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News Hey British moaners: Germans want to be more like us | Stephen Evans
The view from Berlin, where I now work, is that the UK has lots to envy – but probably not our self-destructive streak
I remember the moment I realised I really liked Britain. It was in New York, where I was living at the time. The news came through that a man dressed as Osama bin Laden had broken into the birthday party of the heir to the throne. Aaron Barschak had not only walked through security but he had climbed on stage next to the prince. The accounts got ever more colourful (and perhaps fanciful). It was said that the "comedy terrorist" had been directed by a policeman through Windsor Castle: It's just down there, Sir, first on the left.
In America, this would have been a matter of great seriousness. The news anchors would have pulled on their "nation in crisis" masks. The newspapers would have pontificated, and reached for the pompous font. A national debate about the security of the nation would have ensued. Barschak would have been banged up for life, if he hadn't been shot in the first place. But in Britain this audacious breacher of security became something of a national hero.
His fooling of authority was what made him so endearing. The British put the matter in its proper perspective. Irreverence and self-deprecating humour seemed very attractive to outsiders looking in.
The snag is that in Britain these and other strengths rarely seem so clear. We don't appreciate our own virtues. In the rightwing press the relentless view is that the country has gone to the dogs. A once great nation has been sold out to immigrants and scroungers. On the left "Why can't we be like Sweden?" has now been replaced by "Why can't we be like Germany?", as a recent New Statesman cover story had it. On these pages, Martin Kettle recently wrote:
Germany is a greener society. It has a fairer voting system. A cautious, though toughening, approach to military action. Respect for – no, love of – the arts. An often serious press. A readiness to speak other languages than their own. And – glory be – it is a society that doesn't live in the imperial past and has managed to get over the war.
To me, writing from Berlin, this view seems like a distortion. Of course Germany gets lots of things right – which country wouldn't want the countless small manufacturing companies that give employment in every German town you visit. They make and sell everything from the glue that goes into credit cards to big industrial cranes. Families through the generations have continued making things, unswayed by fad but also adaptable and able to change as necessary.
But – smoke this in your British moaner's pipe – the arts are vibrant in London. If you want to be jolted into thought or laughter or moved to tears, go to the National Theatre (or any other of the countless playhouses where drama thrives). It is true that opera in Germany is revered: Berlin has three opera companies of stature. But the houses aren't always full: maybe if their money were a bit tighter they would drive harder for fuller houses.
While in Germany the arts are often for the elite, in Britain there is a much stronger sense of art for the people: we blur the distinctions between high art and popular culture and it makes for a vibrant, mongrel mix.
Or what about this British envy of the German education system. In Germany, the system doesn't look so grand. Germans moan about how those who don't make the grade and get to a Gymnasium (the equivalent of a grammar school) are thrown on the scrapheap, discarded to low-grade jobs or no jobs at all.
And don't talk to a German academic about the shortage of funds for universities. They will tell you how the block against charging fees means shabby buildings and overfilled classes. As you moan into your lukewarm tea about how "Germany does it better", think of all those British world-class universities and wonder why they don't exist in Germany. Some German academics say fees are the way towards the excellence they see elsewhere.
The upshot of all this is not to decry Germany – it gets lots of things right – but to wonder why the British seem so intent on denigrating Britain. There seems to be, looking first from New York and now Berlin, a crisis of confidence among the British people.
We are a nation of moaners, and that can be fine – a good moan can be enjoyable in a dark sort of way. It indicates a healthy scepticism.
But it can also be destructive. You don't always need to believe your own moaning. A good moan can be self-fulfilling. Thinking something won't work means it might well not work. When I returned to Britain from working in the United States, the BBC was about to set up a television service for Iran. Infected with naive enthusiasm from my years in America, I immediately thought: "Brilliant. What a great idea" – only to find that the Brits around were shaking their heads and listing all the reasons it just wasn't going to work.
If the moaners had won, we wouldn't have got the Persian service of the BBC – or the Olympics. In Germany people still talk with awe about the atmosphere at that opening ceremony – the nice mixture of grand spectacle and humour. We all enjoy a good moan – but we shouldn't let it get us down. There's a lot not to moan about – maybe even to raise a smile.