Jo Swinson with Nick Clegg on the last day of the campaign. Photo: Getty
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Ex-Lib Dem minister Jo Swinson: “When we went into coalition, I knew it might be impossible to win my seat”

The coalition minister who lost her Scottish seat at the election reflects on her party’s defeat.

Jo Swinson looks relaxed. When I meet her at a brasserie that recently opened under the arches in Vauxhall, she is chatting merrily to its owner, a friend of hers.

It is three weeks after she lost her seat in Scotland to the SNP. Swinson had represented East Dunbartonshire for the Lib Dems since 2005. She was a key member of the Lib Dems in government, promoted by Nick Clegg further than the other, very few, female Lib Dem MPs, to the position of Business and Women and Equalities Minister.

She was often touted as a future Secretary of State for Scotland, and even as a successor to Clegg. A future that has slipped through her fingers – at least momentarily. But she is straightforward about her desire to return to politics.

“I loved the job of being an MP for East Dunbartonshire, and so I can certainly envisage circumstances where I stand again,” she says. “But I'm not going to make that decision at this point.”

For the moment, she is enjoying being reunited with her 17-month-old son, Andrew, and her husband Duncan Hames (a former Lib Dem MP who also lost his seat in the general election).

“Part of me just wanted him to remember who I am!” she says of her son, recalling the final three weeks of her campaign when he was staying down in Hames’ constituency of Chippenham. Half way through the short campaign, Swinson handed Andrew over to Hames when she was down doing Question Time.

Having reunited in London the day after the election, she recalls them taking their son to play in the park while both “feeling zombified having not really slept properly”.

Swinson seems less exhausted now, however, and is happy to reflect on the Lib Dems’ catastrophic defeat. Perhaps this is easier for her, as she actually increased the number of votes she received (from 18,551 in 2010 to 19,926 in 2015, and only just lost by a little over 2,000 votes).

“The only silver lining is that I got a good result and it didn't feel personal, because you were losing on a night when most Liberal Democrat MPs are losing their seats, and indeed most Scottish MPs,” she says.

Yet she does point out that her party’s role as coalition partner with the Tories put her in a precarious position – although she still maintains going into government was the “right thing to do”.

“I always knew it was going to be difficult fighting a seat in Scotland having been in coalition with the Conservatives,” she admits. “And I recognised when we went into coalition it might make it impossible to win my seat.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage