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.

Purchase a copy of the New Statesman on newsstands today, or online at www.newstatesman.com/subscribe.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder