be made.
Of course situations in the US and the UK are not exactly comparable. Nor are President Obama and the Congressional Democrats likely to achieve half of what they hope to. But in the US there is at least a sense that this crisis has the silver lining of opportunity. The time for massive, 'tear up the rule book' change is at times of crises, when people have been shaken out of complacency and opened up to the notion of change.
But there is no talk of education or welfare reform coming out of the UK Government, nothing really on health-care or defence policy too. Indeed one might ask where all those dozens of ministers have gone. The frenetic activity of Mandelson may have eclipsed them from the front pages, but apart from a vision of a digital Britain and a new approach to social care, where is the Government? This is the time to tackle those vested interests that scuppered reforms in the past, to consider those alternatives once considered too radical. If nothing else, it is time for all parties to be discussing openly what and how they intended to cut in the future? Because whether through their own realisation, or under the strictures of an IMF loan, Government will have to make cuts. But then maybe this Government is not just financially bankrupt, but out of ideas too.