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A Scandal in Bavaria (February 2007)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Political shenanigans in southern Germany may not be the issue on everyone's lips, but the Scots would do well to take note.


A tableau from the German news-magazine Spiegel: silver-haired gent in full soup and fish, wife in a Marilyn Monroe spray-on number (not a good idea), glare at a pretty, modestly-dressed woman in her forties.

Not a lot of attention has been paid in London to the traumas of the Bavarian government but the current upheavals - stemming from the eclipse of its strongman minister-president Edmund Stoiber through the Gabriele Pauli case - may be a pointer to where European as well as German politics are going. Even if Bavaria has always been somewhere else "where the clocks run to a different time".

In the late 1920s Edwin and Willa Muir translated Lion Feuchtwanger's work, Success - Three Years in the Life of a Province. It was about politics in Munich when the Hitler putsch of 1923 seemed an idiot intrusion. The real business was black Catholic conservatism in full intriguing flow. Feuchtwanger could have been writing about the last few weeks in Scotland's twin European region. These didn't just fell Stoiber but have destabilised the Freistaat - and the longer-term result may make some chances for devolved politics over here.

Stoiber was an acquired taste: an elegant, thin-lipped lawyer, "more Prussian than Bavarian", and a world apart from his mentor, Franz-Josef Strauss, who died in 1988. Strauss looked like a man who could clear out a Bierkeller in 10 minutes, bodies hurtling through the air, but he led the province's dramatic, conservative modernisation - laptop und lederhosen.

For 14 years Stoiber's authority was similarly unquestioned, and he took his party to nearly two-thirds of the Bavarian vote. The Christian Social Union began to be called the Bayrisches Einheitspartei ("Bavarian Unity Party") in a play on the late Erich Honecker's all-controlling Socialist Unity Party in East Germany.

And control all was what the CSU more or less did. Not just within the Freistaat. It and the GDR were economically linked, and the creaky Stalinist theme park survived through Strauss's secret deals, a story still suppressed. The former DDR head of foreign trade, Alex Schalk-Goludkowski, lives comfortably in a villa on the Tegernsee, south of Munich. Everyone knows why. Should this canary sing in court, many heads in Munich and Berlin would roll.

* * *

An ambitious regional boss bids for power on his economic record, and centre-region strains show up. Remind you of anyone? At federal level Bavarians don't bring luck. Strauss failed against Helmut Schmidt in 1980. Stoiber tried for Berlin in 2001 and the Houdini-like Gerhard Schröder dumbfounded him by winning after his rival had started celebrating his victory.

Angela Merkel, never to be underestimated, preferred a deal with the left to the prospect of Stoiber as economics superminister. He flounced out of Berlin, but lost credibility in Munich. The party basis (normally a bunch of Stein-banging extras in a tent) started to get organised for the first time in decades. Stoiber's office was found snooping on Gabriele Pauli, the good-looking deputy for Fürth, near Nuremberg, who was leading the inner-party opposition to him, and that was that.

Stoiber leaves office in September, with a vacuum behind him. He was a class act in a political milieu which, prosperity apart, is rather like west central Scotland, and his successor as minister-president, the current interior minister Gunter Beckstein, is a classic "wee hard man".

He was expected to coexist with his almost identikit ally, Erwin Huber, filling the party chair but the opposition wants the federal consumer minister, Horst Seehofer, who is progressive by CSU standards and indeed to the left of New Labour (not difficult). He has unfortunately just got his secret girlfriend pregnant (Bavarian Christians have lively social lives when not at mass) but is still in the running.

The CSU's right-wing clientele is drifting away: the refugee organisations could now "go back east" but won't; Catholic Europe has got a Bavarian pope, which rather gets in the way of Strauss's Bavarian-German-world role; for younger folk worried about incestuous business-bureaucrat relations and pollution, Green is becoming the new black. Berlin under Merkel and the Grand Coalition seems consensual, efficient, dull, more like Berne than Paris: no wonder the European constitution is coming back into view. And with it even the 'Europe of the Regions'?

* * *

Where does Scotland come in? Well, we're supposed to be a driving force of RegLeg, the consortium of 73 European regions with legislative powers, only Jack McConnell did little about this when he was chair in 2003-4.

Faced with stroppy grass-roots, Beckstein is already running into trouble, and polls show the CSU vote down from 66% to 45%. Yet Bavaria has the technology Scotland badly needs, from the labs and headquarters of hi-tech giants like Microsoft and BMW to Munich's ultra-modern S-bahn and trams: Stoiber was the only European politician out to build a Maglev line (to the Franz-Josef Strauss airport), of the sort the Conservatives suggest between Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Scots are still favoured, while Whitehall has disgraced itself by swingeing, boneheaded cuts in consular and British Council representation.

And the absence of Alpine snow until well into January suggests that Europe's cleverest tourist entrepreneurs will be worried men looking for pastures - and investment opportunities - new. Between now and May 3, for our local matadors, Munich will be worth a visit.

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