Born again or Brown again?

We asked Labour insiders and commentators who should be the next leader of the Labour Party – now or

The Labour Party is in many ways already mourning its defeat at the forthcoming general election. There are still several possible outcomes to that election, but none of them is that Labour will emerge with a clear working majority. The bleak truth for Gordon Brown is that he is fighting his first and last election as Prime Minister. There is a general acceptance of this, and the mood in the parliamentary party is as resigned as it is jittery. The aim, at present, is to lose well, to expose the Conservatives and to prepare for life after Brown.

So what of the succession? Few doubt that a leadership contest is under way. The main contenders - Ed Balls, David and Ed Miliband, Harriet Harman, Jon Cruddas - may be fighting a phoney war, but it is a war of sorts all the same, with politicians on manoeuvres and the corridors and back rooms of power febrile with speculation. "The mood is very uneasy at present," one leadership contender told me. "But at least I'm prepared to speak honestly rather than relying on unattributable briefings."

Labour is deeply divided, on several levels. There are the old, obvious (and tedious) divisions between the Blairites and the Brownites - always a spurious division founded less upon ends than means. Blair and Brown were not separated by ideology: they both passionately believed in New Labour and accepted the neoliberal consensus. What separated them and their followers was character and cold ambition.

Yet, more important, surely, are the divisions between the freethinking liberal pluralists (or democratic republicans) and the unreconstructed statists in the party, as well as those between the free-market reformers and the social democrats. In recent months this magazine has begun
to campaign for a realignment of left-liberal politics. We are attracted by the idea of coalitions between progressives, especially if they result in electoral reform, genuine reform of the House of Lords and of the City, legislation for fixed-term parliaments, stronger civil liberties, an enhanced Freedom of Information Act, closer ties with Europe, a multilateral foreign policy and withdrawal from Afghanistan.

During the years of the long, unregulated boom, New Labour's high command entered into a Faustian pact with the forces of finance and with the repellent Bush administration. In so doing, the party ceased to be a moral crusade, and many of its natural supporters became alienated. They remain alienated, but without them Labour can never win again.

The economic crisis has offered Labour an opportunity to learn from the wrong turns taken in recent years, but also from what the party got right. From crisis can flow opportunity. Above all else, what is required, if the election results spell the end for Brown, is for the party to elect a leader who has the vision, ideas and stamina not only to remake his or her party, but to lead a complete reconstruction of the British political system. But who is that person? And what should his or her priorities be?
Jason Cowley

Meghnad Desai

Economist and Labour life peer
I have seen seven Labour leaders come and six go - Wilson, Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock, Smith and Blair. Gordon Brown is still very much here and not likely to go before the election. The new Parliamentary Labour Party will be slim, with maybe no more than 150 members, and it will need someone who can reconcile and unite, who can think anew the theory for a 21st-century social democracy, and who can be an internationalist rather than a small Englander.

My choice for the crown of thorns? The field is two Eds and two Milibands (overlapping ­categories), Harriet Harman and Alan Johnson. Some pine for Jon Cruddas. I don't. It is not enough to be loved by the left: remember Michael Foot - lovely man, disastrous leader.

Johnson is loved by the unions, but then they loved and destroyed Jim Callaghan. Balls is unlikely to unite the party. Of the two Milibands, I go for David rather than Ed. So it is between David and Harriet. If we are to take Middle England with us, it has to be David. I say that with some trepidation, lest it harm his prospects.

Roy Hattersley

Deputy leader of the Labour Party (1983-92)
Speculating about who will be the next Labour leader is good journalism but rotten politics.

If Labour wins the next election - and victory remains within the party's power - the next leader will not take over until 2014, and four years is a long time in politics. Long ago, Jim Callaghan told me that the party would be led, in ten years' time, by David Owen, me or somebody nobody had heard of. It turned out to be somebody who, then, nobody had heard of.

After the next election but one, it will be James Purnell, Ed Miliband, Jon Cruddas - or somebody nobody has heard of. I will vote for Miliband. Each of the politicians on my "shortlist" is a genuine radical who realises the im­portance of Labour setting out its vision of the good society and describing the practical - and sometimes necessarily controversial - policies that will bring it about. Ideological caution is the certain path to defeat. Whoever first made the point, New Labour foundered because it was "neither new enough nor Labour enough". The next leader must - instead of trying to invent an alternative to social democracy - work out a way of applying its basic principles to the modern and changing world.

Sunder Katwala

General secretary, Fabian Society
More important than who should lead is how Labour could get its next leadership election right. Let's hope it takes place in government, a few years from now. But if Labour loses this spring, the first decision could be its most important in opposition: whether to have an immediate leadership contest or leave it until after the first autumn conference. If Michael How­ard had not done the latter in 2005, the Tory leader would be David Davis, not David Cameron.

If Labour goes straight for a contest, we would miss the debate we need. So let's see the merits in playing it long. If Labour loses, Gordon must stay! If he prefers to make a quick exit, the National Executive Committee should appoint a caretaker and schedule an autumn contest. It could make a real difference to the chances of being out for one term, or three. Front-runners - such as David Miliband, Ed Balls or Harriet Harman - should not fear a longer debate with more ideas. Those who might not run - perhaps James Purnell and Jon Cruddas - might sharpen debates.
Without hearing their arguments, it is too early to set the field. So why not imagine that Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper could surprise us by emerging in front, with Cooper edging home as the party's first permanent woman leader?

Melvyn Bragg

Writer, broadcaster and life peer
I'm in at least four minds as to who should be the next Labour leader. When is the law coming in that allows peers to resign from the House of Lords? Because Hamlet/Mandelson looks very fit for the part of the new prince.

David Marquand

Professor of politics at Oxford University
Assuming Labour loses the election - not yet certain, but a lot more probable than not - the party will need to skip the generation immediately after Brown's and go for someone in the generation after that. The choice will be between the Miliband brothers: David or Ed.

Clearly, this will be psychologically difficult for them. Sibling rivalry is a powerful force. Ed and David seem well-balanced and harmonious. All the same, I imagine David would find it hard to give way to his younger brother. But so what? The party will have a right to pick the better man for the job, and I don't think there's any doubt that that means Ed should be the one to go for it. He is both a safe pair of hands and a potentially inspirational figure. A very rare combination.

He would face a daunting task. I don't believe Labour has yet taken the measure of David Cameron and the new-look Tory party he has constructed. Labour politicians and Labour-friendly commentators have convinced themselves that the new-look Tories are fakes: that, like old-look Thatcherites, they are slavering at the thought of making savage cuts in spending; and that Labour in opposition will reap a rich harvest of disillusioned Tory voters without having to engage in painful rethinking of its own. I think this is self-indulgent piffle. The truth is that social democracy is on the slide all over Europe. I don't pretend to know how the left should respond to this melancholy tale. Nor, I suspect, does Ed Miliband. But he has shown that he has the intellectual capacity to think through the problems - and the charisma to lead his party in the search for answers. It would be madness to choose anyone else.

Helena Kennedy

QC and Labour life peer
I really do think it is premature to have this debate. There is a whole set of potential leaders among the next generation, and I do not want to see some has-been who is seriously tainted by his or her complicity in the Iraq war taking on the mantle as some interim measure.

If and when a new leader is required, I want to see a proper debate within the party about what that person believes in and where they will take the party in the future. Whoever succeeds in taking on the role will have to throw off the taint of many New Labour policies and be prepared to participate in a total review of policy and vision. I think Compass is where the new thinking is currently taking place, and any prospective leader with any sense should be looking closely at its work.

Neal Lawson

Chair of Compass
Jon Cruddas should be the next leader of the Labour Party, because he understands that we face a triple crisis of inequality, sustainability and democracy, and that we need a progressive alliance of parties, unions and civil society organisations to make change happen and embed it. In practice, that means the effective regulation of businesses, and measures to democratise public services, such as a high-pay commission at one end and a living wage at the other; and real proportional representation, to ensure a new era of pluralistic politics rather than the domination of a few swing voters led by Murdoch and the Mail.

Above all, a candidate such as Cruddas would bring hope back into centre-left politics; the hope that we are aiming for a good society and have the wherewithal to make it happen.

Billy Hayes

General secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU)
There is no contest - Gordon Brown. To reconnect with millions of voters lost since 2001, we need to reassert the coalition between working-class communities and liberal-minded pro­fes­sionals. First, an expansionary economic policy is vital. Shutting down the government's life support to the economy could precipitate a double-dip recession. That is where the Tories would have gone, and will go. Labour must be different - voters will appreciate this.

Second, there must be a break from policies that have fractured our electoral coalition. Scrapping ID cards, committing to withdrawal from Afghanistan and scrapping the Trident replacement and aircraft carriers would help; they would also transform the future of government spending. Third, the problems of the housing market must be addressed. The private sector will not deliver for five million on the council-house waiting list. Government support for social housing is crucial.

Robert Skidelsky

Political economist and life peer
Your question is based on the assumption that Labour will lose the next election. I don't think this is a foregone conclusion. Labour might win a small majority or form a minority government with Liberal support. In either case, Brown will stay on as leader and Prime Minister. As to his successor, I have no preference.

Labour has a great opportunity to work out a post-slump political agenda. This could be based on: a) an expanded role for the state in the investment field (railways, housing, schools, hospitals, green technology), and b) greater equality of wealth and incomes. Both would require bringing the share of GDP spent by the state more in line with the European norm, but this will be necessary anyway for purposes of fiscal consolidation and one may as well make a virtue of it. The party should set up a high-powered commission of a non-partisan character to work out an intellectually grounded post-slump programme of action. The commission should be set up as soon as possible (ie, before the election), and its existence and preliminary findings should be one of the main grounds on which the government  appeals to the country.

Billy Bragg

Musician and activist
I want a leader who will do something about excessive bonuses and who will split up high street banks from the casino banks, so that next time the bankers mess up they lose their homes and we don't lose ours.

Greg Dyke

Director general of the BBC (2000-2004)
I suspect that we are living through the final months of the last Labour government ever to have an overall majority, as, by the time Labour has another chance to govern, the political world will be very different.

I suspect wholesale change in our political system will come faster than many imagine. The decline of the two-party system has been happening for years - in 1951, 97 per cent of the electorate voted either Labour or Conservative; in the last election, that was below 70 per cent - but the MPs' expenses scandal has put the final boot into politics as we've known it. The election could well result in a hung parliament which, in turn, could bring the vast reforms we need. The introduction of proportional representation is no longer a ­matter of if, but when.

The next Labour leader will need to articulate a new left-of-centre ideology, unite the rational left, see off the Blairites and be able to negotiate with and befriend other radical parties in this new era of politics. Tough job.

Richard Reeves

Director of Demos
It is tempting to say that the next leader should be Anybody Who Is Not Ed Balls. But the party should aim higher. David Miliband is a serious candidate, but he is seen as indecisive in the Parliamentary Labour Party, and has never been hugely popular in the constituencies or the unions. James Purnell remains the lodestar for liberal modernisers - but I am biased since he is a colleague at Demos. Perhaps Liam Byrne should be the next leader: he is younger, brighter and more passionate than many of his colleagues.

The new leader should ditch the anti-civil liberties measures of Blair/Brown; come out in support of real proportional representation; form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats; support or steal the Tories' education plans; base a new attack on poverty and plans for public service reform on the "capabilities" approach of Amartya Sen; avoid new incursions against freedom in areas such as smoking and alcohol; and adopt Lib Dem tax policies hitting wealth, rather than income.

Last but not least, the new leader should surround themselves with people who will tell them when they are screwing up.

Stefanos Stefanou

Businessman and Labour donor
I think that Gordon Brown will now lead the Labour Party to the next general election. He will have a good chance of winning a small majority, but only if he reverts to being a strong, robust and determined leader, as he was when he started as Prime Minister. He is obviously surrounded by inexperienced ministers and advisers. They have managed to transform him into a person who performs for the media in a gimmicky way - that was never Brown's style.

However, if, for whatever reason, Labour needs a new leader, I think that the only person who will be able to lead and unite the party is Harriet Harman. She appears to be a strong personality, and charismatic without being a clown like Cameron. She will probably succeed, provided she doesn't allow the so-called PR experts to destroy her personality with their superficial techniques.

Frank Field

Labour MP for Birkenhead
Labour, whether it wins or loses, will be faced by a new kind of politics after the election. We will have to put behind us the modern era, when governing was largely about distributing a continual real-terms growth in public expenditure. The new politics of cuts will be centre stage, requiring leadership qualities that can combine Labour's idealism - particularly protecting those towards the bottom of the pile - with a realism that appeals to the majority. Courage will, above all, be required to mark out the political map of this new country, but with that courage must go stamina, and also judgement when taking risks in repositioning the party.

While there are a number of candidates who possess some of the necessary qualities, I see James Purnell as the one individual who combines most of them. But Labour in the new parliament will also need a deputy leader who can reach those parts of the electorate untouched by the current leadership, and who will also be trusted by our core voters as we engage that new country. Step forward, Jon Cruddas.

Bob Crow

General secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT)
Who leads the Labour Party isn't the issue. What matters is that the party has presided over attacks on workers through the anti-union laws and privatisation, and through the extension of powers to the European superstate. Until Labour wakes up and starts fighting for the workers rather than the bosses, it's a dead duck, politically.

Ken Loach

Film director
Who should be leader? None of the present clique. What to do: reassert Clause Four and act on it to the letter.

Clare Short

Former Labour MP
It is very late in the day, but if part of the answer to Labour's problems is a new leader, we need an analysis of what is wrong in order to look for the kind of leader who might be able to put things right. I do not believe that anyone really knows the qualities of a politician until they have worked with them. Potential leader spotting is led by the media on the basis of unexplained qualities that appear to be completely presentational. Underneath this is a pro-Blair versus pro-Brown division. But this, too, is entirely presentational. They created New Labour together. Brown was the brain, Blair the frontman. The clashes were of egos, ambition and hangers-on, not of principle or strategy.

The reality is that the New Labour project has collapsed. Now we need someone who respects the democratic process in the party, parliament and cabinet. We need someone who wants to reverse the growth of inequality in the UK. We need someone who is willing to reorientate UK foreign policy, peel off from our craven, lapdog role and start to work with others for a stronger UN and a more equitable world order. We need a leader who will cease to echo US/Israeli policy in the Middle East and work with others for a just settlement in accordance with international law. The tragedy for Labour is that there is no such potential leader in the parliamentary party and little discussion in the wider party of how these changes might be made.

Lance Price

Former adviser to Tony Blair
Speculation about the next Labour leader is predicated on expectations of defeat at the election. But the question is legitimate. The debate and manoeuvring that accompany it are impos­sible to hide. Unless Gordon Brown pulls off a remarkable victory, the task confronting the next leader will be determined by the scale of Labour's defeat. Whoever it is must have an unambiguous understanding of what made New Labour popular. Of the two styles of ­politics embodied in the leadership since 1994, one worked and one didn't. If we want a compromise candidate whom we never expect to form a government, we may go for Harriet Harman.

If we want a leader with the creativity, popular appeal and determination to lead us back into power, the shortlist boils down to David and Ed Miliband, Andy Burnham and James Purnell. I would support the Foreign Secretary.

Charlie Whelan

Former adviser to Gordon Brown
There's going to be no leadership election because we're going to win the election and Gordon Brown's going to be leader.

Peter Wheeler

Member of Labour's National Executive Committee
The next leader of the Labour Party should be Gordon Brown - there is no vacancy. Without Brown, we would have faced the sort of economic meltdown they have seen in Iceland or Ireland. We are facing a Tory party more right-wing at every level than it was under Margaret Thatcher. This isn't the time for these dinner-party debates; it's time for Labour supporters to be campaigning hard for a Labour victory. I am just on my way out to deliver some leaflets - anyone is welcome to join us.

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war

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.

***

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.

***

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 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war