Anne Mcelvoy on lessons from abroad
AFTER a surfeit of New Labour's bouncy triumphalism, you might just find yourself hankering for the straightening smack of pessimism. In that case, visit Germany. Its national anthems were adapted to fit national moods, the Federal Republic's would currently be one of the more depressing Leonard Cohen numbers and not D-Ream's Things Can Only Get Better.

This is nothing new. Ever since I first went there as a teenager, there has been a German crisis. The first A-level essays we wrote in German were about the early 1980s trauma of Schulstress - the intolerable strain of being educated. Then there was the environment and the arms race, nuclear power and the effect of Chernobyl on vegetables in the Rhineland. With 1989 came the mythical threat of starving Russians pouring over the Oder- Neisse line.

These anxieties were either ephemeral or easily addressed. The rise of the Greens changed government policy on deforestation and curtailed pollution. The deployment of Cruise missiles did not lead to nuclear holocaust. Russians flooding to Berlin today are not a raggle-taggle army of despair, but well-heeled gentlemen in large if often ill-gotten Mercedes buying artworks and Cartier.

All countries have their way of seeming peculiar to outsiders. Germany's is the tendency of this most stable and prosperous society to mutter to itself at regular intervals: "We're all doomed." Now, however, with the solid Deutschmark about to melt into the less reliable Euro, unemployment approaching five million and a tired coalition at the end of its natural life, it seems as good a time as any to look on the dark side.

The Konigswinter conference, the annual gathering where British and German public figures exchange worries, has just been held in Edinburgh. Arnulf Baring, the historian, was the official Cassandra. This befits a man whose latest book, Is Germany Finished? has a contents list which goes, "Germany's future... failed innovation, shrinking business class, scandalous subsidies, fatal unemployment, stifling bureaucracy, rotten education system, ageing society..." Baring's views are not wholly accepted in the German elite, but at the conference, bankers, managers and politicians alike shifted uneasily in their chairs as he spoke.

The difference between doom-mongers and those of the 1980s is that the PR voting system and federal government now seem to be part of the problem and not the solution. The relationship between regional government and the centre is, in theory, a near perfect exercise in local democracy. But it is expensive. It duplicates functions and inhibits change. The fundamentals of Germany's success - single-union plants in industry which gave it "modernised" trade unions from the start and steady monetary policy from the Bundesbank - were imposed by the allies. It is easier for a consensual system to maintain than to innovate.

PR does not help. The opposition Social Democrats are constrained by the view that their likely bedfellows - other than in a grand coalition - are the Greens. Germans like the Greens in their place, that is influencing policy but not making it. The prospect of them holding the balance of power is too racy to contemplate. All of this comes at a time when this weekend's conference was convened in Scotland to mark devolution and while, elsewhere, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead is presiding over his commission on electoral reform for the UK.

I straw-polled German guests on these two matters. On devolution, they thought it blindingly obvious that the Scots should have a say in running their own affairs. "What took you so long?" asked one politician. What indeed.

On the possible switch to a PR system, they thought that we should think twice and then say no. "It is obvious that we have to have it because of our recent past," said one young businessman. "But you don't have to wear this sackcloth. It's better that, whether you have a Thatcher or a Blair, they can make decisions and enact them without endless delay."

While British newspapers cavilled about the lack of concrete proposals in the welfare Green Paper, the Germans considered it a dynamic leap. Their own social security system encourages people to become "benefit entrepreneurs". The middle classes are the worst offenders. The record for long-stay parking in higher education is held by a man who was an undergraduate for 13 years.

On electoral reform, Germany's experience convinces me that it is impossible to avoid a central tension - between the desire to maximise representative democracy and to deliver strong government capable of implementing reforms.

At present, our electoral method is a powerful force for change but fails to build consensus. In Germany, each voter's preference is significant but the outcome nationally is a parliament of quite extraordinary dullness. The elected second chamber replicates the modus operandi of the first - beware a Blairized House of Lords - and politicians resemble each other far more closely than they resemble most of their voters.

Let us be bold enough to accept that no single electoral system can serve all the needs of a United Kingdom which is in the process of embracing its own form of federalism, but which could profit from Germany's lesson that too much consensualism is as damaging as too little.

In local government and elections for mayors, I have no desire to be restricted by my party political views. Anyone who can prove themselves an effective provider - or regulator - of services is welcome to my vote. But I don't regard general elections and national government in the same way.

Supporters of New Labour's key reforms, in welfare, health and, hopefully, education, know that such progress is only possible because an earlier minority government made some unpopular, distinctly non-consensualism decisions. Germany searches in vain for "Our Tony Blair". But it is easier to get a Mr Blair in a system that gave you Margaret Thatcher first.