bloggulentgreytripe

Essays on power and change in western democracies: UK recovery can draw from Germany’s structural reforms

In Uncategorized on March 31, 2021 at 2:23 pm

“THERE is one thing we could still ask of Herr Brandt: what exactly were you doing during those 12 years away from Germany?” Pitched in 1961, the question was timed to intercept future chancellor Willy Brandt’s rising star. The inquisitor, Franz Josef Strauss, conservative leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), had fought in the Wehrmacht on Eastern and Western Fronts. Brandt, armed with a pen, wrote extensively from exile.

Germany and the EU say Auf Wiedersehen to ‘Mutti’ this year. But Angela Merkel’s centrist politics, pro-European, pro-western stance have roots in the centre-left’s reforms of the Brandt era. Reforms so extensive they re-shaped civil society. Civil society being a bland phrase that slips off the tongue, without meaning much to anyone. But Merkel’s years in power have much to do with the maintenance of the distinct German civil landscape. 

Before immersing in the subtle variations between UK and German social petri dishes, it’s worth re-understanding that for western democracies civil society is core to a nation’s social and economic well-being. Entities within civil society, from the press to the scientific community, sports clubs, churches, guilds, societies and trusts distribute power. Maddening for absolutists like Trump; who took aim, railing at its most visible symbols i.e. journalists, scientists, election officials, eventually becoming entangled by these benign bodies, led by blithe technocrats. So significant to country performance are these social units that Thomas Hobbes, in his preference for despotism, called them worms, eating their way into the body politic.

Angela Merkel’s CDU is hoping that recent state elections are irrelevant to this autumn’s general election. This might be wishful thinking. The roller-coaster effect of the pandemic has eroded her legacy of consistency. Relatively new CDU party leader, Armin Laschet, was appointed after Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s less-than-sure-footed performance lasted only till January this year, and less than 14 months in total. Laschet has enjoyed four governments headed by Merkel, but might be heading for new reckoning. With only 73 days at the helm at the time of writing, it’s not a cliché to say Merkel is a tough act to follow.

Marginally more cunning than Trump, Henry VIII issued the Statute of Uses to weaken trusts, but was stymied by parliament. Trump supporters’ march on parliament was similarly processed by the legal system. The leadership equation inferred by all this is, less is more, as executive power is distributed to the many, not the few. Of course, if civil structures mean authority is less concentrated, but the consequence is western society flourishes, then the more we are likely to wish for moderating figures like Brandt and Merkel to secure top tier leadership roles. Sustainable change here then, in the western context, is gained by indirection not direction. Efforts to overpower or force through appear to destroy the fine balances of collective will, disengaging the population. At the very least, ‘strong leadership’ in western democracies is a conundrum.

Likewise, corporations deploy committees, policies, systems and processes to sieve power into digestible chunks. So fine are these balances, that excess authority can be toxic. None of this is good news for Alpha Males in the full grip of self-efficacy. The last serious efforts in UK history to squash ‘the worms’ was during The Restoration, but by then civil society had wormed its way deeply into a corporeal nation-state, and filled out the public sphere. Blind allegiance to the crown was not seen again.

Before we suggest the German worms of civil society have an edge over the UK’s, the CSU and its sister party, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), are enjoying the same bumpy ride as Boris Johnson’s UK Conservative Party. These parties’ parliamentary members are being queried over mask-procurement contracts. Worse still the CDU suffered their poorest showing to date, in the March 14th state-elections. Angela Merkel’s departure after 16 years as chancellor could include her party exiting government altogether. With six months till the general election her legacy of maintaining the German Miracle (Wirtschaftswunder), in the face of major tests, might still be tarnished. (EU commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, once Angela Merkel’s preferred candidate for German presidency, has been accused of slowing Europe’s vaccination rate by her team fussing too long over price, supply and liability of vaccines.)

And so for Germany this and other factors, such as opening up and shutting down the economy, bureaucratic slowness handing out aid, has done its damage. But overall the CDU/CSU coalition has still dominated. Occupying 51 of the 71 years of the republic’s post-war democratic journey. But The Greens are knocking at the door of power. Those with ideas are in the ascendancy. And the CDU is without them.

For former chancellor Willy Brandt’s party, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), their day may then return in the autumn, along with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP). Many are waking to the possibilities of booting the conservatives out of power. Not to diminish Germany’s current pressures, from Russian to Chinese relationships, these woes are still less momentous than the post-war crisis of ‘nation re-building’. Germany’s admittance to the emergent rules-based global community depended on its relationship with both west and east’s diametrically opposing ideologies. To the newly created West Germany’s benefit the western allies guided the creation of coalition-government as the new normal, thus limiting power returning into the hands of extremists.

For the British, cross-party coalitions are alien. More so since power-sharing tasted odd when David Cameron (Conservative Party) and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats) occupied the same stage in 2010. It was the death knell for the liberals. Their support falling away. The horse trading of coalition not so much appals, but bemuses an electorate who link ‘large majorities’ with the ‘exercise of good power’. Compromise is weakness; landslides equal strength. But the nature of Germany’s polity has served it sufficiently well for it to become the world’s fourth largest economy.

But coalitions suggest much socially as well as politically. It infers agility, and critically, for western democratic structures, the ability to compromise. Utopianism has been the ever-present demon at the door of British politics. But the enduring success of social conservativism in western democracies has left both main parties almost indistinguishable from each other. Labour’s Tony Blair was charged with continuing the free market vision of Margaret Thatcher. Labour’s core vote, the ‘English Working Classes’, have now vanished, leaving the labour movement adrift. Large residues of that social group are aspirational and independent. Artisanship is well-paid.

Under the leadership of Keir Starmer, a serious interlocutor, Labour is not devoid of ideas; far from it, but in Anglo-Saxon politics charisma equates to confidence. The absence of a procrustean head, able to charm and shapeshift, leaves a movement with over supply of deficit theology. Tending to be against not for doesn’t win elections. The burst of support for Jeremy Corbyn’s version of left-leaning social democracy had gathered around vague grievances with no central theme.

There is no sign of the UK parliament changing its system. Germany’s politics of necessary compromise have provided what economies love best, stability. Coalition government naturally instils a structural focus (concerned with the interconnecting whole), versus the two-party system’s functionalism (pragmatically aligned with a handful of key election winning causes). The latter limits how parties shapeshift at each general election. UK conservatives have had to steadily steal, from under the noses of the labour and liberal movement, social democratic and socially liberal sensibilities; further leaving the Labour and the UK’s Social Democratic Party reflecting on their core offering. Where 19th century Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said ‘he could see a conservative voter inside the working man, in the same way a sculptor saw an angel in a block of marble’, conservatism has continued to reach out to the expanded middle classes, including the former Labour heartlands of the UK’s industrial north, who are increasingly invested in civil society, generating a naturally socially conservative mood. And while UK conservatives are broadening their church, enticing liberals, progressives and the remnants of single issue parties, like the United Kingdom Independence Party, Labour’s anchor has remained fixed to the labour movement; a phrase needing explanation to those under 45.  

At this juncture Willy Brandt’s name surfaces as a reformer-in-chief. In 50s Germany he’d already reckoned the labour movement was failing. In contrast to the reforms of the British labour movement, which have fizzled and popped for decades, The Godesberg Programme was affirmed at the SPD party conference in November 1959. It jettisoned its association with Marxist dogma and as a traditional workers’ party. Whether this was prophetic or instinctive, it certainly seemed risky. A risk that has now seen it more out of power than in.


Willy Brandt chaired the SPD from 1964 to 1987. His symbolism extended to a consistent pro-European, pro-western vision. Unimpressive to at least one US president, popular amongst European intellectuals, his worldview undoubtedly shaped by his time in exile. Arriving in Oslo in 1933, he spent seven years in Norway, moving to Sweden for five more, returning to Germany after the war at 32. He wrote prodigiously, and said these were his happiest years.

This move was further sealed with the SPD’s approval for partnership with NATO and other western institutions. Brandt’s exile in Oslo had left a deeply affective image of peaceful liberal democratic society, influencing the movement of his own party towards the centre ground; as soft and as uncomfortable as this over-occupied space has become. The long journey from his socialist ideals towards anti-communism and a clear vision of social democratic values was nearly complete by this point. 

The desire for extended dialogue with opponents mark him out as a durable, albeit highly emotional, figure in an arena always inviting the individuals to colour themselves with stage paint. Although he knew how to adopt a pose. Whether looking at home during the traditional ticker tape reception in New York in 1959, as Berlin’s mayor, or as chancellor, dropping to his knees in front of the Monument of the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw on a cold December morning in 1970, in an apparent gesture of contrition. The latter of which split opinion, as much as dropping to a knee does today.

The context for this shipping overboard of a party’s core principles lay in pre-WWII Europe. And I’d argue fomented in the minds of European exiles like Brandt. It’s those who have escaped, and in particular those who have seen the speed of societal collapse, who are most prepared to hasten the pace of power distribution. Vienna’s Stefan Zweig, Michael and Karl Polanyi, Prague’s Ernest Gellner, Poznań’s Zygmunt Bauman, Motihari’s George Orwell, all write with a prophetic quality that is missing post-Blair. Social media has lit up personalities not ideas. But this exilic grouping were keenly aware of the deceptions of single issue thought, hi-culture, and dominant ideologies; seeing danger in concentrations, be they single-metric measurements or scientism. Their corpora counters zeal and gives space to the unknowable and uncertain.

Zweig records the ‘unconscious citizens’ of “Vienna… [who’d become] supranational, cosmopolitan citizen[s] of the world” having little comprehension of looming totalitarian rule: “…I did not guess, when I saw… exiles [from Nazi rule], that their pale faces heralded my own fate, and we would all be victims of this one man’s raging lust for power”. He noted Germany’s hunger for order and security eclipsing notions of justice and the good. Gellner, in subtle ironic tone, offered: “This theory of democracy has had a considerable vogue of late… It is associated with the ‘end of ideology’ theme”. The relatively short descent from unassailable hi-culture of imperial Europe into totalitarian nightmare left little doubt that the socio-political structures required considerable reform. Reforms in large part absorbed from an English history of civil society. The horror of concentrated power propelled post-war German politicians to accelerate reforms. Günter Grass gifted to Brandt the slogan: “Dare more democracy”. He was among the many intellectuals who supported Brandt’s pluralism as a response to ‘strong leadership’.

Britain post-Brexit is at another cross-roads. It’s facing the challenge to ‘dare more democracy’ or modernise. For the two are somewhat oil and water. Modern managerialist government ministers who nobly seek to ‘be data led’ tend to run up against the evolutionary requirement for their ministerial departments to take the long view. For institutions are by definition concerned with the structural elements of change wrought by pluralist societies, with the latter’s proliferation of groupings. Complexity is not captured by surveys, but rather by institutions as intellectual repositories, capable of using intelligence. Constructing a dominant metric is often purely for window-dressing during a time of crisis.

And it’s the careful reform of institutions which sit at the heart of UK future success. Daring more democracy within government is always a starting point. As difficult to deny as calling for more prayer in church. Who could possibly object? The strange conundrum arises then of lessening ministerial authority, in order for them to have to present increasingly compelling arguments that win hearts and minds, rather than just securing unquestioning obeisance (which for many is considered ‘leadership’). Added to this is the paradox that institutions rarely evolve into ‘a performance culture’, preferring instead sub-optimal consistency. Power that is concentrated rather than spread erodes that sub-optimal regularity that is intrinsic to functioning civil society; and leaves institutions on the whole heading towards long-term ineffectiveness. The best remains the enemy of the good.

Brandt faced this intentional built-in dilemma having done the hard-yards of preparation in both exile and mayoral duties. German ministers had considerable independence to act, thus requiring Brandt to persuade rather than dictate. The exhausting requirement to maintain ‘natural authority’ rather than threaten, restores organic balances at the heart of a mature national economy. That doesn’t mean leaving the incompetent and blindly resistant in positions of leadership. But measuring competence appropriately becomes important. The tendency to promote those who are ‘on message’ and thereby supplicant, has been a rising trend since the later years of the Thatcher government. Johnson has a stooge-ocracy, some say. He is early in his premiership but appears as over-aligning as Thatcher’s later tenure, as well as Blair, who both eroded Cabinet’s role. Blair’s ‘change mantra’ lacked the intellectual rigour that a Cabinet setting would have provided. As his post-politics wilderness years will testify.

The benefit of de-centralising power is it wards off what Gellner terms ‘infantile functionalism’, both within the institution and across the social consciousness of the national populace. The tendency for institutions to replicate themselves endlessly is the outcome of over-direction externally. The latter being the consequence of over-modernisation. Citizenry who have suffered over-direction from central government tend to be ‘totally committed’ to narrow change agendas. Structural reform requires a depth of argument that moderates charismatic leadership.

Gellner refers to the temptation, when faced with distributed power, of adopting ‘total commitment’ to single issues, as the means to initiate change. And draws the analogy with religious observance where an original doctrine of ‘justification by faith’ steadily backslides towards the dogma of ‘justification by total commitment’. If any members propose facilitating questions, under their initial doctrine of faith, then a dogmatic ‘strong leadership’ is tempted to paint these folks as less than ‘totally committed’; and thereby apostate. Gellner says this is the dilemma for modern institutions. Those that rely on over-aligned zealotry erode effective doctrines within a few decades. Those that facilitate dialogue extend their lifespan, spreading ownership amongst an increasingly engaged community.

Maintaining the analogy, faith, of course, isn’t the absence of doubt, but rather the pursuit of what Paul Tillich called: ‘ultimate concern for what is ultimately important’. Which is only achieved through the deployment of all faculties and a concern for the broad structural view, including doubt. Infantile functionalism, as Gellner termed it, is the enforcement of unquestioning adherence, as well as the over-exercise of power, to force an institution to go in a direction it can’t naturally. Leaders with ‘ultimate concern’ install dialogue within systems and processes, as they understand it’s through indirection and questioning that affordable performance evolves.

As we’ve seen with the pandemic, institutions do not overnight become agile civic-emergency organisations. Institutional structures are built to protect core services and are by definition deliberately slow evolutionary structures. Western European governments’ slow response is due to precisely their decentralised institutional and democratic structures. A single issue threat like pandemics require specialist task-focused structures and agencies to be formed; and these, as we’ve seen, are expensive as they require hi-performance cultures; but in time they themselves are institutionalised to ensure new capabilities are maintained over the long-term.

And ironically, Britain’s future hi-performance is dependent on further distributing power outwards, both to the regions and its institutions, and restoring trust in these bodies. As we’ve seen with any structure that invites ‘total commitment’ there is a steady depletion of growth and development. Even bright new commercial organisations establish early institutional frames that are naturally programmed to evolve autonomous thinking. Putting in place appropriate people and resources early, leaving the resultant mix to learn and lead are acts of courage in themselves. The strategic leader is primarily concerned with the overarching structures, including the structure of the future. If an organisation cannot learn and lead itself from within, because it is throttled from the ivory tower above, any success is often short-lived or achieved at the long-term cost of talent; who migrate to better environments, leaving the dogged and resistant to dig-in to their well-formed trench system.

Although it was the allies who set up structural reforms, it was Brandt’s alignment of government philosophy to liberal democratic principles, within the vision of unification, that amounted to structural thinking. Giving space for extended dialogue within and without, his commitment to liberal democracy is admirable, even if he lost key party figures on the way to the increasingly successful CDU. Now, as the centre-right faces a crisis of imagination, we can’t help note the way Angela Merkel apologised for her government’s failings during the Covid crisis as hinting at more than it being a warm affection-seeking gimmick. Was it possible she meant it, and was ultimately concerned?: “This mistake is my mistake alone.” Yes, approval ratings for the CDU have dropped, but her apology is reminiscent of old-style statecraft, even if still odd language for the current season of infantile functionalist government, which seeks to arrest volatile trends generated by social media. Was this genuflection by Merkel evidence of the long-shadow of Brandt’s marriage of vision and pragmatism and holding nerve through the long-cycles of change? 

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