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Last Updated: Monday, 14 February, 2005, 13:13 GMT
Letter: Europe's stereotypes need rethinking
By Thomas Kielinger
London correspondent for German daily newspaper Die Welt

Thomas Kielinger suggests it is time for a radical rethink of some familiar stereotypes.

How can Germany be a nation of efficient hard workers, he argues, when the country has the youngest old-age pensioners, the oldest students, the shortest working hours and the longest holidays?

Asian woman dancers in the UK
Modern Britain welcomes diversity
You cannot image the shock I felt the other day when I heard about the latest German unemployment figures: five million people out of work and counting.

I thought I was dreaming.

Is this Germany - the much-vaunted legend of technical ingenuity, work ethic and the economic miracle?

Miracle, yes - but one long-gone. As is the notion of hard-working Germans driven by their industriousness and discipline.

How can I be so sure of that? Well, a notable German politician, not so long ago, reminded his German listeners of the four world records Germany holds.

Presumed characteristics

The country has the youngest old-age pensioners, the oldest students, the shortest working hours and the longest holidays.

That does not add up to a case of economic dynamism.

Obviously some adjusting is due, including the rediscovery of hard work as the road out of the current malaise.

Adjustment yes - I, too, have to adjust, namely my prejudices about nations and their presumed characteristics.

We do carry old clichés with us for far too long, I think.

Soft power: The ability to attract followers by virtue of the values of your own country and by your willingness to be inclusive of others
Joseph Nye Jr
Germany is mainly - and wrongly - seen in the light of some bygone virtues, which hardly apply when you look at what Germany is facing today - a mountain of unsolved problems, with a reform agenda put off for far too long.

But Great Britain, too, is viewed in the context of some totally misconceived stereotypes: a quaintly ancient land with lots of funny traditions, funny hats and funny costumes.

Afternoon tea and bowler-hats, Miss Marple and How-D'you Do.

Winning the race

In real life, Britain is racing ahead to overtake most of its European rivals in economic growth, employment and gross national income.

I even suspect that British people walk twice as fast as their German counterparts.

They speak twice as fast too. And they work twice as hard again as the Germans.

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A casino mentality has developed among Londoners
Which is perhaps, for my money, the most astonishing social mutation of the last 20 years.

When you think about it, very little of our clichés about national character can stand up to closer scrutiny.

The goose-stepping Germans? Actually, I cannot think of a more unregimented people.

Perhaps because of their past fame for authoritarianism, Germans have become extra anti-authoritarian - notwithstanding their irritatingly strict shop opening hours and other red tape.

Which brings me to my main question - what kind of Britain do I see before me and report about to my German readers?

Transformation

It's easy to say Britain is not in any way resembling the place I used to know in 1960s and 70s - it has changed beyond recognition since those days.

My take on Britain is that I see her emerging as a new "empire".

The gentrification of urban centres like Manchester or Birmingham, Leeds or Newcastle-Gateshead is simply breathtaking
I come to this somewhat unusual conclusion by way of what Harvard don Joseph Nye Jr has defined as "hard power" and "soft power".

As for "hard power", there is only one country left as militarily almighty - and that is the US.

But Professor Nye would love America a lot more if it built more on its reservoir of "soft power" - its attractiveness as a cultural model.

He defines "soft power" as "the ability to attract followers by virtue of the values of your own country and by your willingness to be inclusive of others."

This is exactly the kind of soft power appeal I see working to the advantage of the British.

Dynamism

Their embrace of other cultures is unique in Europe, despite growing concerns about unregulated immigration.

Britain teems with the energy of a myriad of people who have come here because that's the experience they think they need in order to make it in the world.

London is unrivalled when it comes to finance, pop culture or the arts.

But as I look beyond the metropolis, I find a similar sense of vigour and go-getting.

In short, this is a population with a spring in its step.

Edinburgh shines anew as the focal point of Scottish worldliness. Liverpool has been nominated European City of Culture for 2008.

And the gentrification of urban centres like Manchester or Birmingham, Leeds or Newcastle-Gateshead is simply breathtaking.

In addition, British designers, British film stars, and British literature - from Tolkien to JK Rowling to Philip Pullman or Zadie Smith - are the talk of the global village.

There is, I can't deny it, a certain headiness that goes with so much excitement. A certain recklessness even.

Casino mentality

Look how the notion of striking it rich has taken possession even of the Prime Minister and his wife.

Last September they pole-vaulted into the million-pound category of ownership by buying a town house for the exorbitant sum of £3.6 million.

Now the Blairs are smarting under the weight of the mortgage and the running costs for a house they have so far failed to find a tenant for.

This rush into consumerism - albeit not always on the level of the first couple - is, in my opinion, characteristic of British society as a whole.

The 'empire' I see refers to Britain's new global appeal, to qualities which make people the world over speak of it with heightened respect and admiration
A kind of casino mentality seems to have taken root, the joyful gambling with one's resources on sky-high credit.

That would cause the Germans, for one, one hell of a nightmare.

In Germany people are so worried about the future and the job situation that everybody hunkers down to the point where spending has almost come to a standstill.

This total slack in domestic demand is one of the most unsettling aspects of Germany's ongoing crisis.

Now not so in Britain, where consuming is everything.

Why save when prices are too high anyway and you need every penny you earn to get by in the first place.

But can the absence of a saving impulse amongst the British today not also be put down to an underlying satisfaction with the economic situation in general?

Achievers

Full employment coupled with the steep rise in the value of homes over consecutive years have generated a new confidence allowing people to move on and up, and enjoy themselves in the process.

My suspicion that Great Britain has to all intents and purposes developed into a global player in their own right can only be taken seriously, if at all, within the "soft power" category I spoke of before.

She is no rival to the military might of the US by any means.

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The UK does have its problems, such as poor public services and binge drinkers
Now don't get me wrong, the new "empire" I see bears no resemblance whatsoever to the first embodiment of the same name.

Rather it refers to Britain's new global appeal, thanks to qualities which make people the world over speak of her with heightened respect and admiration.

Not everybody in Britain today may fancy themselves as another Ellen MacArthur, but the inhabitants of these isles surely have become latter-day achievers, at least to my eye.

That is something we used to associate with Americans.

I have been taken to the cleaners by some of my best friends for this upbeat analysis.

Global reach

Have you not seen, so they berate me, the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in modern Britain?

The clamp-down on immigrants? The unaffordability of a new home?

And what about public services, or the binge-drinking yobs who, on weekends, turn inner cities into benighted battle grounds?

How could I be blind to the daily rat race turning ever more people into leisure-free workaholics just to survive my all-too-attractive British models?

Well all true, all true, and if I were to write a book on the subject of modern Britain it would certainly all have to feature on its pages.

But I'm aiming at something rather simpler here - to try and summarise for my own understanding what it is that makes the majority of the British tick, warts and all, and how this compares with the state of affairs in other countries, like Germany, for example.

And there I cannot but discover a new vitality in Britain, a new determination to be somebody in the world, not just rhetorically but measurable in terms of increased significance.

If you don't like the term "empire" call it global reach, to which the English language lends a nicely helping hand.

For almost ten years, Thomas Kielinger was the Editor-In-Chief of the "Rheinischer Merkur", the major German weekly political newspaper. He received the OBE in 1995 for his outstanding services to the development of British-German relations.

Letter is a BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters reflects on the latest political, cultural or social developments in their region.



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