Why the Germans don’t always do it better

4 Sep

Every so often it becomes fashionable to use the understated brilliance and modernity of Germany as a stick with which to beat Britain for holding to absurdly antiquated ways of doing things.

I did it myself a few months ago, in a piece for ConHome suggesting that when the pandemic is over, we will have to look at what the NHS can learn from Germany.

Now John Kampfner has devoted a whole book, Why The Germans Do It Better, to this theme. It is a good title, but also a hostage to fortune. Will the Germans go on doing it better? Nobody knows.

And although the book, which I have not yet had the pleasure of reading, doubtless contains all sorts of prudent qualifications to the bold assertion in the title, it is bound to encourage the kind of Briton who already believes that compared to Germany, the United Kingdom is hopelessly old-fashioned and resistant to change.

I love Germany, and in the 1990s had the pleasure of living for almost six years in Berlin. During that time, I wondered in vain how to write a book about modern Germany which could be read for pleasure as well as edification.

For in those days, and I fear this is still  true, while educated Germans often had an almost perfect grasp of the English language, and a detailed knowledge of British society, the reverse was by no means the case.

In some well-to-do parts of German society, Anglophilia raged almost out of control. They dispatched their children to fee-paying schools in Britain, followed by British universities. Even their dogs seemed to come from Yorkshire.

I hope some German author is at work on a study of this phenomenon, entitled Why The British Do It Better, which can sit next to Kampfner’s volume on my shelf.

But the truth about Britain and Germany is more complicated than such compliments, or exercises in self-denigration, can convey. And although it is worth identifying the things the Germans do well, it would be naive to suggest that simply by copying German methods, we can transplant their successes to British soil.

John Major said in March 1991 that he wanted Britain to be “where it belongs, at the very heart of Europe”. This always seemed, from a geographical point of view, an implausible goal.

Germany is at the heart of Europe, surrounded by about 20 other countries, all of them smaller than Germany. This is an inescapable fact, and offers a powerful reason for developing some system of amicable co-operation with those neighbours, so none of them becomes worried by Germany’s preponderant size.

The United Kingdom is on the edge of Europe. We have fewer neighbours and wider choices. We may make a dreadful mess of those choices: the Union with Scotland is now in grave danger.

But there is not much profit in trying to deny that the choices exist. Yet this is what Major and his successors tried to do. They said it would be mad to adopt any policy other than being at the heart of Europe.

This accusation of madness did not prove a happy way of managing Major’s critics within the Conservative Party, who put up a dogged resistance to his European policy.

In the eyes of the kind of people who will feel themselves in instinctive agreement with Kampfner’s title, this protracted row was an embarrassment.

It showed how backward and barbarous some Tory MPs were. Individual parliamentarians were held up as examples of complete madness. None of the care and sympathy which are nowadays supposed to be extended to the mentally ill were extended to these Conservatives.

There was instead a brutal attempt to cast them and their ideas out of polite society.

Germany did not have an argument like that. Although the German people wished by a clear majority to keep the German mark, German MPs voted on 23rd April 1998 by 575 to 35 in favour of replacing it with the euro, with no fewer than 27 of the “no” votes coming from the PDS, successor to the East German communist party.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl assured German MPs that the euro would make Frankfurt a “very big financial centre”, that Britain would be a member of the new currency within a few years, and that Switzerland would join within ten years.

In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which I rejoiced to read each morning, learned professors of economics argued with anguished pedantry that the new currency could not work. Their opinion was widely shared by German voters, who loved going on holiday in Italy, or at least to the local Italian restaurant, but did not think sharing a currency with the Italians was a good idea, and feared German savers and taxpayers were bound to end up subsidising the weaker members of the euro.

Kohl promised them their fears were groundless, and kept the political class solidly behind the project. He was a power politician of genius, who exploited the fact that the opposition Social Democrats believed more devoutly in his European policy than his own Christian Democrats did.

Nor was he above maintaining his dominance with the use of illegal bank accounts. High ideals and low methods were yoked together, but for a long time only the former got much coverage in the German press.

Perhaps it is a good thing that Kohl succeeded: it is hard to tell, for we have not reached the end of the story.

But it is in some ways a pity that German politicians failed to have the argument among themselves which created such animosity within the Conservative Party.

German public opinion was not prepared, and the assumption took hold that one’s duty, as a member of the political class, is not to rock the boat, and to suppress any details which might create the wrong impression.

There wasn’t, in Bonn, the open parliamentary debate which should have preceded so a momentous an experiment as subsuming the national currency, proud symbol of post-war recovery, within a new, supranational currency, as yet unsupported by a new, supranational state.

Dissent was stifled: something more easily done in a system with party lists. Many Germans saw with indignation the herd mentality that had developed among their representatives.

It has become a commonplace of commentary on foreign affairs that Germany is failing to rise to the great responsibilities which now rest on her shoulders.

Again, one may argue that this is a good thing: that being undramatic is better than being over-dramatic: that all difficult questions should be left in the calm hands of Angela Merkel, who long ago had the ruthlessness to knife Kohl.

But this preference for a quiet life has its drawbacks too. For years, Wirecard was held up as a German success story, a rare example of a national tech champion which could beat the Americans at their own game.

German regulators declined to investigate persistent allegations of irregular accounting and the company frightened into silence anyone who suggested its figures were too good to be true.

Only a year ago, Merkel promoted Wirecard’s efforts to get a licence to operate in China.

The German press failed to expose the Wirecard scandal. That was left to a troublesome newspaper based in London, The Financial Times, which took a courageous, principled, long-term view of the story, and wanted to tell its readers what was actually going on. Those qualities are not only found in Germany.