Recent clashes over European tax harmonisation have underlined the significant differences between Tony Blair's New Labour and Gerhard Schröder's New Centre in Germany. The gulf in political culture is also evident in recent books by advisers to the respective leaders - Philip Gould and Bodo Hombachby Anne McElvoy / January 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in January 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
New Britain: new Germany. The two countries which often seem to represent opposite poles in European political and economic life are showing a remarkable level of interest in each other’s fin-de-si?le realignments. This goes beyond the polite curiosity we might expect to show one another on the eve of the euro’s arrival and the next step of European integration. It entails a kind of intimate narrative intrigue-a fascination in Germany with what will happen next to Tony, and characteristic British headshaking about whether Gerhard and Oskar can really get along together.
The German hunger for news of the latest Blairite bright idea is still a shock for those of us who remember insistent hopes that the Labour party of the late 1980s and early 1990s would remodel itself on the social democratic parties of continental Europe in general, and the German Social Democrats (SPD) in particular. When Neil Kinnock lost in 1992, I was working for The Times in Germany. London called to request an article on how Labour had to change to become more like the SPD. The day after the 1997 election, a German paper called to ask for an article on how the SPD could become more like New Labour.
In the manner of Cecily Cardew meeting Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest, Gerhard Schröder decided, in the wake of Tony Blair’s victory, that the two were going to be the dearest of friends long before they had even made each other’s acquaintance. Blair became one of Schröder’s most potent weapons in his campaign for the nomination to fight Helmut Kohl. Without the success in a related western democracy of a likeable moderniser who had triumphed over his own party’s orthodoxies before he had won an election, Schröder would have struggled to cast off the reputation of an arrogant outsider. One of Kohl’s senior strategists told me four months before the election that once the phrase “our Tony Blair” had been applied to Schröder and stuck in the public mind, his man was a lost cause. The one thing the great electoral Houdini could not be by definition, after 18 years in power, was a second Blair. Kohl belonged to another generation-Reagan, Bush, Thatcher and Mitterrand were his in-crowd.