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Why Britain is leading the world out of the banking crisis

On Tuesday, the US was the latest nation to follow Gordon Brown's blueprint for rescuing banks.

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent / October 15, 2008

FOLLOW ME: Prime Minister Gordon Brown spent 10 years as the British finance minister, giving him the experience and contacts to tacking the banking crisis.

Toby Melville/Reuters



If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown can consider himself highly commended.

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One by one his European counterparts have closely modeled their own financial rescue plans on a British blueprint that calls for capital injections into banks and guarantees for interbank lending.

On Tuesday, the United States moved to buy stakes worth up to $250 billion in the nation's nine leading banks, an operation that closely mirrored Mr. Brown's own decision Monday to partly nationalize three struggling banks.

Brown's leading role has drawn praise from friends and enemies, at home and overseas. Labour Party rebels, once determined to unseat him, have called a truce. British opposition parties grudgingly acknowledge the merit in his plan. The French media, never too kind to leaders across the Channel, declared him a "magician," as President Nicolas Sarkozy followed Brown's lead.

The newly crowned Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugman wondered semi-seriously whether Brown had saved the world financial system. Brown and his treasury team had, Mr. Krugman wrote, shown clarity of thought, speed of action and a "decisiveness [that] hasn't been matched by any other Western government."

Why? Why is it that the British – with their steady, unspectacular midsize economy and politically troubled prime minister – are leading the way?

Economists point to a host of factors. First, as someone with 10 years' experience as a finance minister (under Prime Minister Tony Blair), Brown is uniquely placed. He understands the complexities of the crisis and knows the key players in the Treasury and London's financial circles who can help.

"It's a subject area where he clearly has experience," says John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, Scotland. "The nature of the crisis plays to his strengths, though it's impossible to tell how much [of the plan] came from the political level and how much from the official level."

Either way, by the middle of last week, Team Brown had not only unveiled the plan to make hundreds of billions of pounds available for partly nationalizing banks, supplying liquidity, and underwriting interbank loans, but also began urging partners in Europe and the US to do the same.

Those partners were more flat-footed, principally for political reasons, says Philippe Martin, professor of economics at the Sorbonne in Paris. "In continental Europe, you have the stability pact [which sets strict budget limits] and the Germans didn't want to put their public money into others' banks," he says. Not being part of the euro zone, with its strict financial rules, meant "the British were more politically free."

Brown was welcomed to a euro-zone summit in Paris this past weekend – an exceptional invitation in itself – where he propounded his views. By Monday, France, Germany, Austria, and Spain had followed suit. "It's a bit ironic that the country which is not in the euro zone has actually led the debate on what should be done," says professor Martin. "What it shows is that what we needed and didn't have two or three weeks ago was a good diagnostic of the problem: It was not a liquidity problem; it was a solvency problem. And once you start from that position, the British solution is the only way forward."