The great German weekly newspaper Die Zeit leads this week with two articles placed side by side. The first has to do with the current problems between the governing coalition partners and the apparent lack of leadership from the Bundeskanzlerin, Angela Merkel; the second is about the hidden power of Google. At first I wondered why they had been put together on the front page, but then I began to understand.
There is a bit of a crisis in Germany over how the Schwarz-Gelb (conservative-liberal) coalition can hold together. They are arguing about everything and a crisis summit is about to take place. However, the real pressure is on Angela Merkel who has remained remarkably quiet and ‘absent’ in recent weeks while the arguments raged around her. It is her leadership style that is now in question.
Merkel’s ‘reserved’ style was welcome after Germany’s electorate had grown fed up of years of endless conflict and controversy. But, as the world around has changed in the last couple of years, this style of leadership has (according to some commentators) led to a vacuum in orientation or leadership of the governing class. What was appropriate in the last Great Coalition is proving inadequate in the new coalition in which the two small parties (CSU and FDP) are at odds with each other and are not being brought to book.
Furthermore, Merkel’s style was helpful in her other role as leader of her party, the CDU. She faces the same problem as David Cameron in the UK: how do you modernise a conservative party without alienating your reactionary core and still remain electable as a coherent party? Quietly-quietly served her well in the last government, but it is coming apart now.
Obviously more could be said about this, but I want to move on. Leadership is a tough matter at the best of times and any leader knows how fickle the ‘led’ can be: waving in support one minute and calling for your head the next. Short-term memories on the part of the electorate do not always lead to good policy-making by those in charge. But Merkel’s plight (which Die Zeit partly attributes to her hands-off approach to the detailed negotiations of the coalition terms) highlights a problem for good leadership anywhere: how to recognise that a different style is now needed and to gauge whether or not I am equipped to offer it.
I have written about this in relation to the Archbishop of Canterbury, so won’t repeat it here. But, leadership is a lonely business, especially when trying to lead at the same time as ‘read the runes’ of the wider mood.
And how does this connect with Google? Well, the article about Google articulates a widespread concern in Germany (Der Spiegel ran it as its cover story last week) that Google knows too much about us all and that this is dangerous. This debate has been running in the UK, too, but it is set against a historical backdrop in Germany that gives it a particular significance if not poignancy. (Interestingly, Spiegel is also suspicious about Google’s weak challenge to the Chinese…)
The link between the two articles (in my mind, at least) is this: how do leaders identify the really important issues that demand their attention? Helmut Schmidt has this week noted the return of the bonus culture amongst bankers and said that the seeds of the next financial crisis have been sown in thsi one because we understand more, but refuse to face the need for radical change. So, the financial crisis is up their with bankers’ bonuses. Then there are the economic and ecological challenges to our world and our societies. There is no end to the list of demanding ‘issues’ – and, as I have observed elsewhere, leaders are regarded as ‘leading’ only when they are shouting loudly what ‘I’ want to hear them say.
While Merkel and other government leaders (including in the UK) find all sorts of issues to concern them and dominate their agendas, there is one that seems to draw attention only from sections of the media and interest groups: the surveillance culture. Even the Church preoccupies itself with a limited list of ‘moral issues’ - sex is always at the top despite Jesus saying little about it; money is much lower down although Jesus said loads about it – while ignoring the tough ones that are more hidden.
Well, I want to stand with the editors of Die Zeit (whether they intended the link or not) and put a challenge to government (and other) leaders to take seriously developments in our surveillance society and put it higher up the list of ‘moral issues’ that demand attention. In the hands of a benign government there might be little to lose from being ‘watched’; but the potential for misuse of information is enormous even in such a society as ours.
So, how about some leadership in relation to the UK government’s will to retain email and mobile information, to collect and retain DNA samples from everybody imaginable, to photograph people in London over 300 times a day from ubiquitous cameras, and to retain as much information on everybody in as compact a manner as possible? Given the interconnectedness of the modern digital world and the propensity of human beings to misuse power in the interests of power, this is a debate that needs to be had now.