In this week's New Statesman: Why can't we be more like Germany?

From politics to football, Britain is losing out...

COVER STORY: WHY CAN’T WE BE MORE LIKE GERMANY?

This week Philip Oltermann, Jonathan Wilson and Maurice Glasman explore why Britain is losing to Germany in so much more than football. First, Oltermann, the author of Keeping Up With the Germans, argues that the cultural cross-pollination between Britain and Germany runs deeper than one would expect:

Germany has always been more anglophile than the British dare to imagine, mainly because the British Isles have played an important role in every single one of Germany’s foundation myths. Goethe and Schiller’s “Germany of the mind”, the nation of thinkers and poets? Every child knows that without Shakespeare, it wouldn’t have happened (“Schakespär”, wrote Herder, was destined to “create us Germans”). Germany the football nation? Hard to imagine without the Fußball-Mutterland. Germany the industrial engine room of Europe? If you look closely enough, you’ll find that each of Germany’s three “economic miracles” carries a discreet British trademark . . .

Next, following the upsurge of talk about Thatcherism, the Labour peer Maurice Glasman analyses the areas in which Germany’s Social and Christian Democrats succeeded and that have implications for his own party. Glasman suggests that the way “incentives to virtue were built into the German system through institutions that renewed knowledge, good practice and intergenerational solidarity” is missing from both neoclassical and Keynesian economic theories. “Nor is there a vision of Europe that involves the strengthening of decentralised institutions, cities, universities, vocational colleges, regional banks and community-owned football clubs.”

Finally, Jonathan Wilson explains how German football, unlike in England, has gone back to basics. In May 1999, after a period of crisis in the national game, “All clubs in the top two [German] divisions were required to build academies, and 121 national centres were established to help ten-to-17-year-olds with technical practice.”

He also argues that the economy helped, ironically, by faltering at the right time:

By 2002, 60 per cent of all players in the Bundesliga were foreign. But then the Kirch TV conglomerate, which had underwritten the Nineties boom, collapsed. Facing ruin, most of the clubs sold off their expensive foreign stars and invested in cheaper local youth. The pioneers were VfB Stuttgart, who finished second in the Bundesliga in 2002-2003 with a team that included the young talents of Timo Hildebrand, Andreas Hinkel and Kevin Kurányi. This season, only 47 per cent of players in the Bundesliga are not qualified for Germany. Now, with Germany’s economy at least stronger than most, if not quite booming, the top German clubs are able to hold on to talent for longer and to be more selective about buying foreign talent.

THATCHER THE GLADSTONIAN: SIMON HEFFER ON WHY MARGARET THATCHER WAS NOT RIGHT-WING

At our recent NS centenary debate on the motion “The left won the 20th century”, the author and Daily Mail columnist Simon Heffer argued that Lady Thatcher was not, in fact, a politician of the right, but rather that she was a “Gladstonian liberal”:

She quite ruthlessly used the Conservative Party as a flag of convenience to participate in a political organisation with some hope of forming a government. Once leader, she engaged in the usual business of taking a party and altering it to suit what she regarded as the needs of electability.

Gladstone and Mrs Thatcher were both radicals, Heffer argues. “Unlike the socialist radicals of the Chartist movement, or the early trade unionists and the founders of the Labour Party, neither of them believed in collectivism, but rather the radical individualism unfettered by the suffocating hand of paternalism.”

THE ANTI-FOX NEWS: OLIVER BULLOUGH ON THE KREMLIN-FUNDED TV STATION RUSSIA TODAY

Oliver Bullough reports on the growing influence of Russia Today (RT), the television station funded by the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications and watched by up to 2.5 million people in Britain. Bullough visits the RT offices in Moscow and interviews its editors and reporters, as well as devoted British viewers. He writes:

It has become a televisual home for disaffected viewers in the west, a refuge for the Occupy and hacktivist generation, which believes that its own countries’ TV stations are in the pocket of corporate interests. Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor-in-chief, is even prepared to call it the “anti-Fox News”.

MEHDI HASAN: IS IT TOO LATE TO STOP SYRIA’S DESCENT INTO HELL?

In his column this week, Mehdi Hasan assesses recent calls for western military intervention in Syria, particularly after recent evidence suggesting the use of chemical weapons:

The clamour for a military intervention in Syria is getting louder – especially following the (as yet unsubstantiated) chemical weapons claims. On the right, there’s the US senator and Republican former presidential candidate John McCain, who, in recent years, hasn’t come across a war he didn’t want to fight.

On the left, there’s the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, a driving force behind Nato’s 2011 war in Libya, with whom Hasan recently conducted an interview for al-Jazeera:

[Lévy] said “there is no question” that a military intervention in Syria, beginning with a no-fly zone, is “doable”. When I asked him how he could be so confident, he shrugged: “Bashar al-Assad is weak . . . a paper tiger.”

Not everyone agrees.

IVAN LEWIS: LABOUR’S BLUEPRINT FOR PUBLIC SERVICES

Ivan Lewis, the shadow international secretary and Bury MP, sets out a vision of how Labour might govern in an era of austerity. In the clearest and widest-ranging account of the new ideas to emerge from inside the shadow cabinet so far, Lewis accepts the need for “tough choices” on spending and clear budget priorities.

Labour must also be hard-headed because the country will take time to change. Tight financial constraints will require tough choices. As some budgets are increased to reflect our priorities, others will have to be scaled back. These “switch spends” will be a necessity, not an option . . . The road will not be easy, delivering change in an era when there is less money around.

Lewis insists that Labour in government would not flinch from the task of reform. He writes:

Labour believes that an active state is an essential force for good but that it should never be suffocating or overcentralised, or undermine autonomy. We will reduce the role of the state where appropriate and strengthen it where necessary.

In comments likely to be controversial with the left of the party, Lewis reaffirms a role for the private sector and for choice in public services and he calls for greater transparency in public-sector pay.

IN THE CRITICS

David Owen, the former foreign secretary and leader of the Social Democratic Party, reviews Charles Moore’s new and, in Owen’s view, “exceptionally good” biography of Margaret Thatcher. Describing his own memories of encounters with Thatcher, Owen says she was

. . . conscientious to a fault yet insensitive to someone she perceived as a non-achiever. This became ever clearer over the years in her attitudes towards poverty, social problems and the ethos of organisations such as the NHS.

Owen cites the Falklands war as the turning point in her career as prime minister:

The Thatcher premiership was never the same again. She would succumb to hubris and that started with her taking the salute, instead of the Queen, at a victory march-past in the City of London, something that this book mistakenly passes off as of little consequence.

ALSO IN BOOKS:

  • Michael Wood reads Italo Calvino’s letters. Wood points out that Calvino pre-empted Roland Barthes in the idea of “the death of the author”:

Calvino was also inclined to think that a writer’s work is all the biography anyone really requires. In his letters he returns again and again to the need for attention to the actual literary object rather than the imagined author. “For the critic, the author does not exist,” he writes, “only a certain number of writings exist.”

  • Stuart Maconie on Maggie & Me by Damian Barr, a coming-of-age memoir that “manages to deliver and short-change simultaneously”.
  • David Herman reviews Michael Burleigh’s history Small Wars, Faraway Places: the Genesis of the Modern World, 1945-1965.
  • Leo Robson on two books concerned with ballooning – Richard Holmes’s Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air and Julian Barnes’s multi-genre Levels of Life. Barnes’s essay on the loss of his wife, Robson argues, “combines the weakest elements of his personality and thought”.
  • John Lloyd on Il Grillo canta sempre al tramonto by Beppe Grillo, Dario Fo and Gianroberto Casaleggio. “To understand the Grillo phenomenon,” writes Lloyd of Italy’s emerging Five Star Movement, “is to get some sort of handle on where politics everywhere in the developed world is going.”

ELSEWHERE IN THE CRITICS:

  • Ryan Gilbey watches I’m So Excited!, Pedro Almodóvar’s new “disaster” comedy.
  • Kate Mossman listens to Van Dyke Parks’s new album, Songs Cycled. “ ‘Dreaming of Paris’ is apparently a comment on the US bombing of Baghdad, though it must be the only song on the subject to include a mention of crème brûlée.”
  • Matt Trueman reviews Little Bulb Theatre’s Orpheus at the Battersea Arts Centre and Forest Fringe at the Gate.
  • PLUS: Will Self’s Real Meals takes a detour through the banlieue of Paris for lunch at the Buffalo Grill. And in Left Field, Sophie Elmhirst stands in for Ed Smith.

Read nore in our "In the Critics" blog here.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.