Magazine article The Spectator

Why Mr Blair Thinks Herr Schroder Has the Reich Stuff

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Mr Blair Thinks Herr Schroder Has the Reich Stuff

Article excerpt

At least in Britain, Chancellor Kohl has never had the reputation he deserves. Yet it could be argued that he is the fifth most impressive post-war European politician, only surpassed by - in alphabetical order -- Adenauer, de Gaulle, Franco and Thatcher. But the Left give him no credit because they regard him as a man of the Right, while the Right are naturally hostile to an architect of European unity. There is a widespread British view that he is far more a party manager than a statesman, who, despite his record term, has occupied high office without enhancing it.

It is easy to see how this dismissive judgment has gained credence. Herr Kohl is an outstanding party manager, and never more so than when culling potential party rivals; an unattractive quality, and one which will do his Christian Democratic party lasting damage, by depriving it of a successor generation. He has considerable platform presence, but this owes more to his size than his speeches. He has had an immense relationship with gastronomy but only an insignificant one with language. In Osnabruck last Thursday for the Lower Saxon Land elections, I watched a typical Kohl performance. He spoke for over an hour without saying anything new or coining even a single striking phrase. He was campaigning, but to judge from his demeanour, Sunday's defeat will have come as no surprise. It may, however, be the harbinger of a greater defeat. Gerhard Schroder, the victorious Social Democrat who is now his party's chancellor candidate, declared that the Kohl era was coming to an end, and he is probably right. For all that, Herr Kohl is formidable in a way that Herr Schroder could never be.

Off the platform, the Chancellor is an interesting study. He has a far more expressive face than most photographs suggest. They only capture the strength and the gluttony, but there is also a mixture of sensitivity, passion, pride, fierce temper, weariness, intelligence and cunning, plus moral force. This is a big man, in all respects.

The longest-serving Chancellor since Bismarck may set another record this September. Thus far, no post-war Chancellor has been defeated at the polls; changes of government have occurred only as a result of defections by coalition partners. But there are a number of reasons why Herr Kohl is likely to be voted out of office.

At every election since 1982, the CDU vote has fallen. In 1994, it and its FDP partner had a majority of only ten. Since then, the two principal socio-economic changes have been higher unemployment and higher taxes; no electoral benefits there. Back in 1994, Herr Kohl could still enjoy the after-glow of reunification. Especially in the former eastern Lander, many voters were saying `thank you'. But with unemployment in the old East now at around 20 per cent, there is no longer much gratitude. There is also the normal secular trend which operates against any government that has attained longevity in office; even in cautious, self-doubting Germany, `time for a change' is a useful political slogan and it is reinforced by the British example.

Herr Kohl, meanwhile, is older and looks it. He may have the physique to make a magnificent Wotan, but a Wotan whose powers are failing. There are rumours of health problems; he is not a young 67-yearold. He also has a weak ministerial team his own fault - while his opponent has a strong one. Above all, Herr Schroder has himself. At a moment when Herr Kohl is at his weakest, he has to confront the most dangerous opponent he has ever faced. …

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