German Lessons



Germany is another country. I am a great sceptic about those who want to extrapolate from history or other cultures obvious messages. How many mistakes have been made in foreign policy because foreign secretaries believe they are at another Munich moment ?


However, we must be prepared to learn what we can in the absence of exact cultural and historical parallels. The FDP humiliation in the recent elections does not teach us everything but it teaches us something.


In a coalition friendly electoral environment they have hitherto been great survivors allying with both of the German big beasts SPD and CDU at different times.


They have had their social and economic liberal wings- but are probably more classically ‘liberal’ than their British Liberal Democrat cousins and unlike them are often described as a ‘pro-business’ party. Free trade, deregulation, free movement of capital and labour across Europe, ‘small state’ are themes associated with them. Couple that with a progressively liberal approach to social values that would warm the cockles of a Guardian reader’s heart and you understand their niche market.


What is self evident is that this policy cocktail has diminished attractions for the German electorate.


I am reminded of my esteemed (no irony intended!) colleague, Jeremy Browne who predicted a host of new voters who considered and rejected voting for the Lib Dems previously, but with a twist of orange in the coalition cocktail would arrive in droves. You’ve presumably seen the membership figures etc.


Its a niche market and our electoral system appealing to a narrow niche market is more risky than in Germany- not that free trade, business friendly approach, liberal values do not have wide appeal. Its just what is missing that diminishes the appeal-like the cocktail without the soda or tonic.


Adlai Stevenson running for President was once told “You have the vote of every thinking man in America and its not nearly enough.” A modern parallel might be you have the backing of every think-tank in London but ……………


However, ordinary people, the voters are not always wrong in their intuitions, what they feel in their water even if they do not articulate it.


What Germans felt in troubled times was the need for intelligent,purposeful government, a sense of communal purpose and an enforcement of individual responsibility expressed through the state or local government- a clamping down on those who would not work or would not pay tax.


What they heard from the FDP was an appeal to the magic of individualism as though accommodating that to a greater and greater degree would do the trick and what they noticed was that this largely appealed to the successful, the advantaged, the metropolitan, the mobile,the likely winners on current terms.


If we are to learn anything from the German experience it is for us to widen our appeal, get over our complexes and espouse a positive Liberal view of the state because whether we like it or not- and particularly in government-  “L’etat c’est nous” as Louis XIV might have said.


Those who see the state and community simply or largely as dead hands restraining individual flourishing are simply following the same path to the political graveyard where the FDP -pending resurrection -lies.

John Pugh is MP for Southport and Co-Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Policy Committee for Health and Social Care

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3 comments on “German Lessons
  1. Alex Macfie says:

    But Venstre (Denmark) and VVD (Netherlands) are also classically liberal parties, and they are the largest parties in their respective countries. So the FDP isn’t the only way to go…

  2. John Pugh says:

    Quite right Alex but they both live in a political world without a dominant, well supported Conservative Party. The Conservatives in Denmark got about 10%. I am not expecting that in UK 2015. The political ecology of Germany and indeed its social and economic character make Germany a safer parallel. Interestingly the leader of Venstre has described Liberalism as an “outdated ideology.”

  3. Michael Macdonald says:

    The key lesson from Germany was that if the leader of the junior party seems to be more in tune with the senior party’s politics then his/her own, the road to electoral oblivion beckons.

    We need to clear and concise: blocking boundary changes now looks a bit silly.

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