Merkel and Sturgeon: two popular failures?

Merkel and Sturgeon: two popular failures?

by Alan Sked
article from Friday 5, February, 2021

IT STRIKES ME both Angela Merkel and Nicola Sturgeon are regarded in the media as long-serving leaders who are pleasant, capable and successful. I don’t know how pleasant Sturgeon is since I have never met her but she seems more disputatious than charming if her television appearances are anything to go by. 

I did have lunch and coffee with Merkel once and she turned out to be much the same. She spent most of her time denouncing referendums and after the Brexit one of 2016 I suppose her views have not changed. Sturgeon, of course, ran the Scottish independence campaign during the 2014 referendum and lost. Yet despite constantly repeating it was a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience, she is now quite fixated on having a second one. 

Only one of these ladies could be considered a Lady Macbeth figure but as will be seen both were certainly capable of turning on their political mentors and ending their careers. There is also a hint of ‘Unsex me!’ about them since although both are married, they don’t seem to emit any sex appeal. In this respect they remind one of Mrs. May rather than Mrs. Thatcher. Neither of course uses her husband’s name. Indeed, Mrs. Merkel uses the name of her first husband, Ulrich Merkel, whom she married in 1977 and divorced in 1982. What her present husband, Professor Joachim Sauer, makes of this, one does not know. Her maiden name is Kasner. 

Sturgeon, of course, is married to Peter Murrell, the long-time CEO of the SNP. Neither woman has children although it was made public that Sturgeon suffered, sadly, a miscarriage in 2011. 

These two leaders have several things in common. The desertion of their political mentors has already been mentioned. They both also enjoyed swift and rather spectacular rises to the top of their respective parties. They are both anti-British. They are both unremarkable, almost boring, speakers and they are both (apart from longevity in office) unmistakably political failures. 

Sturgeon has been on the wrong side of the two great referendum results this century and has presided over declining health, education and police services and has probably ruined the reputation of the Scottish justice system. Her record on the pandemic is dismal, despite what some cheerleaders claim, and she has treated the Scottish Parliament with contempt. She has been saved only by the cowardice of the Scottish (and British) media and the incompetence of the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem opposition. 

The key difference between her and Merkel, however, is that whereas Sturgeon is a nationalist ideologue, Merkel doesn’t seem to have any fixed views at all. Supposedly a Conservative – when first elected Chancellor she was supposed to be radical and even Thatcherite conservative with plans for a major reform of the German pension system – she has since turned into a pragmatic centrist, happy to adopt the policies of opponents, becoming more popular with Greens and Social Democrats than with Conservatives or Liberals. Her greatest failures have been on Europe, nuclear power, immigration and Brexit. 

Her latest failure, of course, has been to insist that Europe’s vaccine procurement should be organised by the EU Commission, now led by the former incompetent German Defence Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, whom Merkel was glad to get rid of by pushing her through to be appointed Commission President. The Chancellor also leaves behind a broken party system and a Bundestag in which the Opposition is led by an extremist right-wing party, the AfD. 

She is unique in postwar German history for serving four terms as Chancellor. Adenauer and Kohl served only three. Yet they had real achievements to their name, the first presiding over the economic and political recovery of West Germany and achieving Gleichberechtigung (equality of treatment as a Western ally) while the second brought about German unification and the euro. Merkel has no such achievements to her name. 

Kohl of course was corrupt like so many Continental politicians. This is still the case  today where in France for example both former President Sarkozy and former prime minister Balladur are on trial and where former presidential candidate Fillon has recently been sentenced. Chirac and Giscard were also corrupt while the less said about Mitterrand the better. Italian politics imploded in 1992 with the Clean Hands Revolution which swept the main parties away but then came Berlusconi. As I write the Italian Government has collapsed again over infighting about how to distribute money from the recently established Reconstruction Fund. Spanish politics has just survived the corruption at the head of the People’s Party. Yet most people are surprised by how corrupt German politics has been, something which allowed Merkel to emerge as Chancellor.

Helmut Kohl had picked Merkel from East German oblivion after unification in 1990  by making her a minister for women and youth in January 1991. Later that year she became CDU deputy chairman. She soon became known as ‘Kohl’s girl’. In 1994 she became Environment Minister and in 1995 presided over the first UN Climate Conference in Berlin. By September 1998, after Kohl lost power, she had become CDU general secretary. Her rise had been meteoric and all thanks to Kohl. 

Kohl saw nothing wrong in accepting illegal donations to his party since everyone else did it. The Flick Affair of the 1980s had demonstrated that all major parties were being bribed by this billionaire and that all leading politicians were accepting gifts from him – including Brandt, Schmidt, Strauss and Kohl. The Federal Republic was up for sale. When in late 1999, therefore, Kohl was again accused of accepting illegal donations he clearly did not feel very ashamed. Indeed, he admitted accepting over DM 2 million and claimed he was honour bound not to reveal the names of the donors. In case the Stasi had known the details, no less than 1,000 metres of Stasi files were destroyed without any review of their contents and Kohl threatened to go to the Supreme Court to stop any others being published. 

An official investigation was stopped when Kohl agreed to pay a fine of DM 300,000. He escaped prison and the publicity died down. But could he still lead the party?

At this point Merkel intervened by writing an ‘open letter’ on 22 December 1999 declaring that the party needed a fresh start and should move on without him. It was an act of ruthlessness and ingratitude but an astute one nonetheless which separated her and the party from any charge of corruption. What real choice did she have? On 10 April 2000 she was elected party leader.  She no doubt hoped to be the party’s candidate for Chancellor in 2002 but had to wait till 2005 when she won the election by one percent of the vote and formed a Grand Coalition with her SPD opponents. The Merkel years had begun. 

They have been famously characterised as ones of immobilism, even Brezhnevism. The German economy suffered from Japanisation. Its car industry stuck with the combustion engine and missed out on the digital revolution. Tesla as a result is now worth three times as much as Daimler and BMW combined. Apple dwarfs the entire market capitalisation of the DAX. Germany stuck to its economic formula of cheap domestic labour and soaring exports relying on shipping capital goods to China until China caught up technologically. Meanwhile it looked good compared to other EU member states over which it had an inbuilt advantage due to the undervaluation of the DM when it joined the Eurozone and the compression of real wages under its Hartz IV reforms of the early 2000s. 

When the financial crisis came in 2009-15, Merkel decided to retain these advantages and instead of reforming the Eurozone to bring in fiscal union and give the currency a proper basis, insisted that weaker, indebted states should solve their problems by severe austerity. In the words of Stern magazine she became the ‘Ice Queen’ of Europe or its ‘Schmerzdame’. Professor Ulrich Beck in his ‘German Europe’ said the debtor states formed Europe’s ‘new underclass’ and would have to accept ‘German neo-colonialism’ albeit under ‘the best generation of Germans ever’. Greece was crushed and lost 25 per cent of her GDP. Other countries were given harsh conditions in return for ‘bailouts’ or loans. As a result, the Eurozone remained in semi-permanent crisis with fiscal surveillance (the Stability Pact and the Fiscal Compact) substituting for fiscal union. Today a one-off Reconstruction Fund has been cobbled together to tide the Eurozone over the Covid crisis but Italian politics and debt could yet see the whole structure come tumbling down. 

One strange feature of the Merkel years was her habit in the middle of immobilism of making a sudden, almost spur-of-the moment decision,  without consulting anyone, to make huge changes. Thus in 2011, two years after passing a law to prolong the life of Germany’s nuclear plants, she decided in the light of Japan’s nuclear disaster at Fukushima to phase out nuclear power altogether. The costs to German industry were enormous.

Likewise in 2015 she suddenly decided without any consultation with her political allies or her EU partners to allow 1.2 Muslim refugees to enter Germany. ‘We can do it,’ she said but the costs to German society, the German political system and EU stability were devastating and irreversible. To shore up the EU she then made a pact with Turkey’s Erdogan to close his borders in return for promises to speed up Turkey’s entry into the EU, visa free travel for Turks and €3 billion a year. These terms were never completely met and today an unstable Erdogan holds the EU to ransom.

Clearly Sturgeon is in a different league. Despite her travels to Brussels protesting her Europhilia before and after Brexit, she has no international standing and as a putative separatist leader of a basically bankrupt country no real international appeal. On the other hand, Merkel seems to be no more friendly towards Britain than Sturgeon. Her austerity policies notoriously led to hundreds of thousands of young Europeans fleeing to Britain to find work when youth unemployment in Southern Europe surpassed 40 per cent and Brits began to notice. They took even more notice when millions of refugees with family claims were allowed to enter Germany. The obligation of free movement was suddenly in their minds along with the (unkept) promises made to Erdogan’s eighty million Turks. Cameron had advised her to let the Levant contain the refugees. 

Other policy decisions also rattled. Her insistence on renaming the Constitutional Treaty the Lisbon Treaty and forcing it on the EU despite rejection by the French and Dutch was also against our interests. Not only did Germany gain more votes in EU institutions but the ECJ became a Supreme Court, and despite a Common Law Protocol to appease the UK, it soon began striking down British laws. Likewise, when Cameron vetoed the Fiscal Compact, she had it passed as a separate treaty. Cameron’s pleas for safeguarding clauses for the City of London were ignored. She also ignored his opposition to the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission President. Opposition from a major state would traditionally have sunk Juncker but, no, he survived. Finally, when Cameron went to Brussels to plead for a few concessions before the Brexit vote, he came back empty-handed. As many commentators have pointed out, she bears more responsibility for Brexit than anyone else in Europe. 

In Britain political scandals revolve around sex rather than money. This was true of Profumo and Thorpe and today is spectacularly true of Sturgeon’s mentor in the SNP, its former leader and Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, who, as a result of a secret inquiry by the Scottish Government under Sturgeon, found himself in court in 2019 on 14 counts including two of attempted rape, two of indecent assault, nine of sexual assault and one of breach of the peace. He had already been awarded £512,000 to cover his legal charges regarding the inquiry, however, after the Court of Session had declared it unlawful since its lead investigator had prior and then continuing contact with the complainers. In March 2020 after nine days of evidence Salmond was acquitted of all charges by a jury with a majority of women. 

Since then two inquiries have been set up to examine aspects of the case, one by the Scottish Parliament (for the Scottish Government’s approach to the handling of the complaints) and one by an independent legal expert, James Hamilton QC, Ireland’s former DPP (to consider if the First Minister has misled the Holyrood Parliament). All sorts of things have emerged: the large sums of money paid by the Scottish government to ‘coach’ witnesses; the inconsistencies in various statements by both Sturgeon and her SNP CEO husband; the extreme unwillingness of the Scottish Government to release key documents and the pressure put on Police Scotland by Sturgeon’s husband to pursue Salmond. Both Salmond and Sturgeon have yet to give evidence to the relevant parliamentary committee and Hamilton has intimated the scope of his inquiry is sufficient to include the evidence around dates that materialised from the Parliamentary inquiry. 

The main issue exercising the minds of SNP supporters and everyone else in Scotland is this: did Sturgeon, her husband and her supporters deliberately stitch-up Salmond to stop him challenging Sturgeon for the party leadership after he lost his parliamentary seat in 2017? If so, they were clearly prepared to send him to prison for almost the rest of his life. That would have been an exceptionally cruel step for Sturgeon to resort to and if proven, she could indeed be seen as Lady Macbeth. ‘Is this a prison cell I see before me?’ 

Alan Sked was educated at Allan Glen's School in Glasgow, before going on to study Modern and Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, followed by a DPhil in Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. Sked taught at the London School of Economics where he became a leading authority on the history of the Hapsburg Empire, also teaching US and modern intellectual history and the history of sex, race and slavery. Alan Sked is now Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. @profsked  

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