He speaks in a Scottish accent and supports Rangers, yet Angela Merkel’s protégé has been hailed as the rising star of German politics, writes Michael Fry
You can hear that David McAllister did not learn his English at a German school, because when he opens his mouth his Scots accent is instantly recognisable. In fact, he learned his English straight from his Scottish father. There are other tell-tale signs of Scottishness: he supports Rangers, he drinks Irn-Bru and he smokes.
Yet before too long McAllister may well be chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. The son of a soldier from Glasgow stationed in Berlin who married a local girl, McAllister chose to spend his life in the land of his birth rather than of his paternal ancestry. He graduated in law and embarked on a political career which has proved meteoric. Just turned 42, he seems poised for great things in a political system traditionally run by old men.
Still, McAllister has a high hurdle to jump first. He is at the moment prime minister of Lower Saxony, a state of eight million people, only moderately prosperous by German standards. It is holding an election on 20 January. His own Christian Democratic party should do well enough: it is riding high in the national opinion polls.
But in Lower Saxony it has been in coalition with the Free Democrats who, like their counterparts the Liberal Democrats in Britain, are down in doldrums from which they will not easily arise. In Germany, a party needs 5 per cent of the vote before it can qualify for any representation at all, and the Free Democrats are unlikely to achieve this. That means McAllister loses his coalition partner in the parliament in Hanover. The probable consequence is that the state will get a new government of Social Democrats and Greens.
At the national level too, losing a state is bound to be a blow to the Christian Democrats and their leader, chancellor Angela Merkel – especially as there is going to be a German general election in the autumn of this year. Defeat can get to be a habit, and no leader anywhere would want to precede a crucial campaign with such a setback.
Even so, when Merkel and McAllister appear at rallies in Lower Saxony, they seem unworried by the prospect. They have clearly decided they can do nothing to soften the blow the Free Democrats are going to suffer, and instead concentrate on maximising the Christian Democrat vote – in which they may well succeed.
The pair of them have grown used to ducking and weaving through the labyrinth of German politics, with its checks and balances, its complex structure at different levels and its endless building of consensus. The result on 20 January may open a path among the thickets that actually suits them.
Every Monday morning by 6am (Germans do love an early start), McAllister leaves his home near Cuxhaven on the North Sea at the mouth of the River Elbe and drives to Hanover. There he picks up his team and they zoom along the autobahn to Berlin, where Merkel will be expecting them at the Federal Chancellery for 10am.
This is for the weekly meeting she holds with an inner circle of only the most trusted political allies and expert advisers. The purpose is to plot out a course for the coming days, covering the likely political developments and how to respond to them. Head though she is of the most powerful government in Europe, the chancellor remains a notoriously cautious, even indecisive, figure. She never makes an instant response to events, even those of which she has managed to get a grip beforehand. Her reactions may be slow, but at least when they come they are tenacious.
By lunchtime, McAllister is on his way back to Hanover. Nobody can say exactly what role he plays in the meetings – unless they are at them – but from external evidence it appears obvious the chancellor approves of it highly.
On the public electoral platforms they share, she gazes on him with a sort of motherly pride at a young man doing exceptionally well. He has indeed been called her pet, rather to his embarrassment. He would probably settle for his other epithet of crown prince.
We may guess the chancellor and her blue-eyed boy share an intellectual approach to politics, and the circumspection that goes with it, though tempered by a preference for pragmatic rather than ideological solutions. If they have few passionate or deep-seated convictions, McAllister’s talent for getting on matches Merkel’s instinct for survival.
So if McAllister loses office on 20 January, it may turn out all to the good for him and for Merkel. He has promised to eliminate Lower Saxony’s budget deficit if re-elected: the sort of promise any politician nowadays would feel relief at not having to fulfil. Freed from the daily routine of politicking at a sub-federal level, worrying about wolves in Lower Saxony’s forests (the first one recently appeared) or the wind turbines off the coast, he will be able to run her campaign for re-election. Probably there is nobody she would like better for that job.
It will also be an attractive job, because Angela Merkel remains far and away the most popular German politician even after eight years at the top. If she does win again this time, she will be set to beat Margaret Thatcher’s 11 years as British prime minister. McAllister’s task, then, is to cash in on German voters’ confidence in the chancellor, sustained despite all their grumbling and grousing about Europe’s never-ending economic crisis and the price they need to pay to keep lesser and lazier nations solvent.
The main electoral problem facing McAllister would be the same at the federal level as in his own state: the prospective disappearance from the scene of the Free Democrats, and so the impossibility of continuing the present coalition. But in Berlin there will be a viable alternative, a grand coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. It has been successfully tried before, and was indeed the means by which Merkel first took power in 2005. If McAllister could help to swing it again, he would face an even brighter future in the next German government.
Who can say how this would affect the relationship of Germany and Britain? It is friendly anyway, of course, though without ever having approached the warmth and closeness between Germany and France until the election of a president in Paris with deep distaste for teutonic austerity.
Unusually for a German, McAllister has built bridges to the British Conservatives, though he has no time for their Eurosceptic streak. Most interesting of all would be the challenge to his Scottish loyalties that 2014 could bring.