Even the British right has got the Teutonic bug
“WHY THE Germans do it better” – the title of a new book by John Kampfner, a respected journalist—speaks volumes about the current state of the British psyche. The government is replacing Public Health England, the body that was supposed to stop Britons from dying of covid-19, with a new outfit modelled on the Robert Koch Institute, the body at the centre of Germany’s public-health system. James Kirkup, head of the centrist Social Market Foundation, says his aim is to “make Britain more like Germany”. Other thinkers are less explicit, but pore over the details of Germany’s technical-education system or social-insurance market.
That Britain should turn to Germany for ideas is not surprising given the long, binding ties between the two states. Britain imported its royal family from Hanover in 1714 and German-born Prince Albert did as much as his wife to shape Victorian England. The idea of the welfare state came from Bismarck. The post-war German constitution was mostly the work of the British and Americans.
Before the first world war advocates of national efficiency insisted that Britain needed to invest more in science and education to escape being crushed by the German chariot. From the 1960s, left-wingers urged that Britain should learn from Germany’s model of stakeholder capitalism.
Nevertheless, today’s surge of enthusiasm for the Teutonic model is striking. It comes after a long period of Anglo-Saxon triumphalism in which the British got into the habit of dismissing the Germans as dinosaurs. “As economic growth stalls yet again,” The Economist observed in June 1999, “Germany is being branded the sick man (or even the Japan) of Europe.” The spread of Germanophilia to the right is new. It springs from Boris Johnson’s determination to spread prosperity throughout Britain’s regions and improve technical education—issues on which Thatcherism has little to offer but Germany has much to contribute.
This ideological change has coincided with a generational shift. Margaret Thatcher’s Tories saw Germany as a problem to be solved and the EU as a German racket. Today’s Tory elite is more likely to regard it as an example of high civilisation and social order. Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, likes to visit Bayreuth to listen to Wagner. Dominic Cummings is an enthusiastic student of Bismarck. Even today’s top civil servants are infected.
People and countries have more to learn from those whose strengths are different from theirs
Enthusiasm for Germany is also driven by profound cultural anxiety. Britain gambled its future as a United Kingdom and a member of the EU on the results of two referendums—and, with support for Scottish independence above 50%, the kingdom may yet break up. The political system has been shaken by the rise of the Brexiteer right and the Corbynite left as well as the downfall of David Cameron and Theresa May in rapid succession. Mr Johnson’s government seems determined to set records in incompetence. The covid-19 epidemic has heightened enthusiasm for a country that has managed it far better than Britain. Germany has lost fewer than 10,000 people to the disease compared with Britain’s toll of more than 40,000, and its economy suffered far less damage as a result.
Some argue that Britain has nothing to learn from Germany because the two are so different: Britain has a service economy (with strengths in finance and the creative arts), whereas Germany has a manufacturing one (with a messy financial sector and not much of a creative one). This is nonsense: people and countries have more to learn from those whose strengths are different from theirs. German ideas have been successfully transplanted in the past: the University of Warwick built one of the world’s best manufacturing research centres by borrowing German methods for building ties between universities and industry.
And learning German lessons demands a seriousness that British politics lacks. Trying to copy the Robert Koch Institute is a good example of its shallowness. Germany’s successful public-health system is built on a deep, powerful layer of local government which does not exist in Britain. The institute sits on top of, and provides services to, local public-health departments. There is no point in having the cherry without the cake.
Learning from another culture is difficult under any circumstances, but it is hard to think of a government that is less equipped for a Teutonic transplant than the current one. Changing cultures and institutions—to decentralise power, for instance, and to raise the status of technical education—will require a degree of patience, steadiness and co-operation which the people currently in charge in Britain lack.
German politicians are notably dull. Angela Merkel knows whereof she speaks when she says that in government “you can’t solve the tasks by charisma”. Mr Johnson relies on charisma, Mr Cummings is more inclined to cudgel than co-operate, and the government as a whole keeps U-turning all over the place in the most un-German manner possible. Mr Gove and the Labour Party leader, Sir Keir Starmer, are somewhat more Teutonic types. For its German moment, Britain may have to wait until another prime minister comes along.
From The Economist, published under licence. The original article in English can be found on www.economist.com