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31 October 2018

First Thoughts: The end of the Merkel era, the male backlash to #MeToo and the perfect length for a play

In her understated manner, Merkel recalls Clement Attlee, acclaimed by some as Britain’s most successful 20th-century peacetime leader.

By Peter Wilby

Angela Merkel seems to have been around forever but even if she survives to the next scheduled federal election in 2021 – when, she has announced, she will stand down – she won’t be the longest-serving chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, created in 1949. She will have lasted a little less than 16 years; Helmut Kohl lasted a bit longer. No postwar British PM has stayed for more than 11 years.

Merkel and Kohl should inspire the unglamorous and the unstylish. Kohl was mocked for his verbose speeches, his physical stature (Germans nicknamed him “the pear”) and his provincial dialect. By general consent, he wasn’t terribly bright. Nobody ever questioned Merkel’s intellect but she still seems ordinary enough to be nicknamed “Mutti” (Mum). She never changes her jacket, only the colours, and steadfastly refuses to polish her public image. In her understated manner, she recalls Clement Attlee, acclaimed by some as Britain’s most successful 20th-century peacetime leader.

As Germans know better than most, flamboyant leaders rarely do well in the history books. In the long run, the laurels go to the plodders.

Climate denial

Though Jair Bolsonaro, the newly elected Brazilian president, now says he won’t withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, he seems unlikely to row back on other campaign commitments. These include more mining, more development in the Amazon, and less “environmental activism” from government agencies. The governments of five of the world’s 20 biggest economies – the US, Russia, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Brazil – can now be described as enemies of the planet. Not that the other 15, judged by their actions (or inactions), deserve to be called its friends. It’s just that the dirty five are honest about it.

All this makes Extinction Rebellion, just launched in the UK, with backing from academics including Rowan Williams, master of Magdalene College, Cambridge and former Archbishop of Canterbury, seem a lost cause. It plans civil disobedience including a sit-in protest in Parliament Square. It wants the government to declare a state of emergency and create a zero-carbon economy by 2025. Perhaps it should also demand a boycott of trade with the US, Brazil etc. The decision to leave the EU suggests the British are happy to impoverish themselves. They may as well do so in a worthwhile cause.

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Angry men

In my local butcher’s shop, they were in no doubt. Peter Hain, they said, had wronged Philip Green by using parliamentary privilege to name him as the man who paid off victims of his alleged bullying, sexism and racism in return for their silence. The judges who granted an injunction preventing the Daily Telegraph from identifying him had seen the full evidence, the butcher and his customers argued. They didn’t want trial by media and the judiciary should be free from political interference.

All those involved with this debate were men (for some reason, buying meat seems to have become an almost exclusively male preserve). I refrained from probing their reasons for taking Green’s side but I suspect a high proportion of men, confronted by the #MeToo movement and associated issues, think “there but for the grace of God…”

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I worry about this. The allegations, during the US Supreme Court nomination hearings, about Brett Kavanaugh’s history of sexual harassment and worse seemed to galvanise the Republican campaign in the midterm elections. It is often said that, after the 1960s, the right won the economic wars while the left won the culture wars. As disillusion with the economic system grows and white men become increasingly (and often unpleasantly) vociferous, is the left losing ground in the latter while gaining in the former?

Club commemoration

The Thai billionaire Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who has died in a helicopter crash at the ground of the Leicester City Football Club he owned, became a romantic hero when the team won the Premier League in 2016 against odds of 5,000 to one. Nobody cared about where his money came from.

In truth, he was a beneficiary of Thailand’s crony capitalism. He started out selling handicrafts in 1989, moved into duty-free operations in 1995 at Bangkok’s old Don Muang airport and, thanks largely to connections forged with politicians and royalty, hit the jackpot in 2006 when he was awarded exclusive rights at Bangkok’s new airport, now the country’s biggest.

There’s no denying his generosity to my home town – he gave £2m to a Leicester hospital and showered gifts on players and fans – nor the affection he attracted from local people. His engagement with the club’s fortunes was a refreshing change from most modern owners, and particularly from the Serbian-American Milan Mandaric, his predecessor at Leicester, who bought and sold football teams as though they were second-hand cars.

As capitalists go, Vichai, as he was known in Britain, was a good and kind man. But Thailand has the world’s third most unequal distribution of wealth. One wonders whether more of his largesse shouldn’t have been spread across his native land.

Short storm

Having complained in this column about overlong plays, I should pay tribute to Florian Zeller’s The Height of the Storm, now at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, starring Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins. It lasts a mere 80 minutes with no interval. Moreover, it is a play about old age that makes it unnecessary ever to see another play about old age, a subject I prefer not to dwell on.

It covers every angle and does so brilliantly: dementia, care, inheritance, the sale of a family home, squabbling offspring, fear of ancient secrets being unearthed at the end of life. Not so much “state of the nation” as “state of the demographic”, taking less of my time than watching a football match.

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