Liberal Brits got a welcome wake-up call yesterday, when the woman they’ve been calling the leader of the free world voted against Gay Marriage. ‘For me, marriage in law should be between a man and a woman, and that’s why I didn’t vote in favour of this bill,’ said Angela Merkel, after the German parliament voted to legalise same-sex unions by 393 votes to 226.
All the usual suspects have been on Twitter, voicing their right-on indignation, but for anyone who knows anything about Merkel, the wonder is that anybody should be in the slightest bit surprised. The recent immigration crisis has made Merkel a hate figure for the British right and an unlikely heroine for the British left, but amid our Brexit furore an awful lot of Brits (left and right) seem to have forgotten that Merkel is leader of Europe’s most powerful and successful conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union.
The CDU has always been conservative on social issues, and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, even more so. In parliament, the CDU is split on same-sex marriage, which is why Merkel lifted the party whip and allowed a free ‘vote of conscience’ yesterday. However Merkel’s position is more in tune with CDU members, and her public opposition will do her no harm at all with her core support in September’s national elections. Her right hand man, Volker Kauder, who heads the CDU/CSU alliance in the Bundestag, echoed her sentiments. ‘On grounds of conscience, I won’t support anything that allows marriage except between a man and a woman,’ he said.
Merkel’s attitude to Gay Marriage is consistent with her position on other social issues. Last year she called for a burqa ban ‘wherever legally possible’ and she was a very late convert to full adoption rights for same-sex couples. Since she became Chancellor, in 2005, her stance on almost every issue, foreign and domestic, has been broadly conservative. She’s more Majorite than Blairite - the total antithesis of Corbyn. So why do British liberals revere her, and why do so many Tories regard her as their foe?
The answer, of course, is immigration. Merkel’s disastrous immigration policy let a million migrants into Germany, and quite possibly tipped the balance in last year’s Brexit vote. Yet Merkel didn’t let these migrants in for ideological reasons. Her motives were more pragmatic, an attempt at crisis management, and she’s since backtracked, vowing never to repeat this process, and more or less admitted that her open door strategy was a mistake.
The other reason Merkel has become a bogeywoman in Brexit Britain is that she’s regarded here as the de facto ruler of the EU. Again, this is a bit unfair. Merkel has never been an ardent Eurofederalist, and the Cameron government rightly regarded her as an ally. She’s certainly a lot less Europhile than her rival for the Chancellorship, Martin Schulz, leader of Germany’s Social Democrats. In Germany, where Euroscepticism remains verboten in mainstream politics, her attitude to the EU could best be described as neutral.
Merkel’s stance on Gay Marriage was undoubtedly sincere, but she’s also an astute tactician. Having seized the centre ground from the beleaguered SPD, she now needs to shore up her right wing, and make sure the CDU faithful turn out to vote for her in September. Beyond big cities like Berlin, Germany remains a distinctly traditional country. Voters in the Catholic South will approve of what she did this week, and vote to return her as their Chancellor.
In his Spectator Notes, Charles Moore observed that our last three Prime Ministers were all brought up in parsonages. He might have added that the German Chancellor had the same upbringing. Merkel’s father was a Lutheran Minister who left his comfortable home in West Germany, and went to live in East Germany to spread the Word of God. This Christian heritage is far more revealing of Merkel’s beliefs and character than the plaudits of British liberals. Tory Brexiteers may not warm to her - but when it comes to family values, the woman Germans call ‘Mutti’ is as conservative as they come.