Merkel versus Johnson, a grim inevitability?


With the German federal elections, the era of Angela Merkel draws to a close. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson believes he may enjoy a decade in power in the UK (Rishi Sunak notwithstanding). The differing political trajectories of Germany and Britain reminded me of a conversation I had on my “home beach” in Mallorca in July with a friend of a friend, a Russian finance manager, who had spent a decade in Germany before moving to London.

She was astonished at some of the differences in political “awareness” between Germany and Britain and mused on the fact that Germany had enjoyed 16 years of Angel Merkel, while Britain had voted for Boris Johnson. I too reflected on the always misquoted adage of De Tocqueville that a country deserves its leaders. Does it? Has Germany “deserved” Merkel, and Britain Johnson?

Before I, as a German, gloat about our superior political leaders – not just the Chancellor but the cabinet as a whole – it is worth remembering that Britain has never been led by a brutal, amoral dictator-manic, and that even in 2021, about 10 per cent of the German population voted for the far right, and about 5 per cent for the inheritors of the old Communist party on the far left.

However, the other 85 per cent votes “around the middle” somewhere, centre-left, centre-right, centre-liberal. Be that as it may, the difference in quality between Frau Merkel and her successor, Olaf Scholz or Armin Laschet, compared with Johnson is stark.

The Russian friend of a friend and I discussed “Germany vs Britain”, and concluded that there were probably four main factors behind the differing trajectories:

1. The electoral system. The German Federal electoral system is designed to more or less prevent one party rule. The norm is coalition government, historically centre-right (with liberals), centre-left (with liberals), more recently, centre-right-with-left. The proportional representation system with its plethora of parliamentary parties was instituted by the Allies after the war to prevent the recurrence of potentially fanatical one-party rule.

Any leader of Germany therefore has to be a coalition leader and manager, a smart politician who can collaborate with those of another party, as well as factions within his own. They have to be able to get on, accommodate, compromise. They have to be good cabinet managers. This means they can appear a little grey, not hectoring, not denigrating their opponents – whom they may have to work with some day.

The British electoral system is designed to favour single party government. This has its strengths, but as we have seen with Johnson, it can lead to poor leaders on a populist agenda running the country, supported by a very poor cabinet. Johnson is unimaginable as the leader of a coalition government.

2.  Socio-political awareness. Whilst a recent research paper has suggested that a shocking 6 million Germans may suffer from a degree of illiterateness, and although 15 per cent vote far right or far left, the German electorate is on the whole better educated (to put it bluntly) and they are encouraged to be socio-politically aware.

The British don’t like to talk politics, and at school are discouraged from engaging in “political education” in favour of “traditional subjects”. In Germany, citizenship is taken very seriously (again, a direct result of the debacle of the 1930s and 1940s) and this includes government and educators always seeking to develop a generation of young voters who are socially and politically aware, can articulate their opinions and are expected to vote.

German political currents can at times be extreme and revolutionary – see the late 1960s and early 1970s – but German politics is rarely stale or ignored by the masses. The hours of TV airtime dedicated to socio-political “discussion rounds” and chat shows bear testament to that.

3. Expectations of political leaders. Germany was led astray once by a poorly educated, charismatic, populist demagogue, with murderous consequences. And neither Germans nor the rest of the world will let Germany forget it. Charisma always plays a part in politics (Willy Brandt, Gerhard Schroeder, Markus Söder) but Germans expect their politicians to be very educated, objective and competent.

Populism or clownishness won’t get you far in Germany. Politics is far too serious. It is no surprise that Helmut Schmidt, the great “doer” and administrator, remains amongst the most admired post-war German chancellors, and that another slightly dour, competent, administrator from Hamburg may now succeed Angela Merkel… herself a physicist who switched to politics. Competence and seriousness are highly regarded in German politics.

4. The political cadre. Both leading British parties, especially the Conservative party, draws its cadre of cabinet-level politicians from an increasingly small pool of “in the bubble” politicians, many of whom have been engaged in politics since university and have grown up in the Westminster establishment. Some, but not many, have held senior positions outside Westminster.

Germany benefits from a more diverse range of talent, in part because of its federal system, whereby leading Federal politicians often cut their teeth in a Landesparlament, learning to articulate, debate and, if in power, to act and administer on local issues. They prove their competence and worth before going to Berlin.

There is a drawback. Some never go to Berlin. Probably the best candidate for chancellor was not a candidate at this election and will remain the Minister-President of Bavaria. Some of the most popular and competent politicians currently can be found in Thuringia, Rhineland-Palatinate and Schleswig-Holstein.

Whether Olaf Scholz or Armin Laschet, the next chancellor will be a bit dull, a bit grey, competent but less charismatic. Which is just how the Germans like it. Keir Starmer, if he had made his career in Germany, as a former chief prosecutor, intelligent, competent, organised, would undoubtedly be on the verge of power or a leading role in the cabinet.

Whereas in Britain he looks set to be defeated again by a journalist who struggles with detail or management. Perhaps it is Keir Starmer’s great misfortune that he wasn’t born into the German political system.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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