I cannot escape from Germany. In recent days it has become a recurring theme. Wherever I have turned, waiting for a train, reading my emails, finding out more about the group inside the Labour party known as Blue Labour, wondering about Greece, the focus has turned to Germany.
To begin with the most trivial episode, on Monday night I was with a friend who had reported on the World Cup in Germany in 2006. We were waiting for a train to take us a few miles from one part of north London to another. There were no trains. No one seemed to know why. Perhaps it was something to do with the hot weather. As we waited, the sports journalist began to question whether our rotten, fragmented, wastefully expensive transport system would be able to cope with the Olympics next summer, a concern of voters too according to a poll in Tuesday's Evening Standard.
They have cause for concern. The various private companies with their monopoly services are accountable to their shareholders and have little need to worry about the travellers who have no alternative forms of transport. Network Rail is a most bizarre organisations in its blurred accountability, not quite public and not quite private either. As we speculated about the Olympics, I spoke of a blog by the transport specialist Christian Wolmar (which I recommend to anyone remotely interested in Britain's transport system). Earlier this week he chronicled what really happened to the recent McNulty Report on the future of the railways, a deeply depressing account of complacent, chaotic muddle and an almost resolute determination, at some levels, that nothing much should arise from the review.
My friend compared the situation here with Germany during the World Cup where, to his amazement, trains ran on time, regularly, cheaply and with much additional transport laid on to coincide with the end of games. British journalists and fans, at that time still reading in the UK endless eulogies about the Anglo-American economic model, were taken aback to find that quality of life was higher in Germany.
We gave up waiting for the train. The following day my column appeared in The Independent arguing that pension reform in the public sector was needed and that the strikers had a poor case. That is still my view, but amidst the informed emails that highlighted how nuanced the issue was, one from an English reader living in Germany caught my particular attention. He wrote to remind me that in Germany "companies have to have workers' councils by law. In practice, this means unions are integrated into strategic management decisions. For example, instead of laying off skilled workers in time of recession, they reduce hours and increase them again when things pick up, an initiative from unions in one company I am researching.
"The thing that really surprised me was how Keynesian theory is enshrined into the constitution. The CDU/CSU actually have in their parties' constitution a commitment to maintaining social welfare. In the UK Keynesianism is seen as being 'far left' by much of our media. Here it is working, and is pretty well law.
"I read UK newspapers alongside a range in Germany. I have to say that the breadth of debate in the UK is incredibly narrow, and I feel very frustrated by this. Having taught in UK schools for more than 30 years, I was always amazed that politics is often not taught at all. In Germany, politics is a compulsory part of the curriculum. The average German is able to use political vocabulary in day-to- day discussions. …