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''We've had to let six staff go this Christmas . . . people with families and mortgages''

Families all over Britain are bracing themselves for hard times. For some, they have already started

On first impressions, Rayne Precision Engineering is a neat little company. Tucked into the hills of the southern fringe of the Peak District, it consists of four solid modern sheds, built of a fake stone material that blends in with the local housing. These are arranged around a tidy yard next to a mobile hut that serves as office accommodation. The atmosphere in the yard is pleasantly quiet. There's a faint hum in the air, but none of the clashing or screeching of metal on metal that you might expect.

It quickly becomes apparent that there is a reason for this. The company's founder and managing director, Andrew Simmill, leads me into first one shed and then another to show me an array of laser-cutting and welding machinery, all of it standing idle. The signs of recent activity are all around - a scattering of little metal shavings; a neat pile of ring-shaped components bound for the automotive industry. Today the firm is having a shutdown, Simmill explains.

In the summer of 1997, Rayne Engineering, which is a few miles outside the market town of Leek, had 47 full-time staff, working five days and sometimes nights or Saturday mornings as well, making parts for JCB, GKN and a range of other engineering companies. Simmill bought a people-carrier so that his welders could drive in from Stoke-on-Trent, 20 minutes or so down the road. He had diversified, too, into making shopfitting parts for Waterstone's.

The crash, when it came, came fast. In April this year Simmill took on a salesman to try to boost a flagging order book, but to no avail. Now Rayne Precision is down to 26 staff working four days a week. There have been 12 compulsory redundancies. The remaining staff agreed to their hours being cut from 39 to 31 last week.

"Last week was my worst week," Simmill says. "We had to let six people go. You're looking people in the eye just before Christmas . . . these are people with families and mortgages. And there's nothing I can do - I've got to protect the business."

Simmill is a big, weather-beaten man in blue overalls and a sweatshirt. He looks out of place in the firm's meeting room, under the glossy banners he ordered so they could push for scarce orders at trade fairs. He looks as if he could shoulder quite a burden - and that is exactly what he is having to do now.

"Carol, who does the stores and the planning, came to me last week and said, 'I'll take redundancy, Andrew.' She's over 60. She didn't want a younger person with a family to lose their job. But she's a key part of the business. I don't mind admitting I've had sleepless nights about finding enough work for my men."

This little local heartache is solid evidence of the tectonic shift that has affected businesses across the world in recent months. The plummeting housing market, the struggling construction industry, banks cracking under the weight of bad mortgage debts and overextended credit, all lead here to this little office.

For Simmill it trickled down in part from JCB, which dominates the heavy industry in this area, previously employing 5,000 at its plants in Rocester, Uttoxeter and Cheadle. The digger manufacturer - for whom Simmill has nothing but praise - was forced to cut production by a third and to make nearly 600 staff redundant this autumn as orders, even from previously buoyant markets such as Russia, began to dry up.

In the nearby Potteries, there have been 350 job losses at Wedgwood and Spode has gone into administration, putting a further 150 at risk. The misery goes on, the figures stacking up in tens here, twenties there. On the day of my visit the front page of the Sentinel, Stoke's local paper, carried the news that Hinks Fine China, the UK's last china flower manufacturer, was to close with the loss of another 16 jobs. At Uttoxeter, Dairy Farmers of Britain announced it was closing its Fole Dairy with 250 to go. At Phones4u, another major Staffordshire company, 240 IT jobs were reported to be at risk. Simmill ("I'm 47 but I feel 67," he says, then laughs) has been here before. Twenty years ago he started an engineering business with his father during the tail end of the 1980s boom.

"Nineteen eighty-nine was an extremely good year, but 1990 . . ." he pauses for a moment. "I was financed up to the hilt. I had £70,000 debt on one machine. Then I had 12 months where my father died of cancer and my brother was killed in a road accident at 23.

People are buying cheaper cuts of meat rather than the high-end products on sale

"Everything came at once. I got married, my daughter Carly was born, and two weeks later the company went into receivership. I had finance people chasing me; my house was on the line. I was on the verge of being made bankrupt."

But Simmill doesn't give up easily. For a year he worked for the man who bought his business, then rented his machines. "It was just 12 months after I went down," he says. "The banks and accountants hadn't had any faith in me, and it was almost to prove them wrong. I'm a determined sort of fellow."

He and his wife Clare now have three daughters - Carly, 17, Sheri, 16, and Kate, 13 - and they never stop hearing about the evils of credit. "I was out shopping one time with Sheri when she was only four or five," recalls Simmill. "I ran out of cash and so I thought, 'I'll wait until next week.' She turned to me and said, 'Put it on your card, Dad.' I was really taken aback by that, and I thought about it a lot. What I'm fearful of is my children going through what I went through. There are too many credit cards, too much easily available credit. That's put us in this mess."

About 18 months ago this niggling worry turned into a family crusade. Sitting around the table outside their house one summer evening over a meal, they began drawing out a game on sheets of A4 paper. Then the girls got busy with clip art and a boardgame, Credit 4 Life, was born. Players start with £1,500 and on a throw of the dice they pay bills - mortgage £600; night out £50; credit card 30 per cent debit interest - and, if they are lucky, draw wages. The game, now in a smart box with a laminated board, has been sold to about 20 schools and is being supported by Caudwell Children, a charity funded by John Caudwell, the local Phones4u tycoon.

Simmill says he talks to his children about the problems his business is facing, and after school they often come to see him at work instead of going home. But he has no plans to bring them into the family firm. "I'm not being sexist, but I think manufacturing is a hard game," he says. "If the government doesn't believe in it there won't be any manufacturing here in ten years."

As you drive into Leek along the Ashbourne Road, the signs of economic gloom are easy to spot. A 19th-century mill stands with its glass grimed and a board outside advertises a small business within. Further into town the White Lion and Talbot pubs are both boarded up. The Leek Post and Times has a picture of Gary Clewlow of GJ's Greengrocers holding a sign saying "Closing Down (sorry)", over the headline: "Shoppers urged to stay local as credit crunch bites hard". Clewlow tells the paper he cannot compete with Aldi.

To be fair, the former textile town, which weathered the decline of the silk industry in the late 19th century and the globalisation of synthetic fabrics in the 20th, is not completely down at heel. Its market square is wide and cobbled, and a queue of shoppers is keeping its well-stocked fruit and veg stall busy. There's a half-timbered Marston's pub, the Bird in Hand, flanked by Cancer Research and Oxfam shops.

Businesses such as Simmill's are at the sharp end of the recession, and others in the area are less gloomy about the future. Off the A523 between Simmill's works at Ipstones and the town of Leek, signs point to enterprises with a more rural flavour: Beaver Hall Equestrian Centre, Middle Farm Bed and Breakfast. Down a long track, Janet Phillips runs the Threshing Barn, a small shop selling craft supplies and meat reared on the farm she runs with her husband, Dave.

Phillips says she always has a pot of coffee on the go in her shop, which is packed to the rafters with skeins of brightly coloured wool, Christmas wreaths and knitwear; it helps to make the place feel welcoming, she says. The craft workshops she runs - a launching pad for sales of equipment and materials - had their best October ever, she says. But the meat is doing less well. People are buying cheaper cuts rather than the high-end products they sell here.

"I think long-established businesses will survive, but January and February are going to be grim," says Phillips. "From December, we would usually expect big orders, and they're not coming in. I don't think people are going to go for the big items this year."

On Derby Street, a Butters John Bee estate agent stands with property details in its windows and a To Let sign above its door. At first glance the business seems to be occupied, but a closer look reveals too-neat desks with phones and notepads and nothing else, and a notice on the door confirms, "Please note: This office is now closed. We will continue to provide our services from our Hanley and Congleton offices." Just a few doors along, the Ponden Mill shop also bears a To Let sign and big banners announcing, "Twenty Per Cent Off - Everything Must Go", though an assistant says she doesn't know whether they're going to close.

Round the corner, near the now-defunct GJ's Greengrocers, is Photoprint, founded nearly 30 years ago by Brian Johnson, now the town's mayor and president of its chamber of trade and commerce. His assessment of the situation is relatively upbeat, and he attributes several of the town's business failures to a lack of initiative or staying power. Despite having spent half a million pounds on opening a horse livery last year and carrying a lot of debt ("You don't want to know," he says when I ask how much), he is investing £20,000 in a digital colour printing machine, which would have cost him £34,000 in normal times.

"You'll often hear people saying, 'Leek's always in recession - what difference does it make?'" he says. "People round here have been used to tightening their belts.

"But the new businesses have never had to face this before. They don't make allowances, they don't think ahead far enough. People will have to promote their businesses - they'll have to think positive."

Others in the town are struggling to follow his advice. Looking for the Diva shoe shop which, according to the local paper, is to close after Christmas, I stop to ask directions from a couple huddled against the cold and carrying a plastic bag of meat bones. They cheerfully offer to show me the place and as we walk along together the man, David, tells me he has been out of work for the past six months, after being laid off by a firm that makes parts for car exhausts.

"My old boss closed the doors," he says. "I'd take anything, but if you put on your CV that you were in engineering, they think you don't want a menial job. They think you'll take off as soon as something better comes - and I would as well.

"JCB has a massive effect on this area. Last year employees had a £1,000 Christmas bonus, but this year they'll be lucky if they get anything. I've given up."

He asks if I'm going for a job interview. I tell him no, I'm writing an article about the credit crunch for a magazine. "Well," he says without a trace of rancour, "at least someone's making money out of it."

Fran Abrams is the author of "Below the Breadline: Living on the Minimum Wage", published by Profile Books (£6.99)

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special

Photo: STEFAN BONESS/PANOS
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What Britain needs to understand about the profound and ancient divisions in Germany

As Angela Merkel campaigns for re-election, the balance of power in Europe is changing.

On 24 September, Angela Merkel will be re-elected chancellor of Germany and that, we might think, will be that. With Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron in control of the European project, populism will surely be vanquished and the old Franco-German core of the EU restored. Yet things are changing, and if western Europe wants Germany to keep singing “Ode to Joy” as enthusiastically as “Deutschlandlied”, it will have some work to do. Our Brexit negotiators need to see how important this is to Macron, to other European leaders and, above all, to thinking Germans.

For we may all soon miss the old, self-effacing Germany. Despite having such economic power, it always seemed to have no greater wish than to exist as part of a larger whole. Konrad Adenauer, its first postwar chancellor and founding father, made Westbindung (“binding to the West”) the heart of West German politics. Adenauer came from the deeply Catholic Rhineland, “amid the vineyards” as he put it, “where Germany’s windows are open to the West”. His instinctive cultural sympathy was with France, but he knew that West Germany’s existence depended on keeping America in Europe. France he courted out of profound conviction, the US out of clear-eyed necessity, and he was worried that after him this twin course might be abandoned. His demands for reassurance during his final year in office led to John F Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech of 1963. Every West German knew about that, and about the Berlin Airlift: these became locations of national memory from which West Germany triangulated its sense of self.

There were some Germans for whom this was too much. Anti-Americanism was ingrained among West Germany’s hard left, the early Green Party and the tiny hard right. But even Germans who were suspicious of America had no fear of tying themselves closer to Europe. On the contrary, that was exactly what they wanted. The standard explanation of this is guilt. West Germans, in this argument, felt so remorseful about the horrors of the Second World War that they wanted to make amends. This idea fitted with others’ belief that Germany did indeed have much to feel guilty about.

A nuanced version of this held that the western Germans thought they had somehow “got away with it”, compared with their brethren in the east, who had felt the weight of Soviet vengeance: rape, pillage, occupation. Accordingly, Germany’s willingness to subsume itself so thoroughly, even as it footed the bills for the European Economic Community and later the European Union, was accepted with little gratitude, almost as an ongoing war debt repayment.

This guilt thesis is based on a misunderstanding of German history, especially of the experience of western Germans. The most graphic illustration of this comes from Adenauer. In 1955, he privately informed the British that while he was obliged to act in public as though he wished for reunification, he intended to devote his remaining years to blocking it. In 1961, he secretly proposed to the Americans that they offer the Russians a swap: they and he should, he said, give up West Berlin in return for Thuringia (the region containing Leipzig and Weimar). He wanted, in effect, to make the River Elbe the eastern border of Germany.

Why did Adenauer dislike the eastern Germans, think Berlin was expendable and consider the River Elbe to be the natural frontier? Simple: he knew that the Elbe was Germany’s Mason-Dixon line. Beyond it lay the flat, grim Prussian heartlands, which until 1945 stretched into present-day Russia. This vast region was known to Germans as “Ostelbien” – East Elbia. Adenauer viewed the “unification” of Germany in 1871 as East Elbia’s annexation of the west. That’s why in 1919, as mayor of Cologne, and again in 1923, he tried to get Britain and France to back a breakaway western German state. Having failed, he is said to have muttered, “Here we go, Asia again,” and closed the blinds every time his train crossed east over the Elbe.

Prussia was a different country. The victorious Allies agreed. On 25 February 1947, they declared: “The Prussian state, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany… together with its central government and all its agencies are abolished.” The name Prussia was eradicated. The Prussian hegemony of 1871-1945, an anomaly in the two millennia of German history, was over.

If we understand this, we understand what West Germany really was and why it acted as it did; why the “reunification” of 1990 – or, at least, the way it was handled – was such a mistake; why we may all have to stop taking Germany quite so much for granted now that East Elbia is back; and why our Brexit negotiators are on a hiding to nothing if they believe that the Germans have no more urgent business to consider than their car exports to us. Far more important to liberal Germans is keeping safe the western soul of Germany.

***

West Germany was anything but an artificial construct. It was the historical Germany, being almost geographically identical to what was, for almost 1,200 years, the only Germany. Julius Caesar named the land, together with its people, in 58 BC; 49 years later, Drusus, the greatest commander of the infant Roman empire, is said to have been supernaturally advised that after defeating every tribe he met in Germania, he should halt at the River Elbe. By 100 AD, Roman rule was shown by a fortified border, the Limes Germanicus. You can still walk large stretches of it; it encompasses most of the richest land in modern Germany and all of the great cities except Hamburg, Berlin and the 19th-century industrial monocultures of the Ruhr. Even these last were born as trading posts or forward bases within what archaeologists call the “market region” of Germania – the lands beyond the limes where commerce with the Roman empire defined the whole culture. Southern and western Germany’s cultural roots are almost as Roman as France’s.

But what about 9 AD and the destruction of three Roman legions by the German tribes under Arminius? There is a popular myth that this kept all Germany free and different. We owe this idea to Martin Luther and his supporters: Luther claimed from 1520 onwards to be a German, anti-Roman hero and identified himself with the newly rediscovered tale of Arminius. More decisively, the events of 9 AD were an obsession of later Prussian historians, who had an interest in claiming that the real Germany was one that was pure and un-Romanised. Yet the reverse is true. Under the Romans, then the Merovingians, then the Franks, the Rhine/Danube super-region of Germany remained politically and culturally a part of western Europe. After Charlemagne, a Rhineland German, “restored the Roman empire” (as his seals put it) in 800 AD, western Germany was the very centre of things. It was never a nation state, but always the key part of a greater whole, the Holy Roman empire.

Along the Elbe, things were different. Charlemagne extracted tribute from the pagan Slavs across the river, and his successors tried to build on this, but the German conquest and settlement of East Elbia only really began with the Wendish Crusade of 1147, the northern arm of the Second Crusade. Three centuries later, the entire region was still hotly disputed by Balts and Slavs, with German supremacy threatened by major defeats at Tannenberg (1410) and in the Hussite Wars (1419-34).

Long-contested frontier lands breed a special kind of society. The German incomers cowed the natives, such as the pagan Pruscie from whom they ultimately borrowed their name, through brute force. Where they couldn’t, they had to make armed deals with local elites. In this new sort-of-Germany, the Junkers, an aggressive landowning caste, lorded it over the Slavs and Balts – as well as poorer Germans, who knew that the locals would cut their throats if the Junker castles fell, so were loyal and subservient to their masters. East Prussia remained like this within living memory.

In 1525, Prussia named itself and declared itself the first Protestant state. From then on, it had absolute rulers, the Hohenzollern dynasty, backed by a quiescent Lutheran state church. The Junkers swore loyalty in return for exclusive access to all officer-level jobs in the army and the administration. By the mid-18th century, Voltaire quipped that while other states had armies, the Prussian army had a state. The overriding strategic concern of Prussia was always with the east. In his 1758-59 campaigns, Frederick the Great was shocked to find the Russians extremely hard to beat. He bequeathed to his successors a policy of keeping the tsars onside. Partitioning Poland between them was the sticking plaster that masked this Russian-Prussian rivalry, right until 1941.

This thoroughly east-facing power was, by the normal standards of European statehood – history, social structures, religion, geography – a different country from the Rhineland, Swabia or Bavaria. It defeated them all in 1866, laying the ground for the “unification” of 1871. The Prussian empire (for that is what it was) could now enlist the wealth, industry and manpower of Germany in pursuit of its ancient goal: hegemony over north-eastern Europe. By 1887, the future imperial chancellor Bernhard von Bülow was already musing on how to destroy Russia “for a generation”, cleanse Prussia of its Poles, set up a puppet Ukrainian state and take the Prussian armies to the banks of the Volga. This is the bloody Prussian – not German – thread that leads directly to the Nazi onslaught of 1941. In 1945, that centuries-long struggle was settled, in almost inconceivable violence. Half of East Elbia was ruthlessly stripped of Germans and handed over to Poles or Russians; the rump became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a mere satrap of the Red Army.

So while it is easy and comfortable to say that the otherness of eastern Germany today is the result of that 40-year Soviet occupation, history says otherwise. East Elbia has always been different. Take the voting patterns: from 1871 to 1933, East Elbia outside Berlin (always a left-liberal political island) was the main electoral reservoir for the authoritarian right. The Prussian Conservative Party under the empire, the Deutschnationale Volkspartei until 1928 and the Nazis from 1930 depended on rural and small-town East Elbian voters. It was they who (just) swung things in 1933, by going 50-60 per cent for the “Hitler coalition”. Had all Germany voted like the Rhineland or Bavaria, Hitler and his Junker allies would have got nowhere close to a majority. Small wonder that Adenauer didn’t want East Elbia back and was secretly delighted to have it safely fenced off behind the Iron Curtain.

***

West Germany (1949-90) – Germany shorn of Prussia – was, then, no historical fluke, and nor was the supra­national way it acted. This was the real Germany. But the hasty reunification of 1990 (there was no referendum or election on the issue) changed things. Why should the inhabitants of the former GDR, rather than Poles and Czechs, get immediate access to the wealth and benefits of the West? Because they were Germans. With that, the chancellor Helmut Kohl embraced the notion that being German overrode all considerations of social, economic or historical difference. He also subliminally revived the idea, common to the Second Empire and the Third Reich, that East Elbia was special and needed subsidising by the rich west of Germany. The director of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, resigned in 1991 over this abandoning of economic sanity for political nationalism.

Since 1990, the former East Germany has received more than €2trn from the old West Germany, for a fast-ageing, shrinking and disproportionately male population of only 16 million, including Berlin. That’s the equivalent of a Greek bailout every year since 1990, and as a straight gift, not a loan. This represents a huge shift in financial priorities, overshadowing Germany’s annual net EU budget contribution (currently €15.5bn). In 1990, Kohl promised that western German aid would soon turn the new states into “blooming” areas, but they have become, instead, proof that age-old differences resist even the most gigantic subsidies.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of voters in East Elbia have declared over the past two years that at the general election, they intend to support either Alternative für Deutschland (Germany’s Ukip), Die Linke (heirs to the old East German Communist Party) or the all but openly neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (the NPD, currently represented in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state parliament). Though theoretical enemies, these three parties are united by cultural affinities: all despise economic liberalism, oppose Nato and the EU and want closer relations with Russia.

East Elbia no longer has the population to swing the entire German electorate of more than 61 million but many liberal western Germans are nervous. They recoil at the sight of anti-asylum-seeker attacks, which are proportionally far more common in East Elbia than in the west, or when they see Merkel heckled by right-wingers. They call East Elbia Dunkeldeutschland (“Dark Germany”) and joke bitterly that if Britain can have a Brexit, why can’t the old East Germans, whom they lump together under the name of Saxons, have a “Säxit”? But it’s no laughing matter. They know there are those only too aware of any anti-western drift in Germany and eager to give succour to it.

Alexander Saldostanov, the rabid leader of Russia’s “Night Wolves” bikers and a public friend of Vladimir Putin, recently told Germany’s bestselling daily, Bild, that he dreams of a grand union between Germany and Russia: “We have so much in common. You simply have to free yourself at last from America, that scourge of humanity. Together, we can, should and must take power.”

There’s no danger of that, but there is a sense in which eastern Europe is, to Germans, no longer “the other”. It’s the place whence natural gas flows from Russia, where labour is cheap but skilled and where the people are keen to work with Germany on setting up new sites of joint national memory. From Kaliningrad to Prague, museums and projects are springing up in which the horrors of the past are neither denied nor used as ammunition in today’s negotiations. In eastern Europe, perhaps because Russia is so close, the Germans are rarely made to feel guilty for their grandfathers’ sins. Meanwhile in the west, from Greece to Britain, people can’t resist mentioning the war whenever the Germans don’t act as desired.

***

Germany’s resources are not infinite. Nor is the patience of the 40 per cent of Germans who “have net worths of essentially zero”, as Die Welt reported last year – largely because German home ownership rates are the lowest in the EU. They are disproportionately concentrated in the old east, the region that never had supranational, western European connections. From them come ever-louder voices saying that Germany’s EU contribution is too high. And with Britain out, the maths will look even worse to such voters. If south-western Germany’s taxes have to keep bailing out the country’s east, while also helping out the old and new EU lands, what is left for, say, the post-industrial Ruhr, which has financial and social problems of its own? There are tough choices ahead, and it’s not hard to imagine a day when Germany decides to aim its subsidies and investments where they seem most welcome. The old idea of Mitteleuropa – a multi-ethnic, German-centred Middle Europe, neither of the West nor of the East – no longer seems so antiquarian. Nothing would gladden Putin’s heart more.

So, yes, Merkel will win the election and will have a chance to revive the EU’s Franco-­German core. Yet the relative strengths of France and Germany are different now. As for their leaders, while Adenauer was a devoted Catholic Rhinelander, Merkel is a Lutheran vicar’s daughter from the east. Bonn was physically close to Paris, Brussels, The Hague, even London; Berlin is closer to Prague and Warsaw.

With Donald Trump’s wavering on Nato and his noisy anti-German protectionism, along with Brexit, the West may no longer seem vital to Germany’s future. During Merkel’s election debate with her main challenger, Martin Schulz, on 3 September, Brexit was not even mentioned. The old EU core will have to work to keep Germany anchored, resisting any new call from the east. Macron and German liberals know that; that’s why there will be no Franco-German split over Brexit just to sell us a few more Audis. The sooner David Davis and Liam Fox realise that the Germans have far bigger issues to deal with, the better.

James Hawes is the author of “The Shortest History of Germany” (Old Street Publishing)

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special