To think they said Brexit would cost us friends. The UK Government has found itself a new chum in Viktor Orbán, Hungarian prime minister and global alt-right pin-up. Last week, the European Parliament voted to initiate Article 7 proceedings against Hungary, citing its lurch towards authoritarianism. Fifteen Tory MEPs voted against while a further two abstained. Scotland’s Baroness Mobarik was the only one to break ranks. Makes you proud to be British.
Article 7.1 of the Treaty allows MEPs to refer a member state to the Council to determine if its actions present ‘a clear risk of a serious breach’ of the values detailed in Article 2, namely ‘respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities’. The resolution, authored by Dutch Greens MEP Judith Sargentini, cites concerns about administration of elections; judicial independence; corruption; freedom of expression, association and religion; equality under the law; and the rights of Jews, Roma and migrants.
Sargentini hardly had to look far to make her case. Here is Human Rights Watch on the situation under Orbán:
‘The Hungarian government fails to respect the rule of law and human rights. Government representatives are increasingly hostile to journalists and critics and engage in anti-migrant, anti-Muslim and xenophobic rhetoric including through publicly funded campaigns. Authorities have introduced legislation targeting civil society organisations and universities receiving funding from abroad. Asylum seekers are detained indefinitely in substandard border camps without a possibility to challenge their detention. They face violence during operations to force them back to the border, and limitations on meaningful access to asylum.’
While the political objectives of HRW and similar groups is open to question at times, its assessment of Hungary is, if anything, overly restrained. Since coming to power in 2010, Orbán has remade the country as an illiberal democracy, rewriting the Fundamental Law — Hungary's constitution — to remove key checks and balances on executive power. The Constitutional Court’s scope for judicial review has been severely restricted and its pre-Orbán precedents torn up. Freedom of speech has been curtailed through a mass buy-up of TV networks, radio stations and newspapers by Orbán allies and commercial broadcasters banned from carrying political advertisements. Reporters Without Borders calls Orbán ‘a strongman…trying to silence all criticism’ and notes that supporters of his Fidesz party ‘now have dominant and often monopolistic position in virtually all the media’. Dissenting journalists are banned from parliament and even from asking questions during press conferences.
Orbán is canny, forging ties with Benjamin Netanyahu’s nationalist government while pandering to anti-Semitism at home. He has described Miklós Horthy, Hungary’s war-time leader, as an ‘exceptional statesman’. Horthy imposed discriminatory edicts on Jews before even the Nazis and he was later to become an on-again-off-again collaborator with the Third Reich. Orbán had a statue erected in Budapest’s Liberty Square, the Memorial to the Victims of the German Occupation, which reframes Hungary as an innocent casualty of World War II. In fact, the Hungarian state collaborated with the occupation forces in the mass deportation of Jews. In his crusade against migrants, Orbán has appropriated the American far-right’s bogeyman George Soros, the Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist depicted in Orbán posters as a sly puppet-master.
We shall have to get used to buddying up with characters like this on our exciting adventures in Brexitland. Appearing on Andrew Marr on Sunday, Michael Gove cast this as a mere procedural row; the Tories had ‘a long-standing principle’ that Brussels should not ‘interfere in, or censure, the internal democracy of a particular country’. If it was any other Cabinet minister, this could be shrugged off as brutal Tory expediency. The fact that a sincere and fluent democrat like Gove could not summon the language of even mild censure is dismaying.
There is more than pragmatic statecraft going on here. Conservatives see nationalism resurgent and believe they must evolve to accommodate it, for electoral reasons but also to regulate a potent political-emotional force. In modern times, British Toryism has been bound up in the ties of national identity. As Mrs Thatcher contended:
‘The conservative virtue of stability leads directly to accepting the legitimacy of nationalism as a basis for independent statehood. National pride, in combination with liberty and the rule of law, powerfully strengthens democratic government.’
But the latest iterations of nationalism — the nationalisms of Orbán and Salvini, Trump and Brexit — pride themselves on disruption rather than stability and view democratic liberalism as an encroachment on national sovereignty that weakens as much from within as from without. Democratic nationalism takes a sledgehammer to democracy’s load-bearing walls — the rule of law, division of powers, an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, a strong opposition — and leaves only the hollow shell of majoritarian rule. It also anathematises ‘neoliberalism’ at least as much as the far-left. Traditionally right-of-centre parties that embrace nationalism will have to abandon or drastically redraw, as Fidesz has done, their commitment to welfare reform, spending restraint and other policies that hurt the working poor and underclass.
European (and American) conservatism has not evolved to incorporate nationalism, it has been incorporated by it. Conservatism once flowed from the pens of Russell Kirk and William F Buckley Jr; now it zings into news feeds from asinine snarkers and ethnic demagogues. Western culture used to be upheld by Kipling and Harold Bloom; today’s conservatives hero-worship celebrity psychologists and columnists who spray racial accelerant and dangle a lighter for entertainment. Man was fallen, a sinner in need of the moral boundaries of law and society; social regulation has become an attack on his right to unrestrained ego and boorish prejudice. God is dead and we’re recruiting all our Overmen from reality TV.
The Tories could have taken a stand against this anti-conservatism and voted to investigate Hungary. Instead, they sullied themselves and their country. The road to Budapest is a long stretch yet but Brexit and a ‘hostile environment’ are initial steps to a post-liberal Britain: Corbyn Labour v. Orbán Tories. Economic authoritarianism v. social authoritarianism. Jew-baiting v. Muslim-baiting. Still, at least the EU won’t be able to investigate us much longer.