Politicians generally fall into two categories – those who yearn for power and know how to use it when they achieve it, and those who revel in being out of the inside loop thereby retaining their ideological purity. Oskar Lafontaine belongs to the latter group.
He is a colourful politician whose deeply held socialist convictions have caused him no end of personal dilemmas in his route from the prime minister of the Saarland, through his dismal failure as the SPD’s candidate for the chancellorship and his recent flouncing resignation after only a few months as Finance Minister in the Schröder cabinet. Number Two’s invariably think they should be Number One, but where John Prescott has learnt the art of compromise in government, Lafontaine’s personal vanity and self-importance has led him into the political wilderness.
When I lived in Germany in the 1980s Lafontaine was considered a bit of a card – harmless, because of his position as leader of one of Germany’s smallest Länder, but slightly revered for his ranting denunciations of all things Christian Democrat. Not for nothing was he known as ‘Red Oskar’. He was the Franz-Josef Strauss of the left – a figure powerful enough to become semi-detached from his party. And so it proved.
Lafontaine’s political career was launched by his mentor, Willy Brandt, with whom he eventually had a painful parting of the ways. Towards the end of his life Brandt was consumed by supporting Helmut Kohl’s drive towards reunification, and in particular his proposal to equate 1DM to 1 Ostmark. Lafontaine went out on a limb in opposing this policy but, with the notable exception of Schröder, he failed to take his party with him. Worst of all, he was proved right.
There is no disguising Lafontaine’s disgust for many aspects of Tony Blair’s Third Way, which he scathingly describes as “a hodge-podge of platitudes and a re-hash of principles”. Indeed, the publication of the joint Blair/Schröder ‘New Centre’ manifesto confirmed all Lafontaine’s worst fears. Could he have become a little jealous of the burgeoning relationship between Schröder and Blair? After all, it was certainly threatening to eclipse his Lafontaine’s own friendship with Lionel Jospin. Understandably, as a Saarlander, Lafontaine’s first priority has always been to maintain the closest of relationships with France. He says: “No country is so dependent on the achievement of European unity as Germany. And that unity can only be achieved in collaboration with France. Great Britain will continue to follow its own line for the foreseeable future.” No wonder The Sun dubbed him the ‘most dangerous man in Europe’.
It is remarkable how much the key personalities in left of centre British and German politics seems to despise each other. For Cook hating Mandelson hating Mowlam hating Brown hating everyone, substitute Scharping, Vogel, Schröder and Lafontaine. Just as policy disagreements helped bring an end to the last two right of centre governments in Britain and Germany, Lafontaine’s book makes clear, albeit unintentionally, that it is the abundance of personality clashes which will do the same for the current administrations in the two countries. Michael Portillo once said that the Major Cabinet was a Cabinet of chums – on a personal level they actually rather liked each other. The Blair and Schröder cabinets are like vipers’ nests. Both may meet sticky ends.
Lafontaine was the first German politician on the left to recognize that in order to get back into government, a red-green coaltion would be necessary. Indeed, he was advocating this in the mid 1980s, a full decade ahead of most of his contemparies. But in many ways the SPD, like the Labour Party, is a coalition in itself. He complains bitterly of the difficulty of governing with four conflicting centres of power – the Party Executive, the Chancellor’s Office, the Parliamentary Party and the Upper House. Lafontaine wanted complete control of all of them but ended up with nothing. He now sits in his Saarland home, brooding, imagining what might have been, reveling in every mistake made by the Schröder government. His experience should serve as a warning for every New Labour Cabinet Minister.
For anyone with a remote knowledge of, or interest in, German politics of the last 20 years, this book will certainly not be a disappointment. Although it is somewhat confusingly written and jumps backwards and forwards in history in a rather haphazard manner, Lafontaine’s prose is both insightful and entertaining, albeit at times somewhat self-serving. I had not expected to particularly enjoy this book, but I did, and for anyone in the New Labour machine wishing to learn some lessons about inter-government conflicts it ought to be mandatory reading.