In a 1990 interview with Playboy magazine Donald Trump responded to a question about the first thing a hypothetical President Trump would do saying, “Many things. A toughness of attitude would prevail. I’d throw a tax on every Mercedes-Benz rolling into this country.”
There is no doubt the chemistry between Donald Trump and Angela Merkel is anything but warm and some would call it ice cold. He asserts that Germany has been ripping off America for years and the German Nato contributions are like an open sore for the US president.
This got me thinking about Germany and their economic might. I’ve been reading about John Kampfner, author, broadcaster and commentator and chief executive of Creative Industries Federation. He has just released a new book titled Why the Germans do it better.
The reason I mention this is due to the UK government replacing Public Health England, the body that was supposed to stop Britons from dying of Covid-19, with a new entity modelled on the Robert Koch Institute, the body at the centre of Germany’s public health system.
Whilst Donald Trump has adopted an adversarial approach to Germany it seems that Boris Johnson is looking to them for ideas. We cannot forget that Britain imported its royal family from Hanover in 1714 and German-born Prince Albert did as much as his wife to shape Victorian England.
Deep down the British are envious of the German success story and some got into the habit of dismissing the Germans as dinosaurs. Take for example the piece in the Economist in June 1999, “Germany is being branded the sick man (or even the Japan) of Europe.”
Margaret Thatcher’s Tories saw Germany as a problem to be solved and the EU as a German racket but today Boris Johnson’s Tories’ surge of enthusiasm for the teutonic model is striking. He is determined to spread prosperity throughout Britain’s regions and improve technical education and restore British engineering prowess.
This ideological change has coincided with a generational shift but enthusiasm for Germany is also driven by profound cultural anxieties at home. David Cameron gambled the future of the UK in Europe and we all know how that ended up. Let’s not forget that the Scottish electorate have become ever more restive after more than a decade of Tory rule from London.
Mr Johnson’s government seems determined to set records in incompetence during the Covid-19 pandemic and this has heightened interest in 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.
Some argue that Britain has nothing to learn from Germany because the two are so different, with the UK a service economy whereas Germany has a manufacturing one. There is no substitute for learning from others and German ideas have been successfully transplanted in the past.
But Britain should proceed down the teutonic path with caution. Its rose-tinted view of Germany tends to blind it to the country’s flaws. Germany’s successful public health system is built on a deep, powerful layer of local government which does not exist in Britain.
Learning from other cultures is difficult under any circumstances. Compared to the British German politicians are dull and uncharismatic. Nobody can say they are inspired by Angela Merkel’s charm. She famously said, “you can’t solve the tasks by charisma”. Boris on the other hand relies heavily on charisma.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at [email protected]