Events Views

Thomas Kielinger’s speech from the German-British Chamber’s Annual Dinner

Thomas Kielinger OBE, author and UK editor of Die Welt

The speech by Thomas Kielinger OBE, journalist, author and political commentator, given at the AHK London summer dinner on Thursday 8th June, 2017. Since 1998 Thomas has been the London correspondent of Die Welt.


Thanks for the generous introduction, Nigel. But you left something out, you did not explain to the audience what OBE really, really means for a media person like myself. Let me make amends to that omission and tell you exactly what it means: Overtaken by events. That’s how I read OBE.

We live in the age of the wise-cracking Yogi Berra who famously opined: “Predictions are very difficult, especially about the future.” How relieved Greg Hands must be to have been able to cancel his appearance tonight with so many uncertainties hanging over our heads.

How the news agenda changes from one day to the next! How little inkling we had of a Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States. Actually how little we foresaw 27 years ago the fall of the Berlin Wall and two years later that of the old Soviet Union. . . And, dare I say, in a few hours’ time of Jeremy Corbyn as Britain’s next Prime Minster?

Don’t worry I’m not going to give you the low-down on the election. That would be foolhardy in the extreme for someone like myself with the accolade of so often having been overtaken by events. Instead I am going to try to give you a little food for thought with a longer sell-by date than a couple of hours. . . Although – sorry, I can’t leave politicians alone – I am tickled to wonder how Theresa May will explain to her husband the “Honey I shrunk the polls” dilemma…

Enough of that. I recently came across the first article I wrote about Great Britain and how I tried to understand what makes the people of the sceptred isle tick. I still after almost a lifetime of trying haven’t quite come to the end of it. In the summer of 1970, a cool forty six years ago, I applied for a job with the German Service of the BBC and later summarized my impression of that visit to London in a German magazine. There were strikes, there was the British keep-calm-an-carry-on spirit, there was Edward Heath in the House of Commons who had announced he was going to take his country into the Common Market – and there was the very last line in my essay which ran thus:

“The British measure by different yardsticks from the continent” (or sing from different hymn sheets, if you like) “and are fearful about the planned-for entry into Europe, a step against which their historical instinct rebels.”

Actually, 1970 wasn’t my first contact with Britain, I had had four previous years of experience in Wales, at Cardiff University, first as a student, then as Lektor at the German Department there, so a certain degree of familiarity with British thinking I already had under my belt, so to speak. And yet I’m astonished that at the age of 30, still a greenhorn in the wider world, I was already convinced that the British “historical instinct” rebelled against entry into a European framework called the Common Market.

It took me a long time to learn more about what gave substance to this judgement which all but seems to have anticipated Brexit. . . Amongst other sources I came across Churchill’s famous essay in the “Saturday Evening Post” of 1930 about “The United States of Europe” where Churchill muses about how different are the dreams of the British from those of the continent, only to go on writing with supreme confidence of judgement:

„We are with Europe but not of it. We are linked but not comprised; we are interested and associated, but not absorbed. We belong to no single continent, but to all.”

Little by little, insight by insight, I began to understand more about the differences in mentality between an island nation and continental nations, between seafarers and landlubbers, as it were. A see faring nation, I have found, is more attuned to the heaving and hoeing of the waves, and how flexibly one has to react to the unpredictability of the weather, both in its literal as well as in its political sense, whereas we in our German philosophical mind sets swear more by abstract concepts, “Gesamtkonzept”, which we tend to follow like some eternal truth.

By contrast, it was George Orwell who wrote about the ”anti-theoretical, anti-dogmatic, anti-abstract elements in English empiricism.” But my favourite quotation in this context comes from Lord Nelson and what he advised his captains on the eve of the battle of Trafalgar, October 1805:

“There is no certainty in a sea fight. Something has to be left to chance.” Look at the word “chance” and what it could mean: luck, opportunity – and gamble. On the high seas you cannot but develop an open mind and become a liberal, an optimist – and a risk-taker. That’s it: a risk-taker. The English are “inveterate gamblers” is another one of George Orwell’s succinct insights.

Well, forgive me, but from Nelson’s “something has to be left to chance” and Orwell’s dictum about the English as “inveterate gamblers” is only one short step to – well, you guessed it: Brexit.

Modern Germany, if she was confronted with such an overwhelming question mark like Brexit, would suffer a nervous breakdown. A seafaring nation, on the other hand, is less inclined to recoil from the unknown, it embraces it like an adventure to be conquered. The national fibre wants to be tested in adversity and so it takes the measure of what lies ahead.

Does anyone know what lies ahead with Brexit? may I ask. I don’t think so. To me and many others it is – to quote Churchill’s word about the old Soviet Union – “a riddle inside an enigma wrapped in a mystery.” I would actually like someone to write a steamy novel about “Fifty shades of Brexit”. Oh what Jeremy might want to do to Theresa in that context. . .

Seriously though, 48 percent of the risk-taking British did not want to go that far, did not want to go along with leaving the EU. So how do you address yourself, as a political leader, to a national crisis which Brexit is, a national emergency? You know how Churchill coped with the challenge of 1940: He took the course of statesmanship and said it as it was: “Blood, tears, toil and sweat.”

I’m not saying that Brexit is in any way comparable to the challenge Britain faced in 1940, but a more realistic appraisal of the slings and arrows of Brexit, outrageous or otherwise, should, I think, prevail. At least I hope it will. I am an optimist myself at heart, always have been, but about Brexit I think too much unfounded optimism has been spread around by the converted, too much un-secured triumphalism. Les stridency is, I think, required.

Lest we forget, Theresa May is a Johnny-come-lately to Brexit, having been a Remainer during the referendum campaign. In a way, converting to Brexitism was her first major U-turn, of which there were many more to follow.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not against people changing course and their minds. The great John Henry Newman, who converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism and became a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church (Pope Benedict XVI. beatified him in 2010) famously wrote in his autobiography of 1864:

“To live is to change. And to be perfect is to have changed often.”

By that definition, Theresa May is the perfect politician. . . Great Britain, too, has made change its hallmark. But let me remind you of what we also think is another typical British characteristic: “trial and error”.

Let me throw a little bit of what some people might call unreason at you: What if the decision taken in June last year should prove over time and economic decline to have been an error? Do you think it possible that Britain might reverse from an error like that? The smart money tells me: Forget it, absolutely forget it. Well, history is a subversive power, of that I am sure, and nobody knows what lies ahead.


For now, however, I am more certain. I can finish with the three words of advice the Metropolitan Police gave out during the tragedy on London Bridge last weekend: Run, hide, tell. Run from a Labour government; hide from the effects of a Tory victory, then tell it to the marines that things will get any better. Because they won’t.


But in Britain I am also reminded of the time-hallowed words of Pericles, the great statesman of ancient Greece: “The secret of happiness is freedom, but the secret of freedom is courage.” I very much hope that the courage of wisdom during the coming years will descend on Great Britain and the European Union.


Thank you