Angela Merkel is a template for success in a world slow to come to terms with female politicians, writes Joyce McMillan
A few years ago, I found myself working with the former Scottish Labour politician Wendy Alexander on a Hansard Society study of the representation of women in parliamentary politics in the UK; and I have never forgotten the strange, ambiguous quality of the picture that emerged. On one hand, it seems we live in an age when parties have never been more publicly committed to improving female representation; even the Conservatives, these days, make some of the right noises about trying to improve the gender balance of their parliamentary party, and their front bench.
Yet in practice, it seems that there have been changes in our political and social culture, over the last 20 years, that have been working against this theoretical commitment to greater gender equality. Among these pressures are the relentless emphasis on physical appearance, which bears even more heavily on women than men as they enter the middle-aged years when most political careers reach their peak; and the development of a 24-hour media cycle which demands that ministers and senior parliamentarians are “always on”, and rarely if ever take time off. These conditions of 21st century political life make the job almost impossible for any person with caring commitments, and have driven many women out of frontline politics in recent years, including Wendy Alexander herself.
All of which only makes more remarkable the achievement of the German chancellor Angela Merkel, who this week won a resounding third victory in a German general election, coming within a whisker of an overall majority in a Bundestag elected by the same system later chosen for the Scottish Parliament, and similarly designed to make overall majorities unlikely. Mrs Merkel is now set to become the longest-serving elected female head of government in European history, overtaking Margaret Thatcher, the leader with whom she is most often compared. In truth, though, she could hardly be less like Margaret Thatcher in style and personality; and it is interesting to consider just how she has succeeded in becoming perhaps the most widely trusted and respected leader in German postwar history.
The first thing to note about her is that she resolutely refuses to compete in the glamour stakes, or to treat politics in the Anglo-American manner as if it was a slightly more serious version of some glitzy reality television show. She is neat, smart, and well turned out; but she does not aim for the blonde charisma achieved by Thatcher in her prime, nor does she seem to have had any “work” done on her face. This may be a matter of the inner confidence and psychological strength of a woman brought up with other and less flashy values, as the daughter of Lutheran pastor in a small East German town.
Or it may be that German culture is still slightly protected from the torrent of trivial and bullying comment on the appearance of celebrities generated by the English-language popular media. Either way, Merkel seems unmoved by the pursuit of eternal youth and beauty; she behaves like a grown-up leader with other things on her mind, and when that pioneer of shallow media-led politics, Silvio Berlusconi, allegedly described her as an “unf***able lard-arse”, she doubtless reasoned that anyone so insulted by this appalling man must be doing something right.
Secondly, it should be noted that like many successful female politicians – including our own Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who resembles Merkel in style – she has remained childless, a price for a political career which barely any male politician has to pay; the fact that Merkel – born in 1954, aged 35 when the Berlin Wall fell – was free of caring responsibilities in her 30s and 40s undoubtedly helped her to build a political career in the newly united Germany.
And then finally, there is steadiness about Merkel – a lack of frenzy, of volatility, of the kind of self-obsession that leads to explosions of temperament and severe lapses of judgment – that the German people seem deeply to appreciate. I hesitate to ascribe Merkel’s apparent lack of ego to her gender; but like a good committee-woman, she seems to have a gift for avoiding the personalised games around status and dominance that distract so many men of power, and for keeping her mind focused on real problems and possible solutions. Ideologically, I am not a fan of Merkel, or of her Christian Democrat Party; it’s clear, for example, that the austerity measures she has been instrumental in imposing on eurozone countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal are too severe and doctrinaire to be sustainable in the long term. In temperament and thought, though, this woman raised among Lutheran Christians seems a million miles removed from the ideologically-driven neoliberal Right of the English-speaking world. The transatlantic elite has been arguing for a generation that the German social-market model of capitalism is doomed; whereas, in fact, across that period, Germany has routinely outperformed all other large western economies, absorbing and gradually modernising an entire East European state, and achieving levels of export-led prosperity, combined with reasonable social equality, which countries like the UK cannot begin to match.
And although Merkel has taken some steps towards deregulation during her chancellorship, in her gut she seems to understand that Germans, even in these times, enjoy so much of what is worth having in the way of peace, affluence, security and opportunity, that only a fool would rock the boat by indulging in bouts of ideological radicalism. For although Angela Merkel is now routinely rated the most powerful woman in the world, she still shows no sign – in the eyes, voice, or vocabulary – of that blustering egotistical madness that often seizes even the most democratic of leaders, after some years in power; she still seems to value stability more than runaway growth, and to retain the power of counting and defending the nation’s blessings before they have been lost, rather than once they are gone.
And given recent experience across the West, the Germans may well be right to conclude that that combination of experience and sanity is something to be prized, in 21st century politics; or at least not to be discarded lightly, in such uncertain times.