Western Australia: a place to live rather than visit?

I’m now in Hobart, having moved from Australia’s largest state to its smallest. We only spent a six days in WA, and purely as a tourist. We didn’t visit anybody living here. So my view is inevitably superficial – but I hope it will still be of interest.

WA is vast, taking up one third of the Australian continent. It is mostly empty of people. 80% of its population, we were told, lives in the Perth area. Most of the rest live in the south western corner, which includes Margaret River. We didn’t get beyond these populated areas.

Central Perth is underwhelming. It has an undistinguished skyline of the usual tower blocks. Its setting, on the Swan River has potential, but the urban planners have given almost all the riverside to roads and speeding motor traffic. Only a small harbour area is free of traffic, and that is now mainly a building site. There is a pedestrianised shopping precinct but it is nothing special. There is a lovely park, King’s Park, just off centre (the largest central urban park in the world they claim), but even this is rather spoilt by trying to make it accessible to people in cars. The best views over the city are next to a busy road. There is quite decent public transport but car is king. Outside the centre there is the usual Aussie suburban sprawl, including some lovely waterside properties, once the roads have moved inland. These are surprisingly dense; all houses are detached, and they are mainly single story, but the backyards are tiny. The houses are cheek by jowl. Once you have acquired your building plot, the thing to do apparently is to cover it almost entirely with one storey of house. This holds throughout the residential districts of WA we saw. This may be a countrywide trend, but here even the posh homes on the river side looked a bit squashed up against their neighbours.

The best bit of the Perth area is the old port of Fremantle. A lot of old buildings have survived and they aren’t dominated by newer ones. You can have a fish lunch on the fishing harbour watching dolphins near the fishing boats (real, working ones) without traffic whirring by. The port itself isn’t all that big. There were just three ships there when we visited, two stock carriers and a single container ship. Barcelona it isn’t. WA’s vast mineral exports don’t go close to populated areas.

Outside Perth the main attraction is the continent’s southwest corner, around Margaret River. This is lovely. An attractive coast, with boutique farming inland, featuring its now famous vineyards. It’s a popular holiday district and deservedly so. We perhaps saw it at an ideal time of year, in between the wet winter and hot, dry summer. It was verdant, and the temperature in the very pleasant mid-twenties. There are plenty of wilderness sights in WA, but we didn’t have time to sample them. We will next time. And there could be a next time. We flew here because of the new Qantas non-stop flight from Heathrow by 787 Dreamliner. This was a success, and we prefer it as a way in to breaking the journey to the east cost to Dubai or Bangkok. But if they manage to put on a nonstop flight to Sydney, that might be a tempting alternative.

This is a mainly economics blog, so what could I make of the WA economy? It seems to be healthy and growing, though homeless people were to be seen frequently in central Perth. This appears to be mainly about mining, of which iron ore is the most important, but which covers a multitude of other things. This happens in the wilderness and is quite astonishingly destructive of the local environment. But as almost nobody lives there, that doesn’t seem to be an issue. The presence of aboriginal inhabitants is light. In the south west we only found any serious reference to them in the art gallery. Doubtless in the outback their presence is stronger, but the mining businesses clearly don’t have too much trouble.

The mines do need quite a few people, even if they aren’t sent down holes in the ground when you can simply remove all the rock that is in the way. These are flown in for periods of one to three weeks from Perth and outlying towns. As these workers spend money in their home towns, and go on holidays, this drives much of the rest of the economy, or so we were told. The Economist suggests that automation is far advanced in the mines, and fewer workers are needed. There was no sign of that – perhaps because this affects workers shipped in from outside WA to a greater extent. There are a lot very wealthy people on the back of the mining boom – who in turn invest in the boutique wineries in Margaret River, as well as fabulous properties to live in. But there seem to be plenty of decent mid-level jobs too, which are the key to a broadly prosperous economy. One thing we noticed was that there were quite a few older workers – including just about all the tour guides we used.

So my rather superficial verdict is that Perth and Margaret River are very pleasant places to live, with all the civilised comforts. If there are world-class tourist attractions they are probably in the outback, though apparently the surfing is world class too. But if you are visiting Australia anyway, it’s a nice place to go, though still over three hours flying time from most other places.

Is Australia a neoliberal success story?

I have just started a six week tour of Australia. Right now I am in Perth pictured), our first stop. Australia is a country I know quite well. I have visited it in every decade since the 1980s. In the late 1990s and early 2000s my visits were frequent as I was working for an Australian-owned company. But my last visit was in 2006. I am interested to see some new places (Perth is one; Tasmania will be another), and also to understand how the country has developed.

I have just finished reading a special report by the Economist on the country. It paints it as a neoliberal beacon; it doesn’t use that word of course – neoliberals never use it themselves. That is an interesting thought to challenge while I’m out here. The country is a remarkable economic success story, with continuous growth since 1991: a better record than any other developed country. It has weathered two financial crises (the 1997 Asia crisis, and the 2008-09 crash), and several twists of the commodity cycle, impressive for a country for whom mining is so important. Doubtless raw materials and hitching the country’s fortunes to China’s economic growth, play an important role – but other Southern Hemisphere countries do that without Australia’s success. Its economic policies have a clear neoliberal bent. Fiscal policies have been conservative; pensions and healthcare have been substantially privatised. The currency floats freely. Levels of immigration are high. It stands as a reproach to the conventional wisdom of the left, which hates the involvement of markets in public services as well as governments aiming for low levels of public debt. It also stands as a reproach to the conventional wisdom of the right, which holds that multiculturalism is doomed to failure, and that high levels of immigration undermine social cohesion.

These headlines cover a much more complex picture, of course. In fact the Economist’s report is maddeningly shallow. But Australia is an interesting case study. To me the it looks as if the critical element to its success, which helps explain the way it has beaten the conventional wisdom of left and right, is healthy incomes across a broad stretch of society. This allows people to take more responsibility for health and pension expenses. It also makes them less stressed about the economic impact of immigration. But why? That is one of the questions I want to gain insights into by talking to people who live here.

Maybe Australia shows that it is too early to write off neoliberalism. Interestingly it is making a comeback in South America, as Brazilians follow Argentinians (and others) in turning their backs on leftist economics. Indeed outside some developing economies (including China perhaps), there seems to be no example of a successful economy that has abandoned neoliberal tenets. Even Scandinavian economies have tilted in the neoliberal direction in the last decades. And yet things are clearly not right in most neoliberal economies, including Britain’s. A lot of this has to do with pressure on those with middle and lower incomes, and in the phenomenon of left-behind places: middling and smaller towns, and rural areas. It will be interesting to understand how Australia has met these challenges, if, indeed, it has.

Where is the light for towns like Wakefield?

Last week I spent a few days in Wakefield, a small city to the east of Leeds in West Yorkshire. The economic fortunes of such small towns in Britain is one of the big issues in British public policy. I am still searching for the answers.

Wakefield goes back at least to that era which Britons refer to as the Dark Ages – after the Romans left and England was subject to invasion successively by Anglo-Saxons and Danes. The Normans proceeded to raze it to the ground in the Harrying of the North, after William the Conqueror took over in 1066. But its geographical location, at an important crossing of the River Calder, a navigable waterway, ensured its future. The Normans built two castles there. It prospered as a port serving the wool and tanning trades. This economic success continued into the industrial revolution, when its river connections were boosted by canals. It flourished as an agricultural trading centre. It diversified into textiles, coal (mined nearby) and glass, and became an important administrative centre. Its grand church (the tallest spire in Yorkshire) became a cathedral with its own bishop in 1888, and City status soon followed.

Alas this has fallen apart. The coal, glass and textiles industries were wiped out in the 1980s, usually blamed on the policies of Margaret Thatcher, but in fact the result of changes to technology, assisted by globalisation. It lost its bishop in 2014. The town looks rather sad today. There are plentiful vacant spaces used as car parks. Empty shops scar its streets. Benefits are claimed by about 18% of the population, compared to the English average of 13.5%. Unemployment is higher than average, though, according to the claimant count (4.3%), far from catastrophic. There are few immigrants living there – a sure sign of a weak economy (though our hotel cleaners were east European). We could buy about ten houses of the same size from the current value of our London home. Let’s not overdo this. It it did not appear to be a disaster area. It was easy to find nice places to eat in the town centre. But our hotel (part of a characterless budget chain) was the only central one we could find. There were other hotels on the outskirts: a bleak land of dual carriageways, roundabouts, retail parks and industrial estates, dominated by national chains, doing things as cheaply as possible, and sending the surplus elsewhere.

Quite a bit has been spent on redevelopment. The town centre has a smart shopping mall (albeit with quite a few empty shops), and the central square looks newly revamped. The cathedral has been very tastefully restored and modernised, with some lovely new furnishings, and is an uplifting space. Above all there is the Hepworth, which was why we visited. This is a modern gallery that celebrates Barbara Hepworth, the sculptor and artist, who was born and brought up in Wakefield. This is a lovely building on the town’s otherwise derelict riverside – and a world-class gallery, taking advantage of many years of collecting by its unprepossessing but imaginative predecessor, the Wakefield Art Gallery (converted from terraced houses) – and the generosity of local artists like Hepworth and Henry Moore, who was born and brought up in nearby Castleford. The dedication to art does not end there. A few miles from the town there is the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) – an outstanding collection of sculpture and other art, in the setting of an old country park – and another reason for our visit.

But how far can you regenerate a town on art? There did not appear to be many jobs in it. No flourishing urban environment has developed around the Hepworth in the manner of London’s South Bank, in spite of its riverside location. The same can be said for the YSP, which barely keeps a couple of snack bars going, in spite of its many visitors – though a posh hotel and conference centre is under development. The nearby motorway service area on the M1 motorway may do more business than both of these facilities put together.

So Wakefield has achieved a sort of economic mediocrity. There are jobs, and not just in the usual services, but it is not prospering. One clear weakness is the lack of a university (unlike nearby Leeds, and even Huddersfield, another smaller town nearby). Education should be at the heart of a modern economy. There is a decent further education college – but this is a neglected sector in Britain’s education system, starved by government austerity even as schools and universities have prospered.

The town must aspire to better. The weakness of such towns drives much of the foul political mood in not just Britain. People there feel left behind and neglected by metropolitan types who promise much and deliver little (or so it appears to their residents). New jobs tend to be poor quality; capital sends its rewards to the big metropolises or to offshore tax havens. Surely there is untapped human capital here? How can local networks be revived to counter the giant national and global networks that will otherwise suck these places dry? Too many economists are sinking into pessimism. A recent article in the Economist compared the fate of less-skilled humans to that of horses, which became obsolete a century ago. Is the weakness of such centres an inevitable consequence of the march of automation and an obsession with productivity?

I’m not convinced. I see too many jobs that need doing that are being neglected – in education, health, social care and local services generally – and in the world’s large but hollow corporations and state agencies, who pass the buck rather than solve problems. The liberal market economy, so favoured by the conventional wisdom of the 1990s and 2000s is failing – just as the publicly directed command economy has failed before it. But what to do? Local currencies perhaps? This approach is favoured by new economy thinkers like David Boyle – and regular commenter to this blog Peter Martin. Perhaps it is worth a try, but I suspect that political power structures must be altered first. It is no accident that countries with a highly devolved political culture, like Switzerland and Germany, are faring better than centralised polities like Britain and France. Though that is not enough – as the fortunes of the highly devolved United States shows. You need a strong social safety net too.

If I was trying to make something of Wakefield, I would start with its further education college. It has failed in a bid to acquire university status – but Britain needs world-class technical training for less academic young people and adults. Surely building on neglected human capital must be a large part of any solution? But that needs a strong state to provide up front payment and carry risk – and the state is weakening.

So a larger state, but not one dominated by giant agencies with Key Performance Indicators and lacklustre management; local democracy that does not turn into cronyism and mediocrity; thriving businesses that recycle their surpluses locally rather than send them elsewhere. A big challenge, but the future of  liberalism depends on it.


Cuba: a lesson in the successes and failures of socialism

Australia CubaA week ago I returned from a two week holiday in Cuba. As always, there is a limit to what you can learn from a holiday, which tends to focus on the positive, and where deeper analysis is not the point. But there is nothing like seeing a place to get a clearer picture of it. So, what did I learn?

Cuba is a socialist country, following a Soviet economic model shortly after its revolution in 1959. The state dominates all activity; private businesses are allowed, but only in highly restricted contexts, such as tourist services. The state places a huge emphasis on universal services: health care, education, and a system of basic rations intended to ensure that everybody has the bare necessities. The government claims that homelessness and unemployment are rare – though overcrowding and underemployment is another matter. There is no commercial advertising; instead the are political slogans everyway, often featuring the revolutionary icon Ché Guevara, and also Fidel Castro and the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. These slogans generally claim that socialism is eternally victorious. It is not just the paintwork that is looking tired.

For jaded westerners, it is easy to see the positive aspects of this. Social welfare looks a lot better than for most poor countries. The universal services are certainly popular, and confer legitimacy for the regime. When comparing the country to its Caribbean or Central American neighbours, it is easy to see the bright side. The worst effects of poverty are ameliorated, including with very low levels of crime (compare that to Jamaica or Guatemala), though policing does not seem heavy handed (underemployment does not mean hordes of armed men everywhere, like in Egypt, for example). Health services are reputed to be better than many richer countries.

But a second reaction leaves you confronting the fact that the country remains very poor. The sight of people occupying crumbling buildings in Havana is quite shocking. Most rural dwellings have hardly moved on from shanty-towns. And the flip side to that is that productivity is woeful. We saw ploughs still being pulled by oxen, and horses were a common means of transport in rural areas. Every toilet has its attendant to hand out meagre supplies of toilet paper (and expecting a tip); workmen always came in groups; guards, often scarcely awake, watched over things that hardly needed guarding.

And the productivity is much worse than the use of too many people to do simple jobs. Whole businesses have collapsed, most visibly in agriculture. Perfectly viable land is untilled; factories are derelict. We visited a sugar plantation (called Australia) that has ceased to function as anything other than a tourist spot, offering short rides on steam trains. (That’s where the picture is from, of people sitting outside a derelict factory building – quite a good metaphor for the Cuban economy, I thought). Those trains were the only functioning ones we saw – yet there were plenty of railways.

Agriculture, infrastructure and industry are not the only places where work is not being done. Many apartment blocks in Havana look close to collapse – though many were clearly once magnificent. And new homes are not being built. A country that has a vaunted system of education, that can turn out good quality medical staff in quantity, can surely do much, much better than this?

The official blame is heaped on America, and its extensive system of sanctions that make it very hard for any western business to trade with it. That excuse is not without merit. Doubtless many critical bits of equipment or services became unobtainable directly, and indirectly through lack of foreign currency from exports. For a couple of decades the Soviet Union was able to partially make up for this – but its products were sub-standard, except for weaponry. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba nearly followed it. It says much for the strength of the Cuban regime that it has survived.

Survival in the 21st Century, in the face of US sanctions (which remain as the Congress must approve their lifting) has become much easier, however. China has developed an economy which is not beholden to the US, and Cuba has taken advantage. Our perfectly functional and modern tourist buses were Chinese made. China has also enabled many other parts of the world economy become less beholden to the US – and the influence of other countries (notably Spain) is visible.  There is a viable non US eco-system.

But Cuba clearly wrestles with a much deeper problem: the complete failure of a non-capitalist system to be able to do more than a very few things at a time well. It is to Cuba’s leaders’ credit that, unlike the Soviet Union, they chose universal health care over weaponry as the state’s top priority, but that only gets you so far.

The Cuban state must embrace capitalism if it is to improve its citizens’ lot. There are already role models out there: China and Vietnam, which show that you don’t have to scrap the socialist planned economy at the same time, contrary to western conventional wisdom of the 1990s. (Experts used to say that an economy couldn’t be half capitalist like a woman could not be half pregnant; Russia followed that advice with catastrophic consequences; China ignored it). And Cuba has started to do it, allowing the tourist industry, in particular, to grow. Private bed and breakfasts, restaurants and tourist shops abound, and show that Cubans have plenty of commercial flair. Less than vibrant, but successful enough, the Cuban government has set up joint ventures with commercial companies to build and run large hotels (though it must be added that individual members of hotel staff were generally very helpful, even if the system as whole never quite worked as it was supposed to).

But these developments need to go much, much further. They must embrace large enterprises, in the building industry, and export industries, including agriculture. Of course, Cuba needs to be careful here. Big multinationals can hollow countries out with soulless plantations that add very little human value while syphoning away most of the cash. But the country still needs commercial efficiency on a large scale. Which means less government interference. The government seems divided on how to go forward.

Would an embrace of capitalism lead to a political opening? China and Vietnam seem to show that this not necessarily the case. My guess is that the success of universal services (surely at least as good as China’s?)  will leave the communist regime with enough political legitimacy to survive, so long as these do not fall into decline.  That will be a challenge, of course, as rates of pay in public services will have to rise as the private sector competes for jobs. Medical professionals are paid pathetically little. Cuba’s populace, like China’s, may have grown out of the communists’ political rhetoric, but neither would they see a compelling need to rock the boat if the economy was successful.

It would, of course, be much better if Cuba could embrace political reform too. While they have much to learn from China, no doubt, they should also cast a glance to Costa Rica, much closer in size and geography. That country has shown the virtue of keeping the Yankees at arms’ length, while adopting many of their ways.

And as a holiday destination? Thoroughly recommended. It is a beautiful country, much of it unspoilt; its people know how to make you welcome; notwithstanding the dead hand of government, it is a cheerful and vibrant place. But think about the time of year. In May it was already getting a bit hot and sticky. February is probably best, but that is also peak tourist time.



Barcelona: Europe’s capital of modernism

The outside of the Sagrada Familia, approaching its Nativity Façade,IMG_3083 was extraordinary but somehow familiar. It has become Barcelona’s most famous landmark. But I was not ready for the inside. The soaring columns; the vaults like a giant forest canopy; the different coloured light coming in through the stained glass windows. This basilica seems little more than half-finished but it completely overshadows the city’s fine and (mainly) medieval cathedral. And that is evident from the numbers who go and see it. That sums up Barcelona very nicely.

Last week was my first visit to the city. What struck me most was how at ease the place is with the modern. Two eras stand out. First was the later part of the 19th Century and early 20th. This was the when the Sagrada was started, and, in common with many major European cities, Barcelona exploded in size. The genius of architect Antoni Gaudi stands out, but the general self-confidence and exuberance of the architecture is striking. By comparison London building of the era seems obsessed with past forms, from medieval Gothic, to classical to, even, old Venetian architecture. Meanwhile Gaudi’s naturalistic forms foreshadowed Art Nouveau, and now look timeless. For much of the 20th Century, when Fascists and Communists held the initiative, brutal straight lines and right angles held sway, in an effort to show the superiority of human endeavour over the natural world – and Gaudi’s modernism looked whimsical and irrational. And yet there is nothing whimsical or irrational about natural forms. Gaudi’s architecture is functional and his forms resolve to simple mathematical principles. Nowadays we understand this better, and the Sagrada’s interior looks uncompromisingly modern. Such vision, lasting over such a stretch, is rare. London never truly embraced this sort of modernism. Paris dismantled much of its wonderful Art Nouveau pieces, like its Metro station entrances. Viennas’ Secession movement fared better, perhaps, but the surviving examples have the air of museum exhibits.

Barcelona’s second period of modernist self-confidence started in the 1980s, after the pall of civil war and fascism was lifted, and was revealed to the world at the Barcelona Olympics of 1992. This second period has not ended. Apart from accelerated progress on the Sagrada, and its successful integration of Gaudi’s vision with modern engineering, there is a lot of confident modern work. This is most visible on the coastal part of the city. This stretches from the beach-side facilities and marinas with their focus on leisure, to the highly impressive modern port facilities. And in the suburbs there are modern residential areas, smart modern factories, and sweeping roads and bridges. Barcelona is an old city. At its heart there are ancient buildings and narrow medieval streets, all built on Roman era foundations. But I have not seen such an ancient place wear its modernity with such ease.

What of Barcelona’s politics? It is hard for a tourist to say much based on a week’s visit, simply looking tourist sites. The Catalan independence flag, the Estelada, was everywhere though. The evident strength of the Catalan independence movement draws an obvious parallel with that of Scotland in the UK. But I was struck by its different historical origins.

Catalonia is an older political entity than Spain itself, but has never had a period of full independence. Its spell as part of Moorish Al-Andalus was brief; its political origins were as a frontier region of Charlemagne’s Christian empire, and as such it looked to France for political and cultural leadership. This was not the case with all of modern Catalonia, it must be said, as the southern regions remained under the Moors for much longer, but it was true of Barcelona, which emerged as the area’s principal city. The connection with southern France was much diminished after the crushing of the Cathars in the 13th Century.

Catalonia developed its own political structures in the medieval periods, including a proto-parliament, and became part of the wider political entity of Aragon. It flourished as a trading entrepot, until it was eclipsed by ports with better access to the New World.  In the 15th Century, with the Moors being pushed back towards Granada, Aragon and Castile were united to form the basis of modern Spain. Spain in turn formed part of the wider Habsburg empire. These political entities were sensitive to local political structures,however – more resembling the union of British crowns under the Stuarts in the 17th Century than the United Kingdom of the Act of Union. But the Spanish Bourbon monarchy which replaced the Habsburgs in War of Spanish Succession, and in particular the crushing of Barcelona on 11 September 1714, after a long siege, brought an end to that. Catalan patriots date the era of Spanish oppression from this infamous date. Catalonia regained a degree of autonomy in the 19th Century during Spain’s political turmoil, and when industrialisation took off. This was crushed by General Franco’s Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939.

But, of course, the picture is complex one. Barcelona drew in migrants from all over Spain. Its cosmopolitanism no doubt contrasts with the rural conservatism of Catalonia’s Pyrenean villages. I can’t begin to predict how Catalonia’s future will play out. What I can say is that Barcelona’s modernism, and its whole feel, is very different from the rest of Spain. It feels closer to the heart of Europe. And it is a wonderful place to visit.


Austria: a social democracy that works

IMG_0311I have been on holiday to St Wolfgang in Austria in the last two weeks, which explains why I have not posted anything recently (NB the picture is of nearby Hallstatt, not St Wolfgang). This holiday was mainly about fresh air and relaxation. Political reflection was not on the agenda – but I just can’t help myself. Austria is a very interesting political case study.

The country is an overlooked success story. The area that we visited, the Salzkammergut, was pristine. Everything was neat and tidy. The state of public infrastructure, from roads to public footpaths, was excellent as well as highly extensive (hot water is supplied communally, for example – not to mention all those well marked and maintained foot and cycle paths)). This was a major tourist region, but no Cornwall, with tourist affluence co-existing alongside poverty. There was plenty of local industry, and quality medium-level jobs, tucked away on the edges of the villages.

Economic statistics bear this success story out. Income per head in 2013 was 11th highest in the world, according to the IMF – behind the USA, but comfortably ahead of Britain. Unemployment is low (4.7%), the trade balance is positive (2.9% of GDP), and there is a reasonable level of growth (1.4%). The government is in deficit, but the level of 2.8% of GDP looks much better than  Britain (4.6%). This is in spite of a high tax take (43% in 2012 according to the Heritage Foundation, compared to 39% in Britain and 27% in the USA). According to the OECD the Gini coefficient, measuring income inequality, was 0.261 after taxes and transfers, one of the lowest (i.e. most equal) in that group (Britain is 0.345, the US 0.378). The really interesting thing about this statistic is that this level of equality has been attained through redistribution. Before tax and transfers Austria’s Gini is 0.472, similar to that of the USA (0.486) and Britain (0.456). Austria taxes the wealthy highly and has a generous level of social security. It is a beacon of social democracy.

This is interesting because we are constantly told by economic liberals that high taxes and high social security is the path to doom and poverty. And, to challenge another piece of received economic wisdom, it does not even have its own currency, being part of the Euro zone. In America, you only have to mention “Europe” to a Republican, and it conjures up an image of economic failure. And yet Austria is no economic failure. It is not like France or Italy, whose economies are struggling. Why is Austria so successful? Well, I don’t know the country that well – but let me make three observations.

The first is that power is highly decentralised. Austria itself is not a large country, with 8.5 million people. It nevertheless has a Federal constitution, with nine states. These are highly visible on the ground (we were staying within a few hundred metres of the boundary between Upper Austria and Salzburg; we also visited Styria), on car number plates, and so forth. Local municipalities levy a payroll tax (about 3%) and as well as property taxes. In Britain, at least, there is a tendency to think that social democracy implies highly centralised governance, as shown by the last Labour governments highly prescriptive diktats on local government.

The second observation is that civic society is clearly very strong. You don’t achieve Austrian levels of order by government diktat and regulations alone. This requires active civic engagement – a bit like David Cameron’s “Big Society”. But what Mr Cameron failed to grasp is that big government (if highly localised) and high civic engagement work well together. Indeed, Austria’s political system looks like a bit of a stitch-up (two dull establishment parties, challenged by right-wing mavericks) – I am sure that it is high civic engagement that holds government services and public infrastructure to account, rather than the electoral process by itself. Again, Britain’s social democrats tend to view civic society as interfering busybodies with a NIMBYist agenda.

So far, this picture reinforces Liberal Democrats conventional wisdom: strong local government, linked to a high level of community engagement. The catch is my third observation: Austrian political culture is not liberal. In fact we would regard it as distinctly nasty. Ukip supporters would feel comfortable here (if you exclude the small government types). Unlike Germany, there is no public angst about Austria’s Nazi episode – though the country was highly complicit (Hitler was an Austrian after all). Immigrants face hostility. Austrians are very hospitable to visitors (more so, in my direct experience, than the Swiss, for example); but visitors go home and do not challenge for jobs and political influence. We did not see much sign of foreign staff in the restaurants and hotels – you meet more Poles in Cornwall. The EU is regarded with suspicion, if not hostility – even if it is accepted as an inevitability. Social attitudes tend to be conservative. In the hotels, the men tended to have the more authoritative jobs, with women running around as skivvies – though the shops tended to be run by highly capable women.

Perhaps the biggest question for British liberals is this. A fairer distribution of wealth and jobs seems to flow from strong local government, based on strong local communities; but is this compatible with more fluid liberal, human-rights based values? Or must strong liberal social values lead to economic liberalism, and the unequal, hollowed out society that seems to be taking root in the US, for example. Can you be both social democratic and liberal at the same time? To that critical question Austria does not provide an answer.

Prague: world city

PragueFrom Dresden, we went by train to Prague. After Germany, it was a bit of a shock. Within minutes of arrival we had been ripped of by both the forex desk and the taxi drivers. We were driven through some seedy looking streets to a rather seedy-looking apartment. After a week of Germany, it felt that we had been dropped straight into the Third World.

Some of this was just lack of acclimatisation. The apartments soon looked characterful rather than seedy, being in a genuinely old building. And it had functional wifi, unlike both of our otherwise highly functional German apartments. Prague is not remotely German. The streets are untidy, but they were also bursting with life. It seemed like you could buy anything. Sex shops were common, and the food shops seemed to devote most of their space to booze.

Tourists were everywhere. The locals did not even attempt to speak Czech – and I’m afraid I didn’t either, not even a thank you in the local language, which I usually manage. Visitors crowded around the various outstanding tourist favourites: Charles Bridge, the Castle, and the Old Town Square. Beyond these they seemed more interested in eating, drinking, shopping and having fun, rather than taking in their astonishing surroundings.

Prague’s buildings escaped serious damage in the war, unlike Germany’s (or Poland’s, Hungary’s or Russia’s, to name a few). The Communists did not have the resources to do mass redevelopment. The result is that the city is left with a huge variety of old buildings. These cover a very wide range of dates. There are the medieval gates, and the 16th, 17th and 18th century churches and palaces. But also there are a lot of 19th century buildings, including many Art Nouveau ones from the late 19th and early 20th century. The sheer extent of these old buildings is breathtaking. Before the war, Prague was one of many beautiful old European cities. Now it gives you an idea of how much has been lost in that orgy of destruction.

Unlike the buildings, the people were not so lucky. The Nazi occupation was brutal, especially after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in the city in 1942. Prague synagogueThe previously flourishing Jewish community was mostly murdered or driven out. Quite by accident we found the Jerusalem Synagogue. We could not resist going in, where we found a display on the history of the Jewish community after the war. We need to remember that the persecution of Jews, up to and including further murders, did not end with the war. This was especially if they tried to reclaim their property. The idea that one of history’s great wrongs had been done to the Jewish people was slow to develop. The Communists continued to discriminate against Jews right up to the liberation. It may be that without the central focus provided by the Zionists and Israel the Holocaust would have been lost amid the many other appalling acts of the 20th Century. Though we gentile Europeans draw a rather different lesson from that crime than do the Zionists, they were right to raise our consciousness of it, and it has shaped the way we view ourselves and the world profoundly.

So Prague is a treasure trove of old buildings and artefacts from a lost age. But, like so many other European cities, it also reminds us of our chequered past. It deserves to be one of the most visited cities in the world. Perhaps it’s a shame that so many of them are more interested in shopping, sex and booze than in history – but maybe their money helps keep the memories alive.

Dresden: reclaiming old glory

Desden FrauenkircheIn my post on Berlin, I suggested that the British bombing of German civilians in the Second World War might be considered a crime. The most cited case of egregious bombing by the British occurred with the attack on Dresden on 13/14 February 1945, which caused a firestorm, mass death and the destruction of one of the most beautiful cities in Germany. People still argue over the rights and wrongs of that event, but either way it hangs over the city that we visited after Berlin, at Easter time this year.

The Germans have done much to restore the city’s outward appearance. Most of the impetus came after German reunification. The Communists had a rather ambiguous attitude to restoration, destroying many historic sites to create a modern, socialist metropolis – though they did some restoration too. But what they build was mediocre. Now the classical facades have been replaced with modern imitations. Behind them are smart, modern shops and apartments; beneath them are underground car parks. And there are still whole blocks that are just holes in the ground. Some of the iconic older buildings have been restored inside and out to varying degrees. So we has the royal palace complex, and the Catholic Hofkirche, amongst others. Blackened stoneware from old buildings has not been cleaned, as in Berlin, to act as a reminder of the past. It is still recognisably the same city that was memorably painted by Canaletto’s nephew Bernardo Bellotto (who also used his uncle’s name). It has retained the open, spacious feeling, dominated by the Elbe river, of the old town, which acquired its character in Enlightenment times – it is not a modernised medieval city, like Prague (or London, come to that).

So there is much to see and admire – much more than you think has survived or has been restored from what we generally assume from accounts of the bombing. What is more the collections of the Electors and Kings of Saxony had been moved to safety before the attack, and have mostly been returned (they were largely in Russian custody after the war – so this could not be assumed). So the museums are well stocked – with wonderful examples of old art, porcelain and scientific instruments, as well as some important modern works. The locals are friendlier than in Berlin, too, and museum officials less officious. With two full days we left much to see for another visit.

Of course the bombing and reconstruction is a moving enough story in its own right. The most moving element of this is the story of the Frauenkirche. This magnificent edifice, the largest Lutheran church in Germany (and so the world?) was the city’s pride. It collapsed into a heap of rubble the day after the bombing, and was left as a pile of rubble until the 1990s. A massive restoration effort was completed in 2005, pretty much stone for stone. The old stones left blackened, the new ones are gleaming pale gold. The interior (pictured) is a wonder. Freshly painted and gleaming it perhaps gives a vision of what its 18th century creators intended – in a way that a building that had survived from that time would not. It is magnificent.

As we Europeans come to terms with our history, at times creating magnificent monuments and works of art, at others engaging in wonton destruction, Dresden is a good place for us to reflect on who we are, and, I hope, for non-Europeans to learn from our achievements and our mistakes.

Berlin: Germany faces its history

Berlin concert houseI’m just back from an Easter break in Berlin, Dresden and Prague. I will post on each of these cities, starting today with Berlin.

This was my first visit to the city for 30 years – last time it was still divided by the wall. I hardly recognised it. We spent most of our time in the old east, staying in a done-up Communist-era apartment very close to the site of the wall, near the Brandenburg Gate. The old east is where most of the government and official buildings were, so it is no surprise that it is now where most of the tourist sites are. It is a bit of a building site, and still a little, well, without the bustle you would expect from such an iconic city.

What eastern Berlin does have is a lot of spectacular old buildings in the classical style being restored from shabby and decaying blackened relics, to smart and shiny wonders. This is most spectacular in the Museum Island, where a series of post 1871 edifices in stone veneered brick, and in classical style, are in the process of restoration. It is the site of spectacular exhibits of reconstructed elements of the Babylon gate and Pergamon temple – and, of course, the bust of Nefertiti (which lives up to all the hype – it’s my favourite thing to have come out of ancient Egypt).

As an amateur writer I am sorely tempted to turn this process into some sort of metaphor, something to do with Germany scrubbing its history clean, restoring things that were a bit fake in the first place, to show off pillaged treasures (not that we Brits can complain on that last score). But what the Germans are doing with their history is something much more interesting than any such trite metaphors can convey.

Berlin has a series of museums and monuments that exhibit aspects of German history. We saw the museum of the DDR, about the communist era. There is a very popular museum about the wall. We also went to the Soviet war memorial, which features a series of display boards at the back about the war and war memorials in general (a lot of men in uniforms, one of our party noted, with only one picture of women, grieving over the bodies of the murdered). The tone is relentlessly objective; nothing seemed to be particularly concealed or glossed over.

This process of facing up to a country’s history, treating it as a subject of objective examination and analysis, is very striking, and remarkable even in the modern world, though it is one of my major passions. Even in modern Britain, our Education Secretary, Michael Gove, seems to favour the teaching of a sanitised, propaganda version of British history… And as for Japan… or China… or Russia… Germany itself took quite a while to get there. Post war there was a tendency to gloss over awkward aspects, and to treat the country as more victim than perpetrator. But the county’s overwhelming desire, and need, to reconcile with its neighbours, and its own eastern and western zones, made such a stance unsupportable. So they are going for objectivity now.

This must be welcomed. I wish we all did this. But I can’t help noticing that this turns history into an object of curiosity, rather than something of meaning and passion. The Soviet war memorial used to be protected by soldiers and barbed wire (Soviet soldiers with British ones to protect them!), and drew protest marches. Now the soldiers are gone and children play on the old pieces of artillery. A powerful symbol becomes another stop on the tourist itinerary. I suppose this is for the better, but I do wish that history could both have meaning and be treated objectively. I nearly wrote “dispassionately” instead of “objectively” – which sums up the problem rather well.

Gypsy memorial BerlinBut this isn’t quite fair. Near the Brandenburg Gate we visited a shrine to the murdered gypsies of the Nazi era; a simple circular pool. We did not have time to visit the memorial to the Jewish Holocaust victims, though we could see it from our apartment. That is a vast collection of stone blocks without words. These silent, wordless memorials are appropriately moving, and stir the deeper sort of thoughts that words cannot. As a permanent part of the centre of Germany’s capital city, they seem to say “We will not allow ourselves to forget”. If that diminishes Germany’s standing in one way, as the guilt is allowed to linger, on balance it strengthens it, by saying that “We are facing up to our history”.

It would be nice to have something like this in London to mark our own nation’s crimes. The African slave trade; the Indian famines and massacres; and dare I say the indiscriminate bombing of German civilians. But we are too proud to do this, especially the last. But Germany’s way is surely the path to a better future, and the only way that we can truly mark the modern age as being an advance on what went before.


Copenhagen: home from home

Sand scupture in Copenhagen harbour

A question sometimes arises among Britain’s beleaguered Europhiles.  Should the sceptics get their way, and the UK drop out of the EU (and no doubt losing Scotland with it), where do we emigrate to escape this sclerotic mean-minded land?  There are some popular choices: Paris, perhaps, or the French Midi; Spain’s Costa del Sol or Portugal’s Algarve; and Italy’s Tuscany for the chattering set.  After a visit there last weekend I now know where I want to go: Copenhagen.

A first attraction is anonymity (mine, that is).  It’s a place where people of my complexion and (lack of) dress sense don’t stand out, and the range of body shapes will make all feel at ease.  Unlike France or Italy, and without seeking British ghettos in Spain.  Typically the locals would open a conversation with us in Danish, asssuming that we are one of them.  This is unsurprising, perhaps, since so many of us English are descended from Anglo-Saxon and Danish-Viking stock, both genetically indistinguishable from current Danes (and each other).  Everybody speaks English, many perfectly, and don’t seem to mind (unlike the French, for example) .  Of course, if I emigrated I would need to pick up Danish – but this does not look such a hard language to learn (though my wife is not so sure!).  At first it sounds alien (oddly more so than French or Italian) but you soon find tht we share  many words – and it is much less daunting than German.

There is an inevitable comparison with Stockholm, which we visited a couple of years ago.

Copenhagen’s old architecture: the Borse

There too we were often mistaken for natives, English is widely spoken, and the language is part of the same family (as is Norwegian).  Copenhagen lacks Stockholm’s dramatic highlights: the island of Gamla Stam with its old buildings and palace: the cliffs; the nearby archipeligo; or the Wasa museum.  But outside these highlights Stockholm soon fades into something a bit ordinary.  There is much more to Copenhagen.  Wonderful old buildings (mainly 19th century, since the city has repreatedly been burnt down – but in good taste) in a distinctive Danish style – it is more difficult to define an equivalent Swedish style.  There is a lot of newer building too, though, again as in Stockholm, this often fits less happily.  The canals and islands and the harbour give the place character, if not quite as dramatically as in Stockholm.

There are all manner shops, displaying goods of often equisite taste (favourite this trip the jewellers Georg Jensen).  And plenty of wonderful food, from the famous pastries and rye bread (we took home a loaf to prolong the experience) to many good restaurants.  All three of our restaurant meals were of excellent standard, though the menus can be a bit limited.  We knew about the pork and the seafood – but the excellence of the beef was a surprise.

There is plenty to do.  The number of museums and art galleries is quite overwhelming,

The Mermaid is a distraction for tourists

and we hardly touched the surface.  Mind you we weren’t that taken with the National Museum – which seemed badly designed by our standards.  Lots of exhibits without clear narrative structure – less would have been more.  The Mermaid is a bit of a silly tourist distraction – but it serves to get the tourists out of the town centre.

And though these should not been taken for granted here, as anywhere, liberal values were on display.  Cycling is very well provided for, with clearly demarcated cycle lanes.  If there isn’t space for both cars and bikes, it seems, the cars are pushed out and the street pedestrianised.  And the Danish attitude to cycling is different to ours.  We dress up to cycle, with helmets, high vis jackets, and lycra for show offs.  They just hop on a bike as they are, with a small number of helmets on show.  Many don’t even bother to lock their bikes up – and when they do they usually use simple locks on the wheels, rather than massive things chaining everything to everything.  Crime seems less of problem – though homelessness was not.  Public transport – we mainly used the buses – was excellent.

There are cultural differences, left by the 1,000 years in which our cultures have been apart and any residual Celtic traces in ours.  There is much less jaywalking (though the traffic lights are better organised, with less waiting around as each stream is given its exclusive turn) – though as here the cyclists push the boundaries harder.  It was a bit of shock to see middle aged couples sitting down to drink beer at cafes at 10 in the morning.  Their sense of humour is a bit strange.  In the National Museum there was a series of spoof commentaries in the prehistory section, which were mainly tiring and unfunny – though the exhibit of an ancient mermaid skeleton dug up from a bog was well done.

And Copenhagen’s transport connections are good with the wider world, closer to the rest of Europe than other Scandinavian capitals.  No doubt the place gets a bit cold, damp and dark in the winter (as our expectations have been managed by The Killing), but a temporary escape does not look too hard.   This is a place where I could live happily.

There was one slightly jarring note as we left.  Sitting down for lunch at the Seafood Bar in the departure lounge at the airport and looking round, we couldn’t see anything Danish at all.  All the signage and advertising was in English; all the brands were familiar international ones, including the only Starbucks we saw on our trip; the bar staff spoke English to each other and struggled with Danish speaking customers.  Apart from the fact that it was modern, clean and gleeming, we could have been in a British airport.  I couldn’t even find a Danish eatery to have a Danish sandwich, though we found one later, out of the way.  This was too much of a home from home.