Germany led in Europe on the back of British guidance while the UK faltered as it distanced itself from the continent, writes Andrew Adonis.
There have only been eight chancellors in the 70 years of the Federal Republic of Germany. Adenauer, Kohl and Merkel notched up an astonishing 43 years between them, maybe 46 by the time Merkel finally retires. Not one of the eight failed by leaving Germany worse off.
Meanwhile Britain’s 14 post-war prime ministers include five of the most disastrous occupants of No.10 in its nearly 300 years – Eden, Heath, Callaghan, Cameron and May – each of who left the country in a far worse state than they found it.
In consequence, over these seven decades the leadership of Europe has become vested in a democratic, united Germany to an extent that Britain has never enjoyed – not even on VE Day in 1945, when Churchill and Stalin’s bitter division and rivalry soon manifested in the carving up of Germany, and ultimately in a Berlin Wall which my generation thought would never come down. Few would have predicted any of this in 1945, and that in the year 2018 Britain would be repeating the worst mistakes of the 1930s in Brexit. After all, Britain arguably invented free elections and parliamentary government.
My view is that Germany’s post-war success is in large part ‘the best of British’. Post-war Germany did what Britain said, and our guidance was good – not what Britain did, where our record has ranged from the patchy to the disastrous.
Germany’s leaders themselves played a personal role. But the striking thing about Adenauer, Kohl and Merkel is that none were exceptional until they became chancellor. Adenauer had been mayor of Cologne and just survived Hitler and the war. Kohl was a bluff regional party boss, Merkel a science researcher turned press officer for Kohl’s party as it established itself in post-communist eastern Germany. They were made by the system as much as they moulded it. The crucial factor is the strength of Germany’s constitutional fabric, and the credibility of its lost-war mission to anchor itself in a democratic, confederal Europe. All of this came from British guidance – and in the early post-war years, from direct British governance.
Under Churchill and Attlee, Germany was built from the bottom up as a democratic federal republic. Federalism, European integration and a carefully balanced system of proportional representation, fair between parties gaining a minimum of 5% of the vote, were its foundations. Post-war Germany’s state (land) governments and assemblies – now 16 of them – have been a huge success, embedding democracy and pluralism and enabling a large country to forge balanced growth and the establishment of a strong but not overbearing central government.
Britain, by contrast, stuck to a winner-takes-all electoral system, a hereditary and later nominated House of Lords, failed to federalise or even regionalise successfully, and lurched into referendum-itis as governments struggled to command public support for all their theoretical supremacy in the House of Commons.
Which is the reason why, during the 20th Century, Britain lost most of Ireland entirely, came close to losing Scotland, never had a proper system of local government in England, and produced central governments which veered from elective dictatorship (Thatcher) to referendum-itis (Cameron), with a mish-mash of mostly ineffectual governments in between.
Attlee, Macmillan, Thatcher and Blair are the only leaders to have made any real success of post-war British government, but in all four cases despite, not because, of the system in which they worked. Then there is a EU set up under Churchill’s leadership, not only by winning the war for European democracy but by inspiring the creation of what he himself called ‘a kind of United States of Europe’ in his great Zurich speech of 1946.
Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux states did as Churchill advised and in 1951 formed the European Coal and Steel Community, which evolved into today’s EU. Britain, by contrast, stayed out of its own creation, pleading empire, the British constitution – and doubts about the viability of European democracies we had done so much to forge in blood and treasure. What a tragedy. But to paraphrase Pitt on Britain’s stand against Napoleon, Merkel and her predecessors have saved Europe by their exertions and inspired Europe by their example.