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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: The tainted legacies of Germany’s ex-chancellors

The war in Ukraine is seeing the reputations of Olaf Scholz's two immediate predecessors reassessed, and not for the better

- Credit: AP

For reasons that will become clear later in this column, I was in Germany last week. Olaf Scholz is enduring a pretty bad press for a chancellor elected
barely a few months ago. A couple of poor election results in the last fortnight for his SDP Party in Schleswig-Holstein and Nordrhein-Westfalen, and criticism across a range of policies, chief among them Ukraine, have seen his troubles mount and his ratings fall. The word zögernd – hesitant – is
beginning to stick, and damage, much as “dithering” damaged John Major and “liar” and “crook” are defining and damaging… you know who I mean.

Perhaps the only consolation for Scholz is that his two predecessors appear to be faring even worse. One of the country’s main weekly magazines, Wirtschafts Woche (Business Week) carried a scathing analysis of Angela Merkel, accompanied by a front cover almost worthy of New European page
ones. It showed a crumbling bust of Merkel, wearing a brooch with the single word ‘Russia’, in Russian, on her lapel above the headline The Fatal
Legacy of the Merkel Era. Inside, End of the Legend, with nine pages focused relentlessly on what the authors saw as her failings on Russia and China (too close on both), energy, defence, digitalisation and much more. Even aiming off for any political bias, it was brutal.

Merkel has kept her head down at subterranean levels since leaving office, saying barely a word on the huge issues home and abroad, but it must surely hurt to see her strong reputation during 16 years as chancellor so harmed by Putin’s war, and the focus on energy policy which made Germany so dependent upon Russia.

Perhaps her only consolation is that the reputation of her direct predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, is being trashed even more. He was front-page news pretty much the whole time I was there – the government having decided to remove many of the financial and other privileges afforded to ex chancellors, and the European Parliament seeking to add him to the EU sanctions list. His crime – the refusal to resile from his political closeness to Putin, and his financial links to Russian companies. The tone of the coverage, by the standards of the mainly sober and serious German press, was rough, and his finally stepping down as chairman of Rosneft on Friday definitely seemed to fall into the “too little, too late” category.

Having known Schröder when he was chancellor and thought him pretty real and likeable, I find it hard to fathom how he has allowed his stock to fall so low for the love of the rouble. Even accepting he has had to pay the price of five weddings and four divorces, he can’t need the money that much, can he?

I doubt he is taking the criticism and ostracisation well. He has a temper. Indeed, he is one of three people I have heard utter the words “Oh fuck off,
Tony,” to my old boss – at an all-night summit in Berlin when they were haggling over EU regional funding for Cornwall and the Highlands and Islands. As for the other two … one was me, fairly regularly, though usually not about EU funding, and absolutely no prizes for guessing the other. Clue: he features in the final item.

As I said last week, I am no fan of birthdays, and not an easy person to buy presents for. I’ve never worn jewellery, don’t see the point of wearing a watch when the time is on my phone, can’t understand why anyone needs more clothes than fit inside a single wardrobe, and think books, pictures and music choices are as personal as they get, so best not decided by others.

After 42 years together, Fiona knows that traditional presents, no matter the
cost or the packaging, are not going to cut it. That’s why her birthday gift of two years ago, a course to rediscover my fading German-speaking skills, was
what I call a proper present. Likewise this year’s, a short break in the
Northern German island of Sylt, to put the vastly improved skills to good use.

Fiona also knows that important Burnley games take precedence over, well, pretty much everything, and they didn’t come much more important than Villa away last Thursday. However, when she booked the break, there was no such fixture in the diary; it was rearranged because of prior postponement. But even I, fanatical though I may be, could not let her go off on her own for a trip organised as a birthday present for me.

Despite Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp having a home there, Sylt is no
football hotbed. Finding a bar that was showing the game took a fair few
phone calls. But if you do ever go to Sylt – unlikely, because they don’t overdo
the marketing, and around 90% of the tourists are German – you won’t find a
friendlier bar than Lister Ecke, close to the northernmost tip of the island. Having called and explained I needed German Sky Sports channel 10, the
landlord not only said he would put one of his three TVs on that channel for me, but when I arrived, they were waiting for me with my own reserved chair in pole position. And when I went berserk as we took a one-goal lead, several of the regulars joined in my joy. They knew how to get me to buy a round.

British journalists queued to attack Annette Dittert, who covers the UK for
German TV, after she tweeted: “Everyone in Britain still acts as if this was a normal government. Instead it is a project of deliberate destruction, of laws, of institutions, of anything that stands in the way of a PM who just doesn’t want to be held to account.” The only bit I would dispute is her use of the word “everyone.”

I think millions of British people see absolutely the truth about this government. But most of the media neither wish to see it, nor seek properly to investigate it. Those who attacked her did so oblivious that their deliberate blindness is a big part of the problem to which she draws attention.

See also the New York Times, which revealed the enormous donation to
Tory funds by a sanctioned Russian oligarch, deemed by most of the UK
media, like a police raid on Tory peer Michelle Mone over Covid fraud and
corruption allegations, to have no newsworthy merit whatsoever.

Keep telling the truth, Annette, even if our client journalists tweet abuse
upon your head. Mehr Kraft für deinen Ellbogen, as we say in the land of frank,
free and fearless (sic) journalism.

En route to Sylt, brief stops in Bruges and Hamburg, on the way back a night
in Amsterdam. Three pretty big cities, heaving with tourists as well as locals,
and yet perhaps the first thing you notice is how clean they are, and how largely litter-free, compared with so many of the big towns and cities back
home. It can’t merely be that people are less disposed to chucking their waste on the floor, and expecting someone else to pick it up, though that may be part of it. It is more that though they went through the same global financial crisis as we did, they have not had a decade of austerity.

Johnson rightly gets a lot of stick, not least in these quarters, for putting
politics and messaging ahead of developing realistic, workable policies
rooted in truth and reason. But David Cameron and George Osborne did the
same, the political attacks on Gordon Brown for “the mess we inherited” then turned into an ideological cuts strategy for which we are still paying the price.

Think of that every time you see the detritus of modern life, and blame them ahead of the local councils responsible, who are struggling to keep the streets clean on slashed budgets. Think of it too as Johnson, Rees-Mogg and their media lapdogs pretend that the civil service cull is about getting rid of bowler-hatted Sir Humphreys. It is about getting rid of people who run the services on which most of us depend, yet again to justify false narratives which are all about Tory Party politics, and little to do with the real world, of which they know little, and care less.

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