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The shadow power list

Who really runs Britain? The new establishment is unelected, often unaccountable and in charge of ever more of our public services.

Rafael Behr writes: One of the least persuasive pledges made at the last general election was the Conservative offer to “shrink the state”. In a focus group conducted for the party to help it understand why it had failed to win a majority in parliament, one flummoxed voter trying to decipher what the Tories had in mind offered: “Lopping off Cornwall . . . ?”

Most people do not contemplate the state. Of those who do, few dwell on its proportions relative to some abstract, miniature ideal. In real life, power in Britain is not contained within boundaries easily definable as “government”. With most of the economy privatised, the spectre of extreme political control – the dawn raid by jackbooted government agents – is confined to science fiction and the nightmares of paranoid libertarians. We are not a tyrannised nation. Where we experience the humiliation of powerlessness this is as likely to be at the hands of a private company as a state institution. When it is a state service, there is every chance its functions have been outsourced to a private provider. If Kafka’s Josef K were looking for justice in a labyrinth of 21st-century British administration he would find its walls marked with Serco and Capita logos; his guards would be wearing G4S uniforms.

It is sometimes supposed that the opposite of centralised power must be devolution, but Britain has found a different way. The control that once belonged to government departments, historic institutions or household names has been farmed out sideways. It resides on the boards of companies no one has heard of, in quangos, in hedge funds, in networks of friends and former ministerial advisers who work for charitable bodies with opaque remits.

It no longer makes sense to speak of “the establishment” as it did in the days when the lord chamberlain could strike obscenity off the stage. The idea of the establishment survives more in the aspiration to show defiance than the craving to belong. Nowadays even Conservative ideologues drape themselves in supposed anti-establishment kudos. They imagine their public-service reforms as subversive assaults on crusty old monopolies: the quasi-privatisation of the schools network; the spread of market forces through the NHS; the drip-drip of ministerial hostility to a BBC funded by the licence fee.

One consequence of having an outsourced establishment is the lucrative opportunities it creates for lobbyists. When the government’s role is reduced to commissioning public goods, go-between agents can scoop up power and influence to match public-sector/ politician buyer and private-sector seller.

Another long-term trend is the rise of marketing and communications experts into the top tier with establishment status. It is the natural product of a liberalising ideology that sees consumer choice as the model mechanism for effective delivery of public goods. Candidates are products and parties live or die according to the health of their brand. It is typical of the age that our Prime Minister, educated at Eton, a scion of the aristocracy, had a career in public relations before politics.

Downing Street will always be at the centre of the action but no longer at the apex of a tidy pyramid of departments and offices arranged in evenly cascading hierarchies of power and prestige. What now passes for the establishment is amorphous and anonymous; a baggy blur of the commercial, the political and the ill-defined space in between. Below, the New Statesman considers just a few of the people who hold the very British brand of inconspicuous power.

Christopher Hyman

Chief executive, Serco

The National Nuclear Laboratory, the Docklands Light Railway, immigration detention centres, the London cycle hire scheme, NHS Suffolk, the National Border Targeting Centre, air-traffic control services, waste collection for local authorities, maintenance services for ballistic missiles, government websites, prisons and a young offender institution – there is almost no branch of government that has not been penetrated by Serco, the outsourcing behemoth. And few have benefited more from the growth of this shadow state than the company’s chief executive, Christopher Hyman.

In 2010, Serco, which gets over 90 per cent of its business from the public sector, paid him a salary of over £3.1m. According to research by One Society, this was “six times more than the highest-paid UK public servant [and] 11 times more than the highestpaid UK local authority CEO”.

Hyman joined Serco in 1994 following stints at Arthur Andersen and Ernst & Young and was made group chief executive in 2002. Born to an Indian family in apartheid South Africa in 1963, the abstemious Hyman considered a career as an athlete after running 100 metres in 10.8 seconds but stopped after concluding that he would never win gold. He now races Formula 3 motor cars and cried after finishing fourth in his first-ever competition. “I felt such a failure – I was embarrassed and incredibly emotional.”

A devout Pentecostalist – he fasts every Tuesday and donates a biblical tithe of his income to his local church – Hyman was at a meeting of Serco shareholders at the World Trade Center when the first plane struck on 11 September 2001. He later said of the event: “It confirmed my faith. It renewed my zest for getting the balance right and made me realise that time is not always your own.” In addition to running Serco, Hyman has found the time to release an album of gospel music, an achievement possibly attributable to his decision to sleep just four hours a night.

But while he is celebrated for being the human face of outsourcing, his company’s reputation has become increasingly toxic. In September 2012, Serco was forced to apologise after admitting it had presented false data on 252 call-outs to its out-of-hours NHS general practitioner service in Cornwall. On one occasion, a single doctor was on call for roughly 500,000 people across the county.

Having recently won the £140m contract to run NHS community services in Suffolk, Serco is likely to come under further scrutiny. As the chief executive of G4S, Nick Buckles, learned to his cost, the rulers of the shadow state can quickly become hate figures when their promises of “efficiency” prove illusory. With Labour determined to hold those in the business of NHS reform to account, don’t be surprised if Hyman finds himself hauled before a parliamentary select committee before the end of the year.

Sam Laidlaw

Chief executive, Centrica

Sam Laidlaw, of the privatised utility company Centrica (formerly British Gas), has been described as the “aristocrat” of the energy industry – and his family history indicates how the British ruling class has adapted over the course of a century, from empire to social democracy and the free market. His grandfather Hugh was an executive of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in India, a forerunner of BP; his father, Christophor, worked his way up through BP to become deputy chairman; Sam attended Eton, Cambridge and the elite business school INSÉAD in Fontainebleau before launching his own oil career. In 2006, he was recruited to Centrica from the US company Chevron.

Laidlaw, who lives in Chelsea, has said he would like to be remembered as “someone who was good at creating businesses . . . someone people enjoyed working with, who was fun and made some small contribution to society”. He has presided over Centrica at a time when profits for energy companies have been rising steeply – along with customers’ bills. In 2011, a bonus of £848,000 raised his pay to £4.3m. In 2008 he was one of several executives denounced as “fat cats of British industry” at a Commons business select committee hearing. But as he told staff in an email, “I am not about to apologise for making a healthy profit.”

Until the end of 2012, he was a member of David Cameron’s Business Advisory Group, a collection of leaders from “sectors of strategic importance to the UK”, which gathered to provide “regular, high-level advice on critical business and economic issues facing the country”. His departure in December came, a report in the Guardian suggested, after public anger had forced the government to criticise “opaque” pricing and tariffs by energy companies, including Centrica.

Laidlaw remains an influential figure, however. He is a non-executive director of HSBC Holdings and sits on the bank’s group remuneration committee, whose responsibility it is to approve company policy on pay for senior executives – including bonuses.

Professor Malcolm Grant

Chairman, National Health Service Commissioning Board

The overhaul of the NHS by the coalition government produced another super-quango (this after the government promised to banish them). Tasked with chairing the newly minted NHS Commissioning Board is Malcolm Grant, whose official job is to “provide strategic leadership and ensure proper governance” but who will also be steering the most controversial transformation in the health service since its creation. Grant played a critical role in recruiting the non-executive and executive members of the board who between them will be managing an annual budget of £95bn. Roughly £65bn of this will be spent by clinical commissioning groups, which are replacing the old primary care trusts – but in essence, from April this year, Grant will have oversight of the entire NHS budget.

Inevitably, it’s not his only job. Grant, who grew up in Oamaru, New Zealand, trained as a barrister, has been a professor of land economy and a professor of law, and is now provost of University College London. He has had his share of chairmanships, too, running the Local Government Commission for England (1996-2001), the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (2000-2005) and the Russell Group of research universities (2006-2009).

As if that weren’t enough, he is also, by appointment of the Prime Minister, a business ambassador for Britain and a member of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. As such, he has influence in multiple public spheres and has now been entrusted with perhaps the greatest responsibility of all: the nation’s health.

Tim Allan

Chief executive, Portland PR

Offered the chance to become the prime minister’s director of communications, few in the world of public relations would gratefully decline. Yet “no” was the answer Tim Allan gave to Tony Blair after Labour’s third successive general election victory in 2005. Correctly calculating that Blair would be unable to fulfil his pledge to serve a full term and that the role would be short-lived, Allan chose instead to remain as managing director of Portland, the political consultancy and public relations agency he had founded in 2001. Eight years after making the decision, he is unlikely to regret it.

Portland, whose clients have included Tes - co, Google, the Russian government, Coca- Cola, BTA Bank of Kazakhstan, McDonald’s and Barclays, has made Allan one of the most influential PR men in the country and one of the wealthiest. In 2012, he sold his majority stake in the firm to the US marketing giant Omnicom in a deal estimated at £20m.

Allan’s break came in 1992 when he was headhunted by Blair, the then shadow home secretary, after studying at Cambridge. On the recommendation of one of his researchers, James Purnell, a friend of Allan’s from the Royal Grammar School in Guildford, Surrey, Blair invited the young graduate to join his office. As Allan later recalled: “ ‘Were you involved in student politics?’ Blair asked me. ‘I’m afraid not,’ I said. ‘Great. Can you start tomorrow?’ he responded.”

He was promoted to deputy press secretary in 1994, working directly under Alastair Campbell, and became deputy director of communications after Labour’s 1997 election victory. He left Downing Street the following year to become BSkyB’s director of corporate communications, a role that involved writing speeches for Elisabeth Murdoch, and founded Portland after winning the BSkyB PR contract from Bell Pottinger.

With his Conservative connections, Allan has adapted to life under the coalition better than most Blairites. His first employee at Portland was Rachel Whetstone, whom he hired from Carlton where she was working alongside David Cameron, the TV company’s communications chief. Whetstone, who is now head of communications for Google, later married Steve Hilton, Cameron’s director of strategy between 2005 and 2012.

Allan’s other Conservative hires have included the Prime Minister’s former press secretary George Eustice and his former director of policy James O’Shaughnessy, currently chief policy adviser at Portland. And among recent recruits are Allan’s former No 10 colleague Campbell as a “strategic consultant” and the Sun’s former political editor George Pascoe-Watson as a partner.

Joanna Shields

Chief executive, Tech City; former head of Europe, the Middle East and Africa for Facebook

Joanna Shields, the new chief executive of the Tech City Investment Organisation, has internet pedigree, having worked with Google, Bebo, AOL and Facebook. She may have been unable to save Bebo, one of the social networks caught in the squeeze between the dwindling Myspace and nascent Facebook, but her reputation in the tech world remains strong. Her task now is to transform Tech City into Britain’s version of Silicon Valley.

For years Britain has lagged behind the US in the technology sector. We used to do well; the ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro encouraged a generation of bedroom coders which many credit with launching the British IT industry, and companies such as ARM, Codemasters and Eidos used to be at the top of their game. Yet underinvestment, a university culture that looked down on computer science and a lack of any central location for the community all damaged our lead.

But now the government is staging a comeback, eager to take on Silicon Valley at its own game, and has anointed Silicon Roundabout –the cluster of tech start-ups based around the Old Street area of east London – as the place to do it. The name had to go, though, and so Tech City was born. In the notoriously libertarian world of tech start-ups, the quango was not welcomed as readily as one might have expected. The Register, the IT industry’s house website, attacked it for burning through £1m in just over a year, and others have pointed out that, beyond marketing and PR, the organisation’s main aims – feeding the needs of tech entrepreneurs into No 10’s policy considerations – could be achieved by one person acting as a link between the two.

If Tech City is to achieve its goals, it must overcome a few problems. One element of Silicon Valley’s success was that, until the boom, it was a cheap place to be. Land, housing and the cost of living were all low. That can’t be said for central London. Even in an industry where surviving on Pot Noodle and coding for no pay are marks of pride, it’s a bit much to expect young entrepreneurs to be able to afford the rents in Silicon Roundabout.

On smaller initiatives, though, Tech City’s influence is already showing. The government’s policy on digital matters has greatly improved, as the implementation of the 2011 Hargreaves recommendations on copyright reform demonstrated. Britain now has an intellectual property regime fit for the 21st century, even if it’s more 2000 than 2013. And if Shields finds her hotline to No 10 is more responsive than that of her predecessor, that success may be the first of many.

Howard Davies

Professor, Institut d’Études Politiques, Paris

A former management consultant and civil servant, Howard Davies is one of the ultimate establishment insiders. He has been the controller of the Audit Commission, the first chairman of the Financial Services Authority, director general of the Confederation of British Industry and the deputy governor of the Bank of England. He has worked for both the Treasury and the Foreign Office and served as a trustee of the Tate Gallery and he chaired the 2007 Man Booker Prize judges.

However, Davies is best known for resigning as director of the London School of Economics over the LSE’s links to Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime. As Libyans battled to overthrow their brutal dictatorship, Davies conceded that the LSE’s reputation had been damaged by accepting £300,000 in research funding from a foundation controlled by Gaddafi’s son Saif. The total amount solicited from the foundation ran to £1.5m. Davies admitted having made a “personal error of judgement” in giving advice to Libya on how to modernise its financial institutions.

His fall has not been painful: he is now a professor at the Institut d’Études Politiques (“Sciences Po”) in Paris and the chairman of the UK Airports Commission, and also sits on a series of institutional boards, including those of Prudential plc and the National Theatre. However, the Gaddafi affair illuminated the way in which Britain’s corporate, public and political institutions work together. The LSE’s accommodation of the Gaddafi family was just one element in a broad attempt to woo the oil-rich Libyan state.

In 2006, Anthony Giddens, another former director of the LSE and the architect of New Labour’s “Third Way”, visited the Libyan capital, Tripoli. In an account of his trip for the New Statesman, Giddens outlined Gaddafi’s theory of “direct democracy” and praised Gaddafi père et fils for “the rehabilitation and potential modernisation of Libya”. The following year Tony Blair met Gaddafi in a Bedouin tent outside Tripoli. With him was Peter Sutherland, the then chairman of BP – and soon to become chair of the LSE’s court of governors. British companies gained access to Libya’s oil reserves; Gaddafi got help from MI6, under the guise of the “war on terror”, in clamping down on dissidents such as Sami al-Saadi, who last year was awarded £2.2m in compensation for Britain’s role in his torture. While the colonel met his grisly end in a sewer pipe, those who did business with him have prospered.

Neil Woodford

Head of UK equities, Invesco Perpetual

In many ways, Neil Woodford is the antithesis of the kind of financier that post-crisis Britain loves to hate. He doesn’t even work in the City – Invesco Perpetual, where he is head of UK investment and presides over funds worth £30bn – is based in Henley, Oxfordshire. There haven’t been any bonus-hunting career moves between Square Mile firms for him; he joined Invesco in 1988 and has been there ever since. To top it off, he didn’t even go to Oxford or Cambridge – this City slicker studied economics and agricultural economics at Exeter.

His influence is undimmed, even augmented, by his background and under-the-radar way of working. Woodford runs both Invesco Perpetual’s income and high-income funds, the latter being one of Britain’s largest investment funds, with shareholdings in a big slice of FTSE-250 companies and assets of £12bn. His portfolios are made up largely of deposits from small investors – pension funds, £50-a-month savers and Isas. An awful lot of people have, in one way or another, put their money in Woodford’s hands, and the decisions he makes have the power to ripple out to millions of UK households.

What he does with their money allows him to pull levers behind the scenes in some of Britain’s biggest companies. His funds have multibillion-pound stakes in the tobacco giants BAT, Reynolds American and Imperial Tobacco, as well as utilities such as the Drax Group (the power company) and BT. Another big interest is BAE Systems: if Angela Merkel hadn’t stepped in to kill off its merger with the Franco-German aerospace giant EADS, Woodford would probably have made the same decision and determined the fate of one of the Ministry of Defence’s largest British suppliers. He is a kingmaker, too – the Guardian reported last year that the word in the City is that it was he who forced out AstraZeneca’s chief executive David Brennan.

Kevin Moses

Director of science funding, Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Trust is perhaps one of the most prolific grant-awarding bodies in British science and, as its director of science funding, Kevin Moses is in the hot seat. Started in 1936 with money left by the USborn philanthropist Henry Wellcome, the trust’s endowment has grown over the past 77 years to £14.5bn today. Most of the money is spent on charitable grants to researchers and others working in the field of biomedical science. Its work led to the publication of 4,433 scientific papers in 2011 and in the year 2011/2012 it awarded 970 research grants.

The pharmaceutical firms probably control a larger proportion of scientific funding than the Wellcome Trust and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has more say in deciding which medicines come to market in Britain.

The pharmaceutical industry is fixated on hunting for profitable medicines; NICE has a far more routine regulatory job. By contrast, the Wellcome Trust is bound only by internal decisions on where it chooses to focus its efforts. It has no pledge drives, no donors to keep happy and not much of a public image to defend. It can focus its funding where it helps the most, and where it will fill in gaps missed by other bodies.

One hopes that Dr Moses understands that with great power comes great responsibility.

Tony Mitchell

Director, Tesco supply chain

Tony Mitchell is the model of a Tesco company man. He started on the shop floor in 1978 and worked his way up to store manager, then eventually to head office, and now he decides what £1 in every £7 in the UK is spent on.

Getting on to the shelves at Tesco can make a young company, and getting thrown off them can destroy a business. That is something the suppliers of its Everyday Value burgers will be learning to their cost after buying meat from Poland, rather than Britain or Ireland, as their agreement with Tesco stipulated. When it became apparent that the burgers were tainted with horse meat – up to 29 per cent, according to reports – Tesco dropped the supplier altogether.

Although the supermarket’s core business remains groceries, it has a grasp on many other sectors. Take bookselling. Until the Net Book Agreement began to collapse in 1994, books were sold at a fixed price in Britain, allowing independent shops to compete with the chains and ensuring that publications cost the same in all shops. But as competition entered the trade, so the supermarkets used their strength. Now the big three supermarkets are arguably as significant as Amazon.

But where Amazon offers near-infinite selection, the supermarkets restrict what they stock to preserve shelf space and chase economies of scale. As a result, Tesco’s two book buyers were named jointly the twelfth most powerful person in the industry by the Guardian, which argued that they “reflect sales charts but also shape them”. The Tesco story is similar in music and video games.

While the internet offers a long tail to those who want to build slowly, success or failure in the mass market is dictated by an evershrinking group of people such as Mitchell.

Natalie Evans

Director, New Schools Network

Free schools are Michael Gove’s signature policy – a glimpse of what education could be like without “undue interference” from local authorities. The requisite legislation was passed in 2010, but immediately there was a snag: who would have the time, inclination and money to set up a school? Parents’ groups, such as the one led by journalist Toby Young in west London, were in short supply.

Enter the New Schools Network (NSN), whose director is Natalie Evans, a former deputy director of the Conservative Research Department and of Policy Exchange – the think tank whose director Neil O’Brien recently left to work for the Chancellor, George Osborne.

Evans took charge of the NSN at the start of this year, replacing Rachel Wolf, a special adviser to Gove while he was shadow education secretary. Wolf has moved to New York to work for Rupert Murdoch at Amplify, the new education division of News Corp.

The NSN is a registered charity, although it is not clear who its donors are. Its remit is, nebulously, to “support” free school applicants. Most of these have turned out to be faith organisations, education companies or existing sponsors of academies.

The connections between the NSN and the Department for Education are close – sometimes uncomfortably so – and campaigners and opposition MPs such as Lisa Nandy question the organisation’s lack of transparency. For instance, between July and December 2010, the Education Secretary’s confidant Dominic Cummings was employed by the NSN as a paid freelancer. From August to December of that same year, he held one of the four parliamentary passes the minister was allowed to give out, and could come and go from Westminster as he wished.

As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported, “In November 2010, while Cummings was freelancing at NSN and enjoying DfE access through his parliamentary pass, the department finalised a grant to the NSN. The grant, for £500,000, was awarded to the organisation in June without being advertised and without inviting any other orga - nisations to tender.” In May that year, Cummings had emailed civil servants urging them to fast-track cash to the NSN, saying: “Labour has handed hundreds of millions to leftie orgs – if u guys cant navigate this thro the bureauc then not a chance of any new schools starting!!”

The close links between the NSN and Gove’s inner circle have led civil servants in the Department for Education to feel that they are being excluded from policy decisions at a time when the government is pushing through sweeping reforms. That suspicion was compounded in 2011 when the Financial Times reported that Gove and his advisers were discussing government business using private email accounts, bypassing Freedom of Information requests.

Meanwhile, Gove’s flagship policy is still struggling to catch on – just 24 free schools opened in 2011, and another 55 in 2012.

Andrew Dilnot

Warden, Nuffield College

How we are to pay for elderly care is one of the great unsolved problems of our time. When the present government came to power in 2010, it turned to Andrew Dilnot to provide that solution. The Dilnot commission’s report – which appeared in July 2011 – received cautious cross-party support, though its implementation is still in doubt. One thing is certain: over the next ten years, it will be impossible to discuss the topic without mentioning Dilnot’s name.

An economist by profession, Dilnot has long occupied a succession of platforms that allow his voice to be heard. He was the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies between 1991 and 2002, then principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and in 2011 he was appointed Warden of Nuffield College, a graduate research college with an endowment of well over £100m. The college has long had ties to Whitehall and Westminster, and these have only grown closer in the 21st century; many of its fellows are former cabinet members, civil servants and Fleet Street editors.

Last year, Dilnot became the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, and he continues to be engaged with public policy as well as exerting political influence.

Research by Caroline Crampton, George Eaton, Sophie Elmhirst, Alex Hern, Helen Lewis and Daniel Trilling

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone