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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The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war