Does German History Hold the Answer to Our Current Brexit Impasse?

Britain is still a world power with significant international obligations and a major player on the European scene – irrespective of whether she considers herself part of it or not. A clarification of how “European” Great Britain considers itself would be paramount for future relations with her neighbours. The British are often confused as to whether they are geographically part of Europe or not.

A possible way out could be found when one looks at the scenario in post-war Germany in 1948/49. Germany in its bid for world power status had been decisively defeated, its territory reduced, divided and destroyed. The three Western Allies decided to combine the three military zones and create West Germany in the face of Russian non-cooperation. That led to the Berlin blockade of 1948/49.

A parliamentary commission was set up consisting of law professors and newly elected regional representatives such as Konrad Adenauer. They met in Bavaria and wrote the “Grundgesetz” (basic law) in nine months! The situation in the country could not have been more dire, with millions of the dispossessed, refugees and returning prisoners of war! Their work also had to be approved by the House of Commons, the US Congress and the L’Assemblée Nationale in Paris. The need to establish a new democratic system of government was overwhelming!

The brief was fulfilled and approved by all three occupying powers. The foundation of the Socialist German Democratic Republic in the Russian zone followed a few months later. The commission’s clear goals were the following: the need to prevent another dictatorship, the desire to incorporate the best aspects of British and American democracy, and to pay homage to Germany’s own democratic traditions going back to the revolution of  1848.

It has become evident that our unwritten constitution is no longer able to serve the interests of the people. A written constitution with a true devolved structure and a supreme court, which makes sure that rules are kept and constitutional conflicts avoided, are necessary! The exercise of codifying the responsibilities and decision-making powers at different levels of government (local, national and international) would reduce the confusion and conflict substantially.

The many failed attempts to reform the current electoral system, with its marginal seats and lost votes, has led to the great disparity of regions in England particularly and the very unequal distribution of wealth always favouring London and the South-East. Some of the resentments caused by this found their expression in the results of the Referendum. So reform of the electoral system must be one of the goals of a written constitution.

If a new parliamentary commission were to be set up, we would need a Parliament of national unity for a period of time and a caretaker government that could make the most pressing decisions without the entanglements of party loyalty. Parliament would then have to agree and approve of this new constitution before new elections would be called.

The general lack of correct information has been revealed in this referendum saga and ought to be tackled by much better dissemination and teaching about the political processes. The decline of the moderate centrist party of the Liberal Democrats has also contributed greatly to the present debacle. Both big parties have pandered to their own extreme wings. No internal consensus regarding Europe has ever been achieved either by the Conservative or the Labour party. However, whether we leave the EU or not…

It is not impossible to start afresh!

* Ingeborg Bottrall is a Lecturer in German Studies and lives in Reading.

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9 Comments

  • Bill le Breton 19th Jun '19 - 10:54am

    Interesting. Have you been following Reith Lectures?

  • John Marriott 19th Jun '19 - 11:03am

    @Ingebirg Bottrall
    It may seem ironic; but post war Germany, or, at least the larger part under US, British and French control, the so called ‘Trizonesia’ from a popular song of the time, benefited from starting from scratch. New factories, a reformed trades union movement, a democratic structure, an ‘only way is up’ mentality and massive financial aid via the Marshall Plan to create a bulwark against Soviet expansion, together with a founding membership of the EEC meant that, by the early 1950s, West Germany had already overhauled a largely clapped out U.K. on most economic indicators. No wonder people over here used to ask; “Well, who DID win the bloody war?”

    Mention was made of the Basic Law (Grundgesetzt), as opposed to a Constitution (Verfassung), which the founding fathers of West Germany constructed in the hope of eventually accommodating their fellow countrymen in the east, which, of course, became a reality some forty years later. They even created a temporary capital in Bonn (mainly, it was claimed, because Konrad Adenauer lived nearby) in the hope that the seat of government would eventually return to Berlin, which, of course, it did.

    So, what is this imperfect history lesson trying to say? Put simply, you have to start from nothing to build something worthwhile. And, more importantly, you have to roll up your sleeves, stop moaning and get stuck in! While the ‘Rule Britannia’ brigade is in charge of proceedings over here, there’s little chance of that happening!

  • John Marriott 19th Jun '19 - 11:05am

    Sorry, Ingeborg, for getting your name wrong. (Memo to brain – check your work thoroughly before pressing ‘Send’!)

  • We do not have an unwritten constitution, merely an uncodified one. It seems to me that it functions appropriately.

  • The situation in the U.K. was dire in Europe too after 1945. My memories are of things like power cuts, the continuation of rationing, the many goods in the stores that were labelled as export reject. There were large numbers of children in orphanages. I remember seeing them marched to and from school, all dressed the same way – the primary schools that I went for had no uniforms.
    In Germany there were the millions of people from the parts of Germany beyond the Oder river to resettle, and there is no doubt that they wanted to get away from the Red Army.
    The problems for Germans were of little concern to people in the U.K. There was a determination to build the land fit for heroes. There would have been a chance to make the changes to a democratic society at that time, but the forces at work were the same as that had been in the past.
    Although there was what was described as an economic miracle in the German Federal Republic, this was followed by intense debate about whether they should change to the Anglo Saxon model from what was by then the German model. The Anglo Saxon model seems to have won. Anglo Saxon means American although the expertise is also centred in London.
    In the end the planet can not afford it. The U.K. is not going to change. Eventually we will be faced with reality. We being the people still alive then. But looking at the realities of exponential change that the world has experienced for thousands of years, then there will be a crisis in twenty years.
    My belief is that we have passed the point of no return in fact. It is not taken seriously – it is hidden by the constant wars that have been organised ever since 1945.

  • Patrick C Smith 19th Jun '19 - 8:17pm

    The rebuilding programme was critically important post 1945 in London`s impoverished East End, after enduring the `Blitz’.

    The `rationing’ that continued until 1951 took a toll on the porest families but new hope was born that Britain could rise above the WW2 economic destruction,now recovery much aided by the `Marshall Plan’ that yoked the UK national indebtedness to the developing US Economy.

    The parodox of the new NHS that made healthcare freely available for all families on payment of National Insurance, was a mirror of the Bismarkian Social Insurance, envied by Lloyd-George in the Liberal Government, pre WW1, when he introduced State Pensions at 7 shillings for all over 70 yr olds in 1911 and first Unemployment Insurance.

    The post WW2 austerity for both Britain and Europe and defeated ecomically resilient Germandy, paved the way for the twin economic movements of the Steel and Coal between France and European neighbours but not UK, much to her angst.

    The WW2 lessons showed the founders of the first EEC Treaties in 1956 -despite the nationalism of DeGaul -that the EU was a necessity for future, in terms of cultural relations,peace, social and economic co-operation in trade and in close proximity leads to the ultimate conclusion today : that the UK must EU Remain in the 21 C .

  • We all look at the world according to our own experience of the life. In the 1950s I did not see rationing as odd as I had known nothing else. In fact as long as people were able to afford the food they were entitled to buy, the diet was more healthy than that available today.
    My problem with the behaviour of the party in coalition was that there was a lack of any real analysis of the real economic situation. The whole approach suggested someone with a spreadsheet adjusting figures, and making unsupported assumptions. There was a failure to look at the real lives of real people, apart that is from those with the most influence.

  • Not really. Different countries, with different histories and political cultures. One of the biggest problem in Britain is constantly hoping it will become more like somewhere else. Germany was rebuilt because it was structurally destroyed by WWII and was one of the many countries in Europe that was either a dictatorship or under the rule of an outside dictatorships. It’s a square peg round hole argument. Brexit is essentially part of a counter revolution to the things imposed over the last couple of decades or so. The real way to get the best out of Britain is to recognise what it is: a wet island in the sea with lots of class resentments and awkward stick in the mud voters with a somewhat conservative streak. It is not a small America, or Germany or France or really European or a potential tiger economy. Love it or hate it, the voters are who they are and the country is what it is.

  • Ingeborg Bottrall 20th Jun '19 - 4:55pm

    Thank you for all your thoughtful comments. I especially appreciate the one about the history of the NHS.
    Ingeborg Bottrall

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