Angela Merkel ‘s leadership success falls outside conventional leadership cases

Angela MerkelA documentary by the BBC on the eve of the German Presidential elections sensibly stuck to biographic facts without too many attempts to compare Angela Merkel to Margaret Thatcher.

Angela Merkel is increasingly described as the most powerful woman in the world. Information about her in the popular media in the UK has been restricted to scraps about her humble life style, her student days studying science in the then Democratic Republic of [East] Germany, her rise to political power in the period of reunification. From time to time she has been presented as a latter-day Margaret Thatcher, a description she easily avoids accepting or rejecting.

As the BBC’s Andrew Marr put it

Quite a lot about her biography seems to echo that of Margaret Thatcher. Merkel comes from the edges – East Germany, rather than Lincolnshire – and was brought up by an abnormally self-certain and pious father. Something of a loner, she became quite a serious scientist before choosing politics.

Inside her party, she was picked up as a useful female talent by a somewhat patronising mentor – Kohl, rather than Edward Heath – and surprised everybody by her ruthlessness in ousting him, and eventually taking power herself. Like Thatcher, Merkel is a ferociously hard worker, excellent on the detail and a wily political operator.

Yet the differences matter much more than the similarities. Coming from her East German background she believes in social solidarity and working with trade unions; in a coalition-based political system, she is a mistress of consensus and, when it suits her, delay.

Our ignorance of this, the most important female politician in the world, is little short of shocking. Angela Merkel has mattered much more to us and the full European story than perhaps we’ve realised.

In December 2011 David Cameron travelled to a The Brussels summit to fight (‘like a British Bulldog’ he assured his anti-European MPs) for British interests. The British press understandably focused on the significance of Cameron’s intervention.

The New York Times evaluated the outcome as follows:

Cameron was perceived as having made a poor gamble in opposing the push by Mrs. Merkel and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, embittering relations and possibly damaging his standing at home. Though some other countries, including Denmark and Hungary, initially shared Britain’s skepticism of the German-led agreement, only Britain ultimately rejected it.

As Cameron continued to struggle with the Anti-European wing of his party he sought to improve personal relations with Merkel. She responded by inviting him and his family into her home. According to Marr, a warm friendship has ensued.

Merkel favours winning support over defeating opponents. It is a style which has served her well.

Angela Merkel ‘s leadership mystery

There really should be no mystery. The puzzlement is mainly to those who subscribe to popular stereotypes of what a leader should appear to be. Merkel is utterly non-charismatic. She has also been criticized for the time it takes her move policy forward as she seeks to build consensus. Maybe Germany from bitter experience realizes the significance of the concept that a society ends up with the leaders it deserves. In other cultures the political question seems often to be “does he (or she) look like a leader?”

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