Reflexion on Anglo-German relations Awkward cousins

Anne McElvoy in dialogue
Photo: @Vayamedia © Goethe-Institut London

Enduring misunderstandings and interesting similarities: In her Brady Lecture journalist Anne McElvoy reflects on Anglo-German relations and addresses the question why “crazy Brits” and “tidy Germans” need to get along.

“We’re living in a uniquely difficult and tense time,” said Anne McElvoy about the global geopolitical landscape of today. She delivered an equal parts entertaining and insightful Brady Lecture: ‘Awkward cousins: From Deutschland 83 to Brexit and beyond. Why crazy Brits and tidy Germans need to get along’ on November 21.

Presented – along with a follow-up discussion moderated by journalist and one-time associate editor of the Financial Times Quentin Peel – the talk and discussion follows up on the surprise result from the 2016 British referendum to opt out of the European Union.

The annual event is held at the Goethe-Institut London in memory of academic and broadcaster Philip Brady whose work with BBC German and World Service, as well as British radio, contributed to the cultural exchange between Germany and the UK for over 30 years. In this tradition, McElvoy – a British journalist for The Economist and the London Evening Standard, as well as BBC broadcaster – shared her own unique experience in Anglo-German relations from the perspective of a journalist and self-described ‘Germanophile,’ reporting from East Germany during the days of the German Democratic Republic, through unification, to the present Federal Republic of Germany. Taking the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall as an example, she illustrated how quickly and unexpectedly political circumstances can change. She called for less focus on the defensive narratives of Brexit and rather a push toward the many other ties these two countries share to present a more rounded and therefore optimistic political outlook.
McElvoy’s discussion was as much a nostalgic trip back to the sights and sounds of ‘Deutschland 83’ – the music of Peter Schilling and Udo Lindenberg, images of the uncomfortable body language between British and German leaders – as it was an astute reflection on the enduring misunderstandings between these two nations. She characterised the insular GDR mentality of East Germany developing its image of England as “a declining country in a moribund capitalist system” from propagandist textbooks and readily circulating copies of 19th century literature like Sherlock Holmes. Meanwhile, McElvoy shared her own cultural foibles as a young student and English au pair learning to take off her shoes inside the German household and becoming comfortable with public nudity.

The effect of these small but fundamental differences on diplomacy was not lost on the political commentator, who then ran through the delicate relationships between leaders Helmut Kohl and Margaret Thatcher, Gerhard Schröder and Tony Blair, and finally Angela Merkel and Theresa May. It’s with this current pairing where some interesting similarities emerge in 80s and 90s Anglo-German relations. One of them being Merkel’s newly precarious position as German Chancellor and EU leader in her fourth term, which, according to McElvoy, echoes the sudden turn of events that led to Thatcher’s resignation in 1990.
“People really felt that they were living on the verge of disaster,” she said about the political climate of the 80s, a sentiment that very much permeates the collective psyche today. In light of acknowledging this common feeling, McElvoy proposed a pragmatic approach to moving forward with Britain’s divorce from the European Union, arguing for cooperation and breaking out of the unconstructive “Brexit sadface” she worries will only harm efforts to preserve the British-German connection. McElvoy suggests the democratic vote to leave Europe was an uprising of “the led against the leaders” and that “bad tempered Brexit doesn’t need to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, if we don’t let it adversely affect German-Anglo relations.”
  • Brady Lecture 2017 - Audience Photo: @Vayamedia © Goethe-Institut London
  • Brady Lecture 2017 - Presentation Photo: @Vayamedia © Goethe-Institut London
  • Brady Lecture 2017 Anne McElvoy and Quentin Peel Photo: @Vayamedia © Goethe-Institut London
  • Brady Lecture 2017 - Reception Photo: @Vayamedia © Goethe-Institut London
  • Brady Lecture 2017 - Reception II Photo: @Vayamedia © Goethe-Institut London