Scotsman to make history as state premier
Part of a new, increasingly diverse generation of German politicians, half-Scottish David McAllister is set to become the new premier of Lower Saxony. He spoke to The Local.
Barring an upset when Germany's Federal Assembly elects a new president on Wednesday, Christian Wulff will become the country's next head of state. But it's not only the outgoing premier of the northern German state of Lower Saxony looking to make history this week.
David McAllister, the son of a Scottish father serving with the British army in West Berlin and a German music teacher mother, is preparing to succeed Wulff at the helm of the state government in Hannover.
Not only will the conservative Christian Democrat (CDU) become the first British citizen to hold such high office in Germany, the 39-year-old will also become Germany's youngest ever state premier.
The man known to Lower Saxons as “Mac” spoke to The Local about his roots, British-German relations, immigrants in politics and the talk of his future candidacy for chancellor.
How have your name and heritage affected your career?
Not at all. I have both passports but I’m more or less completely German. I’ve lived in Germany all my life. I did all my school in Germany and my military service in Germany.
I’m aware of my Scottish roots and of course if you have a name like McAllister, you’re reminded every day, because you’ve always got to spell your name, pronounce your name correctly and answer the same questions: Do you wear a kilt? Do you play bagpipes?
But never has it had any effect on my political work in Germany.
How did growing up in West Berlin shape your politics?
Of course the Berlin Wall was a daily issue. As a child you started asking questions: why can’t we travel to the countryside on the weekends? Why is there barbed wire? Why are there automatic machine guns?
My upbringing in West Berlin may have had an impact on my resentment towards communists. I became a member of the CDU when I was 17 – it was a birthday present. My parents said, ‘What do you want for your birthday?’ I said I wanted to become a member of the CDU.
Were they proud or dismayed?
Well, I guess I had a Christian Democratic background. My father was a conservative, though neither of them was involved in party politics.
Did you ever consider British politics?
I’m interested in British politics. I have links to the British conservatives and I’ve met David Cameron a few times.
Are you bothered by the Conservatives’ more eurosceptical positions?
It’s not a secret that the German CDU is perhaps slightly more pro-European. We were sad that the Conservatives left the European parliamentary group. The CDU tried hard to convince them to stay.
Nonetheless, I still strongly believe in close relations between Germany and Britain. The first meetings between Angela Merkel and David Cameron were quite convincing – at least that’s what the chancellor told me.
David Cameron and his team have done very well to modernise the Conservative Party.
Do you have sympathy for their position of maintaining sovereignty and putting a priority on their national interest?
That’s a British position and we have a slightly different position. But in a Europe of 27, you’ve got to respect every position which a nation decides to take.
Some say Chancellor Merkel has in recent months shifted Germany’s priorities from Europe to a more national interest. What do you make of that?
I don’t agree. Angela Merkel is in the tradition of big Europeans in the CDU, from Konrad Adenauer to Helmut Kohl.
Of course Germany is a strong nation within the European Union and is not unimportant in financing the European Union, so it’s just and fair that a German chancellor utters German positions.
Of course Germany has the right to pursue its national interest like any country, but there is the perception that it has in the past sacrificed some of its national interest to put greater emphasis on Europe.
Perhaps Germany is more pro-European Union than other nations because of our tragic history, because of what this country did to others during the terrible 12 years from 1933 to 1945. And that’s why Germany will always have a big responsibility for peace, freedom, international co-operation and European integration, and a big responsibility to Israel.
Can and should there come a time when Germany no longer feels that exceptional responsibility?
There is a consensus in Germany that we are always aware of our history. Mankind will never forget what happened – something so terribly unique. Certain political issues are discussed in a different way than in other countries. That’s understandable. These years from 1933 to 1945 will always be with us.
Has Britain moved on from its impressions of Germany?
I hope so. A lot has changed. What hurts Germans of course – and it’s getting much less common – is what’s said by certain parts of the British media. It’s always the same, such as when Germany plays England in the football. You know what (British tabloid) The Sun gets up to.
The longer the war is over, certain stereotypes hopefully disappear. A lot of young Britons visit Berlin and are impressed by the city, the nightlife.
And tens of thousands of British people have been in Germany with the British forces. They go back home and they say what it’s really like in Germany. I strongly believe in the German-British friendship.
You wrote to David Cameron asking him to clarify the conservatives’ position on the future of British bases in Lower Saxony. Have you had an answer?
He answered and explained they were having a closer look at it. (Cameron said he appreciated the value to local communities of British bases in Germany and promised to consult with relevant German governments but warned that “no option for (defence) reform – no matter how radical – is off the table.” -Eds.)
The British forces are very welcome guests in our country. They are friends and they are important to us economically.
There’s an impression that German politics lacks diversity, especially on the conservative side. Is that well-founded?
I wouldn’t say lacking on the conservative side – perhaps lacking in general. Things have changed in the last years, though all political parties can do more.
We now have quite a number of leading politicians with different ethnic backgrounds in all parties.
Since our citizenship law was modernised a few years ago, we have more immigrants who want to become German citizens, so they can participate in German politics. The German citizenship law as we have it now is a good compromise. (The citizenship law introduced in 2000 makes it easier for immigrants to become German citizens but still requires non-Europeans to renounce their existing citizenship. -Eds.)
You’re obviously proud of your Scottish roots – you famously got married in a kilt. Do you have sympathy for someone of, say, Turkish ancestry who wants dual citizenship to maintain some sort of Turkish identity?
I got married in a kilt because it was a family tradition. In public I’ve worn my kilt twice: at my own wedding and at the wedding of my cousin Victoria a few years ago in Edinburgh.
Dual citizenship is possible but not for everyone. There are no problems or complications at all between EU members, for example Germany and Britain. Personally my British passport and citizenship has no real meaning for me; I haven’t used my British passport in the last 10 or 15 years. I guess it’s even expired by now.
Yet you maintain your British citizenship. Does it make you feel any less German?
You said that there was no conflict between German and British citizenship. Do you feel there could be conflict between say German and Turkish citizenship in terms of a person’s values?
To be honest, I think so, yes. To integrate people with different ethnic backgrounds is the most important domestic issue in this country.
We want to convince people who come here and want to stay here, to take part in society and become German citizens as the end of a successful integration process.
We’ve got to do more, especially when it comes to demographics. We cannot afford 30 percent of young Turkish males leaving school without a degree.
Is dual citizenship an obstacle to any of those things?
No, but it isn’t a tool to solve them either. People who come here, who want to stay, who want to work, are all very, very welcome.
My view is that a huge majority of Muslims are an active part of German society, but there is a very small minority with whom we have problems. This small minority could be a threat to the way we live, so it’s important to strengthen the majority.
A few weeks ago, Mrs. Aygül Özkan became the first Muslim German in public office, when she became the minister for social affairs here in Lower Saxony.
She did of course make headlines before she was sworn in for the remarks she made about removing crucifixes from state schools.
Aygül Özkan didn’t say it as a Muslim but as a citizen of Hamburg. In Hamburg there are no crucifixes in public schools.
But in certain parts of Lower Saxony where we have a strong Catholic majority, you still have crucifixes in schools. Our position is, as long as nobody complains, the crucifixes can stay in those public schools where it’s a tradition and where the people want it.
If someone came and said they wanted the crucifix banned, then there would be a public debate.
So if someone did complain, what position would you take?
The best thing is to sort that out in the school – through the parents, pupils and teachers – and find a good compromise. That’s how we do it in Lower Saxony.
And now to some general questions. Who are your political heroes?
Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor after the war, who rebuilt Germany, introduced a social market system, and led us into the European community and NATO. I think that we Germans have so much to thank Adenauer for.
If there were one thing that you could change about the German mindset, what would it be?
It’s a wonderful country with wonderful people. Sometimes, just a tiny little sense of British humour could do this country well. I like to use elements of humour, especially irony, in political debates. I had to find out that a lot of my competitors understand irony, but not everyone.
Has it gotten you into trouble?
Well, the British are good at taking the mickey out of themselves. Not every German likes to take the mickey out of himself.
One last question: Do you want to be chancellor?
Angela Merkel is a very successful chancellor; she’s my party leader and I strongly back her positions and her person. The question is moot.
It’s not moot. You have a long future ahead of you.
I’ve got the great honour to become prime minister of Lower Saxony, perhaps, on July 1. As my staff told me, I’ll be the youngest (state premier) in Germany, the youngest prime minister in the history of Lower Saxony, and possibly – and I’m not sure if this is true – the youngest prime minister ever in Germany.
I know what a big responsibility that is. There are so many others who are capable and willing to become chancellor. I’ll stick to Hannover.
I still haven’t heard the word, ‘No.’”
Honestly, I’m a state politician. There are so many MPs in Berlin who are hoping they’ll be asked one day, so why don’t you ask them for now? Lower Saxony is a wonderful place and I’ve got a lot to do. Der Spiegel last week wrote that I’m one of the candidates for the time after Merkel. I don’t know why they wrote that.
Gerhard Schröder was premier of Lower Saxony. Christian Wulff looks set to become president. You’re coming from a fine lineage.
Yes, but you can’t have all positions filled from Lower Saxony. We need Bavarians, Hessians, people from everywhere.