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Will Cameron listen to the new group of Tory radicals?

Britannia Unchained - review.

Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity
Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss
Palgrave Macmillan, 152pp, £12.99

It has been so long since there has been any trace of original thought in the parliamentary Conservative Party that it is a cause of profound shock when some comes along out of the blue. After its well-merited defeat in 1997, the party became afraid to be conservative. This was because in the decade or so after that defeat the party was hijacked by centre-leftists who saw an opportunity to change the nature of the beast. They hectored people in the mainstream about the need to “detoxify” what the present Home Secretary called “the nasty party”.

In truth, the party under John Major had been a left-leaning party. And it had been roundly defeated in 1997 because it was full of sleazy MPs and provided a government run by incompetent ministers – and not because it had made a point of being vile to women, homosexuals and black people.

Since then, ideas have been driven out of the party. In order to become Prime Minister and enjoy, as it now seems, power for its own sake, David Cameron simply embraced the consensus. Conservative policies became whatever Cameron thought the public wanted. The party, like New Labour before it, became obsessed with focus groups and polling. I recall, only weeks before the collapse of Lehman
Brothers in 2008, being told by one of George Osborne’s advisers that the Tories intended to maintain spending at Labour’s destructive levels, and to “share the proceeds of growth”. There was no intellectual engagement with policy, simply the pursuit of the popular for its own sake. These people were too stupid to realise what was really happening in the economy and to grasp its unsustainability. These same idiots are now in power.

The five Tory MPs who have written this book are manifestly a cut above that. One of them, Elizabeth Truss, was promoted to the front bench as an education minister in the recent reshuffle and we have not heard the last of her. She and four of her colleagues – Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Chris Skidmore – have produced an intelligent, evidence-based programme for economic revival. Their words, because of the empiricism that underpins them, have an authority not seen in a policy submission by a group of Tories since the original One Nation group in 1950.
This book deserves to be taken seriously by all with an interest in politics, whatever their beliefs. It especially deserves to be taken seriously by the clique of complacent, trust-funded PPE graduates who call the tune in the Tory party.

The methodology of the book is surprisingly simple. The authors look at other nations and ask why they have the drive to advance, and we do not. They seek to explain why India, Canada, Israel and even Brazil, with all its poverty and social problems, have lessons to teach us. Yet it is not all negative: pointing out that our birth rate continues to increase while that of most other European countries is falling, the authors hint that in a generation or two we shall have the human raw materials to secure great prosperity in the global marketplace – provided we educate and instil the right values into those people. The main obstacles that we as a nation seem to suffer from are over-regulation and over-intervention by the state: two factors that have produced a sclerotic aspect to our economy and, indeed, to our wider society. There is, it seems, no “can-do” culture, because the overbearing state will not permit it.

Many on the left will dismiss the arguments of this book as, to use Theresa May’s phrase, “nasty”, but they represent a long-overdue confrontation with a reality that the present government seems not even to have half the measure of. The authors say things that no Tory minister, anxious to pursue the party line about “detoxification”, would dream of uttering: for they would counteract the pretence that there do not have to be what Tony Blair used to call “hard choices”. The authors state that we continue to live beyond our means. They say that without serious cuts in taxation, funded by even deeper cuts in public spending, there will be insufficient impetus and incentive in the private sector to economic recovery. They quote Jim Callaghan’s admission 35 years ago that a country cannot spend its way out of recession. They warn the present opposition that nothing has changed: it is demented to argue that the way out of a catastrophe caused by excessive borrowing is to borrow some more. There has to be a better way: and the authors seek to find it. They expose, by implication, the scandalous inaction of a government that, in so far as it was elected, was put in office to revive the economy. But they also indicate the fatuity of an opposition whose only plan to solve a problem caused by excessive spending is to spend more.

The authors identify welfarism and high taxation as the two main disincentives to employment. Most controversially, they identify the absence of a work ethic among many in Britain, partly caused by those two factors but also because of a failure to make the link between effort and reward. They observe a society where the desire to become a footballer or a pop star, with fantasies of excessive wealth, has undermined the notion of getting an education, working hard and becoming self-reliant. They talk about other cultures, some of them well-represented in our country, where parental attitudes towards education and self-improvement are superior to those of many Britons, and which as a result flourish economically. For too long, the authors say, we have worked too little, lived off credit and allowed ourselves to be outfoxed by the industry and talent of our competitors. If we don’t stop, ruin is the only option.

The absence of grammar schools has – as even some on the left now admit – reduced social mobility. The welfare state has encouraged some parents to lose a sense of responsibility for their children and to regard their education as an optional extra. Without properly educated people, the authors argue, we cannot grow: but, as they also hint, the upbringing of children is about more than filling them with academic or vocational skills; it is teaching them the right attitudes and imparting to them a work ethic.

It will be instructive to see what future the Tory party holds for the four authors who did not receive preferment in the reshuffle. Since the four of them are more able, original and thoughtful than about half of the present front bench, they should not resist the temptation to conduct the odd seminar in the House of Commons, in the press and on television in order to keep up the pressure. The Conservative Party has plumbed a depth of cynicism not seen since the early 1970s and the locust years of the Heath government. It does not only seem to avoid ideas: it seems to fear them and hate them. The closest the present Prime Minister has come to one was “sharing the proceeds of growth” (RIP) and the so-called “big society”.

Britain is in an economic crisis the like of which has not been seen since the 1930s. It was not of the Conservative Party’s making, but a Conservative chancellor, hemmed in by Liberal Democrats, has made it worse than it needed to be. Only a fundamental change of direction in our economy and in the ground rules for our society can provide the change of direction essential for us to flourish. The start of the blueprint for that is seen in this book. I doubt Cameron will have the guts to follow it: but perhaps, one day, one of these five will.

Simon Heffer writes for the Daily Mail

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis