Growing up in a military environment, politics was hardly talked about, and I had no idea what was going on in the world. It was only when my father left the army and I left school in 1970 that I became vaguely interested in what I read in the newspapers and gained a rather caricatured impression of the struggle that was taking place in Britain. It was all somewhat black and white in my mind, there was the political party that was for the working class, and the political party of the upper class. I had gained the impression that I was working class and I watched the uninspiring governments that clung to the remnants of a post-war consensus, the struggle between the parties, and the voter disillusionment that brought on a cultural shift and, in the end, the way punk music best portrayed the mess the country had got itself into.
The 1970s was namely a decade brought to a halt by industrial action, a decade of falling productivity and an economy struggling under the pressures of globalisation. In 1973 I joined the army at eighteen, where I experienced once again a suppression of political interest and was even called before my commanding officer to explain myself for portraying the political environment in a caricatured manner. I also got to know Belgium and the Netherlands a little bit via a buddy of mine, whose father had been posted there when he was younger and with whom I served in Germany. We were sent to Northern Ireland, and I saw even more poverty and desperation. The comparison between the German town I was posted to and the British town I had left seemed drastic in my eyes. The army and even my time in England on leave seemed to me an environment that was increasingly constricting and after marrying a German girl, and with her help, I broke out in 1978 and decided to turn my back on Britain just before the Falkland war.
It was in Germany that I began reading political commentary, in books and magazines I learnt about the cause of the world wars, the political struggle that ensued after the wars, and the political parties that were prominent then on the political landscape. It also gave me the chance to review my perception of the British situation, and it seemed to me to be even worse than I had imagined. Inflationary pressures back home were almost visible to the naked eye. Unemployment was high. The British government seemed to be permanently concerned with curbing trade union power and the striking British worker seemed to be the subject of the decade. The British worker was not generally well-paid, I heard from my brother that he could only earn a living by working long hours, and there was a growing militancy mixed in with the discontent I heard.
In Germany, The Coal, Iron and Steel Codetermination Act of 1951 had enabled employees in the coal and steel industry to participate in corporate decision-making. Corporate co-determination was ensured above all by equal representation on the supervisory board. Although the prerequisite was that the company must be in the coal, iron and steel industry, must have the legal form of a stock corporation or a limited liability company, and must have at least one thousand employees, this approach had far-reaching implications for the rest of industry. The strikes I experienced in Germany were of a very different nature to those in the UK. Living standards were raised by securing a wage that many people could live on after a forty-hour week. There were still areas where this could not be guaranteed, but progress was being made.
Denmark, Ireland and Britain had joined the EEC in 1973, after Charles de Gaulle’s resignation in 1969, as he was the main reason why Britain hadn’t joined earlier. Under the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, there was a UK referendum on continued membership of the EEC in 1975. The electorate voted ‘Yes’ by 67.2% to 32.8% to stay in Europe. But the relationship was difficult to begin with. Margaret Thatcher negotiated an EU budget rebate in 1984 after threatening to halt payments to the EU budget because Britain’s economy hadn’t yet picked up to the degree it had when Cameron’s Referendum knocked on the decision to leave. Up until then it had become one of the strongest nations in the EU, but I diverge.
In Germany, along with the Works Constitution Act, the Co-Determination Act and the Act on the Formation of Speakers’ Committees, the Coal and Steel Co-Determination Act was one of the most important laws on employee co-determination in workplaces and companies in Germany and paved the way for further development. Employee rights in other areas were largely further developed due to these laws. Of course, this was the situation at the beginning of the 1980s that had a large effect on how I viewed the world and gave many of us the hope that these developments were promising further improvements in the future. It is clear now that this wasn’t the case and globalisation also had its effect on Germany, although political developments, such as the fall of the Soviet Union and the liberation of eastern Germany gave a certain reprise to the hopes we had been fostering. We all know now that these developments changed life in Germany, as well as the rest of the world.
In the early 1990s, I began to turn to more conservative values after becoming a father and working for the British military, and I turned away from the more hawkish political attitudes of the past and was amazed to learn that even what I considered conservative in Germany was considered socialist in America. It was the time when New Labour emerged and was led by Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown in the mid-1990s until 2010. In Germany, Helmut Kohl had become chancellor in 1982 and survived a long term in office until 1998, when the Christian Democrats suffered from numerous scandals. Gerhard Schröder took over as chancellor until November 2005 and showed a similar interest to Blair in developing the Social Democrats (SPD) into a modern party and leaving behind the socialism of Willi Brandt, which had also caused Helmut Schmidt to fall in the 1970s. Blair was successful until he got involved with George W. Bush in a war in Iraq, which Schröder had strictly rejected, but that still didn’t help him. His policies had lost him the support of the left, who were welcomed with open arms by the successors to the East German communist government.
In between was the highly symbolic attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, which was seen as an Islamic reaction to the expansion of American interests but led to an even more aggressive attitude toward Islamic countries, which many saw as a culture war, with no distinction between militant and conventional Islam. In Germany, however, there was concern that the CIA could do as it pleased, and the aggressive defence of American interests, including the unjustified war in Iraq and the aggressive occupation of Afghanistan, which experts predicted in retrospect would not succeed, sparked a wave of criticism. The lack of sympathy for American policies included criticism of Israeli policies, which were supported by America and viewed by some as a form of apartheid against the Palestinian population.
During this time, I was undecided about my political direction, having been in Germany long enough to lose my right to vote in the UK, and not qualifying to vote in Germany. The political situation in the UK seemed to be moving toward a more conservative approach after Gordon Brown. I remember being puzzled by the increasing criticism of the EU in the British newspapers and the reaction of my family, because my experience of life in the EU in general was positive. I particularly remember a conversation with a Frenchman at the birthday party of a German friend of ours, and the fact that we both came from backgrounds where the Frenchman was critical of Britain and the Brit was critical of France. We both concluded in German that both the British and the French should meet informally on neutral ground and that hostility would then give way to friendship. This experience seemed to be shared by many “ex-pats” residing in European countries, very many of whom were later horrified by the decision to leave the EU.
Angela (Mutti) Merkel took over as Chancellor of Germany in November 2005 until December 2021, ushering in another long period of conservatism. In America, despite the election of Barack Obama, emphasizing issues of rapidly ending the Iraq War, increasing energy independence, and reforming the health care system, in a campaign that projected themes of hope and change. In his first few days in office, Obama issued executive orders and presidential memoranda directing the U.S. military to develop plans to withdraw troops from Iraq. He ordered the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, but Congress prevented the closure by refusing to appropriate the required funds and preventing moving any Guantanamo detainee. Obama reduced the secrecy given to presidential records. He also revoked President George W. Bush’s restoration of President Ronald Reagan’s Mexico City policy which prohibited federal aid to international family planning organizations that perform or provide counselling about abortion.
There was broad agreement between Merkel and Obama, and Merkel was particularly instrumental in finding solutions to European problems and calming the situation in Germany. Because of this maternal influence on her country, she earned the nickname “Mutti,” which faltered when she misjudged the public’s attitude toward increasing immigration. The reaction triggered an even greater racist backlash than I had anticipated, caused primarily by the uncontrolled admission of young men as refugees, who in turn misjudged their freedoms in the country due to a lack of integration. There were several incidents of assaults on German women by immigrants that were all over the media and where the perpetrators clearly had a wrong understanding of sexual freedom and female rights. The cultural divide became clear and another reason for the rejection of immigrants.
I find myself today somewhat disillusioned with the international politics that effects most people on the planet. We seem to be moving into a situation that nobody wants, and those countries that have supposedly been the home of liberty loving, supportive politics, where freedom of speech was valued, has now become home to political parties and activist groups that are more authoritarian in their approach than they would like to admit. These people are in their own words, of course, struggling against some enemy that would subvert society, whilst all the same by their actions, undermining the freedom they claim to protect.
The first wave in which this became clear, as far as I was concerned, was the reaction to the Brexit referendum. This became especially clear in 2019 when Theresa May had been disposed of after she had planned a new vote on the EU withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons and, in contrast to previous votes, added a detail according to which a future vote on an EU withdrawal agreement should be mandatorily linked to a so-called “Final Say” vote – which would have been, in effect, a vote on a new referendum. In retrospect it was a sensible thing to do, but the powers that had pushed Brexit to begin with had the upper hand. Brexit made little or no sense, except to those whose interests lay in the finance markets and large corporations, who feared a move by the EU to tax them all, as we see now.
Secondly, despite Obama’s appeal to Europeans, and to the surprise of many of them, there was growing unease in America about the liberal policies that were being implemented. The latent racism that has always existed in American society sparked reactionary protests and counter-protests, and the nomination of Hillary Clinton as the presidential candidate to succeed Obama led to a responsory vote that put the most radical Republican candidate in office: Donald Trump. In much of Europe there was an immediate repugnance at the change of personality and policy in American politics, and Trump seemed to revel in it. His immediate reaction was to reverse many of the achievements of Obama and affront his allies. His warming to Putin, even Kim Jong-un of North Korea, and his initial attempt to better the relations with Xi Jinping of China, sent waves of disquiet through European countries – although here and there, it was clear that the people who were behind Trump were also active in Europe.
Since Trump’s ouster, we have seen the Russians and Chinese threaten world peace in response to the West’s expansionist policies. Of course, the West supports people on the borders with these countries who want less tyrannical government and freedoms comparable to the West; and of course, Russia has actively supported countries with authoritarian, if not dictatorial, governments to suppress such movements. The EU has actively supported opposition to such repression, but the EU was built on trade policy as an alternative to armed conflict. NATO is also incapable of real military resistance because of existing interdependence. The days of nuclear stalemate are behind us, and now alternative weapons are being developed that would enable a first strike with a speed and precision we have never known before.
Of course, we need a mutual agreement to respect the borders of countries, especially when authoritarian and liberal political systems are adjacent. The contrasting politics in these countries inevitably raises desires or concerns depending on which system people live in, and the sovereignty of a nation requires that, should that nation want democratic renewal, repressive measures should not be taken by other countries to prevent that. But Putin in Russia and Xi in China obviously believe that such a development in neighbouring countries is an attack by the West on their own sovereignty. We desperately need a diplomatic solution to this problem, especially since the West is having its own problems.