As it happens, the proprietor of Express Newspapers and well-known Telegraph-bater, Richard Desmond, hosted me at a lunch at his Thames-side headquarters just before his notorious goose- stepping performance. Europhiles and guardians of middle-class taste have been in raptures of disapproval ever since, but I have to say that I found Desmond to be both charming and disarming.
He reminded me a bit of the late Tommy Cooper. But he worked the table, seemed genuinely interested in people and was even quite self-effacing at times. The air turned blue at one point when someone mentioned the travails of Katie Swann at WH Smith – but that’s the press distribution industry for you and it was a rather laddish lunch anyway. Only the mild-mannered Sir Gulam Noon, manufacturer of prepared Indian food products for the likes of Sainsbury’s and British Airways, looked slightly bemused – but he was obviously a good friend and wasn’t offended.
Evidently, other people are. His ill-judged pantomime attack on Telegraph executives, because of German publisher Axel Springer’s interest in that business, has won him more newsprint than his top-shelf magazines ever did. It’s not for me to judge him on that, but I would just question the consistency of those who have reached for the racism charge-sheet so quickly.
These are precisely the middle classes – including Telegraph readers – who chunter into their beer that the fellow who played Basil Fawlty was frightfully good and we don’t make sitcoms like that any more: “Don’t mention the war – ha, ha.” And it’s no good, either, saying that the famous anti-German episode of Fawlty Towers was different because Basil was making himself, rather than the German tourists, figures of derision. Desmond was making himself a figure of derision, too – something that he is rich and independent enough to do without caring.
The real point must be what this apparent double standard – laugh at Fawlty, condemn Desmond – means for the developing single economic market that is Europe. In particular, what does it tell us about the European adventure that our Prime Minister has just embarked upon – a Prime Minister that Desmond now derides on the front page of his flagship for his capriciousness over a referendum on the proposed European constitution?
Tony Blair must hope that the febrile reaction to Desmond’s stunt is indicative of a fresh amity with our continental cousins in general and with the nation with which we were twice at war in the last century in particular. And it is undoubtedly true that the response to Desmond is at odds with how, until recently, we in Britain have not only tolerated, but rejoiced in, red-top tabloids that ran “Achtung! Surrender!” headlines ahead of football matches with Germany and dispatched models on tanks for picture opportunities.
So perhaps the post-Desmond hand-wringing and condemnation indicates a new generation of free-traders, who have finally put the history of the past century behind them. This would certainly be appropriate in the City of London, where Deutsche Bank has a dominant position and has absorbed some of our most blue-blooded of domestic bankers. Perhaps, as is suggested, Little England has at last grown up.
There is, I’m afraid, an alternative and less optimistic interpretation. The German economy is simply not the dominant threat that it was a little more than a decade ago. It has been shackled by the absorption of its eastern alter ego since the Berlin Wall fell. The Bundesbank has shifted from being an object of fear to a figure of fun. It is now, quite simply, safe to stick up for Germany, because it is not an economic threat anymore. The British, after all, speak up for underdogs – it’s slavering wolf-hounds we poke sticks at.
In the late Eighties, I visited the legendary chairman of Daimler-Benz, Edzard Reuter. Like the late Axel Springer, Reuter’s family had an honourable history of abhorrence of the Nazi regime and of post-war endeavours at reconciliation with Germany’s former enemies. But Reuter would privately acknowledge that German industry had a special problem in the world economy with its historical legacy. I said that the situation would probably never change while German industry was so strong. He just smiled reflectively.
Now I see that his former company, re-incarnated as the globalised Daimler-Chrysler, has just had to walk away from its proposed rescue of Japanese car maker Mitsubishi Motors – a move that the German company would not have countenanced when its economy was riding high. And a move that is darkly resonant of weakness.
It’s a shame if we mock Germany when it is strong and only stand up for it when it is weak. Because we need it to be strong if Europe is going to work for us, as well as for them.
George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon