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Britain, Ireland and Europe, 1994-99: Peace, Devolution & Development.   Leave a comment

LSF (1947) Nobel Peace Prize obv

Unionists & Nationalists – The Shape of Things to Come:

In Northern Ireland, optimism was the only real force behind the peace process. Too often, this is remembered by one of Blair’s greatest soundbites as the talks reached their climax: This is no time for soundbites … I feel the hand of history on my shoulder. Despite the comic nature of this remark, it would be churlish not to acknowledge this as one of his greatest achievements. Following the tenacious efforts of John Major to bring Republicans and Unionists to the table, which had resulted in a stalemate. Tony Blair had already decided in Opposition that an Irish peace settlement would be one of his top priorities in government. He went to the province as his first visit after winning power and focused Number Ten on the negotiations as soon as the IRA, sensing a fresh opportunity, announced a further ceasefire. In Mo Mowlem, Blair’s brave new Northern Ireland Secretary, he had someone who was prepared to be tough in negotiations with the Unionists and encouraging towards Sinn Feiners in order to secure a deal. Not surprisingly, the Ulster Unionist politicians soon found her to be too much of a ‘Green’. She concentrated her charm and bullying on the Republicans, while a Number Ten team dealt with the Unionists. Blair emphasised his familial links with Unionism in order to win their trust.

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There were also direct talks between the Northern Irish political parties, aimed at producing a return of power-sharing in the form of an assembly in which they could all sit. These were chaired by former US Senator George Mitchell and were the toughest part. There were also talks between the Northern Irish parties and the British and Irish governments about the border and the constitutional position of Northern Ireland in the future. Finally, there were direct talks between London and Dublin on the wider constitutional and security settlement. This tripartite process was long and intensely difficult for all concerned, which appeared to have broken down at numerous points and was kept going mainly thanks to Blair himself. He took big personal risks, such as when he invited Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein-IRA to Downing Street. Some in the Northern Ireland office still believe that Blair gave too much away to the Republicans, particularly over the release of terrorist prisoners and the amnesty which indemnified known terrorists, like those responsible for the Birmingham bombings in 1974, from prosecution. At one point, when talks had broken down again over these issues, Mo Mowlem made the astonishing personal decision to go into the notorious Maze prison herself and talk to both Republican and Loyalist terrorist prisoners. Hiding behind their politicians, the hard men still saw themselves as being in charge of their ‘sides’ in the sectarian conflict. But Blair spent most of his time trying to keep the constitutional Unionists ‘on board’, having moved Labour policy away from support for Irish unification. In Washington, Blair was seen as being too Unionist.

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Given a deadline of Easter 1998, a deal was finally struck, just in time, on Good Friday, hence the alternative name of ‘the Belfast Agreement’. Northern Ireland would stay part of the United Kingdom for as long as the majority in the province wished it so. The Republic of Ireland would give up its territorial claim to the North, amending its constitution to this effect. The parties would combine in a power-sharing executive, based on a newly elected assembly. There would also be a North-South body knitting the two political parts of the island together for various practical purposes and mundane matters. The paramilitary organisations would surrender or destroy their weapons, monitored by an independent body. Prisoners would be released and the policing of Northern Ireland would be made non-sectarian by the setting up of a new police force to replace the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), whose bias towards the Unionist community had long been a sore point for Nationalists. The deal involved a great deal of pain, particularly for the Unionists. It was only the start of a true peace and would be threatened frequently afterwards, such as when the centre of Omagh was bombed only a few months after its signing by a renegade splinter group of the IRA calling itself ‘the Real IRA’ (see the photo below). It murdered twenty-nine people and injured two hundred. Yet this time the violent extremists were unable to stop the rest from talking.

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Once the agreement had been ratified on both sides of the border, the decommissioning of arms proved a seemingly endless and wearisome game of bluff. Though the two leaders of the moderate parties in Northern Ireland, David Trimble of the Ulster Unionists and John Hume of the Nationalist SDLP, won the Nobel Prize for Peace, both these parties were soon replaced in elections by the harder-line Democratic Unionist Party led by Rev. Dr Ian Paisley, and by Sinn Fein, under Adams and McGuinness. Initially, this made it harder to set up an effective power-sharing executive at Stormont (pictured below). Yet to almost everyone’s surprise, Paisley and McGuinness sat down together and formed a good working relationship. The thuggery and crime attendant on years of paramilitary activity took another decade to disappear. Yet because of the agreement hundreds more people are still alive who would have died had the ‘troubles’ continued. They are living in relatively peaceful times. Investment has returned and Belfast has been transformed into a busier, more confident city. Large businesses increasingly work on an all-Ireland basis, despite the continued existence of two currencies and a border. The fact that both territories are within the European Union enables this to happen without friction at present, though this may change when the UK leaves the EU and the Republic becomes a ‘foreign country’ to it for the first time since the Norman Conquest. Tony Blair can take a sizeable slice of credit for this agreement. As one of his biographers has written:

He was exploring his own ability to take a deep-seated problem and deal with it. It was a life-changing experience for him.

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If the Good Friday Agreement changed the future relationship of the UK and Ireland, Scottish and Welsh devolution changed the future political shape of Great Britain. The relative indifference of the eighteen-year Tory ascendancy to the plight of the industrial areas of Scotland and Wales had transformed the prospects of the nationalist parties in both countries. Through the years of Tory rule, the case for a Scottish parliament had been bubbling under north of the border. Margaret Thatcher had been viewed as a conspicuously English figure imposing harsh economic penalties on Scotland, which had always considered itself to be inherently more egalitarian and democratic. The Tories, who had successfully played the Scottish card against centralising Labour in 1951, had themselves become labelled as a centralising and purely English party. Local government had already been reorganised in Britain and Northern Ireland in the early 1990s with the introduction of ‘unitary’ authorities.

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Scotland had a public culture further to the left than that of southern England, and therefore the initiatives on devolution came from the respectable middle-classes. A group of pro-devolution activists, including SNP, Labour and Liberal supporters, churchmen, former civil servants and trade unionists to found the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly. In due course, this produced a Constitutional Convention meant to bring in a wider cross-section of Scottish life behind their ‘Claim of Right’. It argued that if Scots were to stand on their own two feet as Mrs Thatcher had insisted, they needed control over their own affairs. Momentum increased when the Scottish Tories lost half their remaining seats in the 1987 election, and, following the poll tax rebellion, the Convention got going in March 1989, after Donald Dewar, Labour’s leader in Scotland, decided to work with other parties. The Convention brought together the vast majority of Scottish MPs, all but two of Scotland’s regional, district and island councils, the trade unions, churches, charities and many other organisations, in fact almost everyone except the Conservatives, who were sticking with the original Union, and the SNP, who wanted full independence.

Scottish Tories, finding themselves increasingly isolated, fought back vainly. They pointed out that if a Tory government, based on English votes, was regarded as illegitimate by the Scots, then in future a Labour government based on Scottish votes might be regarded as illegitimate by the English. In a 1992 poll in Scotland, fifty per cent of those asked said they were in favour of independence within the European Union. In the 1992 election, John Major had made an impassioned appeal for the survival of the Union. Had the four countries never come together, he argued, their joint history would have never been as great: Are we, in our generation, to throw all that away?  He won back a single Scottish seat. Various minor sops were offered to the Scots during his years in office, including the return of the Stone of Destiny, with much ceremony. However, the minor Tory recovery in 1992 was wiped out in the Labour landslide of 1997, when all the Conservatives seats north of the border, where they had once held the majority of them, were lost, as they were in Wales. Formerly just contestants in middle-class, rural and intellectual constituencies, in 1997 Scottish and Welsh nationalists now made huge inroads into former Conservative areas, and even into the Labour heartlands, and the latter despite the Labour leadership being held consecutively by a Welshman and a Scot.

By the time Tony Blair became the party leader, Labour’s commitment to devolution was long-standing. Unlike his predecessor, he was not much interested in devolution or impressed by it, particularly not for Wales, where support had been far more muted. The only thing he could do by this stage was to insist that a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly would only be set up after referenda in the two countries, which in Scotland’s case would include a second question as to whether the parliament should be given the power to vary the rate of income tax by 3p in the pound. In September 1997, Scotland voted by three to one for the new Parliament, and by nearly two to one to give it tax-varying powers. The vote for the Welsh Assembly was far closer, with a wafer-thin majority secured by the final constituency to declare, that of Carmarthen. The Edinburgh parliament would have clearly defined authority over a wide range of public services – education, health, welfare, local government, transport and housing – while Westminster kept control over taxation, defence, foreign affairs and some lesser matters. The Welsh assembly in Cardiff would have fewer powers and no tax-raising powers. The Republic of Ireland was similarly divided between two regional assemblies but unlike the assemblies in the UK, these were not elected.

In 1999, therefore, devolved governments, with varying powers, were introduced in Scotland, Wales and, following the ratification referendum on the Belfast Agreement, in Northern Ireland. After nearly three hundred years, Scotland got its parliament with 129 MSPs, and Wales got its assembly with sixty members. Both were elected by proportional representation, making coalition governments almost inevitable. In Scotland, Labour provided the first ‘first minister’ in Donald Dewar, a much-loved intellectual, who took charge of a small group of Labour and Liberal Democrat ministers. To begin with, Scotland was governed from the Church of Scotland’s general assembly buildings. The devolution promised by John Smith and instituted by Tony Blair’s new Labour government in the late 1990s did, initially, seem to take some of the momentum out of the nationalist fervour, but apparently at the expense of stoking the fires of English nationalism, resentful at having Scottish and Welsh MPs represented in their own assemblies as well as in Westminster. But there was no early crisis at Westminster because of the unfairness of Scottish and Welsh MPs being able to vote on England-only business, the so-called Midlothian Question, particularly when the cabinet was so dominated by Scots. But despite these unresolved issues, the historic constitutional changes brought about by devolution and the Irish peace process reshaped both Britain and Ireland, producing irrevocable results. In his television series A History of Britain, first broadcast on the BBC in 2000, Simon Schama argued that…

Histories of Modern Britain these days come not to praise it but to bury it, celebrating the denationalization of Britain, urging on the dissolution of ‘Ukania’ into the constituent European nationalities of Scotland, Wales and England (which would probably tell the Ulster Irish either to absorb themselves into a single European Ireland or to find a home somewhere else – say the Isle of Man). If the colossal asset of the empire allowed Britain, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, to exist as a genuine national community ruled by Welsh, Irish and (astonishingly often) Scots, both in Downing Street and in the remote corners of the empire, the end of that imperial enterprise, the theory goes, ought also to mean the decent, orderly liquidation of Britannia Inc. The old thing never meant anything anyway, it is argued; it was just a spurious invention designed to seduce the Celts into swallowing English domination where once they had been coerced into it, and to persuade the English themselves that they would be deeply adored on the grouse moors of the Trossachs as in the apple orchards of the Weald. The virtue of Britain’s fall from imperial grace, the necessity of its European membership if only to avoid servility to the United States, is that it forces ‘the isles’ to face the truth: that they are many nations, not one.

However, in such a reduction of false British national consciousness to the ‘true’ identities and entities of Scotland, Wales and England, he argued, self-determination could go beyond the ‘sub-nations’, each of which was just as much an invention, or a re-invention, as was Britain. Therefore an independent Scotland would not be able to resist the rights to autonomy of the Orkney and Shetland islands, with their Nordic heritage, or the remaining Gallic-speaking isles of the Outer Hebrides. Similarly, the still primarily Anglophone urban south-Walians and the inhabitants of the Welsh borders and south coast of Pembrokeshire might in future wish to assert their linguistic and cultural differences from the Welsh-speakers of the rural Welsh-speakers of West and North Wales. With the revival of their Celtic culture, the Cornish might also wish to seek devolution from a country from which all other Celts have retreated into their ethnolinguistic heartlands. Why shouldn’t post-imperial Britain undergo a process of ‘balkanization’ like that of the Former Yugoslavia?

LSF RSF Lets build a culture of peace LR

Well, many like Schama seemed to answer at that time, and still do today, precisely because of what happened due to ethnonationalism in the Balkans, especially in Bosnia and Kosovo, where the conflicts were only just, in 1999, being brought to an end by air-strikes and the creation of tides of refugees escaping brutal ethnic cleansing. The breaking up of Britain into ever smaller and purer units of pure white ethnic groups was to be resisted. Instead, a multi-national, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Britain was coming into being through a gradual and peaceful process of devolution of power to the various national, ethnic and regional groups and a more equal re-integration of them into a ‘mongrel’ British nation within a renewed United Kingdom.

Economic Development, the Regions of Britain & Ireland and the Impact of the EU:

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The late twentieth century saw the transformation of the former docklands of London into offices and fashionable modern residential developments, with a new focus on the huge Canary Wharf scheme (pictured above) to the east of the city. The migration of some financial services and much of the national press to the major new developments in London’s Docklands prompted the development of the Docklands Light Railway and the Jubilee line extension. The accompanying modernisation of the London Underground was hugely expensive in legal fees and hugely complex in contracts. Outside of London, improvements in public transport networks were largely confined to urban and suburban centres with light railway networks developed in Manchester, Sheffield and Croydon.

Beyond Canary Wharf to the east, the Millennium Dome, which Blair’s government inherited from the Tories, was a billion pound gamble which Peter Mandelson and ‘Tony’s cronies’ decided to push ahead with, despite cabinet opposition. Architecturally, the dome was striking and elegant, a landmark for London which can be seen from by air passengers arriving in the capital. The millennium was certainly worth celebrating but the conundrum ministers and their advisers faced was what to put in their ‘pleasure’ Dome. It would be magnificent, unique, a tribute to British daring and ‘can-do’. Blair himself said that it would provide the first paragraph of his next election manifesto. But this did not answer the current question of what it was for, exactly. When the Dome finally opened at New Year, the Queen, Prime Minister and celebrities were treated to a mish-mash of a show which embarrassed many of them. When it opened to the public, the range of mildly interesting exhibits was greeted as a huge disappointment. Optimism and daring, it seemed, were not enough to fill the people’s expectations. Later that year, Londoners were given a greater gift in the form of a mayor and regional assembly with powers over local planning and transport. This new authority in part replaced the Greater London Council abolished by the Thatcher government in 1986.

However, there were no signs that the other conurbations in the regions of England wanted regionalisation, except for some stirrings in the Northeast and Cornwall. The creation of nine Regional Development Agencies in England in 1998-99 did not seek to meet a regionalist agenda. In fact, these new bodies to a large extent matched the existing structures set up since the 1960s for administrative convenience and to encourage inward investment. Improving transport links were seen as an important means of stimulating regional development and combating congestion. Major Road developments in the 1990s included the completion of the M25 orbital motorway around London and the M40 link between London and Birmingham. However, despite this construction programme, congestion remained a problem: the M25, for example, became the butt of jokes labelling it as the largest car park on the planet, while traffic speeds in central London continued to fall, reaching fifteen kilometres per hour by 1997, about the same as they had been in 1907. Congestion was not the only problem, however, as environmental protests led to much of the road-building programme begun by the Tory governments being shelved after 1997. The late nineties also saw the development of some of the most expensive urban motorways in Europe.

In the Sottish Highlands and Islands, the new Skye road bridge connected the Isle of Skye to the mainland. A group led by the Bank of America built and ran the new bridge. It was one of the first projects built under a ‘public finance initiative’, or PFI, which had started life under Tory Chancellor Norman Lamont, five years before Labour came to power when he experimented with privatising public projects and allowing private companies to run them, keeping the revenue. Although the basic idea was simple enough, this represented a major change in how government schemes were working, big enough to arouse worry even outside the tribes of political obsessives. There were outraged protests from some islanders about paying tolls to a private consortium and eventually the Scottish Executive bought the bridge back. At the opposite corner of the country, the Queen Elizabeth II road bridge was built joining Kent and Essex across the Thames at Dartford, easing congestion on both sides of the Dartford tunnel. It was the first bridge across the river in a new place for more than half a century and was run by a company called ‘Le Crossing’, successfully taking tolls from motorists.

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Undoubtedly the most important transport development was the Channel Tunnel rail link to France, completed in 1994. It was highly symbolic of Britain’s commitment to European integration, and millions of people and vehicles had travelled from London to Paris in under three hours by the end of the century. The town of Ashford in Kent was one of the major beneficiaries of the ‘Chunnel’ rail link, making use of railway links running through the town. Its population grew by over ten per cent in the 1990s. By the end of that decade, the town had an international catchment area of some eighty-five million people within a single day’s journey. This and the opening of Ashford International railway station as the main terminal in the rail link to the continent attracted a range of engineering, financial, distribution and manufacturing companies to the town. In addition to the fourteen business parks that were established in the town, new retail parks were opened. Four green-field sites were also opened on the outskirts of the town, including a science park owned by Trinity College, Cambridge. Ashford became closer to Paris and Brussels than it was to Manchester and Liverpool, as can be seen on the map below. In addition to its international rail link, the town’s position at the hub of a huge motorway network was in a position to be an integral part of a truly international transport system.

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Modern-day affluence at the turn of the century was reflected in the variety of goods and services concentrated in shopping malls. They are now often built on major roads outside towns and cities to make them accessible to the maximum number of people in a region.

Economic change was most dramatic in the Irish Republic, which enjoyed the highest growth rates in Europe in the 1990s. The so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy boomed, aided by inward investment so that by the end of the decade GDP per capita had surpassed that of the UK. Dublin, which remained if anything more dominant than London as a capital city, flourished as a result of a strong growth in the service industries. Growth rates for the ‘new economy’ industries such as information and communications technology were among the highest in the world. Generous tax arrangements and the city’s growing reputation as a cultural centre meanwhile helped to encourage the development of Dublin’s ‘rockbroker belt’. Even agriculture in the Irish Republic, in decline in the early 1990s, still contributed nine per cent of Ireland’s GDP, three times the European average. In the west of Ireland, it was increasingly supplemented by the growth of tourism.

Nevertheless, while the expansion of Ireland’s prosperity lessened the traditional east-west divide, it did not eliminate it. Low population density and a dispersed pattern of settlement were felt to make rail developments unsuitable. Consequently, Ireland’s first integrated transport programme, the Operational Programme for Peripherality, concentrated on improving: the routes from the west of Ireland to the ferry port of Rosslare; the routes from Belfast to Cork; Dublin and the southwest; east-west routes across the Republic. Many of these improvements benefited from EU funding. The EU also aided, through its ‘peace programme’, the development of transport planning in Britain, with infrastructure projects in, for example, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. In 1993, the EU had decided to create a combined European transport network. Of the fourteen projects associated with this aim, three were based in Britain and Ireland – a rail link from Cork to Larne in Northern Ireland, the ferry port for Scotland; a road link from the Low Countries across England and Wales to Ireland, and the West Coast mainline railway route in Britain.

The old north-south divide in Britain reasserted itself with a vengeance in the late 1990s as people moved south in search of jobs and prosperity as prices and wages rose. Even though the shift towards service industries was reducing regional economic diversity, the geographical distribution of regions eligible for European structural funds for economic improved the continuing north-south divide. Transport was only one way in which the EU increasingly came to shape the geography of the British Isles in the nineties. It was, for example, a key factor in the creation of the new administrative regions of Britain and Ireland in 1999. At the same time, a number of British local authorities opened offices in Brussels for lobbying purposes and attempts to maximise receipts from European structural funds also encouraged the articulation of regionalism. Cornwall, for instance, ‘closed’ its ‘border’ with Devon briefly in 1998 in protest at not receiving its EU social funds, while the enthusiasm for the supposed economic benefits that would result from ‘independence in Europe’ helped to explain the revival of the Scottish Nationalist Party following devolution. ‘Silicon Gen’ in central Scotland was, by the end of the decade, the largest producer of computing equipment in Europe.

The European connection was less welcome in other quarters, however. Fishermen, particularly in Devon and Cornwall and on the North Sea Coast of England, felt themselves the victims of the Common Fisheries Policy quota system. There was also a continuing strong sense of ‘Euroscepticism’ in England, fuelled at this stage by a mixture of concerns about ‘sovereignty’ and economic policy, which I will deal with in a separate article. Here, it is worth noting that even the most enthusiastic Europhiles, the Irish, sought to reject recent EU initiatives which they felt were not in their interests in their 2001 referendum on the Treaty of Nice. Nevertheless, the growth of physical links with Europe, like the Channel Tunnel, the connections between the British and French electricity grids, and the development of ‘budget’ airlines, made it clear that both of the main ‘offshore’ islands, Britain and Ireland were, at the turn of the century, becoming increasingly integrated, both in economic and administrative terms, with the continent of Europe.

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At the beginning of 1999, however, a debate began over British membership of the euro, the single currency which was finally taking shape within the EU. Though he was never a fanatic on the subject, Blair’s pro-European instincts and his desire to be a leading figure inside the EU predisposed him to announce that Britain would join, not in the first wave, but soon afterwards. He briefed that this would happen. British business seemed generally in favour, but the briefing and guesswork in the press were completely baffling. For Gordon Brown, stability came first, and he concluded that it was not likely that Britain could safely join the euro within the first Parliament. When he told Blair this, the two argued and then eventually agreed on a compromise. Britain would probably stay out during the first Parliament, but the door should be left slightly ajar. Pro-European business people and those Tories who had lent Blair and Brown their conditional support, as well as Blair’s continental partners, should be kept on board, as should the anti-Euro press. The terms of the delicate compromise were meant to be revealed in an interview given by Brown to The Times. Being more hostile to entry than Blair, and talking to an anti-euro newspaper, his team briefed more strongly than Blair would have liked. By the time the story was written, the pound had been saved from extinction for the lifetime of the Parliament. Blair was aghast at this.

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The chaos surrounding this important matter was ended and the accord with Blair patched up by Brown and his adviser Ed Balls, who quickly produced five economic tests which would be applied before Britain would enter the euro. They required more detailed work by the Treasury; the underlying point was that the British and continental economies must be properly aligned before Britain would join. Brown then told the Commons that though it was likely that, for economic reasons, Britain would not join the euro until after the next election, there was no constitutional or political reason not to join. Preparations for British entry would therefore begin. This gave the impression that once the tests were met there would be a post-election referendum, followed by the demise of sterling.

In 1999, with a full-scale launch at a London cinema, Blair was joined by the Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy and the two former Tory cabinet ministers Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine to launch ‘Britain in Europe’ as a counter-blast to the anti-Euro campaign of ‘Business for Sterling’. Blair promised that together they would demolish the arguments against the euro, and there was alarmist media coverage about the loss of eight million jobs if Britain pulled out of the EU. But the real outcome of this conflict was that the power to decide over membership of the euro passed decisively from Blair to Brown, whose Treasury fortress became the guardian of the economic tests. Brown would keep Britain out on purely economic grounds, something which won him great personal credit among Conservative ‘press barons’. There was to be no referendum on the pound versus euro, however much the Prime Minister wanted one.

Very little of what New Labour had achieved up to 1999 was what it was really about, however, and most of its achievements had been in dealing with problems and challenges inherited from previous governments or with ‘events’ to which it had to react. Its intended purpose was to deliver a more secure economy, radically better public services and a new deal for those at the bottom of British society. Much of this was the responsibility of Gordon Brown, as agreed in the leadership contest accord between the two men. The Chancellor would become a controversial figure later in government, but in his early period at the Treasury, he imposed a new way of governing. He had run his time in Opposition with a tight team of his own, dominated by Ed Balls, later an MP and Treasury minister before becoming shadow chancellor under Ed Miliband following the 2010 general election. Relations between Team Brown and the Treasury officials began badly and remained difficult for a long time. Brown’s handing of interest control to the Bank of England was theatrical, planned secretly in Opposition and unleashed to widespread astonishment immediately New Labour won. Other countries, including Germany and the US, had run monetary policy independently of politicians, but this was an unexpected step for a left-of-centre British Chancellor. It turned out to be particularly helpful to Labour ministers since it removed at a stroke the old suspicion that they would favour high employment over low inflation. As one of Brown’s biographers commented, he…

 …could only give expression to his socialist instincts after playing the role of uber-guardian of the capitalist system.

The bank move has gone down as one of the clearest achievements of the New Labour era. Like the Irish peace process and the devolution referenda, it was an action which followed on immediately after Labour won power, though, unlike those achievements, it was not something referred to in the party’s election manifesto. Brown also stripped the Bank of England of its old job of overseeing the rest of the banking sector. Otherwise, it would have had a potential conflict of interest if it had had to concern itself with the health of commercial banks at the same time as managing interest rates. As a result of these early actions, New Labour won a reputation for being economically trustworthy and its Chancellor was identified with ‘prudent’ management of the nation’s finances. Income tax rates did not increase, which reassured the middle classes. Even when Brown found what has more recently been referred to as ‘the magic money tree’, he did not automatically harvest it. And when the ‘dot-com bubble’ was at its most swollen, he sold off licenses for the next generation of mobile phones for 22.5 bn, vastly more than they were soon worth. The produce went not into new public spending but into repaying the national debt, 37 bn of it. By 2002 government interest payments on this were at their lowest since 1914, as a proportion of its revenue.

Despite his growing reputation for prudence, Brown’s introduction of ‘stealth taxes’ proved controversial, however. These included the freezing of income tax thresholds so that an extra 1.5 million people found themselves paying the top rate; the freezing of personal allowances; rises in stamp duties on houses and a hike in national insurance. In addition, some central government costs were palmed off onto the devolved administrations or local government, so that council tax rose sharply, and tax credits for share dividends were removed. Sold at the time as a ‘prudent’ technical reform, enabling companies to reinvest in their core businesses, this latter measure had a devastating effect on the portfolios of pension funds, wiping a hundred billion off the value of retirement pensions. This was a staggering sum, amounting to more than twice as much as the combined pension deficits of Britain’s top 350 companies. Pensioners and older workers were angered when faced with great holes in their pension funds. They were even more outraged when Treasury papers released in 2007 showed that Brown had been warned about the effect this measure would have. The destruction of a once-proud pension industry had more complex causes than Brown’s decision; Britain’s fast-ageing population was also a major factor, for one. But the pension fund hit produced more anger than any other single act by the New Labour Chancellor.

Perhaps the most striking long-term effect of Brown’s careful running of the economy was the stark, dramatic shape of public spending. For his first two years, he stuck fiercely to the promise he had made about continuing the Major government’s spending levels. These were so tight that even the man who set these levels, Kenneth Clarke, said that he would not actually have kept to them had the Tories been re-elected and had he been reappointed as Chancellor. Brown brought down the State’s share of public spending from nearly 41% of GDP to 37.4% by 1999-2000, the lowest percentage since 1960 and far below anything achieved under Thatcher. He was doing the opposite of what previous Labour Chancellors had done. On arriving in office, they had immediately started spending, in order to stimulate the economy in classical Keynesian terms. When they had reached their limits, they had then had to raise taxes. He began by putting a squeeze on spending and then loosening up later. There was an abrupt and dramatic surge in public spending, particularly on health, back up to 43%. The lean years were immediately followed by the fat ones, famine by the feast. But the consequence of the squeeze was that the first New Labour government of 1997-2001 achieved far less in public services than it had promised. For example, John Prescott had promised a vast boost in public transport, telling the Commons in 1997:

I will have failed if in five years’ time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car. It’s a tall order, but I urge you to hold me to it.

Because of ‘Prudence’, and Blair’s worries about being seen as anti-car, Prescott had nothing like the investment to follow through and failed completely. Prudence also meant that Brown ploughed ahead with cuts in benefit for lone-parent families, angering Labour MPs and resulting in a Scottish Labour conference which labelled their Westminster government and their own Scots Chancellor as economically inept, morally repugnant and spiritually bereft. Reform costs money and without money, it barely happened in the first term, except in isolated policy areas where Blair and Brown put their heads down and concentrated. The most dramatic programme was in raising literacy and numeracy among younger children, where Number Ten worked closely with the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, and scored real successes. But unequivocally successful public service reforms were rare.

At first, Labour hated the idea of PFIs, which were a mixture of two things associated with Thatcherite economic policies, the privatisation of capital projects, with the government paying a fee to private companies over many years, and the contracting out of services – waste collection, school meals, cleaning – which had been imposed on unwilling socialist councils from the eighties. Once in power, however, Labour ministers began to realise that those three little letters were political magic because they allowed them to announce and oversee exciting new projects and take the credit for them in the full knowledge that the full bill would be left for the taxpayers of twenty to fifty years hence. In this way, spending and funding of new hospitals or schools would be a problem for a future health or education minister.

PFIs were particularly attractive when other kinds of spending were tightly controlled by ‘Prudence’. Large amounts of capital for public buildings were declared to be ‘investment’, not spending, and put to one side of the public accounts. The justification was that private companies would construct and run this infrastructure so much more efficiently than the State and that profits paid to them by taxpayers would be more than compensated for. Ministers replied to criticisms of these schemes by pointing out that, without them, Britain would not get the hundreds of new school buildings, hospitals, health centres, fire stations, army barracks, helicopter training schools, prisons, government offices, roads and bridges that it so obviously needed by the nineties. Significantly, the peak year for PFIs was 1999-2000, just as the early Treasury prudence in conventional spending had bitten hardest and was being brought to an end.

Sources:

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan.

Simon Schama (2000), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Worldwide.

Peter Catterall (et. al.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Posted November 23, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Agriculture, Balkan Crises, BBC, Belfast Agreement, Birmingham, Britain, British history, Britons, Brussels, Celtic, devolution, Education, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, European Union, History, Immigration, Integration, Irish history & folklore, John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Migration, morality, nationalism, Nationality, New Labour, Population, privatization, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Reconciliation, Respectability, Social Service, south Wales, Thatcherism, Unionists, Wales, War Crimes, Welsh language, Yugoslavia

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Whither Hungary? An Interested Observer’s Rejoinder to Reflections on the Outcome of the 2018 Elections.   Leave a comment

Reactions from Home & Abroad:

It’s been four months since the Hungarian general election (on the 8th April), so I’ve been interested to discover what Hungarians make of their country’s direction since the Orbán government was returned with two-thirds of the seats in Parliament. I have Hungarian Christian friends in Britain, working in the NHS, with young children, who have decided to return in advance of ‘Brexit’. Whether this is partly because of the ‘return to power’ of Viktor Orbán and his family-friendly policies I have yet to discover. Others, single professionals with different lifestyles, have decided to stay in the West, concerned about what sort of Hungary they would be returning to, defined as an ‘illiberal democracy’ by its Prime Minister. Yet the country has been a net recipient of funding from the European Union, an organisation which is built on ‘liberal values’ through the co-operation of countries which have been proud to describe themselves as ‘liberal democracies’ with pluralist parliamentary systems accommodating parties across the mainstream political spectrum. It’s not a scientific survey, but those who are socially conservative Christians seem unworried by this evolving ‘atmosphere’, whereas those with more ‘liberal’ attitudes seem keen to remain, especially in London, even after Britain leaves the EU.

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Tourists are still welcome of course since they bring with them much-needed additional income.  The MTI and Index.hu reported last month (July) that the Hungarian Parliament building had a record-breaking number of visitors in 2017. Nearly 650,000 people wanted to see the interiors of the famous sight in Budapest. The Parliament had never had so many visitors before. Among them were some left-wing friends from Wales, on a weekend break in the capital, whom I recommended should certainly include this on the brief itinerary. They did and wrote that they were greatly impressed by what they saw. The statistics show that a total of 647,000 people visited the Hungarian Parliament in 2017, up by eleven per cent from the year before. Twenty per cent of these were Hungarians, compared with eighty per cent from abroad. Of this latter number, nearly seventy per cent were from other EU countries. In the first four months of 2018, before the election, 201,000 people visited the building, eighteen per cent more than in the first four months of 2017. Tourists generated a revenue of HUF 1,188,000,000 (circa 3.7 million Euro) just by visiting this most popular tourist attraction in the Hungarian capital.

So, the unsavoury atmosphere reported by the OSCE* observers as prevalent in the country’s election campaign had little effect on foreign tourists. Quite rightly, Hungary has continued to polish its front gates and to proudly display its ‘Hungaricums’ in its shop window. Behind the this magnificent facade, the election slogans have not been so welcoming to ‘the west’. Of course, since very few visitors understand Hungarian, they were unlikely to pick up on the anti-Semitic trope inherent in the orange Fidesz election posters pointing to a ‘Soros Plot’, (térv in Hungarian). The American financier and philanthropist, George Soros (pictured below), not being a politician, is largely unknown outside Hungary though British people of middle age may recall his role in ‘Black Friday’ and the collapse of sterling in the early nineties. Even fewer would be aware of his Jewish-Hungarian origins. The ‘slogan’ has not gone away since the election either, as a proposed law designed to stop international charities and church groups from working with asylum-seekers and migrants has been introduced to Parliament known as the ‘Stop Soros’ Bill. They run the risk of being charged with ‘people smuggling’ and other offences for providing food and water, clothes and even bibles to ‘illegal immigrants’. Of course, all ‘asylum seekers’ from Syria and Iraq are illegal, having left their neighbouring refuge in Turkey, until they have been granted asylum elsewhere. They are not seeking to settle in Hungary, simply to cross it on their onward ‘trek’ to ‘northern Europe’. However, applications can take years to process, during which time the ‘illegals’ of all ages are held in tin boxes at the southern border, in all weather and temperatures, within high steel fences.

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Interestingly, a British friend who visits Hungary for extended periods on a regular basis could pick up on these ‘hate messages’ when he visited during the campaign. What was most noticeable for me was the way that most of my Hungarian friends in the town where I live, a Fidesz stronghold, clammed up during the campaign, and have continued to be unwilling to discuss the outcome of the election. Those who do comment have either ‘swallowed’ the government propaganda on ‘the vagrants’, or are dismissive of all politicians: like my wife, they recall the 1970s and 1980s when it was an unwritten rule that ordinary people did not discuss politics, certainly if they were not members of the Communist Party. Even ‘millennials’, not born until Hungary had emerged from the Kádár years, shared their parents’ view.

John O’Sullivan, the Associate Editor of the Hungarian Review and President of the Danube Institute in Budapest, ran into the large political demonstration of tens of thousands which took place in Kossúth tér, the square outside Parliament on the Saturday after the election. Those invited included supporters of ‘Jobbik’, the former ‘hard’ Right party, now by-passed by Fidesz, as well as the Left Opposition. The demonstration was, however, mainly the Left-wing protest of an election landslide for the Right (or, to broaden the analysis, by the elites against “populism”). In the May edition of the journal, he points out that, largely because of the numbers involved, criticism in the national and international media switched from the election process itself, still questioned in the case of the Brexit vote and Trump’s election, to the nature of the campaign. Here the most authoritative criticism was made in the preliminary report of the OSCE (election monitors, invited by the Hungarian government to observe) which can be read at:

*https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/hungary/377410?download=true.

The report distinguishes between the conduct of the election itself, which it describes as professional and transparent and the campaign, which it concluded provided limited space for substantive debate. It also claims that media coverage of the campaign was extensive, yet highly polarised and lacking critical analysis. It further criticised the overlap between state and party spending. 

Whatever the merits of the OSCE’s criticism of the popular political discourse, O’Sullivan points out that these arguments were, in turn, overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the Fidesz victory which entrenched the post-2010 political culture in Hungarian society for the foreseeable future. It became clear, he argues, that this new culture and orientation arose more from the pressure on Hungary of international organisations, such as the EU, and from foreign governments, such as the Obama administration in the US, which produced Viktor Orbán’s justification of his policy that Hungary is reasonably entitled to protect its national character as a European and Christian society against mass immigration. That justification ran counter to the prevailing EU orthodoxy that Europe’s future should be rooted in post-nationalism, multiculturalism and official secularism. If Orbán’s policy had been one representing only a minority, O’Sullivan suggests, it would surely have been defeated, but it won the day by a hat-trick of landslides.

The Strange Death of Liberal Democracy?:

These insights are confirmed and fortified by two articles on the election result by Gáspár Gróh and András Lánczi. The latter sees it as a contributory wave in an internationally significant sea-change that is now transforming the broad Western consensus on how we should be governed. Liberal democracy, as it is currently interpreted by global élites, is both splintering between radical progressives and disheartened centrists and running up against popular resistance which generates its own… alternative courses. Lánczi argues:

Anyone who is not committed or enchanted by the latest liberal ideas concerning gender or radical egalitarianism, will be reduced to refurbishing ideas of the discarded past, especially the natural right or natural law theories, and traditions which are seen on the Left as obsolete or untenable. But they are neither obsolete, nor untenable… Epoch-making changes are underway in political thought. The political symbol of Orbán’s political world is the new constitution enacted in 2011. It is based on regained national pride, a re-interpretation of Hungarian history, and a complete system of democratic institutional arrangements based on classical liberalism, while rejecting the goals of modern radical liberalism.

However, as O’Sullivan points out, this contains an inherent conflict and contradiction in the understanding of both Orbán and Lánczi of the developed world outside Hungary, and especially of Western European states. In fact, both of them have misunderstood liberalism in this context as being polarised between a classical form and a modern radical form. The historical development of liberal institutions in Europe, both within and between nations, has been a mostly gradual progression from the classical to the radical over the past century and a half, with the radical form providing renewal during and after periods of rapid social change and war. Hungary’s ‘absorption’ first by the German axis and then by the Soviet Empire during the latter half of this period cut it off from western influences and delayed its transformation from one type of liberalism to the other. In the last decade, the breakdown of the twenty-year transition to liberal democracy has forced it back into traditional regressive forms of nationalism and authoritarianism. In his review of two books on Europe since 1989, Nicholas T. Parsons argues that enabling the countries of Central Europe to develop politically and economically in accordance with their own customs and traditions would have better results than forcing all of them to adapt their quite different societies to the same Euro-style approach of centrally planning a free market. He may have a point, but again his mischaracterization of this as The Hapsburg Option indicates a reactionary view. His view of the ‘Single Market’ as a ‘centrally planned free market’ is a contradiction in terms. It has to be pointed out, as it has been in the ongoing ‘Brexit’ debate, that the strongest advocate of both the creation of the single market and Hungary’s early accession and integration into the EU was Margaret Thatcher, who, although a strong ‘free-marketeer’, was hardly an advocate of central planning in economic matters.

Lánczi is also mistaken in dismissing all those who point to the growing mood of authoritarianism of the past eight years over the past eight years as heirs of the intellectuals of the Communist period… poignantly described by Czeslaw Milos as “captive minds”. Whilst he may not like ‘liberal’ or ‘libertarian’ thinking, he is himself guilty of the same lazy thinking which places all legitimate democratic criticism as Left-Liberal or Leftist. He argues that In a post-Communist country like Hungary many intellectuals are still in a state of “captive mind”. He acknowledges that this may seem ‘Paradoxical’, but does not confront the central conundrum to which I have already referred, that the current antagonism towards Left-Liberalism in Hungary would seem to be the product of the eighty years of authoritarianism, ending in fascist and communist dictatorships which Hungarians endured, through few if any faults of their own. The twenty years of transition to 2010 were hardly enough for Hungary to take its place as a European liberal democracy, in the broadest meaning of that term. Libertarians are, by definition, not ‘captive minds’ but ‘free thinkers’, and the only ‘Method’ they employ is, in Aristotelian terms, their willingness to entertain ideas without necessarily accepting them. If they are not convinced by ideas from within Hungary or from outside, why should they be expected to accept them? The coalition may have won the election, but it would still seem, on the evidence of results themselves, to have a major task before it in winning over large sections of public opinion within Hungarian society, including those who are naturally conservative in social matters. The simple repetition of campaign mantras will not be sufficient to achieve that and ‘libertarianism’ should not be confused with ‘liberalism’ in this respect. 

Populists, Realists & Utopians:

Certainly, all European political thinkers and politicians need to concern themselves with the current perceived revolt against ‘liberal democracy’, including that in the name of a rather dim concept of “illiberal democracy” as voiced by Viktor Orbán. The populist ‘revolt’ against ‘liberal democracy’ if that is, indeed, what the political events of the last decade represent, has to be set in the historical context of the development of pluralistic, liberal democracies across Europe and America over the past century and a half. These histories reveal that there is more than one way of developing an independent and inter-dependent nation-state within a variety of supra-national structures. As Lánczi himself suggests, the common element to all of these experiments with liberal democracy is the concept of a ‘social contract’. This contract may or may not be expressed on a solitary piece of parchment or paper, but it has to be continually renewed and refreshed. Lánczi rightly points out that élites fail to respect this mostly unwritten rule at their peril. He claims, with some justification, that…

… Most public intellectuals are… inclined to forget that in order to run a society you need to ensure the majority of votes, and this job is more than endless moralising and playing out the authority of the intellectuals. It is easier to denigrate the succesful politician as “populist” than to work for the active support of the people, and suffer intellectually for the more profound understanding of the conditions of the world.

To that we may add that to be ‘populist’ does not mean being right or wrong, but being in the moment. However, sooner or later, the ‘populist’ politician – whether of the Right, Left or Centre – must also deal with truths which are not simply contemporary or contextual, but timeless and universal, especially if they claim to be Christian Democrats. After all, these are what give us the fundamental notion of a social contract, made up of basic absolute rights and duties. Politicians may be in the moment in responding to popular concerns, but they are not ‘of it’, and they must use their wider experience, wisdom and judgement to create sound public policy. ‘Populist’ should not be an insult or even a negative label for an ‘unprincipled’ form of politics. It might even be a compliment for a less dogmatic approach to governing. But by itself ‘Populism’, like ‘Patriotism’ (to paraphrase Edith Cavell), is not enough. Any teacher will tell you that being popular with students will only go so far in winning their respect and promoting their success. Sometimes the ‘tough love’ approach of stating the unpalatable truth is required. In dealing with the masses, politicians sometimes need to remember this. Majorities are, in any case, made up of minorities who may not all want the same thing, as the difficulty over the ‘Brexit’ vote shows, and – even if they do – the strength of a libertarian democracy is not revealed in its rewarding of the majority, but in the respect it shows to the minority/ minorities. That is how it will form new majorities in the future, by going beyond ‘Populist Majoritarianism’. Otherwise, like the ‘Bolsheviks’ (the ‘Majoritarians’ in Russian) we end up with ‘popular’ dictatorship rather than any recognizable form of democracy.

Another ‘obsession’ which Lánczi seems to possess is the idea that there is an irresolvable dichotomy between the development of the nation-state and transnational organisations as agents of the political community. In practical terms, there are certainly tensions, of which we are only too well aware, but such tensions can also be creative and constructive. Lánczi argues that the nation-state has legally, socially and culturally determined limits or boundaries and that only economic development exists outside these boundaries as an activity to be regulated by supra-national mechanisms. In doing so, he posits both a false dichotomy and an abstract, artificial division of the aspects of governance. In reality, it is impossible to separate the social, cultural and economic dimensions of human activity, whether local or global. He quotes those who argue that if the dominant nation-state system of the day remains the only political framework, the global economic and technological developments would prevail without any political control. In the era of global finance, mass media, mass migration, advancing new technologies and ecological trauma, they argue that we have to create transnational organisations capable of operating on the same scale. The current political system, they say, needs to be supplemented with global financial regulations in order to control economic globalisation, which is still dangerously unregulated. The political infrastructure required to complete globalisation has not even been conceived of, they argue. In particular, Lánczi highlights several of Rana Dasgupta’s references to Viktor Orbán in which the former observes that…

 … similar varieties of populism are erupting in many countries. Several have noted the parallels in style and substance between leaders such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdogan … Like Putin or Orbán, Trump imbues citizenship with new martial power, and makes a big show of withholding it from people who want it: what is scarcer, obviously, is more precious.  

Lánczi argues that the dominant view on Orbán’s policy in the ‘world press’ is embedded in a context biased towards the mainstream ‘liberal’ interpretations of politics, that ‘liberal democracy’ is good and that ‘the idea of progress’ should triumph in all debates. He claims that “populism” should be viewed as a political paradigm which presents a new model of democracy which is neither liberal nor demagogic, in which the focus has been removed from the ‘liberal intellectuals’ and ‘expert institutions’ to the people and their concept of ‘leadership’. ‘Populists’ are therefore seen by him as realists, concerned with the actual framework of political developments, common sense judgements and the actual series of events in the past narrative. ‘Liberals’, on the other hand, are ‘utopians’, seeking to convince the electorate about the most desirable outcomes to be achieved in the future.

The ‘Realist View’  begins by pointing out that Fidesz got 650,000 more votes in 2018 than in 2014 and had 336,000 more votes than total votes of the opposition parties. The people voted for Orbán in an undisputable proportion and manner after two terms full of reforms and decisions, all derived from political principles, and amid what Lánczi regards as an often rude and threatening international reception. From this point of view, he asserts, Communism and today’s liberal democracy are easy ideological bedfellows since both allow utopian ideas to occupy the arena of practical politics. Both Communism and liberalism are not just utopian ideologies, but both claim that they know what is to come and therefore what is to be done. This explains how an arch anti-Communist like Viktor Orbán could also become anti-liberal in the sense of the reaction against all forms of modernism. However, this analysis ignores the accepted definitions of both ‘classical’ and ‘radical’ liberalism in western Europe, as they evolved in the practical political contexts of the previous century and a half, for more than half of which Hungary was under the authoritarian rule of varying descriptions. If there is a misunderstanding here between ‘East’ and ‘West’, it is certainly a mutual one.

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In any case, the ‘reality’ is that Orbán’s disagreements with those he identifies as ‘liberals’ in the 1990s, to which Lánczi himself refers in his essay, were far from being ideological in nature. My recollection of the SZDSZ (the ‘Free Democrats’) in 1990-94 was that they were neither ‘classical’ nor ‘radical’ liberals, in British terms neither Gladstonian nor Lloyd Georgian, a remark I made to the late Charles Kennedy MP when I met him in the early nineties on his visit to Hungary as their guest (he later became the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party in Britain). It was Fidesz who, at that time, was seen as the ‘Young Liberal’ party of Hungary. The ‘SZDSZ’ were commonly spoken and written about, in the Hungarian English language press at least, as being ‘Thatcherite’ free-marketeer centrists. In that sense, in western terms, they were economic neo-liberals, but we were careful not to use too many western descriptors for the politics of post-Communist Hungary. It would be more accurate to say that they were in favour of a complete opening up and deregulation of the Hungarian economy at that time, whereas other parties were more concerned to cushion to blows to employment and social benefits which might result from the conversion to capitalism. Their decision to go into coalition with the MSZP (Socialist Party) in 1994, abandoning Fidesz, was born not to ideology but out of the need to manage the economic and social transition at that time. Like the Socialists, they recognised that political and cultural transition would have to wait until after Hungary had joined the EU, which it did in 2004, securing the economic assistance that it needed. But the young Viktor Orbán never forgave them for this ‘betrayal’ of the ‘liberals’, and thus began his journey to the ‘hard right’ and an alliance with the centre-right Christian Democrats.

Aftermath & Analysis – What’s Left for the Left?

Orbán certainly won the 2018 election with evenly distributed votes from every category of society – blue-collar workers, intellectuals, rural workers, and middle-class professionals. He also won among both religious and non-religious voters and across all demographic groups.  But not all of Hungary voted for the victors in the election, and even those who did didn’t all support the fulfilment of the entire Fidesz programme if indeed we can call it such. In fact, Fidesz did not produce election programmes in either the 2014 or 2018 elections. In 2014 Orbán simply sent out a message, We Carry On! In the last election, the main slogan was For Us, Hungary is First! Otherwise, all the Fidesz posters and publicity were simply anti-immigration, re-running the government plebiscite campaign (‘national consultation exercise’) of a few months earlier. Lánczi maintains, rather unconvincingly,  that the lack of an explicit programme or set of promises did not mean that Orbán had no policies to present to the electorate. Apparently, he has central goals which are continually defined and re-defined in his frequent talks about ideas. In his ‘acceptance speech’, the returned PM was able for once to be magnanimous and statesmanlike rather than triumphalist. In an article that otherwise stresses the legitimacy conferred on the new government by the vote, Gáspár Gróh draws a cautionary lesson for both Fidesz and its Prime Minister:

The voter turnout of some seventy per cent suggests that the government enjoys the active support of about one-third of Hungarian society. This shows that humility would not be out of line. In order to secure the survival of the nation and accomplish the momentous tasks it faces, we need even broader co-operation. Indeed, the most complex and most daunting task of the new-old administration lies in figuring out how to convert its overwhelming parliamentary majority into winning the support of society on a similar scale.

Many on the Hungarian Left have perhaps been too quick to denounce their own leaders as more responsible than Fidesz for the landslide result. After all, there was no landslide in Budapest, where Fidesz had done badly even in those middle-class areas where the former MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) had predominated in the past. The victory had been largely achieved in the countryside, with its small provincial towns and cities, than among the conservative metropolitan intelligentsia, many of whom had voted for minor parties. The wholesale victory in the countryside was the product of an eight-year project of the party network to take control of the local institutions; town and county halls, schools and churches, through a system of popular patronage and quiet coercion which would have been the envy of Kádár’s cadres. Those who do not declare for Fidesz are not necessarily declared to be against the ruling party, but those who are known to be opposed to it find themselves moved sideways or even demoted. I have watched this happen over the past eight years in the significant provincial town where I live and work, where the opposition has been cowed and the ruling party’s control is now almost absolute, so much so that, as an almost inevitable product of this evolution, in-fighting has broken out in its ranks since the election victory.

Following the election, there were two further demonstrations in Budapest, all three having the aim of getting the elections annulled, gradually shrinking in size. Then the disgruntled intellectuals put their placards away for another four years. Opposition politicians have now, generally, backed away from challenging the result and started the painful process of internal blood-letting, demanding that their own parties look critically at themselves and why they lost. Meanwhile, oblivious to all that, the tourists continue to flock in and with the added support of EU loans, and the re-building is continuing, both in the capital and the countryside. The false boom continues, with no sign of bust in sight as long as Fidesz and Viktor Orbán can stay on the ‘right’ side of the Conservatives and Christian Democrats in the rest of Europe who subsdise their project of constructing illiberal Hungary.

As Gróh points out, however, we have become, sadly, inured to American-style negative campaigning, and increasingly accept that, in the populist era we live in, campaigns do not cease when the elections are over. Almost inevitably, a new one begins just as the previous one has ended. In Hungary, this is not quite the norm, but we are now ‘looking forward’ to two other rounds of elections within the space of just a year: one being for the EU Parliament, and the other in local elections, both of which extend the franchise to other EU nationals living here. Any appeasement by Fidesz will not, therefore, last long. Gróh suggests that it would be vain to expect the sentiments to subside or to hope for an impending period of calm, peaceful governance and an attendant constructive political rivalry focused on real substantial issues. ‘Campaign psychosis’  will continue to define the public discourse in Hungary for the foreseeable future. Fidesz will continue to retain its clinch on the majority of the middle classes with nationalist leanings and of regressive persuasions, as well as win over voters from other camps.

Gróh suggests that, despite their self-flagellation, there was little the opposition parties could do to shore up a united front in order to oust the government. In doing so, they would have been risking winning votes from conservative-minded citizens from the Right by offering them right-wing policies with which other centre-left parties could not agree. This would likely have produced an even more serious haemorrhaging of votes to the centre-right parties. This was particularly the case with the centre-left LMP’s strategy. In any case, the re-election of the ruling Fidesz-led coalition could easily be predicted from the fact that the Hungarian Forint exchange rate had shown no appreciable fluctuation as election day neared. International markets, always sensitive to major political changes, was clearly banking on the ‘devil’ they knew being returned to power. Nevertheless, Gróh maintains that the opposition parties were prevented from winning by their own incompetence, as the leaders like Ferenc Gyúrcsány, the former Prime Minister (pictured on the right, below), have been ready to admit. Altogether, the centre-left opposition parties garnered 320,000 fewer votes in 2018 than in 2014.

A partial agreement between MSZP and DK – Hungarian Spectrum

The reasons for this sharp decline are complicated, but Lánczi suggests that it is because both the post-Communist left and the liberals have always looked to the West to borrow ideas indiscriminately from and implement them on home soil. He claims that the merging of liberal and ‘leftist’ ideologies has resulted in an emaciated content of leftism based on the amelioration of the free market and “capitalism” through redistributive policies. Yet, these have always been the policies of the centre-left in Hungary since the 1990s, as the Communist period, for all its faults, had already provided a universal, comprehensive if basic, health, social welfare and education system from ages three to eighteen. There was little left for social democrats and liberals to achieve. However, gender egalitarianism can hardly be dismissed as the latest liberal idea to be imported from the West. Surely it is a matter of universal ‘Common Sense’ that fifty per cent of the population of any country should enjoy equal rights with its other half? A century-long campaign for female emancipation, equal rights and equal pay is hardly a leftist fad. It is a political priority for all mainstream parties across Europe, in government or in opposition, if no longer in the US. If by gender Gróh is referring to more recent demands for transgender rights he may have a point, but the assertion of these has met resistance from feminists, liberal or otherwise, on the grounds that it threatens hard-won women’s rights to female-only spaces in society.

Gróh is probably more justified in his assertion that Conservative ideas have become more attractive in Europe recently, partly because much of the agenda of the left has been fulfilled in many of its liberal democracies, and partly because social conservatism, as distinct from political ‘Conservatism’ is a resurgent though not dominant force in many of them. Orbán’s Conservatism, based on regained national pride and a re-interpretation of Hungarian history (which has sometimes ignored, distorted or falsified the facts, however), is not so different from changes underway in politics elsewhere, though these can hardly be described, yet, as epoch-making. Whether the legitimate concerns, both within Hungary itself and in the EU, about his apparent unwillingness to maintain a complete system of democratic institutional arrangements based on classical liberalism, will now evaporate remains to be seen and will largely depend on whether he now abandons his efforts to restrict the freedom and pluralism of the press and media and demonstrates his commitment to the independence of the judiciary.

Migration, the EU & Economic Policy:

Orbán Viktor miniszterelnök távozik az Európai Unió csúcsértekezletének végén, a 2015. október 16-ra virradó éjjel(MTI/EPA/Laurent Dubrule)

The key to the success of the Fidesz-Christian Democrat (KDNP) coalition had little to do with their performance in government, but much to do with its ability to campaign effectively. Consequently, their main campaign message was not about their achievements over the previous two consecutive terms, but on a platform built on their handling of the single issue of mass migration, and their handling of it during and after the summer of 2016, when large numbers of Syrian asylum seekers and migrants from Afghanistan and Pakistan crossed Hungary and Austria en route to Germany and Northern Europe. In reality, this had been an issue of transit, which was temporarily resolved by Angela Merkel and the German government when it opened its borders to those crossing Hungary on their ‘Great Trek’ across the Balkans. Most of these ‘migrants’ had been in refugee camps in Turkey, Syria’s neighbour, having fled from the war across the border. Many of them were professional people and students in the process of gaining qualifications. When the war showed no signs of being brought to an end after three years, and with the advent of the Islamist Caliphate in northern Syria and Iraq, they gave up hope of returning home, determining instead to pursue their aspirations in western Europe. In doing so, they were following a natural impulse to secure human rights that those in Europe take for granted. In reality, very few had any intention of settling in Hungary, and to this date there are only a small number of them in the Hungarian capital, running successful businesses and services.

Nevertheless, the experience of the ‘Great Trek’, with its bottle-necks at the railway stations in Budapest, haunted the Hungarian imagination, with its folk-memory of the Ottoman occupation of centuries before, and led to the building of a ‘steel curtain’ along Hungary’s thousand-kilometre Balkan borders and its claim to be protecting ‘Christian Europe’ from ‘marauding Muslims’. Of course, much of this argument was ‘fake’, drawing on the Islamophobia which has been on the increase since 9/11, and some would argue since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the ongoing wars with the Taliban in Afghanistan since then. As Hungary has no recent experience of interaction with Islamic cultures itself, references were made to isolated incidents of loss of control in German cities, to the social and cultural problems of integrating so many migrants, the situation at Calais and the Islamist terror attacks in Brussels, Barcelona, Paris, London and Manchester. The coalition parties in Hungary simply used the more recent tidal wave of Islamophobia hitting Europe to retain the upper hand they had gained on the issue of migration in 2016. This in itself was enough to lock in the coalition’s victory for the third time running, and since the election there has been no let-up in this anti-Muslim rhetoric and propaganda at every level, and especially in the government-controlled press and media.

In the election, no reference to the government’s record on the economy was required since the influx of EU funds had disguised its shortcomings to control inflation and improve wages and living standards among ordinary Hungarians. Had the election been fought on this record, Gróh comments, it would hardly have sufficed for the kind of sweeping victory we have seen. The Fidesz-KDNP coalition pulled of its ‘hat-trick’ with unprecedented mass backing on the ‘fake’ issue of migration, though with almost a third of voters staying at home.

The latter-day exodus to Europe in recent years is a historic challenge far too momentous to be considered as a mere campaign theme. The phenomenon has increasingly come to shape the outcome of elections across Europe, most recently in Italy. Gróh believes that this will continue, with implications for peace and prosperity in Europe. The corollary global issues of environmental damage, overconsumption and the impending demographic collapse of native populations are provoking the most general intellectual crisis in Europe since the seventeenth century. These emerging global issues emerging in recent years have now manifested themselves in more than just the influx of the masses from the destitute and war-torn continents in search of a better life. Nevertheless, they are ‘external’ to national elections since the problems they create can neither be solved nor even contained at a purely national level. They are beyond the control of national governments, which are only capable of mitigating the effects on their populations.

Although its seemingly tough stance on immigration policy was a clear vote-winner, in reality, the coalition government has little control over this issue independent from the other twenty-seven EU member states, acting in concert. It remains to be seen whether, and for how long, Hungary can continue to ignore its obligations as a member state to accept its quota of asylum seekers without jeopardising its central funding from the EU, or whether it can engineer an alternative, less humane strategy with other central European states and the recently elected Eurosceptic government in Italy. Viktor Orbán is making overtures to former Yugoslav and Balkan states, but many of these are not yet integrated into the EU, and are unlikely to be accepted any time soon. They are also suspicious of Orbán’s long-stated goal of reasserting Hungary’s influence in countries which were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire a century ago, and still have significant though dwindling, ethnic Hungarian populations. This remains a major ‘plank’ of the nationalist government’s foreign policy.

Nevertheless, the re-election of Hungary’s incumbent government bodes well for bolstering the leverage of the revived Central European co-operation of the ‘Vísegrád’ countries as a means of seeking answers to strategic regional questions rather than simply as a means of ‘Saying No to Brussels’, another of the campaign slogans. The consolidation of central Europe as a distinct region within the EU should be welcomed by the western European states as it has far-reaching consequences for the European continent as a whole. As Gróh comments, however, the psychology of campaigns will continue to override the otherwise desirable limits of sober public affairs and responsibility. Meanwhile, Hungary still has its own internal problems to confront, some of which may have a European dimension or context, but most of which are distinctly within the control of the government. It is not enough that the Orbán governments had to cope with the economic problems it inherited in 2010, including the spiralling triple debt traps at personal, corporate and national levels, the passivity of overall society, the unjust distribution of tax and national insurance, and corporate and structural forms of corruption. Voters tend only to be really irritated by individual instances of corruption, even though these are dwarfed by entrenched corruption on a structural level, even now. The institutionalised corruption of the 1990s has now fallen into oblivion, and the danger for the current ‘régime’ is that, in continuing to utilise the campaigning tactic of blaming past administrations for the loss of billions of forint to the national treasury, it will increasingly draw the spotlight onto individual ‘oligarchs’ among its own associates and their corporate relations.

Certainly, it took a major effort by the Orbán governments to overcome institutionalised corruption between 2010 and 2018 and to dislodge the labour market and domestic consumption from stagnation, setting the country on a path to growing wages and bringing about a period of prosperity for some of its citizens. Hungary has yet to reach this destination for most of its citizens, however, and without prosperity, none of the problems in the public services can be solved, especially in health and education, because the new tax structure restricts its revenue. The foreign-exchange loans for housing purposes taken out before 2008 have finally been paid off with the help of the financial measures of the last Orbán government. Wages have risen steadily in the private sectors, and the government has begun to address the gap between those sectors and the public services, especially for teachers. Higher wages at home may yet have the ancillary benefit of keeping more of the workforce from seeking better wages in other EU countries, and in persuading those who have already done so to return. Higher earnings and tax incentives at home may enable more citizens to enter the housing market, enabling them to pay the rent or the mortgage without their dwelling becoming their only asset.

Much remains to be done in closing the gap for regions and social groups lagging behind, and in improving demographic trends and family policy, and it is in these areas, as much as in the restoration and retention of Hungary’s unique cultural values, that the next general election will most likely be fought. In other words, on the legacy of the Orbán administration in every area that matters in the life of a modern nation and which is within the control of its national government. All of this may be taken care of by the two-third parliamentary majority of the newly re-elected coalition, which is surely enough for good governance, but will it prefer to continue its shadow-boxing with external issues and policies it has a say in, but no real control over?

Orbán’s Goals – Family, Sovereignty & Community:

Miklós K. Radványi: “Open letter to Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary”  – Hungarian Spectrum

So, what are the central goals of the new Órban government? Lánczi has read between the lines of the PM’s speeches to identify three central ‘areas’ from which the star striker will aim to score: ‘Family’, ‘Sovereignty’ and what he calls a meritorious moral system based on a shift to an ethic of individual responsibility. The first two areas are nothing new in Fidesz’s programme. Lánczi admits that the idea of ‘family’ has played a central role in all of Orbán’s governments, affecting economic, financial, social and educational policies. The fundamental political idea was framed in the new Hungarian Fundamental Law (or ‘constitutional amendment’) of 2011:

Hungary shall protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman established by voluntary decision, and the family as the basis of the survival of the nation.

This places great emphasis on the role of the nation-state in ‘family affairs’ and what many would consider as being ‘private matters’ and questions of individual, universal human rights. In particular, the question of mutual recognition of same-sex marriages and civil partnerships across the member states of the EU under this law has not been addressed either in the Hungarian Parliament or in the General Election. Lánczi agrees that the Law, in general terms, runs counter to developments within the EU, although decisions on social matters are still considered to be the territory of the individual states. Many have eulogised Orbán for his ‘courage’ in this respect, particularly among socially-conservative religious people, but even among these it needs to be questioned whether the institution of Christian marriage needs to be protected and ‘enshrined’ in the law of the land, or whether the state should simply continue to concentrate on the legal requirements and relationships of marriage in the secular sphere. The Law, as currently written, may yet lead to lead to an unnecessary conflict over the rights of EU citizens resident in Hungary to have their legal relationships recognised here, with implications for property and pension rights in particular. Nevertheless, as Lánczi points out, the centrality of the family in the policies of the ruling party has important demographic motivations:

Almost all European countries have been facing the economic, social and cultural consequences of their declining populations. The smaller a nation is, the less likely they are to share the view of bigger nations’ seemingly comfortable solution to the problem: migration.

However, Lánczi then poses another false dichotomy, between the individual and the family as the smallest unit of society. The former leads, he suggests, to the organisation of society into a liberal democracy, whereas the latter leads to the strengthening of the nation-state. Viktor Orbán, he claims, is one of the few European political leaders who can see the correlation between the weakening institution of the family and the growing antipathy against the idea of the nation. But are the western liberal democracies really weakening the institution of marriage and the family by opening it up to a broader interpretation of what a family actually is, or can be, in modern society? Leaving aside religious concerns, at least for a minute, does the exact gender formation of a family really matter in societal and demographic terms? Evidence published to date suggests a negative answer, although we have yet to see the longer-term effects of changes in marriage law on wider society.

There is also a bigger social ‘demographic’ issue which we might refer to, in colloquial terms, as the elephant in the room. It could be argued that an insistence on one ‘traditional’ model of ‘the nuclear family’ might be detrimental to another ‘traditional’ model, still prevalent in Hungary, that of the ‘extended’ family. In placing all the emphasis on nation-state help for 2.4 children, are we not in danger of marginalizing the increasing numbers of elderly people, many of them living alone or in care homes, rather than with younger family members? At the same time, where is the help for those family members who are willing and able to care for their parents at home, in addition to continuing to care for their own children as well as holding down full-time employment? Surely, they need to be encouraged to remain economically active. In Hungary, as elsewhere, and as a member of such a family, I don’t see this support as forthcoming. Perhaps that will be the next step in the government’s family-friendly policies. It is certainly long overdue, and a challenge that needs somehow to be confronted.

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On the question of ‘sovereignty’, a term which also continues to be much in use in the ‘Brexit’ debates, Lánczi has pointed out that this concept has been a central ‘instrument’ of the Orbán governments. Among his early campaign slogans, Orbán used the statement, Small victory, little changes; big victory, big changes! We might balance this with the concept employed in many other European democracies, The bigger the majority, the greater the respect shown to minorities! However, this concept is unlikely to find its way into Orbán’s political vocabulary. On the other hand, the people’s will has to be assessed not only by pure numbers but also, according to his supporters, by the intensity of emotions, expectations and passions expressed.

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Sovereignty, the wielding of power on behalf of the people, needs to meet two criteria: the reasonableness of the political goals and the reliability of the political background. Orbán drew a lesson from his 2002 defeat that it was not enough to have popular goals and policies, but that he must organise the political machinery without which the leader would turn out to be a mere puppet of the civil service, very soon losing control over political developments. In particular, however, the issue of sovereignty which has preoccupied the administration since 2016 has been that of whether the EU or the Hungarian state should have the largest measure of sovereignty in the management of the mass migration across the member states. As mentioned elsewhere in this essay, there seems to be little prospect of a resolution to this issue in the near future.

Until the 2008 economic crisis the moral foundations of liberal democracy, “justice as fairness” and human rights had no viable alternative. Political arguments were supposed to be based on the idea that there were certain inalienable rights which every individual should be able to enjoy. But the monopoly of the modern liberal interpretation of rights is being widely challenged, not least in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. Here, the renewed basis for political discourse involves the resuscitation of the traditional moral ties which are seen as binding Hungarian society together in the face of external threats and challenges. Egalitarian concepts of justice, both post-Communist and liberal, still have a strong grip on society, but it is increasingly questioned whether western individual-based moralities can and will hold the Hungarian nation-state and the European Union together. Lánczi argues that the emphasis has now shifted from one on the rights of the individual in society to the rights of the community. According to him, rights are nothing if there is no community that warrants them. The primary issue is, therefore, the unity of the community in which individuals can trust each other to a reasonable extent. In particular, Lánczi questions whether immigrants should expect to immediately be given the same rights as natives in the communities to which they move.

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Apparently, Orbán believes in the evolution of a system of ‘meritorious moral relationships’ in which individuals are given rights only when they have fulfilled their obligations. In other words, individuals must ‘fit in’ and integrate themselves into the community first before the latter will ‘reward’ them with rights. This effectively turns rights into privileges which must be earned. Rights are no longer absolute or universal, as in the ‘classical liberal’ sense, but  ‘mutual merits’ defined relative to a national or local moral code which is seen as the basis of the harmony between the individual and the community.  In Hungary, this is the basis for the lowering of personal income tax to 15% for all. Those who work more and risk more are rewarded. There is no longer any system of graduated taxation in which the richer pay a higher proportion of their income to support the poorer in the community. In addition, those on social benefits are required to do ‘workfare’, performing tasks for the community in return for those benefits. So the central moral virtues in Hungary are the ‘senses’ of obligation and responsibility, and individual rights are regarded as being dependent on them. This is seen as the secret of an illiberal morality which underpins Viktor Orbán’s illiberal democracy. It is therefore incumbent on newcomers to ‘discover’ this secret since expectations are not always clearly articulated or, indeed, static.

Again, this reveals a fundamental misreading of the first principles of classical liberal democracy, in which there has always been an understanding between individuals and the state of the need to balance rights and responsibilities or obligations, and to earn or merit privileges. However, in European liberal democracies, there has also always been, at least since the seventeenth century, an understanding that there are certain fundamental human rights which are either believed to be God-given or part of the social contract between the state and the individual. In addition, there is the question as to how ‘merits’ are to be valued and rewarded, and who determines what these should be and how they should be awarded, assuming that the concept of “justice as fairness” still applies. Otherwise, society is in danger of being dragged back into moral relativism, or an essentially Medieval morality underpinning a system of feudal patronage in which ‘rights and dues’ are determined and arbitrated by an individual ‘lord’. This renewed social contract between ‘the people’ and Viktor Orbán is therefore founded on a new top-down ‘meritorious’ moral code.

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Wherever Next then… ?

For the time being, at least, ‘Leftists’ and ‘Liberals’ are not popular in Hungary, seen as being in the pay of alien forces. What Lánczi refers to as the intellectually exhausted post-Communist Left and the dogmatic liberals have been marginalised within the new national community. If these principles and processes ring alarm bells for western democrats, Lánczi assures us that Orbán’s political model has managed to see off both leftist and rightist radicalism. His politics, we are told, is about the political centre defined in terms of national history and identity, the Christian context of our way of living, and a view of the good life. This is what provides the stable political background against which the people’s aspirations can be fulfilled by their governers. Perhaps, in time, there may also be a coral growth of more popular centrists, as in France, whether progressive liberals or pro-European social democrats, untainted by past associations. The Centre-Right also shows signs of splitting into Christian conservatives and more radical nationalists, led by ‘Jobbik’, who still attracted one million voters out of 5.6 million. But the reactionary and regressive elements in political life, both local and national, are likely to remain in control for much of the next four years, and perhaps beyond. They are deeply entrenched in Hungarian society, and it will take a seismic shift among younger generations, including those returning from abroad, to supplant them. The next four years will be crucial to Hungary’s survival as an open, pluralistic democracy at the heart of Europe.

Sources:

Gyula Kodolányi & John O’Sullivan (eds.) (May 2018), Hungarian Review, Vol. IX,  No. 3. Articles by Gáspár Gróh and András Lánczi; essay by Nicholas T. Parsons; editorial note by John O’Sullivan.        

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