Monday, 2 July 2012

Salute to an unassuming woman

From time to time I come across a politician that it pains me not to be able to support. They display qualities of decency, moderation and good sense that excite my admiration, but like a young man gone astray, they get in with the wrong sort of people, and there you go: I can’t bring myself to vote for them.

For perfectly good reasons, such as nationality, I can’t vote in German elections, but if I could, it would certainly be for the Social Democrats. Next spring, I would cheerfully cast my vote for them, especially if they were led by Hannelore Kraft, currently Prime Minister of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine Westphalia. She’s made it absolutely clearly that she has no intention of swapping Düsseldorf, her state capital, for Berlin in a run for the Chancellorship, which I suppose means that there’s a chance, if applied to with sufficient enthusiasm by friends and supporters, that she’ll emerge as a candidate yet.

Hannelore: will she, won't she? She'd get in if she did.
I’d vote for her and the polls suggest she’d get in. But I’d still feel more than a little sorry for the outgoing Chancellor, Angela Merkel. 

She first won her way into my admiration by being utterly without charisma, the most overrated quality in a politician. It makes people fall for the entirely superficial features of a demagogue, who then gets the opportunity to do the appalling damage without anyone noticing until it’s too late. Take Ronald Reagan, who had charisma by the bagful, but who used his office to force through the bonfire of banking regulation which has led to the agonising crisis we’re going through today.

Yet Merkel, despite her lack of charisma, has charm. My favourite image of her is the dowdy figure celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall by wandering into the crowd, shaking hands and sharing her joy with anybody who wanted to talk to her.

Angela mixing with the great and the humble.
Despite the weather
She also has a competence and a quiet confidence that I value far more in a leader than mere charisma. Generally, she has sailed a steady ship in her time as German Chancellor, and kept her country as the economic powerhouse of Europe in consequence.

Where she has shown less skill has been in her handling of the Eurozone crisis. Here she has suffered from the defects of her virtues: her steadiness and prudence transformed into wariness and obstinacy, so that when the situation required boldness and imagination, she chose over-cautious and blinkered devotion to retrenchment instead of investment.

In fact, she became a far more conservative figure than she had seemed in the past.

That led her to a major political error when she threw her weight behind Nicolas Sarkozy in his campaign to be re-elected President of France, and refused to meet his opponent, the eventual victor François Hollande. That compounded her error in economics, driving Greece, Spain and Italy deeper into recession by treating the policy of austerity as a rigid orthodoxy.

Since François Hollande’s election, however, she has begun to shift, principally under his prompting. Gradually she’s giving ground, she’s loosening the strings on the German purse, and giving the struggling economies of Southern Europe a better chance to emerge from their difficulties.

And that awakens my admiration for her again. Because she’s doing things that her successor would find extremely difficult.

With her hold on the Chancellorship is weakening, she must know she has only nine or ten months left to go. It looks as though she is going to use that time to implement policies she knows will be unpopular with the German people, who resent being expected to bankroll Europe. She’s taking hard decisions so the next government won’t have to.

If that’s what she’s doing, then it’s an act of extraordinary maturity in the exercise of power. Faced in Britain with a government rich in charisma but miserably lacking in either competence or compassion, I can’t help feeling Merkel’s qualities are infinitely preferable. And I think her legacy will be all the finer for them.

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