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Alexander Bowen: Germany's CDU has a lesson to teach the Conservatives in how to rapidly rebuild the Right | Conservative Home

Alexander Bowen is an MPP-MIA student at SciencesPo Paris and St Gallen specialising in public health, and a Next Generation Centre fellow at the Adam Smith Institute.

Though few are paying attention to it, and whilst it’s not as flashy as America’s two-year slogfest of an election, the campaign for Germany’s next election has just begun. Though still 16 months away, the Christian Democrat Union (CDU) has already prepared its plan for revitalisation.

There’s a lot to learn. Both Germany’s CDU, after 16 years in office under Angela Merkel (and a little over two years in opposition) and Britain’s Conservatives, after 14 years in office under five prime ministers (and soon to be turfed out into opposition), now face essentially the same challenge.

How the CDU/CSU has managed its successful comeback – with a 15 point poll lead projected to yield 83.6 per cent of Germany’s 299 FPTP constituencies alongside their spate of state election wins, including in Berlin – can serve as a clear template for the challenges Britain’s Tories are about to experience.

The new CDU platform, adopted 17 years after the last one and entitled Living in Freedom, Leading Germany Safely into the Future, is the culmination of this revitalisation process. What does it contain, and what could our Conservatives copy and paste?

Naturally, much of the platform is Germany-specific, be it doing what was once the unthinkable of bringing back nuclear power or rearming the Bundeswehr with a commitment to two per cent of GDP on defence. But even in these policies is found the genus of the kind of ideas the Conservatives will need to articulate in 2029. 

On defence, the programme is explicit that “the decades of the peace dividend is over”. It’s much the same argument Rishi Sunak advanced last month, and alongside committing to the NATO spending minimum they’ve taken the bold step of calling for bringing back compulsory military service (a policy they suspended – read scrapped – under Merkel in 2011).

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has clearly taught them a lesson here in another way: the need to eliminate “one-sided dependencies”. Reshoring supply chains to Europe and its allies is one part, energy independence another; but the CDU wants to go one step further and enshrine food security in the constitution.

The return of nuclear power too as part of reshoring is also emblematic of the confident going for growth attitude that the CDU articulates in its new program, that “the future begins with a confident yes to Germany”. It directly confronts the attitude of managed decline which has been so in evidence in both the UK and Germany.

Now, the CDU says that anyone with an idea should be allowed to run with it, and promises to simplify planning procedures, slash taxes on overtime and for the elderly who continue to work, and (in the most German of expressions) to make it possible to register a company in the same time as it takes to play a football match.

On welfare and public services it, frankly, all feels rather like Theresa May at her best, with its talk of a “society that sticks together”, “an agenda for the hard-working”, and fair pay for fair work as part of a “social partnership between employers and trade unions”. There are, however, also some hints of May at her worst (or at least, most self-defeating), with the programme spelling out the CDU’s specific willingness to take necessary but unpopular decisions; or as Friedrich Merz put it in a dig at Merkel, a “willingness to do politics based on our convictions, and not just according to opinion polls”.

Regardless, the pledge to update Germany’s social market economy for the 21st Century with digitalisation, open data, and in particular an AI revolution, is something that can and should be copied. They might just be words now, but a programme that focuses on renovating the economy for the future is the right one.

It also doesn’t much go in for the so-called culture wars, but it does seriously engage with the actual substantive issue of integration that genuinely impacts our societies – the breakdown of a high trust “society that sticks together”.

The programme emphasises that Germany should stand up for its liberal and democratic culture at home, as well as abroad, arguing that the more diverse and plural a society is, the more it needs that unifying bond. It is an “inclusive, open-minded patriotism”, but one that isn’t afraid to say “integration, no ifs, no buts”.

In education, it specifically rejects a “values-neutral education system”, demanding that schooling is not merely passive about liberal democracy, and on religion it demands a made-in-Germany Islam, with religious bodies deriving their funding and training their leaders in the country.

As for integration at the individual level, the platform champions “individual integration agreements requiring adoption of German values including respect for sexual and gender minorities, participation in the labour market, and learning German, for people to continue living in Germany.

Interestingly, it also mentions exploring third-country processing agreements in a gentle nod to Britain’s Rwanda Plan (a policy that seems to be consistently gaining traction with European political parties…) and, in a Jenrick-esque flourish, argues that asylum means refuge from persecution – not escape from badly-performing economies.

What is most striking in some ways is how much the platform feels informed by the terror campaign of 7 October, and much of the antisemitic civic reaction since, with no fewer than nine mentions of Israel in the 72-page platform.

It maintains Merkel’s bipartisan description of Israel’s right to exist and the safety of the Jewish people as one of modern Germany’s reasons of state, but importantly uses this to inform its broader approach to social integration and facing down the explosion of foreign religious and ethno nationalisms in Europe.

Their line of being for “a cosmopolitanism that isn’t weak” is reminiscent of David Cameron’s best, and is likely to do well.

The platform, then, is a near-perfect balancing act between restoring the CDU’s credibility with those who have defected to the AfD (and the more minor conservative parties, the Values Union and Alliance Germany), and regaining the Merkel-era voters who switched to voting for the SPD, Greens, and FDP in 2021.

A post-Sunak opposition leader will face, in essence, the same challenge: how to regain more right-wing Reform UK voters as well as more centrist Labour and Liberal Democrat switchers. It will not be an easy task. 

Compared to the Merkel era, it does mark a right-ward turn. But importantly, it is no more radical than the platform she  campaigned on at her first-election in 2005.

Now all but forgotten, her 2005 election campaign was a near-Trussite disaster; Merkel lead the CDU from polling twice that of the SPD to being just one percentage point ahead, with the campaign freefall being largely attributable to Paul Kirchhof’s (Merkel’s radical economics professor-turned-spokesperson) advocacy of a 25 per cent flat tax.

The CDU’s new program is a revitalisation in the centre but not of centrism; it avoids confusing the political centre (that is, where the public are) with the ideological centre, where many proud centrists hold a range of minority positions.

In this, it is a model the next Conservative leader would do well to copy: be where the public sincerely are, not where a simple split-the-difference’ approach of the left-right divide on political issues would dictate a party should be.

Though the CDU/CSU might not form the German government after the next election, despite its favourable polling lead (which, again, has it roughly on par with the three parties of the incumbent Traffic Light coalition combined), the way it has managed to rebound from the worst election result in its history, in such a short space of time, can serve as a real mode for rebuilding the British right.

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