Liberals must learn from the Merkel years


George W Bush has never issued a mea maxima culpa for his botched war in Iraq. The central bankers who oversaw the credit bubble of the early 21st century have not abased themselves and begged for their reputations. Why, then, should Angela Merkel? The gas dependence on Russia, the turn against nuclear power, the inadequate defence spending: parts of her record as German chancellor have aged as well as milk. But it doesn’t matter whether someone who will never hold office again learns from or even admits their errors.

That is not so true of those who cheered her on. Western liberals still have votes and, through preponderance in the media, opinion-forming clout. It matters that they are skirting around their lionisation of the “Queen of Europe” (a title she didn’t court or like) for much of the past decade. It implies that they will not learn the lessons of her tainted legacy. Here are just three.

Consensus and compromise are not ends in themselves. Merkel’s style of leadership was what endeared her to liberals, not just her (nominally centre-right, remember) beliefs. In a piece of silly guesswork that was never applied to Margaret Thatcher BSc, her scientific training was even hailed as the basis of her pragmatism.

True, her contrast with Donald Trump’s bullheadedness and Britain’s confrontational politics was pleasing. But there was a price in prevarication and half-measures. A leader with no domestic or even continental peer could have shaken German consensus more, as she did by waving a million refugees in during 2015-16. Instead, it fell to her successor to, for example, chivvy the nation out of its aversion to military power. Gradualism has turned out to be its own kind of dereliction.

Another moral of the Merkel years is that trade is not always, or even generally, a force for peace between nations. She says that she always had an empiricist’s doubt about the likelihood of Wandel durch Handel (“change through trade”) in Russia. But she too often acted otherwise. The wonder is that such faith in the civilising properties of capitalism continues to survive the historic evidence against it. Europe was a picture of economic integration when four years of mechanised slaughter began in 1914. US-China relations are worse than they were before the two countries were entwined through commerce and sovereign-debt holdings. Trade is not even a guarantee of enlightened reform within a nation. Poland and Hungary elected illiberal governments after their economies bedded into the EU market.

Of all the lessons to be taken from Merkel’s waning reputation, though, the last will sting the most. Liberals are not always the best defenders of liberalism. There is no evading the fact that lots of supposed rightwing polecats — Trump, his then secretary of state Rex Tillerson, Boris Johnson in his stint as UK foreign secretary — saw clearly the danger of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline to Russia. Or that politicians as enlightened and house-trained as Merkel and Sigmar Gabriel, her former foreign minister, didn’t.

The late philosopher Roger Scruton said that conservatism is now a defence of liberalism by those who don’t trust…



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