I’m writing this in Berlin. My wife and I are on stand-by while our daughter waits to give birth. She has bought a flat in the German capital with her British husband, teaches maths here, and is in the process of taking German citizenship following Brexit. The new grandchild, like its two older siblings, will be raised in Germany.
It is hard to think of a more damning indictment of a British government than the fact hundreds of thousands of its citizens are, in common with my daughter, seeking citizenship in other countries. Before 2016 it would have been unimaginable. Indeed never in the UK’s long history has it happened before. But I certainly don’t blame them. On the contrary, I encouraged my daughter because Germany, after the madhouse of Britain, feels like a bastion of sanity.
Gas prices are rising here, but there are no queues at petrol stations, no empty shelves in shops, no labour shortages in critical industries, no factories facing imminent closure, no pigs being slaughtered en masse for lack of functioning abattoirs, no fearful talk of the bitter winter ahead.
There is practically none of the terrible polarisation afflicting Britain. Public discourse remains civil. Germany has just held a general election, and the victor was the Social Democrats’ Olaf Scholz, a low-key centrist technocrat whose experience was considered a virtue not a vice. It is true that the far-right Alternative für Deutschland Party (AfD) secured 10 per cent of the vote but this was less than it won four years ago and it has not made the gains some commentators forecast.
Given their country’s history, the great majority of German voters understandably fight shy of populists and demagogues. Their electoral system requires coalitions and consensual politics, and would make it all but impossible for one small faction within a governing party to impose its will on the nation as the Tory Brexiteers did in Britain.
Governing in Germany is still regarded as a serious business, not a branch of the entertainment industry. Ministers still plan ahead and invest in the future. By and large the country works, and public services are reasonably efficient.
My daughter pays just €40 a month for the nursery that her first two children attend, while her older sister paid £1,400 a month in London. Germany may have had a slower Covid-19 vaccine rollout but its overall handling of the pandemic was far superior to Britain’s shambolic effort, and as a result it has suffered an average of 1,133 deaths per million compared to 2,054 per million in the UK.
Levelling up? In Britain that remains a largely meaningless slogan brandished by cynical politicians to woo Red Wall voters even as they raise their taxes and devalue their pay packets. In Germany, over the past three decades, the federal government has “levelled up” the entire former German Democratic Republic. The process has been far from perfect, and remains incomplete, but John Kampfner’s timely book, Why Germans Do It Better, notes that per capita GDP in the old East Germany is now 80 per cent of that in the west and higher than in large parts of the UK.
Immigration? In 2015, Angela Merkel boldly admitted a million refugees fleeing wars and terrorism in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “Wir schaffen das!” (‘we can manage this’),” she declared at the time, and for the most part Germany has.
In Little Britain, under a home secretary whose parents left Idi Amin’s Uganda, we prefer to demonise those fleeing persecution and torture who try to reach our shores, even though their numbers are far, far smaller. We quit the European Union in part to curb freedom of movement, and now wonder why we are suffering chronic shortages of workers in the haulage, agricultural, care, health, hospitality and meat processing industries (to name but a few).
As a senior German journalist, Peter Tiede, wrote in the Times recently: “The hard working migrants you shut the door on are now working for us and keeping our shelves full and petrol stations fully stocked.”
Strangely, Germany remains a high-wage, high-skill economy despite its reliance on immigrant labour. It remains one of the world’s great industrial and exporting nations despite its EU membership. It has plenty of faults, but it is for the most part a calm, sober, orderly, self-effacing and restrained nation, having learned bitter lessons from the horrors of fascism. As Gideon Rachman, referring to the Holocaust Memorial, wrote in the Financial Times recently: “Unlike any other country that I know of, Germany has placed a memorial to its greatest national disgrace right at the heart of its capital.”
Germany has not always had a moral compass, but it has one now. It is inconceivable, for example, that a proud German Bundesliga football club, majority-owned by its fans, could or would be sold – like Newcastle – to a Saudi investment fund headed by the murderous Mohammed Bin Salman.
Viewed from Berlin, Britain appears ever more dysfunctional and absurd. As last week’s Conservative Party showed, we are no longer ruled by a serious political party, but by a cult whose members must bow before their leader.
That leader has risen to, and sustains, power through simplistic slogans, empty promises and wolf-whistle politics. He uses Orwellian language to preach voodoo economics, somehow pretending that chronic labour shortages herald a glorious economic renaissance. He betrays the long-term interests of the country for the next day’s headlines.
Behind his fatuous jokes he trades in nastiness. He exploits peoples’ fears and prejudices. He foments social division to keep his base fired up. He seeks to undermine democracy by curtailing protests, bending the electoral system to his advantage, and weakening the courts, the media and any other independent institution that threatens to limit his freedom of manoeuvre.
He wraps himself in the flag while accusing his opponents of lacking patriotism. He shames Britain by denouncing awkward international treaties that he has himself negotiated, signed and hailed just months before. He consorts with autocrats while gratuitously goading our former friends in Europe. He professes to champion “the people”, but awards lucrative public contracts to his cronies.
“Global Britain”? Even as the Prime Minister and his fellow Brexiteers invoke Britain’s past glories, and cling to delusions of grandeur, they are running the country into the ground. Instead of praising Germany for the deeply impressive way it has atoned for its past, they prefer to emulate our football thugs and pretend the Second World War only happened yesterday. “My father, Reginald Francois, was a D-Day veteran. He never submitted to bullying by any German and neither will his son,” the ludicrous Tory backbencher Mark Francois declared during the Brexit deadlock of 2019.
It gives me no pleasure to say it, but my daughter is right. She should raise her children in Germany rather than Boris Johnson’s increasingly debased Britain. As Kampfner wrote: “Germany is Europe’s best hope in this era of nationalism, anti-Enlightenment and fear.”
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