Steve Richards: Poor old Germany, with all those clean towns, lovely cycle paths and high productivity rates

For two decades the British have been brainwashed into thinking that Germany is not working
Click to follow
The Independent Online

And the winner of the World Cup is ... Germany. Yes, I know they face Argentina in the quarter-finals on Friday and could be out of the competition by the weekend. But it does not matter. They have already won.

The army of British journalists and English fans pay daily homage to the Germany they have discovered during the World Cup. This is Germany's historic victory. The reporting of the football is interspersed with spontaneous praise from fans and journalists about the ease of travel from city to city, the cleanliness of the towns, the class of the accommodation, the cycle-friendly paths that compete with the best in Holland, and the ability of cities to stage late-night festivals without them ending in a drunken brawl. The German team is also playing quite well.

Neither the British journalists nor the fans can believe entirely what they are experiencing. For two decades at least they have been brainwashed into thinking that Europe in general and Germany in particular is not working while Britain is thriving. In Britain, the Eurosceptic media is powerful enough to change minds on its own. But in this case the mighty newspapers fight their cause in alliance with politicians who also spread poison about a mythical "Europe".

Those visiting Germany from Britain are therefore the equivalent of Soviet travellers in the 1960s and 1970s, discovering to their bewilderment that there were attractive alternatives in the West. As they leave the football stadiums with efficient ease, sit back in the trains that take them to their next venue at affordable prices, the English fans wonder whether Europe is quite so bad after all.

For more than two decades, British leaders have lectured Europe on the best ways of governing. With an insular arrogance, they insist that we would all be much better off if the rest of Europe followed their supposedly modernising crusade. Admittedly, in recent times the message has been confused. British leaders head for France to tell them how to govern. Then they send British patients to French hospitals because the decrepit NHS cannot cope. Still, the confusion is lost in the stridency of the message: only the Anglo-Saxon model works! Britain follows the US in foreign policy and is similarly influenced in shaping economic policy. As a result, Britain stands proud and the likes of poor old Germany lag behind. Keep clear of Europe!

Yet on a range of policy areas Germany is vindicated. Productivity is high. Across a range of indicators the economic performance of the old West Germany is as impressive as that of the UK. Germany has sustained a high level of public spending over a long period. Its infrastructure does not creak precariously. All of this has been achieved in spite of the stress caused by reunification. If Britain had been faced with a similar challenge it would have lapsed into recession for decades.

Across the political spectrum in Germany there is also a more settled and mature view about a positive role for the state, enhanced partly by sensible devolution of government. In Britain, only London really matters as the centre of economic, political and cultural activity. In Germany, Munich, Frankfurt, Berlin and the rest have distinctive roles. At a national level, the government is constrained usefully by an electoral system that rarely delivers complete power to a single party. Once more this has given rise to disdainful sneers in Britain. In advance of the war against Iraq there was much patronising talk within Downing Street about weak old Schröder who would like to be a world player by supporting the conflict but had to keep a pathetic eye on his precarious coalition. The deluded view from Downing Street was that Schröder could not govern strongly compared with our mighty PM, who was allowed to decide for himself that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and that Britain would stand proudly shoulder to shoulder with the US.

Indeed, it was Mr Blair's presidential freedom to declare war on a regular basis that turned him finally against electoral reform. He felt he needed the space to act as he saw fit and would not support a voting system that might restrict him. What a shame there was no counter-pressure to block his determination to support President Bush, and to be seen supporting the President, as there was in Germany. If there had been a different voting system in Britain, Mr Blair would not have been allowed to invade Iraq.

There are lessons to be learnt from Germany's political system, especially now it has produced a new star in European politics, Angela Merkel. Even Gordon Brown has spared the time to visit Ms Merkel, a rare break from his Euro-rudeness. The Bush administration shows a similar interest. The former Europe minister Denis MacShane was in Washington last week and tells me that to his pleasant surprise the overwhelming message from the State Department was, "We are all Europeans now."

Yet most of the time it is the fantastical nightmare of "Europe" that traps British politicians. David Cameron's proclamation that he wants Britain to have its own Bill of Rights has nothing to do with legal matters. The proposal stems much more from the premise that "Europe" is sinister. As Mr Cameron has acknowledged, the European Convention on Human Rights would still apply even if Britain had its own separate Act. Therefore the purpose of Mr Cameron's proposal is to signal disdain for "Europe" rather than come up with any practical solutions. It is the same trap that forces him to keep his distance from Ms Merkel - an obvious ally - and from moderate centre-right MEPs. For Mr Cameron, "Europe" must be kept at bay.

No doubt, too, when the England fans and the journalists return from Germany their memories will fade. Britons who holiday in France rave about the availability of GPs at weekends, the efficiency of trains and the overall quality of life. Then they come home and become convinced within a week or two about the perils of "Europe".

So next time a deluded British leader lectures us about the failings of "Europe", think of the elegant bilingual manager of Germany, Jürgen Klinsmann; the modern trains running on time, compared with our privatised monstrosities and their 200 different ticket options, nearly all of them absurdly expensive; the sustained investment in public services compared with ours, starved of cash for three decades, showered with money for three years, and about to be starved again; and a foreign policy that saw through the dangers of forming a subservient relationship with the divided Bush administration as it bombed Iraq.

When we are told that Britain's primary duty is to follow the US in its foreign adventures and adopt its economic liberalism in all manifestations, remember what happened when Germany staged the World Cup and won.