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Although Germany is not the only country with a statutory commitment to workers’ voice, it is probably fair to say that its industrial culture has been more profoundly shaped by its commitment to Mitbestimmung or ‘co-determination’ than has been the case in other countries. Mitbestimmung/co-determination is a system of corporate governance and labour relations similar to that proposed (and rejected) in Britain in the Bullock Report. (14) As it has developed, co-determination has fostered the idea of the workforce as a non-disposable asset, in contrast to the ‘hire and fire’ culture of Blair/Cameron style ‘flexible labour’. The co-determination legislative framework also predisposes Germany to take a ‘high tech, high value’ route, which puts quality skills training at the heart of both employee development and education. Indeed the German education system of ‘different routes of equal value’ works within the German context precisely because there is a bias in the German economy towards the productive ‘high specification/high skill’ economy. Careers in manufacturing and in technical vocational areas are culturally valued and rewarded. In fact it is impossible to understand the German education system without understanding the development of co-determination.

(14) See note 8.

A key difference between Germany - and indeed most of mainland Europe - and the UK is that, by and large, it makes what it consumes. The UK does not! The UK has, for some centuries, organised itself on the assumption that it will make a living off the rest of the world. It is this that underpins the bias in the economy towards the financial services and other needs of the City of London. In terms of training this means an emphasis on accountants, lawyers and administrators; and it also feeds, even in these post-colonial times, the pressure to keep a strong army, navy and air force that can be active across the world. Within this context, and without a need to service a productive economy, a ‘low skill/low specification’ route to profitability has been regarded as perfectly possible.

This means that in the UK, in sharp contrast to Germany, skills training has traditionally been seen as a short-term palliative to combat the political problem of unemployment - not as part of a programme for the betterment of indigenous manufacturing industry. And the ‘skills’ route has always been seen as a poor sister, as compared to the academic and higher education route.

Works councils were initially introduced into Germany during the Weimar Republic and, though subsequently banned by the Nazis, were reinstated in West Germany after the second world war by the Allied Control Council. The system then grew within the ‘shelter’ of the Cold War. Because of competition with neighbouring states in the Soviet bloc, the imperative in West Germany was to offer its workers a more attractive, socialised and secure mixed-market capitalism, for fear of attractions from the East gaining favour. This imperative ceased with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its socialist satellite states in 1989-90.

The orientation of the EU also changed at roughly the same time: it started to move away from the social Europe model envisaged by Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission from 1985 to 1995, and towards a globalist free-market ideology. This shift was strongly supported by successive UK governments.