initiative, The Journal of the German-British Chamber of Industry & Commerce, Issue no. 2/02, May 2002


Contructive exchange


Keith Dobson contemplates how embracing differences and promoting mutual understanding between Britain and Germany can create a positive force in the world of economics

"If you and I are not different, what do we have to give each other? How can we ever be friends?" Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin

It's a sobering thought, but I went to Hamburg before the Beatles. I went to stay with my school exchange partner (more of him later). Those three weeks gave me a taste for conversations with foreigners which I managed to turn into a thirty-year career in international cultural relations. The last third of that career has taken me back where I started, to the relationship between Britain and Germany. I've come to think the key to that relationship is to understand how different we are. We're not the same. We think differently, and we work differently. Yet put those differences together in the right way, and the sparks which fly carry a huge positive charge. And in the process we get to like each other. Isherwood was right.

We may be different, but the challenges and opportunities presented by globalisation, digitalisation and the other drivers of modern economies and societies are largely the same for us both. The Anglo-German Foundation exists to prod the two countries into sharing their experience of these challenges. As we say on our homepage: "We aim to promote best practice in each country by providing access to information, ideas and experience from the other." Easily said. Yet in practice the British are often too busy looking across the Atlantic, and turn across the Channel or the North Sea more to lecture than to listen. For their part, the Germans have been patient listeners, but too modest in sharing their achievements with others.

For decades one of the constants of the relationship has been the admonitory finger wagged at Germany by British and American economists. "It's bound to end in tears," they have warned, reciting the familiar liturgy of German economic weaknesses: rigid labour markets; excessive government spending; etc. Another constant of the relationship has been the unfailing politeness with which Germans have listened to this sage advice, ignored it, and gone on getting richer. Meanwhile they have largely avoided the Galbraithian conjuncture of private affluence and public squalor visited on their own lands by those Anglo-Saxon economists. All this combined with shorter working hours, lower levels of stress, higher rates of productivity, better environmental protection, greater equality of income and opportunity, and public services that work. Economist friends tell me my admiration of this alchemy is naïve: the seeds of Germany's economic decline are well sown… in the long run it doesn't stack up. I remind them of Keynes: in the long run we're all dead; and in the meantime the Germans appear to be doing something right, and it might be worth studying them instead of preaching at them.

At the Foundation we sense an increasing readiness in both countries to buy into our agenda of mutual policy learning. The British are asking how Germany manages to make its public services work so well, and how its productivity is so high. But it's not a one-way street. Germans in many areas of public and business life want to test their own practices against those of their British colleagues. More and more policy-makers, business people and opinion formers in both countries are downloading our research findings from on whether locating the ECB in Frankfurt is leading the German city to rival London as a global financial centre (it's not, and the two cities co-operate far more than they compete); on how the two countries protect their children from poverty (the Germans are much better at it than the Brits); on sharing the burden of asylum-seekers (neither has got it right, but the comparison is instructive for both); and so on.

Future research and conference priorities for the Foundation will include subject areas such as: healthcare delivery (where the German system is more effective, but the British is in many ways more efficient); immigration, the labour market and citizenship; and the conundrum of the work/life balance. A major conference in May will look at how trade unions in the two countries are grappling with another conundrum: "flexicurity" - balancing the flexibility needed for global competitiveness with the security needed by working families. A conference in June will look for new ways of developing school exchanges…

School exchanges? That reminds me. Over 40 years on, I'm still in touch with my exchange partner. He's a journalist based in Brussels, trying to explain to his German readers what the Brits are up to in Europe. Because, you see, we're different.



© Keith Dobson