It seems that last weekend’s jubilee was a big hit across Germany. Several channels carried coverage and there appears to be a certain fascination with things ‘Englische’. Some touchy Scots find the endemic continental verbal sloppiness between ‘British’ and ‘English’ insufferable but it is a fact of life; get over it. The main thing is that we Scots appear to be riding a minor wave of popularity, along with our English cousins.
Coverage of UK national events has been underpinned by a ZDF (‘Second German TV’) channel focus on Scotland. They recently broadcast nothing short of a sales travelogue and followed Angus Robertson MP (chatting in his fluent German) around photogenic corners his Moray constituency from teenagers in lofty Tomintoul to craggy Macduff fishermen. The theme was independence and how current it has become as a topic. Certainly this year has seen a notable increase in German tourists coming to Edinburgh and down the Lothian coast.
All this was documented in David Leask’s piece in yesterday’s Herald. But there’s more than just whisky-tinted tourism or curiosity going on. Yesterday also saw the last David Hume lecture at Edinburgh’s Royal Society, given by the Prime Minister of Lower Saxony, in Scotland at the invitation of the German Consul, the indefatigable Wolfgang Moosberger, for three days of talks with Scottish business and our First Minister.
As might be expected from his name, David MacAllister was fluent in English, delivering a complex speech on current affairs in Europe with panache and humour of which even native speakers would have been justly proud. His grasp of things Scottish was explicable because his father, entering Germany in 1945 as a member of the 51st Highland Division, married and settled there and finally became, he said, fully European one day in 1981 when he saw his son dressed ready for national service in German Army uniform.
Making many references to historic connections with Scotland, such as Walter Scott’s interest in the tales of the brothers Grimm, Prime Minister MacAllister knew his history, relating how Hanover had shared a monarch with Britain until 1837 when the prospect of a Queen had been more than the Germans could stomach. He was clearly aware of the chequered relations between the countries. He expressed particular gratitude that Keynes had warned against the reparations insisted on in 1919 and how the British had been insistent on giving Germans the chance to re-educate themselves and set up a fully functioning democratic republic within a few years of the collapse of the Nazi regime.
But, while appreciating and learning lessons from the past, he clearly saw the future as another country, chiding us with scarcely-veiled references to British tabloid headlines concerning Germans. Indeed, while being asked a question from the audience relating to that, it was clear that he feels time ought to have healed more than it apparently has.
But the main thrust of his talk was focussed on the present Euro crisis and the relative roles that Germany and Britain could play in resolving it. As a CDU politician, he is very much at odds with Britain’s strategy of borrowing its way out of recession. He was swift to admit that his own Land has run a budget deficit for every year since its inception in 1947 (although he ruefully acknowledged that the 1946 budget had been balanced by the last British Military Commander—another Scot called Macreadie).
There was, in his view, no long-term alternative to austerity. In 2008 when the present crisis first hit, Germany had tried borrowing. But the availability of the cash had made strict adherence to spending plans difficult and that experiment had, in his view, failed. He is clearly a disciple of Angela Merkel (and, indeed, has even been spoken of as a possible successor to her) and, perhaps because the German press corps was present in some numbers, never deviated from her present line of strict adherence to the Fiscal Compact and the European Stability Mechanism.
Discussion did not come round to whether both compact and mechanism were robust enough to deal with whatever outcome the Greek elections due on June 17th might bring and to deal with the run on Spanish banks undermined by their ongoing property bust. He simply reiterated that the sole path available out of the present crisis was a trimming of outlays to match income, no matter what pain that cost. Queried about German resentment for others’ profligacy, he accepted Germans, who now retire at 67, resent Greeks retiring much earlier but that was a matter the Greeks themselves had to solve. For him, the key was that Greece or Spain were still better off staying with the Euro.
Because of cultural and manufacturing similarities, he saw Britain as an ally, despite it remaining outside the Eurozone and pursuing a borrowing strategy of which he could not approve. But when asked whether the relative openness of the Scots to Europe and the international community might not be used as a bridgehead to circumvent English euroscepticism, he became non-committal. Clearly there was a diplomatic reluctance to take any sides in the independence debate and. despite reference to our historic links with Hanseatic ports, an underrated fiscal rectitude around the North Sea as well as the Baltic and a social conscience common across Northern Europe, he was not about to use his personal links to further any such ‘special’ relation with Scotland.
Reading between his statements, it was clear that he regards all of Germany as a single political state and the 16 Länder exist as vehicles to allow local differences of culture and character. He was clear that any fiscal disparities within Germany were simply tasks to be completed, rather than any reason to question the unity of Germany. The present structure whereby economic investment was prioritised towards the former East Germany would be reviewed in 2019. With a wry smile, he suggested that date might be Germany’s equivalent to the 2014 that was receiving much attention in Scotland.
Disappointed as I was that the prospect of a ‘special relation’ with Scotland was elegantly sidestepped, in contrast to the ‘light-touch’ ZDF treatment, this lecture was as thoughtful, pragmatic and fluent a presentation on the present Germany and its relations with us as you could hope to cram into 90 minutes. We’ve not heard the last of Herr MacAllister.