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Roots of Liberal Democracy, Part Five: The Rise of “Populism” in Hungary & Europe, 2002-18.   1 comment

Hungary at the beginning of its Second Millennium:

The good old days: George W. Bush in Budapest, June 22, 2006

The Republican George W Bush became US President in January 2001, replacing Bill Clinton, the Democrat and ‘liberal’, whose eight years in the White House had come to an end during the first Orbán government, which lost the general election of 2002. Its Socialist successor was led first by Péter Medgyessy and then, from 2004-09, by Ferenc Gyurcsány (pictured below, on the left).

Ferenc Gyurcsány and M. André Goodfriend at the Conference on Hungary in Isolation and the Global World

In this first decade of the new millennium, relations between the ‘West’ and Hungary continued to progress as the latter moved ahead with its national commitment to democracy, the rule of law and a market economy under both centre-right and centre-left governments. They also worked in NATO (from 1999) and the EU (from 2004) to combat terrorism, international crime and health threats. In January 2003, Hungary was one of the eight central and eastern European countries whose leaders signed a letter endorsing US policy during the Iraq Crisis. Besides inviting the US Army to train Free Iraqi Forces as guides, translators and security personnel at the Taszár air base, Hungary also contributed a transportation company of three hundred soldiers to a multinational division stationed in central Iraq. Following Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast of the United States in the fall of 2005, members of a team of volunteer rescue professionals from Hungarian Baptist Aid were among the first international volunteers to travel to the region, arriving in Mississippi on 3 September. The following April, in response to the severe floods throughout much of Hungary, US-AID provided $50,000 in emergency relief funds to assist affected communities.

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During his visit to Budapest in June 2006, in anticipation the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 Uprising, President George W Bush gave a speech on Gellért Hill in the capital in which he remarked:

“The desire for liberty is universal because it is written into the hearts of every man, woman and child on this Earth. And as people across the world step forward to claim their own freedom, they will take inspiration from Hungary’s example, and draw hope from your success. … Hungary represents the triumph of liberty over tyranny, and America is proud to call Hungary a friend.” 

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The Origins and Growth of Populism in Europe:

Not without ambivalence, by the end of the first decade of the new millennium, Hungary had stepped out on the Occidental route it had anticipated for more than a century. This is why, from 1998 onwards, Hungarian political developments in general and the rise of FIDESZ-MPP as a formidable populist political force need to be viewed in the context of broader developments within the integrated European liberal democratic system shared by the member states of the European Union. Back in 1998, only two small European countries – Switzerland and Slovakia – had populists in government. Postwar populists found an early toehold in Europe in Alpine countries with long histories of nationalist and/or far-right tendencies. The exclusionist, small-government Swiss People’s Party (SVP) was rooted in ‘authentic’ rural resistance to urban and foreign influence, leading a successful referendum campaign to keep Switzerland out of the European Economic Area (EEA) in 1992, and it has swayed national policy ever since. The Swiss party practically invented right-wing populism’s ‘winning formula’; nationalist demands on immigration, hostility towards ‘neo-liberalism’ and a fierce focus on preserving national traditions and sovereignty. In Austria, neighbour to both Switzerland and Hungary, the Freedom Party, a more straightforward right-wing party founded by a former Nazi in 1956, won more than twenty per cent of the vote in 1994 and is now in government, albeit as a junior partner, for the fourth time.

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The immediate effect of the neo-liberal shock in countries like Hungary, Slovakia and Poland was a return to power of the very people who the imposition of a free market was designed to protect their people against, namely the old Communist ‘apparatchiks’, now redefining themselves as “Socialist” parties. They were able to scoop up many of the ‘losers’ under the new system, the majority of voters, the not inconsiderable number who reckoned, probably rightly, that they had been better off under the socialist system, together with the ‘surfers’ who were still in their former jobs, though now professing a different ideology, at least on the surface. In administration and business, the latter were well-placed to exploit a somewhat undiscriminating capitalist capitalism and the potential for corruption in what was euphemistically called “spontaneous” privatisation. Overall, for many people in these transition-challenged countries, the famously witty quip of the ‘losers’ in post-Risorgimento liberal Italy seemed to apply: “we were better off when we were worse off”.  The realisation of what was happening nevertheless took some time to seep through into the consciousness of voters. The role of the press and media was crucial in this, despite the claim of Philipp Ther (2014) claim that many…

… journalists, newspapers and radio broadcasters remained loyal to their régimes for many years, but swiftly changed sides in 1989. More than by sheer opportunism, they were motivated by a sense of professional ethics, which they retained despite all Communist governments’ demand, since Lenin’s time, for ‘partynost’ (partisanship).

In reality, journalists were relatively privileged under the old régime, provided they toed the party line, and were determined to be equally so in the new dispensation. Some may have become independent-minded and analytical, but very many more exhibited an event greater partisanship after what the writer Péter Eszterházy called rush hour on the road to Damascus. The initial behaviour of the press after 1989 was a key factor in supporting the claim of the Right, both in Poland and Hungary, that the revolution was only ‘half-completed’. ‘Liberal’ analysis does not accept this and is keen to stress only the manipulation of the media by today’s right-wing governments. But even Paul Lendvai has admitted that, in Hungary, in the first years after the change, the media was mostly sympathetic to the Liberals and former Communists.

This was a long time ago: Viktor Orbán and Zoltán Pokorni in 2004

On the other hand, he has also noted that both the Antall and the first Orbán government (1998-2002) introduced strong measures to remedy this state of affairs. Apparently, when Orbán complained to a Socialist politician of press bias, the latter suggested that he should “buy a newspaper”, advice which he subsequently followed, helping to fuel ongoing ‘liberal’ complaints about the origins of the one-sided nature of today’s media in Hungary. Either way, Damascene conversions among journalists could be detected under both socialist and conservative nationalist governments.

The Great Financial Meltdown of 2007-2009 & All That!:

The financial meltdown that originated in the US economy in 2007-08 had one common factor on both sides of the Atlantic, namely the excess of recklessly issued credit resulting in massive default, chiefly in the property sector. EU countries from Ireland to Spain to Greece were in virtual meltdown as a result. Former Communist countries adopted various remedies, some taking the same IMF-prescribed medicine as Ireland. It was in 2008, as the financial crisis and recession caused living standards across Europe to shrink, that the established ruling centrist parties began to lose control over their volatile electorates. The Eurocrats in Brussels also became obvious targets, with their ‘clipboard austerity’, especially in their dealings with the Mediterranean countries and with Greece in particular. The Visegrád Four Countries had more foreign direct investment into industrial enterprises than in many other members of the EU, where the money went into ‘financials’ and real estate, making them extremely vulnerable when the crisis hit. Philipp Ther, the German historian of Europe Since 1989, has argued that significant actors, including Václav Klaus in the Czech Republic, preached the ‘gospel of neo-liberalism’ but were pragmatic in its application.

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the EC, delivered his first State of the Union Address 2015 "Time for Honesty, Unity and Solidarity" at the plenary session of the EP in Strasbourg, chaired by Martin Schulz, President of the EP. (EC Audiovisual Services, 09/09/2015)

The Man the ‘Populists’ love to hate:  Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission since November 2014, when he succeeded Jóse Manuel Barroso. Although seen by many as the archetypal ‘Eurocrat’, by the time he left office as the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Juncker was the longest-serving head of any national government in the EU, and one of the longest-serving democratically elected leaders in the world, his tenure encompassing the height of the European financial and sovereign debt crisis. From 2005 to 2013, Juncker served as the first permanent President of the Eurogroup.

Dealing with the case of Hungary, László Csaba has expressed his Thoughts on Péter Ákos Bod’s Book, published recently, in the current issue of Hungarian Review (November 2018). In the sixth chapter of his book, Bod admits that the great financial meltdown of 2007-09 did not come out of the blue, and could have been prepared for more effectively in Hungary. Csaba finds this approach interesting, considering that the recurrent motif in the international literature of the crisis has tended to stress the general conviction among ‘experts’ that nothing like what happened in these years could ever happen again. Bod points out that Hungary had begun to lag behind years before the onslaught of the crisis, earlier than any of its neighbours and the core members of the EU. The application of solutions apparently progressive by international standards often proved to be superficial in their effects, however. In reality, the efficiency of governance deteriorated faster than could have been gleaned from macroeconomic factors. This resulted in excessive national debt and the IMF had to be called in by the Socialist-Liberal coalition. The country’s peripheral position and marked exposure were a given factor in this, but the ill-advised decisions in economic policy certainly added to its vulnerability. Bod emphasises that the stop-and-go politics of 2002-2010 were heterodox: no policy advisor or economic textbook ever recommended a way forward, and the detrimental consequences were accumulating fast.

As a further consequence of the impact of the ongoing recession on the ‘Visegrád’ economies, recent statistical analyses by Thomas Piketty have shown that between 2010 and 2016 the annual net outflow of profits and incomes from property represented on average 4.7 per cent of GDP in Poland, 7.2 per cent in Hungary, 7.6 per cent in the Czech Republic and 4.2 per cent in Slovakia, reducing commensurately the national income of these countries. By comparison, over the same period, the annual net transfers from the EU, i.e. the difference between the totality of expenditure received and the contributions paid to the EU budget were appreciably lower: 2.7 per cent of GDP in Poland, 4.0 per cent in Hungary, 1.9 per cent in the Czech Republic and 2.2 per cent in Slovakia. Piketty added that:

East European leaders never miss an opportunity to recall that investors take advantage of their position of strength to keep wages low and maintain excessive margins.

He cites a recent interview with the Czech PM in support of this assertion. The recent trend of the ‘Visegrád countries’ to more nationalist and ‘populist’ governments suggests a good deal of disillusionment with global capitalism. At the very least, the theory of “trickle down” economics, whereby wealth created by entrepreneurs in the free market, assisted by indulgent attitudes to business on the part of the government, will assuredly filter down to the lowest levels of society, does not strike the man on the Budapest tram as particularly plausible. Gross corruption in the privatisation process, Freunderlwirtschaft, abuse of their privileged positions by foreign investors, extraction of profits abroad and the volatility of “hot money” are some of the factors that have contributed to the disillusionment among ‘ordinary’ voters. Matters would have been far worse were it not for a great deal of infrastructural investment through EU funding. Although Poland has been arguably the most “successful” of the Visegrád countries in economic terms, greatly assisted by its writing off of most of its Communist-era debts, which did not occur in Hungary, it has also moved furthest to the right, and is facing the prospect of sanctions from the EU (withdrawal of voting rights) which are also, now, threatened in Hungary’s case.

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Bod’s then moves on to discuss the economic ‘recovery’ from 2010 to 2015. The former attitude of seeking compromise was replaced by sovereignty-based politics, coupled with increasingly radical government decisions. What gradually emerged was an ‘unorthodox’ trend in economic management measures, marking a break with the practices of the previous decade and a half, stemming from a case-by-case deliberation of government and specific single decisions made at the top of government. As such, they could hardly be seen as revolutionary, given Hungary’s historical antecedents, but represented a return to a more authoritarian form of central government. The direct peril of insolvency had passed by the middle of 2012, employment had reached a historic high and the country’s external accounts began to show a reliable surplus.

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Elsewhere in Europe, in 2015, Greece elected the radical left-wing populists of Syriza, originally founded in 2004 as a coalition of left-wing and radical left parties, into power. Party chairman Alexis Tsipras served as Prime Minister of Greece from January 2015 to August 2015 and, following subsequent elections, from September 2015 to the present. In Spain, meanwhile, the anti-austerity Podemos took twenty-one per cent of the vote in 2015 just a year after the party was founded. Even in famously liberal Scandinavia, nation-first, anti-immigration populists have found their voice over the last decade. By 2018, eleven countries have populists in power and the number of Europeans ruled by them has increased from fourteen million to 170 million. This has been accounted for by everything from the international economic recession to inter-regional migration, the rise of social media and the spread of globalisation. Recently, western Europe’s ‘solid inner circle’ has started to succumb. Across Europe as a whole, right-wing populist parties, like Geert Wilder’s (pictured above) anti-Islam Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands, have also succeeded in influencing policy even when not in government, dragging the discourse of their countries’ dominant centre-right parties further to the Right, especially on the issues of immigration and migration.

The Migration Factor & the Crisis of 2015:

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Just four momentous years ago, in her New Year message on 31 December 2014, Chancellor Merkel (pictured right) singled out these movements and parties for criticism, including Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), founded in direct response to her assertion at the height of the financial crisis that there was “no alternative” to the EU bailing out Greece. The German people, she insisted, must not have “prejudice, coldness or hatred” in their hearts, as these groups did. Instead, she urged the German people to a new surge of openness to refugees.

Apart from the humanitarian imperative, she argued, Germany’s ‘ageing population’ meant that immigration would prove to be a benefit for all of us. The following May, the Federal Interior Minister announced in Berlin that the German government was expecting 450,000 refugees to arrive in the country that coming year. Then in July 1915, the human tragedy of the migration story burst into the global news networks. In August, the German Interior Ministry had already revised the country’s expected arrivals for 2015 up to 800,000, more than four times the number of arrivals in 2014. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees pondered the question of what they would do with the people coming up through Greece via ‘the Balkan route’ to Hungary and on to Germany. Would they be sent back to Hungary as they ought to have been under international protocols? An agreement was reached that this would not happen, and this was announced on Twitter on 25 August which said that we are no longer enforcing the Dublin procedures for Syrian citizens. Then, on 31 August, Angela Merkel told an audience of foreign journalists in Berlin that German flexibility was what was needed. She then went on to argue that Europe as a whole…

“… must move and states must share the responsibility for refugees seeking asylum. Universal civil rights were so far tied together with Europe and its history. If Europe fails on the question of refugees, its close connection with universal civil rights will be destroyed. It won’t be the Europe we imagine. … ‘Wir schaffen das’ (‘We can do this’).

Much of the international media backed her stance, The Economist claiming that Merkel the bold … is brave, decisive and right. But across the continent ‘as a whole’ Merkel’s unilateral decision was to create huge problems in the coming months. In a Europe whose borders had come down and in which free movement had become a core principle of the EU, the mass movement through Europe of people from outside those borders had not been anticipated. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands were walking through central Europe on their way north and west to Germany, Denmark and Sweden. During 2015 around 400,000 migrants moved through Hungary’s territory alone. Fewer than twenty of them stopped to claim asylum within Hungary, but their passage through the country to the railway stations in Budapest had a huge impact on its infrastructure and national psychology.

Is this the truth?

By early September the Hungarian authorities announced that they were overwhelmed by the numbers coming through the country and declared the situation to be out of control. The government tried to stop the influx by stopping trains from leaving the country for Austria and Germany. Around fourteen thousand people were arriving in Munich each day. Over the course of a single weekend, forty thousand new arrivals were expected. Merkel had her spokesman announce that Germany would not turn refugees away in order to help clear the bottleneck in Budapest, where thousands were sleeping at the Eastern Station, waiting for trains. Some were tricked into boarding a train supposedly bound for Austria which was then held near a detention camp just outside Budapest. Many of the ‘migrants’ refused to leave the train and eventually decided to follow the tracks on foot back to the motorway and on to the border in huge columns comprising mainly single men, but also many families with children.

These actions led to severe criticism of Hungary in the international media and from the heads of other EU member states, both on humanitarian grounds but also because Hungary appeared to be reverting to national boundaries. But the country had been under a huge strain not of its own making. In 2013 it had registered around twenty thousand asylum seekers. That number had doubled in 2014, but during the first three winter months of 2015, it had more people arriving on its southern borders than in the whole of the previous year. By the end of the year, the police had registered around 400,000 people, entering the country at the rate of ten thousand a day. Most of them had come through Greece and should, therefore, have been registered there, but only about one in ten of them had been. As the Hungarians saw it, the Greeks had simply failed to comply with their obligations under the Schengen Agreement and EU law. To be fair to them, however, the migrants had crossed the Aegean sea by thousands of small boats, making use of hundreds of small, poorly policed islands. This meant that the Hungarian border was the first EU land border they encountered on the mainland.

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Above: Refugees are helped by volunteers as they arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos.

In July the Hungarian government began constructing a new, taller fence along the border with Serbia. This increased the flow into Croatia, which was not a member of the EU at that time, so the fence was then extended along the border between Croatia and Hungary. The Hungarian government claimed that these fences were the only way they could control the numbers who needed to be registered before transit, but they were roundly condemned by the Slovenians and Austrians, who now also had to deal with huge numbers on arriving on foot. But soon both Austria and Slovenia were erecting their own fences, though the Austrians claimed that their fence was ‘a door with sides’ to control the flow rather than to stop it altogether. The western European governments, together with the EU institutions’ leaders tried to persuade central-European countries to sign up to a quota system for relocating the refugees across the continent, Viktor Orbán led a ‘revolt’ against this among the ‘Visegrád’ countries.

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Douglas Murray has recently written in his best-selling book (pictured right, 2017/18) that the Hungarian government were also reflecting the will of their people in that a solid two-thirds of Hungarians polled during this period felt that their government was doing the right thing in refusing to agree to the quota number. In reality, there were two polls held in the autumn of 2015 and the spring of 2016, both of which had returns of less than a third, of whom two-thirds did indeed agree to a loaded question, written by the government, asking if they wanted to “say ‘No’ to Brussels”. In any case, both polls were ‘consultations’ rather than mandatory referenda, and on both occasions, all the opposition parties called for a boycott. Retrospectively, Parliament agreed to pass the second result into law, changing the threshold to two-thirds of the returns and making it mandatory.

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Murray has also claimed that the financier George Soros, spent considerable sums of money during 2015 on pressure groups and institutions making the case for open borders and free movement of migrants into and around Europe. The ideas of Karl Popper, the respected philosopher who wrote The Open Society and its Enemies have been well-known since the 1970s, and George Soros had first opened the legally-registered Open Society office in Budapest in 1987.

Soros certainly helped to found and finance the Central European University as an international institution teaching ‘liberal arts’ some twenty-five years ago, which the Orbán government has recently been trying to close by introducing tighter controls on higher education in general. Yet in 1989 Orbán himself received a scholarship from the Soros Foundation to attend Pembroke College, Oxford but returned after a few months to become a politician and leader of FIDESZ.

George Soros, the bogiey man

However, there is no evidence to support the claim that Soros’ foundation published millions of leaflets encouraging illegal immigration into Hungary, or that the numerous groups he was funding were going out of their way to undermine the Hungarian government or any other of the EU’s nation states.

Soros’ statement to Bloomberg that his foundation was upholding European values that Orbán, through his opposition to refugee quotas was undermining would therefore appear to be, far from evidence a ‘plot’, a fairly accurate reiteration of the position taken by the majority of EU member states as well as the ‘Brussels’ institutions. Soros’ plan, as quoted by Murray himself, treats the protection of refugees as the objective and national borders as the obstacle. Here, the ‘national borders’ of Hungary he is referring to are those with other surrounding EU states, not Hungary’s border with Serbia. So Soros is referring to ‘free movement’ within the EU, not immigration from outside the EU across its external border with Serbia. During the 2015 Crisis, a number of churches and charitable organisations gave humanitarian assistance to the asylum seekers at this border. There is no evidence that any of these groups received external funding, advocated resistance against the European border régime or handed out leaflets in Serbia informing the recipients of how to get into Europe.

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Viktor Orbán & The Strange Case of ‘Illiberal Democracy’:

On 15 March 2016, the Prime Minister of Hungary used the ceremonial speech for the National Holiday commemorating the 1848 Revolution to explain his wholly different approach to migration, borders, culture and identity. Viktor Orbán told those assembled by the steps of the National Museum that, in Douglas Murray’s summation, the new enemies of freedom were different from the imperial and Soviet systems of the past, that today they did not get bombarded or imprisoned, but merely threatened and blackmailed. In his own words, the PM set himself up as the Christian champion of Europe:

At last, the peoples of Europe, who have been slumbering in abundance and prosperity, have understood that the principles of life that Europe has been built on are in mortal danger. Europe is the community of Christian, free and independent nations…

Mass migration is a slow stream of water persistently eroding the shores. It is masquerading as a humanitarian cause, but its true nature is the occupation of territory. And what is gaining territory for them is losing territory for us. Flocks of obsessed human rights defenders feel the overwhelming urge to reprimand us and to make allegations against us. Allegedly we are hostile xenophobes, but the truth is that the history of our nation is also one of inclusion, and the history of intertwining of cultures. Those who have sought to come here as new family members, as allies, or as displaced persons fearing for their lives, have been let in to make new homes for themselves.

But those who have come here with the intention of changing our country, shaping our nation in their own image, those who have come with violence and against our will have always been met with resistance.

Népszava's headline: "He already speaks as a dictator / Getty Images

Yet behind these belligerent words, and in other comments and speeches, Viktor Orbán has made clear that his government is opposed taking in its quota of Syrian refugees on religious and cultural grounds. Robert Fico, the Slovakian leader, made this explicit when he stated just a month before taking over the Presidency of the European Union, that…

… Islam has no place in Slovakia: Migrants change the character of our country. We do not want the character of this country to change. 

It is in the context of this tide of unashamed Islamaphobia in central and eastern Europe that right-wing populism’s biggest advances have been made.  All four of the Visegrád countries (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary) are governed by populist parties. None of these countries has had any recent experience of immigration from Muslim populations in Africa or the Indian subcontinent, unlike many of the former imperial powers of western Europe. Having had no mass immigration during the post-war period, they had retained, in the face of Soviet occupation and dominance, a sense of national cohesion and a mono-cultural character which supported their needs as small nations with distinct languages. They also distrusted the West, since they had suffered frequent disappointments in their attempts to assert their independence from Soviet control and had all experienced, within living memory, the tragic dimensions of life that the Western allies had forgotten. So, too, we might add, did the Baltic States, a fact which is sometimes conveniently ignored. The events of 1956, 1968, 1989 and 1991 had revealed how easily their countries could be swept in one direction and then swept back again. At inter-governmental levels, some self-defined ‘Islamic’ countries have not helped the cause of the Syrian Muslim refugees. Iran, which has continued to back the Hezbollah militia in its fighting for Iranian interests in Syria since 2011, has periodically berated European countries for not doing more to aid the refugees. In September 2015, President Rouhani lectured the Hungarian Ambassador to Iran over Hungary’s alleged ‘shortcomings’ in the refugee crisis.

Or that?

For their part, the central-eastern European states continued in their stand-off with ‘Berlin and Brussels’. The ‘Visegrád’ group of four nations have found some strength in numbers. Since they continued to refuse migrant quotas, in December 2017 the European Commission announced that it was suing Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic at the European Court of Justice over this refusal. Sanctions and heavy fines were threatened down the line, but these countries have continued to hold out against these ‘threats’. But Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has benefited substantially from German investment, particularly in the auto industry. German business enjoys access to cheap, skilled and semi-skilled labour in Hungary, while Hungary benefits from the jobs and the tax revenue flowing from the investment. German business is pragmatic and generally ignores political issues as long as the investment climate is right. However, the German political class, and especially the German media, have been forcibly critical of Viktor Orbán, especially over the refugee and migrant issues. As Jon Henley reports, there are few signs of these issues being resolved:

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Philipp Ther’s treatment of Hungary in his History (2016) follows this line of criticism. He describes Orbán as being a ‘bad loser’ in the 2002 election and a ‘bad winner’ in 2010. Certainly, FIDESZ only started showing their true populist colours after their second victory in 2006, determined not to lose power after just another four years. They have now won four elections in succession.

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Viktor Orbán speaking during the 2018 Election campaign: “Only Fidesz!”

John Henley, European Affairs Correspondent of The Guardian, identifies the core values of FIDESZ as those of nationalism, cultural conservatism and authoritarianism. For the past decade, he claims, they have been attacking the core institutions of any liberal democracy, including an independent judiciary and a free press/ media. He argues that they have increasingly defined national identity and citizenship in terms of ethnicity and religion, demonising opponents, such as George Soros, in propaganda which is reminiscent of the anti-Semitism of the 1930s. This was particularly the case in the 2018 election campaign, in which ubiquitous posters showed him as the ‘puppet-master’ pulling the strings of the opposition leaders. In the disputed count, the FIDESZ-KDNP (Christian Democrat) Alliance in secured sixty-three per cent of the vote. The OSCE observers commented on the allusions to anti-Semitic tropes in the FIDESZ-KDNP campaign. In addition, since the last election, Jon Henley points out how, as he sees it, FIDESZ’s leaders have ramped up their efforts to turn the country’s courts into extensions of their executive power, public radio and television stations into government propaganda outlets, and universities into transmitters of their own narrowly nationalistic and culturally conservative values. Philipp Ther likewise accuses Orbán’s government of infringing the freedom of the press, and of ‘currying favour’ by pledging to put the international banks in their place (the miss-selling of mortgages in Swiss Francs was egregious in Hungary).

Defenders of Viktor Orbán’s government and its FIDESZ-KDNP supporters will dismiss this characterisation as stereotypical of ‘western liberal’ attacks on Orbán, pointing to the fact that he won forty-nine per cent of the popular vote in the spring elections and a near two-thirds parliamentary majority because the voters thought that overall it had governed the country well and in particular favoured its policy on migration, quotas and relocation. Nicholas T Parsons agrees that Orbán has reacted opportunistically to the unattractive aspects of inward “investment”, but says that it is wishful thinking to interpret his third landslide victory as in April 2018 as purely the result of manipulation of the media or the abuse of power. However, in reacting more positively to Ther’s treatment of economic ‘neo-liberalism’, Parsons mistakenly conflates this with his own attacks on ‘liberals’, ‘the liberal establishment’ and ‘the liberal élite’. He then undermines his own case by hankering after a “Habsburg solution” to the democratic and nationalist crisis in the “eastern EU”.  To suggest that a democratic model for the region can be based on the autocratic Austro-Hungarian Empire which finally collapsed in abject failure over a century ago is to stand the history of the region case on its head. However, he makes a valid point in arguing that the “western EU” could do more to recognise the legitimate voice of the ‘Visegrád Group’.

Nevertheless, Parsons overall claim that Orbán successfully articulates what many Hungarians feel is shared by many close observers. He argues that…

… commentary on the rightward turn in Central Europe has concentrated on individual examples of varying degrees of illiberalism, but has been too little concerned with why people are often keen to vote for governments ritualistically denounced by the liberal establishment  as ‘nationalist’ and ‘populist’. 

Gerald Frost, a staff member of the Danube Institute, recently wrote to The Times that while he did not care for the policies of the Orbán government, Hungary can be forgiven for wishing to preserve its sovereignty. But even his supporters recognise that his ‘innocent’ coining of the term “illiberal democracy” in a speech to young ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania in 2016. John O’Sullivan interpreted this at the time as referring to the way in which under the rules of ‘liberal democracy’, elected bodies have increasingly ceded power to undemocratic institutions like courts and unelected international agencies which have imposed ‘liberal policies’ on sovereign nation states. But the negative connotations of the phrase have tended to obscure the validity of the criticism it contains. Yet the Prime Minister has continued to use it in his discourse, for example in his firm response to the European Parliament’s debate on the Sargentini Report (see the section below):

Illiberal democracy is when someone else other than the liberals have won.

At least this clarifies that he is referring to the noun rather than to the generic adjective, but it gets us no further in the quest for a mutual understanding of ‘European values’. As John O’Sullivan points out, until recently, European politics has been a left-right battle between the socialists and the conservatives which the liberals always won. That is now changing because increasing numbers of voters, often in the majority, disliked, felt disadvantaged by, and eventually opposed policies which were more or less agreed between the major parties. New parties have emerged, often from old ones, but equally often as completely new creations of the alienated groups of citizens. In the case of FIDESZ, new wine was added to the old wine-skin of liberalism, and the bag eventually burst. A new basis for political discourse is gradually being established throughout Europe. The new populist parties which are arising in Europe are expressing resistance to progressive liberal policies. The political centre, or consensus parties, are part of an élite which have greater access to the levers of power and which views “populism” as dangerous to liberal democracy. This prevents the centrist ‘establishment’ from making compromises with parties it defines as extreme. Yet voter discontent stems, in part, from the “mainstream” strategy of keeping certain issues “out of politics” and demonizing those who insist on raising them.

“It’s the Economy, stupid!” – but is it?:

In the broader context of central European electorates, it also needs to be noted that, besides the return of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party in Poland, and the continued dominance of populist-nationalists in Slovakia, nearly a third of Czech voters recently backed the six-year-old Ano party led by a Trump-like businessman and outsider, who claims to be able to get things done in a way that careerist politicians cannot. But, writes Henley, the Czech Republic is still a long way from becoming another Hungary or Poland. Just 2.3% of the country’s workforce is out of a job, the lowest rate anywhere in the EU. Last year its economy grew by 4.3%, well above the average in central-Eastern Europe, and the country was untouched by the 2015 migration crisis. But in the 2017 general election, the populists won just over forty per cent of votes, a tenfold increase since 1998. Martin Mejstrik, from Charles University in Prague, commented to Henley:

“Here, there has been no harsh economic crisis, no big shifts in society. This is one of the most developed and successful post-communist states. There are, literally, almost no migrants. And nonetheless, people are dissatisfied.” 

Henley also quotes Jan Kavan, a participant in the Prague Spring of 1968, and one of the leaders of today’s Czech Social Democrats, who like the centre-left across Europe, have suffered most from the populist surge, but who nevertheless remains optimistic:

“It’s true that a measure of populism wins elections, but if these pure populists don’t combine it with something else, something real… Look, it’s simply not enough to offer people a feeling that you are on their side. In the long-term, you know, you have to offer real solutions.”

By contrast with the data on the Czech Republic, Péter Ákos Bod’s book concludes that the data published in 2016-17 failed to corroborate the highly vocal opinions about the exceptional performance of the Hungarian economy. Bod has found that the lack of predictability, substandard government practices, and the string of non-transparent, often downright suspect transactions are hardly conducive to long-term quality investments and an enduring path of growth they enable. He finds that Hungary does not possess the same attributes of a developed state as are evident in the Czech Republic, although the ‘deeper involvement and activism’ on the part of the government than is customary in western Europe ‘is not all that alien’ to Hungary given the broader context of economic history. László Csaba concludes that if Bod is correct in his analysis that the Hungarian economy has been stagnating since 2016, we must regard the Hungarian victory over the recent crisis as a Pyrrhic one. He suggests that the Orbán government cannot afford to hide complacently behind anti-globalisation rhetoric and that, …

… in view of the past quarter-century, we cannot afford to regard democratic, market-oriented developments as being somehow pre-ordained or inevitable. 

Delete Viktor

Above: Recent demonstrations against the Orbán government’s policies in Budapest.

By November 2018, it was clear that Steve Bannon (pictured below with the leader of the far-right group, Brothers of Italy, Giorgi Meloni and the Guardian‘s Paul Lewis in Venice), the ex-Trump adviser’s attempt to foment European populism ahead of the EU parliamentary elections in 2019, was failing to attract support from any of the right-wing parties he was courting outside of Italy. Viktor Orbán has signalled ambivalence about receiving a boost from an American outsider, which would undermine the basis of his campaign against George Soros. The Polish populists also said they would not join his movement, and after meeting Bannon in Prague, the populist president of the Czech Republic, Milos Zeman, remained far from convinced, as he himself reported:

“He asked for an audience, got thirty minutes, and after thirty minutes I told him I absolutely disagree with his views and I ended the audience.”

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The ‘Furore’ over the Sargentini Report:

Judith-Sargentini-portret.jpg

In Hungary, the European Parliament’s overwhelming acceptance of the Sargentini Report has been greeted with ‘outrage’ by many Hungarian commentators and FIDESZ supporters. Judith Sargentini (pictured right) is a Dutch politician and Member of the European Parliament (MEP), a member of the Green Left. Her EP report alleges, like the Guardian article quoted above, that democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental human rights are under systematic threat in Hungary.

The subsequent vote in the European Parliament called for possible sanctions to be put in place, including removal of the country’s voting rights within the EU institutions. FIDESZ supporters argue that the European Parliament has just denounced a government and a set of policies endorsed by the Hungarian electorate in a landslide. The problem with this interpretation is that the policies which were most criticised in the EU Report were not put to the electorate, which was fought by FIDESZ-KDNP on the migration issue to the exclusion of all others, including the government’s performance on the economy. Certainly, the weakness and division among the opposition helped its cause, as voters were not offered a clear, unified, alternative programme.

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But does the EU’s criticism of Hungary really fit into this “pattern” as O’Sullivan describes it, or an international left-liberal “plot”? Surely the Sargentini Report is legitimately concerned with the Orbán government’s blurring of the separation of powers within the state, and potential abuses of civil rights and fundamental freedoms, and not with its policies on immigration and asylum. Orbán may indeed be heartily disliked in Brussels and Strasbourg for his ‘Eurosceptic nationalism’, but neither the adjective nor the noun in this collocation is alien to political discourse across Europe; east, west or centre. Neither is the concept of ‘national sovereignty’ peripheral to the EU’s being; on the contrary, many would regard it as a core value, alongside ‘shared sovereignty’.

What appears to be fuelling the conflict between Budapest, Berlin and Brussels is the failure to find common ground on migration and relocation quotas. But in this respect, it seems, there is little point in continually re-running the battle over the 2015 migration crisis. Certainly, O’Sullivan is right to suggest that the European Parliament should refrain from slapping Orbán down to discourage other “populists” from resisting its politics of historical inevitability and ever-closer union. Greater flexibility is required on both sides if Hungary is to remain within the EU, and the action of the EP should not be confused with the Commission’s case in the ECJ, conflated as ‘Brussels’ mania. Hungary will need to accept its responsibilities and commitments as a member state if it wishes to remain as such. One of the salient lessons of the ‘Brexit’ debates and negotiations is that no country, big or small, can expect to keep all the benefits of membership without accepting all its obligations.

In the latest issue of Hungarian Review (November 2018), there are a series of articles which come to the defence of the Orbán government in the wake of the Strasbourg vote in favour of adopting the Sargentini Report and threatening sanctions against Hungary. These articles follow many of the lines taken by O’Sullivan and other contributors to earlier editions but are now so indignant that we might well wonder how their authors can persist in supporting Hungary’s continued membership of an association of ‘liberal democratic’ countries whose values they so obviously despise. They are outraged by the EP resolution’s criticism of what it calls the Hungarian government’s “outdated and conservative moral beliefs” such as conventional marriage and policies to strengthen the traditional family. He is, of course, correct in asserting that these are matters for national parliaments by the founding European treaties and that they are the profound moral beliefs of a majority or large plurality of Europeans. 

But the fact remains that, while that ‘majority’ or ‘plurality’ may still hold to these biblically based beliefs, many countries have also decided to recognise same-sex marriage as a secular civil right. This has been because, alongside the ‘majoritarian’ principle, they also accept that the role of liberal democracies is to protect and advance the equal rights of minorities, whether defined by language, ethnicity, nationality or sexual preference. In other words, the measure of democratic assets or deficits of any given country is therefore determined by how well the majority respects the right of minorities. In countries where religious organisations are allowed to register marriages, such as the UK, religious institutions are nevertheless either excluded or exempted from solemnising same-sex marriages. In many other countries, including Hungary and France, the legal registration of marriages can only take place in civic offices in any case. Yet, in 2010, the Hungarian government decided to prescribe such rights by including the ‘Christian’ definition of marriage as a major tenet of its new constitution. Those who have observed Hungary both from within and outside questioned at the time what its motivation was for doing this and why it believed that such a step was necessary. There is also the question as to whether Hungary will accept same-sex marriages legally registered in other EU countries on an equal basis for those seeking a settled status within the country.

O’Sullivan, as editor of Hungarian Review, supports Ryszard Legutko’s article on ‘The European Union’s Democratic Deficit’ as being coolly-reasoned. It has to be said that many observers across Europe would indeed agree that the EU has its own ‘democratic deficit’, which they are determined to address. On finer points, while Legutko is right to point out that violence against Jewish persons and property has been occurring across Europe. But it cannot be denied, as he seeks to do, that racist incident happen here in Hungary too. In the last few years, it has been reported in the mainstream media that rabbis have been spat on in the streets and it certainly the case that armed guards have had to be stationed at the main ‘Reformed’ synagogue in Budapest, not simply to guard against ‘Islamic’ terrorism, we are told, but also against attacks from right-wing extremists.

Legutko also labels the Central European University as a ‘foreign’ university, although it has been operating in the capital for more than twenty-five years. It is now, tragically in the view of many Hungarian academics, being forced to leave for no other reason than that it was originally sponsored by George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. The ‘common rules’ which Legutko accepts have been ‘imposed’ on all universities and colleges relate to the curriculum, limiting academic freedom, and bear no relation to the kinds of administrative regulation which apply in other member states, where there is respect for the freedom of the institutions to offer the courses they themselves determine. Legutko’s other arguments, using terms like ‘outrageous’, ‘ideological crusade’, and ‘leftist crusaders’ are neither, in O’Sullivan’s terms, ‘cool’ nor ‘reasoned’.

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György Schöpflin’s curiously titled article, What If?  is actually a series of rather extreme statements, but there are some valid points for discussion among these. Again, the article is a straightforward attack on “the left” both in Hungary and within the European Parliament. The ‘opposition’ in Hungary is certainly ‘hapless’ and ‘fragmented’, but this does not absolve the Hungarian government from addressing the concerns of the 448 MEPs who voted to adopt the Sargentini report, including many from the European People’s Party to which the FIDESZ-MPP-KDNP alliance still belongs, for the time being at least. Yet Schöpflin simply casts these concerns aside as based on a Manichean view in which the left attributes all virtue to itself and all vice to Fidesz, or to any other political movement that questions the light to the left. Presumably, then, his definition of the ‘left’ includes Conservatives, Centrists and Christian Democrats from across the EU member states, in addition to the Liberal and Social Democratic parties. Apparently, this complete mainstream spectrum has been duped by the Sargentini Report, which he characterises as a dystopic fabrication:

Dystopic because it looked only for the worst (and found it) and fabrication because it ignored all the contrary evidence.

Yet, on the main criticisms of the Report, Schöpflin produces no evidence of his own to refute the ‘allegations’. He simply refers to the findings of the Venice Commission and the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency which have been less critical and more supportive in relation to Hungary’s system of Justice. Fair enough, one might say, but doesn’t this simply give the lie to his view of the EU as a monolithic organisation? Yet his polemic is unrelenting:

The liberal hegemony has increasingly acquired many of the qualities of a secular belief system – unconsciously mimicking Christian antecedents – with a hierarchy of public and private evils. Accusations substitute for evidence, but one can scourge one’s opponents (enemies increasingly) by calling them racist or nativist or xenophobic. … Absolute evil is attributed to the Holocaust, hence Holocaust denial and Holocaust banalisation are treated as irremediably sinful, even criminal in some countries. Clearly, the entire area is so strongly sacralised or tabooised that it is untouchable.

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001The questions surrounding the events of 1944-45 in Europe are not ‘untouchable’. On the contrary, they are unavoidable, as the well-known picture above continues to show. Here, Schöpflin seems to be supporting the current trend in Hungary for redefining the Holocaust, if not denying it. This is part of a government-sponsored project to absolve the Horthy régime of its responsibility for the deportation of some 440,000 Hungarian Jews in 1944, under the direction of Adolf Eichmann and his henchmen, but at the hands of the Hungarian gendarmerie. Thankfully, Botond Gaál’s article on Colonel Koszorús later in this edition of Hungarian Review provides further evidence of this culpability at the time of the Báky Coup in July 1944.

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But there are ‘official’ historians currently engaged in creating a false narrative that the Holocaust in Hungary should be placed in the context of the later Rákósi terror as something which was directed from outside Hungary by foreign powers, and done to Hungarians, rather than something which Hungarians did to each other and in which Admiral Horthy’s Regency régime was directly complicit. This is part of a deliberate attempt at the rehabilitation and restoration of the reputation of the mainly authoritarian governments of the previous quarter century,  a process which is visible in the recent removal and replacement public memorials and monuments.

I have dealt with these issues in preceding articles on this site. Schöpflin then goes on to challenge other ‘taboos’ in ‘the catalogue of evils’ such as colonialism and slavery in order to conclude that:

The pursuit of post-colonial guilt is arguably tied up with the presence of former colonial subjects in the metropole, as an instrument for silencing any voices that might be audacious enough to criticise Third World immigration.

We can only assume here that by using the rather out-dated term ‘Third World’ he is referring to recent inter-regional migration from the Middle East, Africa and the Asian sub-continent. Here, again, is the denial of migration as a fact of life, not something to be criticised, in the way in which much of the propaganda on the subject, especially in Hungary, has tended to demonise migrants and among them, refugees from once prosperous states destroyed by wars sponsored by Europeans and Americans. These issues are not post-colonial, they are post-Cold War, and Hungary played its own (small) part in them, as we have seen. But perhaps what should concern us most here is the rejection, or undermining of universal values and human rights, whether referring to the past or the present. Of course, if Hungary truly wants to continue to head down this path, then it would indeed be logical for it to disassociate itself from all international organisations, including NATO and the UN agencies and organisations. All of these are based on concepts of absolute, regional and global values.

So, what are Schöpflin’s what ifs?? His article refers to two:

  • What if the liberal wave, no more than two-three decades old, has peaked? What if the Third Way of the 1990s is coming to its end and Europe is entering a new era in which left-liberalism will be just one way of doing politics among many? 

‘Liberalism’ in its generic sense, defined by Raymond Williams (1983) among others, is not, as this series of articles have attempted to show,  a ‘wave’ on the pan-European ‘shoreline’. ‘Liberal Democracy’ has been the dominant political system among the nation-states of Europe for the past century and a half. Hungary’s subjugation under a series of authoritarian Empires – Autocratic Austrian, Nazi German and Soviet Russian, as well as under its own twenty-five-year-long Horthy régime (1919-44), has meant that it has only experienced brief ‘tides’ of ‘liberal’ government in those 150 years, all of a conservative-nationalist kind. Most recently, this was defined as ‘civil democracy’ in the 1989 Constitution. What has happened in the last three decades is that the ‘liberal democratic’ hegemony in Europe, whether expressed in its dominant Christian Democrat/ Conservative or Social Democratic parties has been threatened, for good or ill, by more radical populist movements on both the Right and Left. In Hungary, these have been almost exclusively on the Right, because the radical Left has failed to recover from the downfall of state socialism. With the centre-Left parties also in disarray and divided, FIDESZ-MPP has been able to control the political narrative and, having effectively subsumed the KDNP, has been able to dismiss all those to its left as ‘left-liberal’. The term is purely pejorative and propagandist. What if, we might ask, the Populist ‘wave’ of the last thirty years is now past its peak? What is Hungary’s democratic alternative, or are we to expect an indefinite continuance of one-party rule?

Issues of Identity: Nationhood or Nation-Statehood?:

  • What if the accession process has not really delivered on its promises, that of unifying Europe, bringing the West and the East together on fully equal terms? If so, then the resurgence of trust in one’s national identity is more readily understood. … There is nothing in the treaties banning nationhood.

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The Brexit Divisions in Britain are clear: they are generational, national and regional.

We could empathise more easily with this view were it not for Schöpflin’s assumption that ‘Brexit’ was unquestionably fuelled by a certain sense of injured Englishness. His remark is typical of the stereotypical view of Britain which many Hungarians of a certain generation persist in recreating, quite erroneously. Questions of national identity are far more pluralistic and complex in western Europe in general, and especially in the United Kingdom, where two of the nations voted to ‘remain’ and two voted to ‘leave’. Equally, though, the Referendum vote in England was divided between North and South, and within the South between metropolitan and university towns on the one hand and ‘market’ towns on the other. The ‘third England’ of the North, like South Wales, contains many working-class people who feel themselves to be ‘injured’ not so much by a Brussels élite, but by a London one. The Scots, the Welsh, the Northern Irish and the Northern English are all finding their own voice, and deserve to be listened to, whether they voted ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. And Britain is not the only multi-national, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic nation-state in the western EU, as recent events in Spain have shown. Western Europeans are entirely sensitive to national identities; no more so than the Belgians. But these are not always as synonymous with ‘nation-statehood’ as they are among many of the East-Central nations.

Source:Reuters/László Balogh

Above: The Hungarian Opposition demonstrates on one of the main Danube bridges.

Hungarians with an understanding of their own history will have a clearer understanding of the complexities of multi-ethnic countries, but they frequently display more mono-cultural prejudices towards these issues, based on their more recent experiences as a smaller, land-locked, homogeneous population. They did not create this problem, of course, but the solution to it lies largely in their own hands. A more open attitude towards migrants, whether from Western Europe or from outside the EU might assist in this. Certainly, the younger, less ‘political’ citizens who have lived and work in the ‘West’ often return to Hungary with a more modern understanding and progressive attitude. The irony is, of course, due partly to this outward migration, Hungary is running short of workers, and the government is now, perhaps ironically, making itself unpopular by insisting that the ever-decreasing pool of workers must be prepared to work longer hours in order to satisfy the needs of German multi-nationals.  In this  regard, Schöpflin claims that:

The liberal hegemony was always weaker in Central Europe, supported by maybe ten per cent of voters (on a good day), so that is where the challenge to the hegemony emerged and the alternative was formulated, not least by FIDESZ. … In insisting that liberal free markets generate inequality, FIDESZ issued a warning that the free movement of capital and people had negative consequences for states on the semi-periphery. Equally, by blocking the migratory pressure on Europe in 2015, FIDESZ demonstrated that a small country could exercise agency even in the face of Europe-wide disapproval. 

Source: Népszabadság / Photo Simon Móricz-Sabján

Above: Pro-EU Hungarians show their colours in Budapest.

Such may well be the case, but O’Sullivan tells us that even the ‘insurgent parties’ want to reform the EU rather than to leave or destroy it. Neither does Schöpflin, nor any of the other writers, tell us what we are to replace the ‘liberal hegemony’ in Europe with. Populist political parties seem, at present, to be little more than diverse protest movements and to lack any real ideological cohesion or coherence. They may certainly continue ‘pep up’ our political discourse and make it more accessible within nation-states and across frontiers, but history teaches us (Williams, 1983) that hegemonies can only be overthrown by creating an alternative predominant practice and consciousness. Until that happens, ‘liberal democracy’, with its diversity and versatility, is the only proven way we have of governing ourselves. In a recent article for The Guardian Weekly (30 November 2018), Natalie Nougayréde has observed that Viktor Orbán may not be as secure as he thinks, at least as far as FIDESZ’s relations with the EU. She accepts that he was comfortably re-elected earlier last year, the man who has dubbed himself as the “Christian” champion of “illiberal democracy”. Having come under strong criticism from the European People’s Party, the conservative alliance in the EU that his party belongs to. There is evidence, she claims, that FIDESZ will get kicked out of the mainstream group after the May 2019 European elections. Whether this happens or not, he was very publicly lambasted for his illiberalism at the EPP’s congress in Helsinki in November. Orbán’s image has been further tarnished by the so-called Gruevski Scandal, caused by the decision to grant political asylum to Macedonia’s disgraced former prime minister, criminally convicted for fraud and corruption in his own country. This led to a joke among Hungarian pro-democracy activists that “Orbán no longer seems to have a problem with criminal migrants”.

Some other signs of change across central Europe are worth paying careful attention to. Civil society activists are pushing are pushing back hard, and we should beware of caving into a simplistic narrative about the east of Europe being a homogeneous hotbed of authoritarianism with little effort of put into holding it in check. If this resistance leads to a turn in the political tide in central Europe in 2019, an entirely different picture could emerge on the continent. Nevertheless, the European elections in May 2019 may catch European electorates in a rebellious mood, even in the West. To adopt and adapt Mark Twain’s famous epithet, the rumours of the ‘strange’ death of liberal democracy in central Europe in general, and in Hungary in particular, may well have been greatly exaggerated. If anything, the last two hundred years of Hungarian history have demonstrated its resilience and the fact that, in progressive politics as in history, nothing is inevitable. The children of those who successfully fought for democracy in 1988-89 will have demonstrated that ‘truth’ and ‘decency’ can yet again be victorious. The oft-mentioned east-west gap within the EU would then need to be revisited. Looking at Hungary today, to paraphrase another bard, there appears to be too much protest and not enough practical politics, but Hungary is by no means alone in this. But Central European democrats know that they are in a fight for values, and what failure might cost them. As a consequence, they adapt their methods by reaching out to socially conservative parts of the population. Dissent is alive and well and, as in 1989, in working out its own salvation, the east may also help the west to save itself from the populist tide also currently engulfing it.

referendum-ballot-box[1]

Sources (Parts Four & Five):

Jon Henley, Matthius Rooduijn, Paul Lewis & Natalie Nougayréde (30/11/2018), ‘The New Populism’ in The Guardian Weekly. London: Guardian News & Media Ltd.

John O’Sullivan (ed.) (2018), Hungarian Review, Vol. IX, No. 5 (September) & No. 6 (November). Budapest: János Martonyi/ The Danube Institute.

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.

Lobenwein Norbert (2009), a rendszerváltás pillanatai, ’89-09. Budapest: VOLT Produkció

Douglas Murray (2018), The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Raymond Williams (1988), Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture & Society. London: Fontana

John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades. London: Hutchinson.

Marc J Susser (ed.) (2007), The United States & Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy, 1848-2006. Washington: Department of State Publication (Bureau of Public Affairs).

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Roots of Liberal Democracy, Part Four: Liberation & Democratic Transition in Hungary, 1988-2004.   Leave a comment

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Goodbye János Kádár!

By the end of 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev had clearly abandoned the ‘Brezhnev doctrine’ in terms of which the Soviet Union undertook to resort to military force in critical situations in the ‘eastern bloc’ countries. In other words, he intimated that the events of 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Czechoslovakia and 1981 in Poland, where an invasion was only prevented by the announcement of martial law, would not be repeated. Kádár, the one-time pioneer of reforms in the bloc, was deeply disturbed by Gorbachev’s aspirations, for they now made any depth of reform possible, whereas the ones enacted up to 1985 in Hungary were the maximum he was willing to concede. It was rumoured among the broad segment of reformers in the party rank-and-file, whose expectations were heightened by Glasnost and Perestroika, that Gorbachev’s statements were being censored in Hungary as well as in the more rigid socialist countries. In the final stage of Kádár’s reforms in Hungary, ‘multiple candidacy’ was introduced for future general elections, allowing ‘independent’, non-party candidates to stand, resulting in ten per cent of the new parliament being composed of such deputies in 1985. Any further step in the opening up of the public sphere would have provided a fundamental challenge to the régime’s power base.

Supported by a faceless crowd of yes-men of his own age in the upper echelons of the party hierarchy, Kádár stubbornly denied any allegation that Hungary was in crisis. When he could no longer maintain this facade, in July 1987 he dropped his long-standing Prime Minister György Lázár, replacing him with one of the several vigorous, relatively young figures who were biding their time in the lower echelons. Károly Grósz was the most characteristic representative of the new technocratic cadres which were in favour of going forward with economic reforms without changing the political system. The policy of transition to a mixed economy based on mixed forms of property (state, co-operative and private) was therefore carried forward with the elimination of subsidised prices; the return, after four decades, of a two-level banking system and the introduction of a new tax system, including progressive personal income tax. Grósz also continued the ‘openness’ policy towards the West by abolishing all travel restrictions, winning Gorbachev’s confidence in the process. The Soviet leader had no objection to getting rid of Kádár, who was aged, sick and tired in every sense of the word. As he outlived his days, the stage was set for a succession struggle.

Besides Grósz, the main contenders included Nyers, the architect of the 1968 economic reforms and Imre Pozsgay, whose commitment to reform extended to the political sphere, in favour of democratisation. He was supported by a sizeable reform wing within the party, as well as by a group of social scientists who prepared, under his protection, a scenario for a transition to pluralism in 1986, Turning Point and Reform. In addition, Pozsgay communicated with a segment of the opposition led by ‘populist’ intellectuals. An investigation within the party and the expulsion of four prominent reformist intellectuals from the party in the spring of 1988 were intended by the ‘old guard’ to deter the opposition within the party, but the measure missed its target. Then on 22 May 1988, Kádár’s long rule came to an abrupt end: the party conference elevated him to the entirely impotent post of Party Chairman, electing Grósz as Party Secretary in his place and completely reshuffling the Political Committee. By this time the different opposition groups that had been germinating for a considerable period in the ‘secondary public sphere’ stepped forward into the primary one and started to develop as political parties, presenting the public with analyses of past and present communism, diagnoses of Hungary’s predicament, and antidotes to it, which proved to be more credible than the versions prevented by officialdom.

From its inception in the late 1970s, the opposition that arose as a viable political alternative a decade later was distinguishable from the post-1968 dissidents both by their ideological orientation and their strategy. Instead of grafting pluralism and democracy onto Marxism, which the experience of 1956 had shown to be futile, they drew on the liberal-democratic and Christian national traditions, and instead of the similarly futile effort to represent these endeavours in the ‘primary’ public sphere, whose organs and institutions were dominated by the party, they created and maintained autonomous organisations. At the outset, these initiatives were confined to a few dozen individuals, maintaining contacts with a few hundred others among the intellectuals of research institutes, university departments, editorial offices and student circles. Through these, their views started to infiltrate into the pages of literary and social science journals of the ‘primary’ sphere that were testing the limits of free speech. From the mid-1980s on, some of them also developed contacts with reformers within the party. Of course, the authorities continued to possess detailed and up-to-date information about the activities of opposition and the groups linked with them. But given the developing dialogue with the West and its increasing dependence on western loans, the régime could not afford to show its iron fist. Whenever the opposition made itself visible by coming out on the streets for alternative commemorations of the 1848 and 1956 Revolutions, up to 1988 arrests, detentions and beatings invariably followed. Otherwise, the régime contented itself with occasional harassment: sporadic searches, the confiscation of illegal publications, the rejection of travel permits, censorship of writers and replacement of editorial boards.

Far from being homogeneous, from the outset, there were clear divisions within the opposition, reflecting the old urban-populist divide, although they maintained a co-operative dialogue until the eve of the transition process. The ‘populists’ identified national ‘questions of fate’ as their main commitment, such as the conditions of Hungarian minorities in the neighbouring countries, types of social delinquency, demographic problems, the conditions of the Churches, the loosening of communal ties and the effects of communism on the national consciousness. The neglect of these issues by the government, especially the first, led to the beginning of these ‘populist’ nationalist trends, also at the end of the 1970s. From 1983 Sándor Csoóri became a dominant figure among the ‘populists’, with polemical writings combining the above-mentioned themes with a critique of the morally detrimental effects of socialism. New social service periodicals succeeded in outmaneuvering censorship and discussing in a more objective manner an extensive range of sensitive themes, not just Stalinism and the 1956 Revolution, but also anti-Semitism, the condition of the Roma minority, poverty and the anomalies of the social security system. Both liberal Democrats and populists established links with Hungarian emigré organisations in the West, benefiting in the shape of scholarships from the New York-based Open Society Foundation launched by the Hungarian-American businessman George Soros in 1982, which also opened a registered office in Budapest five years later.

In the first half of the 1980s, the endeavour of anti-communist cooperation dominated the relationship of the two camps of the opposition, so different in outlook. A conference was held at Monor in 1985 in June 1985, whose speakers addressed and analysed the most soaring issues of the then generalised crisis. As the transformation of the system responsible for it came on to the agenda, and programmes started to be worked out, the ways of ‘urbanists’ and ‘populists’ parted. In June 1987 the programme of the democratic opposition was published, entitled ‘Social Contract’. They were uncompromising in claiming that the current political leadership was unsuitable to guide the process. Their document concluded that Kádár must go. This was too radical for the populists, who envisaged a more gradual transition, with an active role for reform communists within it. As a result, the democratic opposition was not invited to the meeting of the ‘populist’ camp which took place at Lakitelek, near Kecskemét, where the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) was founded. This was a recognised movement with the goal of transforming into a political party and was formed in the presence of Pozsgay and other reform Communists, on 27 September 1987.

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The Young ‘Liberal’ Democrat, Viktor Orbán, speaking at the re-interment of Imre Nagy in June 1989. These days, neither Liberal Democracy nor Nagy’s Social Democracy are any more fashionable for Orbán and his now ultra-Conservative party and government.

The Alliance of Young Democrats (FIDESZ), established on 30 March 1988, originally as an alternative to the Communist Youth League, endeavoured to supersede the urbanist-populist divide and submitted a programme in which a mixed economy, human rights, political pluralism and national values were given equal emphasis. At the same time, it also identified itself as a radical liberal initiative, and for some time during the ‘Transition’, it remained the closest political ally of the former democratic opposition. The ‘urbanist’ counterpart of the MDF was the Network of Free Initiatives, launched on 1 May 1988 which then developed into the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) on 13 November that same year, after their hope of integrating most or all of the democratic opposition became thwarted by the mushroom-like growth of quasi-political organisations, together with professional associations and trade unions in the intervening six months. Shortly afterwards, the ‘historical parties’ reformed themselves: the Independent Smallholder Party re-emerged on 18 November 1988, followed by the Social Democrats in January and the Christian Democrats in April 1989.

Meanwhile, in November 1988, Grósz had passed over the premiership to Miklós Németh who, contrary to expectations, became one of the engineers of transition. He drew reinforcement from the successful manoeuvring of Pozsgay, who arose as an emblematic figure of reform Communist policies by sharpening the divisions within the party through a number of publicly made statements from late 1988 onwards. Pozsgay had avoided getting involved on either side in the 1956 Uprising because he was based in a provincial town at the time. He was an intellectual by instinct and training, who had worked his way up through the system until he and his fellow reformers had been strong enough to vote Kádár, who had once referred to him as ‘impertinent’, out of power in May 1988. It was then that Pozsgay became a member of the Politburo and it was soon after that he, not Grosz, had emerged as the dominant figure in the party leadership. Most notably, his announcements had included breaking the taboo of 1956: the redefinition of the ‘counter-revolution’ was as a ‘popular uprising’, and the urging of the introduction of a multi-party system. This was ratified by the legislature on 11 January, and acknowledged by the party on February 11, 1989. Through a cabinet reshuffle in May 1989, the followers of Grósz were replaced in most posts by pragmatic reformers like Németh himself. This did much to undermine hard-liner positions in the party and to push it to disintegration. The founder of the party did not live to see it. In early May 1989, Kádár was relieved of his offices, and died on 6 July, the same day that Imre Nagy was officially rehabilitated.

Even before his total removal from power, it was already being openly said that the Kádár period had come to an end. What had come into existence under his aegis was now in ruins economically. The attempts of the régime at reform had won excessive, flattering judgements in the West, making it more suspect within the Eastern Bloc. But the end of the third decade of Kádár’s rule was overshadowed by the previously whispered, but later admitted, information that Hungary had accumulated a foreign debt of twenty billion dollars, most of it in a couple of years of recklessness. This was where the contradictory, limited national consensus had ended up, in a cul-de-sac of national bankruptcy; this was what the divergence of production of production and consumption, the maintenance of a tolerable standard of living, and the erroneous use of the loans received had amounted to. The heavy interest burden on these debts alone was to have its effects for decades, crippling many early attempts at renewal.

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By July 1989, Hungary had become a de facto multi-party democracy again. Although these parties, new or old, were not mass parties with large numbers of activists, they were able to show that Grósz was wrong to suggest, as he once did at the end of 1988, that the streets belong to us. There were few mass demonstrations during this period, but those that did take place were organised by the opposition and were effective in conveying clear messages. They included mass protests over Ceausescu’s treatment of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania, reminding the Communists of their neglect of nationalist issues, and against the proposed construction of the hydro-electric dam system on the Danube Bend, which called attention to the ecological spoliation of communism. On 15 March, the anniversary of the 1848 Revolution, there was a keen competition to dominate the commemorative events in which the opposition scored a sweeping triumph; its main message was that the hundred-and-forty years of demands for civil liberty and representative government was still on the national agenda.

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Above: The Danube Bend at Visegrád, where the river, hemmed in by the Börzöny and Pilis Hills, meanders beneath the castle at Visegrád. After the foundation of the Hungarian State, Visegrád was one of the first ecclesiastical centres, as well as being a royal estate and a county seat. After the Turkish Conquest in the sixteenth century. the ‘Hungarian Versailles’ was laid low and almost completely raised to the ground. In the 1980s the area was again brought to the forefront of public attention. Czechoslovakia and Hungary long ago planned the building of a dam, of which the main Slovak installation would be at Bős and the main Hungarian installation at Nagymaros, north of Visegrád, in close proximity to the Royal castle and palace. But in East Central Europe during the 1980s growing political dissatisfaction and civic opposition found an object of focus in this gigantic project. In this, ecological and environmental considerations played a major part, with national and international ramifications.  The Hungarian domestic opposition had two main areas of activity: the publication and distribution of pamphlets and the struggle against the Danube dam. In response to this, the new Hungarian government elected in 1990 stopped all construction work on its side of the river and started to restore the bank to its natural state. Later, the ‘Visegrád’ group of four neighbouring countries was formed at the palace.   

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The most dramatic of all the public demonstrations was the official re-burial of the remains of Imre Nagy and his fellow ‘martyrs’ on the anniversary of their execution, 16 June 1989, which amounted to a public confession that in its origins the régime was built on terror and injustice. Nagy’s body, along with the others executed in 1958 was found in the waste ground at the Újköztemető (cemetery), wrapped in tar paper. After its exhumation, Nagy’s coffin lay in state in Heroes’ Square before being formally reburied. Over three hundred thousand citizens paid their respects to the martyrs of 1956, together with the tributes of government ministers. The fact that only a year beforehand police had used force to disperse a group of a few hundred demonstrators commemorating the martyrdom illustrates the rapid erosion of the régime’s authority and the simultaneous occupation of the public space by the opposition by the middle of 1989.

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The Hole in the Curtain:

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At last Hungary had come to terms with its past. Its future was determined by a decision taken by the Central Committee of the HSWP, to put the rapidly developing multi-party system on an official basis. Pozsgay’s own position had often seemed closer to that of the opposition Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) than to that of his own party. In the midst of these preparations for a peaceful transition of power and democratic elections, Kádár’s successors surprised the world at large. The summer of the annus mirabilis continued with its internationally most immediately conspicuous achievement: the dismantling of the ‘iron curtain’, the barbed-wire fence on the Austrian frontier, a process which had begun in May. On 23 August, the Foreign Minister Gyula Horn spent a sleepless night worrying about the changes going on around him and the irritated reactions of Hungary’s Warsaw Pact allies to them. He had been telephoned by the East German Foreign Minister, determined to know what was happening to Hungary’s border with Austria. He had assured him that sections had been removed for repair and would shortly be replaced.

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Again at Pozsgay’s instigation, the border gates were opened to allow for a ‘pan-European picnic’ in the woods on the Austrian side, which several hundred East Germans (‘holidaying’ at Lake Balaton) were able to stream through (pictured above). Hungarian citizens already had the right to visa-free travel to the West, but thousands of disenchanted East Germans, hearing from compatriots of the ‘hole’ in the curtain, had been making their way into Hungary via Czechoslovakia to escape from their own unpopular hard-line régime. Hungary had signed a treaty with East Germany in 1968 pledging not to allow East Germans to leave for the West through its territory. Horn sounded out Moscow as for a reaction as to whether the Soviet leadership would object if Hungary abandoned this undertaking. This was an urgent practical problem for the Hungarians, as about twenty thousand citizens from the DDR were seeking refuge at the FRG Embassy in Budapest. The Soviets did not object, so Horn resolved to open the main border crossings on the roads to the West. He said later that…

… It was quite obvious to me that this would be the first step in a landslide-like series of events. 

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Above: (left) Demonstrators in Budapest keep up the momentum; (right and below) East Germans, holidaying in Hungary, cross the border and head West, to the fury of their government, and to their own freedom.

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On 10 September, despite strenuous objections from the East German government, Hungary’s border with Austria was opened to the East German refugees. Within three days, thirteen thousand East Germans, mostly young couples with children, had fled west. This was the biggest exodus across the ‘iron curtain’ since the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, and it was only the beginning. Eschewing its erstwhile role as ‘gendarme’, still expected of it within the Eastern camp, Hungary decided to let the refugees go West without exit visas, thereby playing the role of catalyst in the disintegration of the whole Soviet bloc. Over the next few months the international situation was transformed. Liberalisation in Hungary had led directly to the collapse of the Húsak régime in Prague and the breaching of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Writing in 1990, the historian István Lázár commented:

Naturally, all this can, or should, be seen in connection with the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, even if in history questions of cause and effect are not entirely settled. However the question of what went before and what happened afterwards is constantly debated in history. Hungary, desperate and euphoric at the same time, turning away from the road followed for almost a half century and hardly able to see the path of the future … took  state, national and political risks with some of its decisions in 1989 in a context of a rather uncertain international situation which was not moving towards stability. This is how we arrived at the 1990s. 

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Queues on the road to Sopron and the border, with cardboard Trabants and boxes.

Tradition and Transition:

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Simultaneously, the scenario worked out by the opposition and Németh’s pragmatists to facilitate an orderly transition was launched. Between June and September 1989, representatives of the HSWP, the Opposition ‘Round Table’ (established in March by eight organisations) and the ‘third side’ (the Patriotic Popular Front and the trade unions) discussed the central issues of the transition process at national meetings. By the time President Bush visited Budapest in July (11-13), Hungary had effectively ceased to be a Communist country or a Soviet satellite state. I have written elsewhere on this site about this first ever visit by a US President, its importance and its outcomes. John Simpson, the BBC’s correspondent was standing on the balcony of a flat overlooking Kossúth Square where the President was due to make a speech. The owner of the flat was an Anglophile in his mid-forties from a wealthy background. There were English touches on the walls: mementoes of visits by at least two generations of the family. From his balcony they looked down on the enthusiastic crowds that were starting to gather:

“These little Communists of ours are acting like real politicians”, he said; “they’re giving people what they want, instead of what they ought to want. The trouble is, they can never give us so much that we can forget that they are Communists”. …

… He was right about the fundamental unpopularity of the Party. I went to see Imre Pozsgay a few days later and asked him whether he and his colleagues would really be the beneficiaries of the changes they were introducing.

“Who can say? Naturally I hope so. That’s why we’re doing these things. But to be honest with you, there’s nothing else we can do. Even if others win the elections, there’s no serious alternative to doing what we have done”.

On 18 September, an agreement was signed which emphasised a mutual commitment to the creation of the legal and political conditions under which a multi-party democracy could be established and the rule of law upheld. In addition, it put forward plans for surmounting the ongoing economic crisis. It required the amending of the communist constitution of 1949, the establishment of a constitutional court and the re-regulation of the order of national elections, legislation on the operation and finances of political parties and the amendment of the penal code. The two ‘liberal’ parties, the SZDSZ and FIDESZ refused to sign the agreement because it stipulated the election of a head of state before the elections, which they thought would benefit the only obvious candidate and most popular reform-politician, Imre Pozsgay. They also hoped to drive a wedge between the reform Communists and the MDF by insisting on a referendum on the issue, the result of which went in their favour. It was a sure sign of what was to come the following spring.

On 6 October, Gorbachev began a two-day visit to East Germany to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the German Democratic Republic (DDR). The government there, led for almost half of its life by the now seventy-four-year-old Erich Honecker, remained perhaps the most repressive régime in Eastern Europe. Only four days earlier, it had sealed its border with Czechoslovakia to prevent its people from voting with their feet and flooding to the West through Hungary. When Gorbachev suggested that a more permanent solution might be for the DDR to introduce a version of perestroika to satisfy people’s material needs and demands, Honecker refused to listen. He pointed out that on his last visit to Moscow, he had been shocked by the empty shops. How dare Gorbachev tell the leader of what many believed was the most prosperous country in the socialist world how he should run his economy! But Gorbachev persisted, telling a large rally that East Germany should introduce Soviet-style reforms, adding that the country’s policies should, however, be determined “not in Moscow, but in Berlin”. Two days after he left, Honecker was ousted within the DDR’s Politburo and replaced by Egon Krenz, who represented himself as the East German Gorbachev.

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The crowds outside the Parliament welcoming the proclamation of the institution of a Liberal Democratic Constitution for the new ‘Republic of Hungary’, October 1989.

Meanwhile, meeting in Budapest, the Fourteenth Congress of the HSWP also proved to be its last. It officially abandoned Leninism. On the 7th, the vast majority of its deputies voted in favour of creating a new Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), which defined its aims in terms akin to those of Western European socialist parties. Out of seven hundred thousand Communist Party members, only fifty thousand transferred their membership to the new Socialist Party, before the first free elections of March 1990. Shortly after the dissolution of the HSWP, the party’s paramilitary organisation, the Workers’ Guard was also disbanded. In another ‘gesture’ to the memory of 1956, reparation payments were authorized by Parliament to those imprisoned after the Uprising. On the anniversary of Uprising, 23 October, Acting President Mátyás Szűrös proclaimed the new “Republic of Hungary” on the thirty-third anniversary of the Revolution. The “People’s Republic” created forty years earlier, had ceased to exist.

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Parliament had changed eighty per cent of the 1949 constitution in the interim one that replaced it. It defined the peaceful transition to a market economy and the rule of law as the goal of the state. Its fundamental principles were defined as ‘civil democracy’ and ‘democratic socialism’. It guaranteed civil and human rights, declared the establishment of a multi-party system, not only eliminating the clause referring to the leading role of the Marxist-Leninist party of the working class but also outlawed the exercise of power by any single party. It was the first time that a ruling Communist Party anywhere had rejected its ideological faith and authorised a shift to liberal democracy and capitalism. Shortly after the promulgation and proclamation of the new constitution both inside and outside parliament (see the picture below), the red star was removed from the top of the building, demonstrating the end of the system of state socialism.

Yet now the full vulnerability of the economy was already being revealed, and the necessary decrease in consumption had to be forced on a society which was expecting a contrary shift. The past, both the pre-1949 and the post-1958 periods, began to be viewed with nostalgia, as ‘old-new’ ideas resurfaced alongside ‘brand-new’ ones. On the political scene, in both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary spheres, a faltering democracy continued to develop amidst struggles of bitter and frequently depressing content and form. In the meantime, both Eastern and Western visitors to Hungary at the beginning of the 1990s found the country more affluent and resourceful than did its own citizens, who saw it being forced into worrying straits. Eastern visitors were influenced by their own, often more miserable position, while Westerners found things better than their out-dated stereotypes of life behind the iron curtain would have led them to expect. This was Hungary’s paradox: almost every outside observer values the apparent dynamism of the country greatly, but unless they became inhabitants themselves, as some of us did, did they begin to see the burdens of ‘the changes’ born by ‘ordinary’ Hungarians and understood their caution and pessimism.

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Above: The famous MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) poster from the 1990 Election Campaign: Comrades Go Home!

On 2 November, as Minister of State, Imre Pozsgay met President Bush in Washington to discuss Hungary’s transition to democracy, a week before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The following January, Hungary announced its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, at the same time as Czechoslovakia and Poland, at a meeting of Foreign Ministers in Budapest, with effect from 1 July. In February, the United States signed an agreement providing for a Peace Corps Program in Hungary, to begin the following September. In March, the Soviet Union reached an agreement to remove all Soviet troops from Hungary by July 1991, two-thirds of them by the end of 1991. John Simpson’s friend in Budapest had promised his father that he would not drink the bottle of Bell’s Scotch Whisky he had placed in the cupboard in 1947 until the day the Soviet troops left Budapest. That day was now approaching. When the final round of elections took place on 8 April 1990, the reform Communists won only eight per cent of the seats, and Pozsgay and his colleagues were out of office. A centre-right government came to power, led by the MDF. They had won 164 out of the 386 seats. Looking back from later in 1990, John Simpson commented:

As in 1918, Hungary had emerged from and empire and found itself on its own; though this time, unlike the violence and destruction which followed the abortive Communist republic of Béla Kun in 1919, the transition was peaceable and relaxed. Hungary’s economy and environment had been horribly damaged by thirty-three years of Marxism-Leninism; but now, at least, it had shown the way to the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. There are dozens of men and women … who had a part in encouraging the revolutions (which followed) … But the stout figure of Imre Pozgay, who now stays at home and cooks for his family while he tries to work out what to do next, is one of the more important of them.

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Rather than bringing stability and calm, however, the 1990s in Hungary were a time of intensive movement across the political spectrum from right to left and back again, with a minority persisting on both extremes and an undercurrent of the old ‘populist-urbanist’ divide surfacing from time to time to emphasise patriotism over cosmopolitanism. Of the sixty-five parties formed in 1988-89, only twelve could run a national list at the elections of March-April 1990, and the four per cent ‘threshold’ required to make it into parliament eliminated half of them. Of the six parties that surpassed this, the highest-scoring MDF invited the Smallholders and the Christian Democrats to form a centre-right coalition. József Antall, a historian and museum curator who had become President of the MDF the previous year, became Hungary’s first prime minister in the new democratic era. Pledging itself to uphold Christian and national values besides democracy and the market economy, the coalition enjoyed a comfortable sixty per cent majority. The opposition consisted of the two liberal parties, the SZDSZ, which came second in the elections, and FIDESZ. The Socialists struggled hard to emerge from the isolation the past had thrown them into. Based on a ‘pact’ between Antall and the SZDSZ leadership, the prominent writer, translator and victim of the 1956 reprisals, Árpád Göncz, was elected by parliament as its Speaker and the President of the Republic. Over the next four years, he made periodic use of his limited powers to act as a counterweight to governmental power. He was re-elected in 1995.

As a result of the first free elections after the fall of state socialism, there was a comprehensive change in the highest echelons of the political élite: ninety-five per cent of the MPs were new in that position. Nearly as dramatic was the change in their social and cultural backgrounds. The first setback for the coalition government came in the municipal elections of the autumn of 1990. In the larger settlements, the two liberal parties scored much better than the government parties. The prominent SZDSZ politician, Gábor Demszky became Mayor of Budapest and was subsequently re-elected four times, becoming the most successful politician in post-1989 Hungary.  Following a protracted illness in late 1993, József Antall died. His funeral, in December 1993, was attended by world leaders including US Vice President Albert Gore. He was replaced by Peter Boross, his Minister of the Interior. With Antall’s untimely death, the MDF lost a politician whose stature was unparalleled among its inexperienced ranks.

It was not only a shift in political sympathies among a considerable proportion of voters that started well before the parliamentary elections of 1994, the outcome of which astounded many people from more than one point of view. A recasting of roles and ideological commitments accompanied a realignment of partnerships among the parties from roughly halfway through the electoral cycle. The MDF had first emerged as a grassroots democratic movement and had advocated a ‘third way’ between capitalism and communism. It had also been open towards ‘democratic socialism’. In government, it had adjusted itself to the personality of Antall, a ‘conservative liberal’, and had had to work hard to purge itself of its radical nationalist right-wing, which seceded in 1993 as the Party of Hungarian Justice and Life (MIÉP) led by the writer István Csurka. After its 1990 electoral victory, the MDF had indulged in militantly anti-communist rhetoric. This contrasted with the trajectory of the SZDSZ, which had initially tried to undermine the MDF’s credibility with allegations of collaboration with the former communists. Following the ‘media war’ which broke out between the two major parties, while the SZDSZ refused to abandon its core liberal values of upholding human rights, civil liberties and multi-culturalism, it re-evaluated its policies towards the left. This enabled the MSZP to re-emerge from the shadows and paved the way for the Democratic Charter, an initiative by intellectuals from both parties to counter the tide of radical nationalism that was threatening to engulf Hungarian political life.

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Viktor Orbán in the mid-1990s, looking Right.

In these circumstances, the earlier affinity and sometimes close collaboration between the SZDSZ and FIDESZ began to unravel as the inherent differences between them became ever more obvious. Of FIDESZ’s initial platform – anti-communism, youth culture and political liberalism – only the first was entirely preserved, while the second was quickly abandoned and the third was increasingly modified by an emphasis on Christian values, conservative traditions and strong central government. By 1994, FIDESZ had thus redefined itself as a party of the centre-right, with the ambition to become the dominant and integrative force of that segment of the political spectrum. This process was cemented in the public eye by the addition of the title Hungarian Civic Party (MPP) to its name. In 1999, it resigned from the ‘Liberal International’ and joined the ‘European People’s Party’, the conservative-Christian Democrat alliance in the EU. But in 1994, there was a general recovery in the fortunes of European socialists and social democrats, and the pledges of the MSZP to the values of social democracy looked credible enough to earn it widespread respectability in Europe and admission to the ‘Socialist International’. Its pragmatism and its emphasis on modernisation and technological development won it a landslide victory in an election which showed that the country was tired of ideological strife and disappointed with the lack of progress in the economic transition. Although the Socialists won over fifty per cent of the seats in parliament, the SZDSZ accepted the offer of Gyula Horn, MSZP chairman, to join a coalition. The other four parties of the previous parliament constituted the opposition. The Socialist-Liberal coalition government faced urgent economic tasks.

In the early to mid-nineties, Western corporations and investors came to Hungary hoping, in the long run, for a strong revival from the Hungarian economy. They procrastinated over possible investment, however, due to the threat of uncontrolled inflation. In an economy which was rapidly polarising society, with increasing unemployment and poverty while the rich got visibly richer, Hungarian citizens were already gloomy when they looked around themselves. According to the journalist Paul Lendvai, between 1988 and 1993 GDP fell by twenty per cent, twelve per cent alone in 1991; in 1990-91 real wages fell by twelve per cent, while inflation was thirty-five per cent in 1991, twenty-three per cent in 1992 and only sank below twenty per cent in 1993. Unemployment had risen sharply as thousands of firms were liquidated and half a million jobs disappeared. If they contemplated, beyond the borders, a crisis-ridden Eastern Europe beset by nationality problems and compelled to starve before the much-promised economic upturn, they were gloomier still. As Lázár commented:

Looking at the recent changes, perhaps ungratefully, this is how we stand in East Central Europe in the middle of Carpathian Basin, before the 1100th anniversary of the Hungarian Conquest, which, in five years time, will be followed by the opening of the third millennium…

In spite of the differences in their fundamental values, socialist and liberal, the MSZP and SZDSZ had similar policies on a number of pressing transitional tasks, such as Hungary’s Euro-Atlantic integration and monetarist reform, providing a wide scope for collaboration between them. In both of these priorities, they were successful, but none of these did much to assuage the resentment many voters felt towards the post-1989 politicians in general. In addition, many SZDSZ supporters were puzzled by the party’s reconciliation with the Socialists which they felt had robbed the party of its original liberal character. In the light of this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the SZDSZ followed the other great party of the 1990 régime change, the MDF, into relative obscurity following the 1998 general election. The remodelled FIDESZ-MPP attracted growing support during the second part of the election cycle, capitalising on mistakes made by the Socialists. While the latter maintained much of their popularity, FIDESZ-MPP won the election narrowly on the platform of a ‘civic Hungary’ in which the post-communist heritage would be forever buried while the state would accept greater responsibility in supporting the growth of a broad middle-class following Christian-nationalist values.

To obtain a secure parliamentary majority, the FIDESZ chairman and new PM, Viktor Orbán, formed a coalition with the MDF and the Independent Smallholder Party (FKGP). While the historic FKGP had a respectable place in the liberal democratic endeavour in post-1945 Hungary, its reincarnation was an anti-élitist, populist force, notorious throughout the 1990s for its stormy internal relations. In addition, although not part of the government, the radical-nationalist MIÉP – anti-communist, anti-capitalist, anti-liberal, anti-globalist and anti-Semitic, frequently lent its support to the first Orbán government. On the other extreme of the political palette, the radical remnant of the HSWP, the Workers’ Party, openly cherished the heritage of the Kádár era and remained a part of the extra-parliamentary opposition throughout the post-1989 period. Whereas a fairly constant proportion of the electorate has supported a traditional conservative-liberal line with national and Christian commitments, in whichever of the pirouetting parties it appeared at any given election, the values and endeavours of the Socialists also continued to break through until recent elections. On the other hand, those associated with the Liberals fell to a level equal to the radical Right, a picture not very different from some Western European countries.

With regard to European integration, all significant political forces except MIÉP were in favour of it. Although the Council of Europe responded to the Hungarian application as early as November 1990, and Hungary became an associate member in December 1991, the ensuing process was considerably longer than optimistically hoped for. Alongside the Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland and Slovenia, Hungary gained full membership of the European Union on 1 May 2004. By this time, public opinion in the West was increasingly sceptical about both the broadening and deepening of the EU. I have written extensively about Hungary’s more rapid progression into NATO membership elsewhere on this site, but its involvement in peacekeeping in former Yugoslavia, from 1994-1999, undoubtedly aided its process of accession to the EU. In an atmosphere of growing anxiety for global safety, neither the requirements concerning border security nor other developments caused a further postponement.

(to be continued…)

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Moments of Régime Change, Budapest (2009): Volt Produkció.

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‘Celebrity’ Britain: The Arrival of ‘New Labour’ & Diana’s Demise, 1994-99.   Leave a comment

The Advent of Brown & Blair:

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Tony Blair was far more of an establishment figure than his mentor John Smith, or his great political ‘friend’ and future rival, Gordon Brown. He was the son of a Tory lawyer and went to preparatory school in Durham and then to a fee-paying boarding school in Edinburgh. He then went ‘up’ to Oxford, becoming a barrister and joining the Labour Party before he fell in love with a young Liverpudlian socialist called Cherie Booth, who sharpened his left-wing credentials before he became an MP at the 1983 General Election, winning a safe Labour seat in the north-east of England. Once in the Commons, he quickly fell in with Gordon Brown, another new MP, who was much that Blair was not. He was a tribal Labour Party man from a family which was strongly political and had rarely glimpsed the English Establishment, even its middle ranks from which Blair sprung. Brown had been Scotland’s best-known student politician and player in Scottish Labour politics from the age of twenty-three, followed by a stint in television. Yet the two men had their Christian beliefs in common, Anglo-Catholic in Blair’s case and Presbyterian in Brown’s. Most importantly, they were both deeply impatient with the state of the Labour Party. For seven or eight years they had seemed inseparable, sharing a small office together. Brown tutored Blair in some of the darker arts of politics while Blair explained the thinking of the English metropolitan and suburban middle classes to Brown. Together they made friends with Westminster journalists, both maturing as performers in the Commons, and together they worked their way up the ranks of the shadow cabinet.

After the 1992 defeat, Blair made a bleak public judgement about why Labour had lost so badly. The reason was simple: Labour has not been trusted to fulfil the aspirations of the majority of people in a modern world. As shadow home secretary he began to put that right, promising to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. He was determined to return his party to the common-sense values of Christian Socialism, also influenced by the mixture of socially conservative and economically liberal messages used by Bill Clinton and his ‘New Democrats’. So too was Gordon Brown but as shadow chancellor, his job was to demolish the cherished spending plans of his colleagues. Also, his support for the ERM made him ineffective when Major and Lamont suffered their great defeat. By 1994, the Brown-Blair relationship was less strong than it had been, but they visited the States together to learn the new political style of the Democrats which, to the advantage of Blair, relied heavily on charismatic leadership. Back home, Blair pushed Smith to reform the party rulebook, falling out badly with him in the process. Media commentators began to tip Blair as the next leader, and slowly but surely, the Brown-Blair relationship was turning into a Blair-Brown one.

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In the days following the sudden death of the Labour leader, John Smith (pictured right), Tony Blair decided almost immediately to run as his replacement, while Gordon Brown hesitated, perhaps more grief-stricken. But he had assumed he would eventually inherit the leadership, and was aghast when he heard of Blair’s early declaration. There were at least ten face-to-face confrontations between the two men, in London and Edinburgh. In the opinion polls, Blair was shown to be more popular, and he had the backing of more MPs as well as that of the press. Crucial to Blair’s case was his use of received pronunciation which, after Neil Kinnock and John Smith’s heavily accented English, would reassure those more prejudiced parts of the Kingdom which were the main battlegrounds for Labour, and in which Celtic tones were not perhaps as appreciated as they might be nowadays. They were alright when heard from actors and BBC presenters, but they made politicians seem more ‘peripheral’. Brown had a deeper knowledge of the Labour movement and broader support among the trade unions, however, and had also thought through his policy agenda for change in greater detail. Given the vagaries of Labour’s electoral college system, it is impossible to judge, even now, what might have happened had the ‘young English hart’ locked horns with the ‘tough Scottish stag’, but they agreed at the time that it would be disastrous for them to fight each other as two ‘modernisers’ since Brown would have to attack Blair from the left and the unions would then demand their tribute from him if he won.

So the two men came to a deal, culminating in a dinner at a ‘chic’ Islington restaurant. The outcome is still a matter of some dispute, but we know that Blair acknowledged that Brown, as Chancellor in a Labour government, would have complete authority over a wide range of policy which he would direct through the Treasury, including the ‘social justice’ agenda. But it is unlikely that he would have been so arrogant as to agree, as some have suggested, that he would hand over the premiership to Brown after seven years. After all, at that time Labour was already still three years away from winning its first term and not even the sharpest crystal ball could have projected the second term at that juncture. The most significant result of their dinner-table deal was that, following all the battles between Tory premiers and chancellors of the then recent and current Conservative governments, Brown’s Treasury would become a bastion for British home affairs, while Blair was left to concentrate on foreign policy largely unimpeded, with all the tragic consequences with which we are now familiar, with the benefit of the hindsight of the last twenty years.

Team Tony & ‘Blair’s Babes’:

When it arrived, the 1997 General Election demonstrated just what a stunningly efficient and effective election-winning team Tony Blair led, comprising those deadly masters of spin, Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson. ‘New Labour’ as it was now officially known, won 419 seats, the largest number ever for the party and comparable only with the seats won by the National Government of 1935. Its Commons majority was also a modern record, 179 seats, and thirty-three more than Attlee’s landslide majority of 1945. The swing of ten per cent from the Conservatives was another post-war record, roughly double that which the 1979 Thatcher victory had produced in the opposite direction. But the turn-out was very low, at seventy-one per cent the lowest since 1935. Labour had won a famous victory but nothing like as many actual votes as John Major had won five years earlier. But Blair’s party also won heavily across the south and in London, in parts of Britain where it had previously been unable to reach or represent in recent times.

As the sun came up on a jubilant, celebrating Labour Party returning to power after an eighteen-year absence, there was a great deal of Bohemian rhapsodizing about a new dawn for Britain. Alistair Campbell had assembled crowds of party workers and supporters to stand along Downing Street waving union flags as the Blairs strode up to claim their victory spoils. Briefly, at least, it appeared that the whole country had turned out to cheer the champions. In deepest, Lib-Con ‘marginal’ Somerset, many of us had been up all night, secretly sipping our Cava in front of the incredible scenes unfolding before our disbelieving eyes, and when the results came in from Basildon and Birmingham Edgbaston (my first constituency at the age of eighteen when it had already been a safe seat for Tory matron Jill Knight for at least a decade), we were sure that this would indeed be a landslide victory, even if we had had to vote for the Liberal Democrats in the West Country just to make sure that there was no way back for the Tories. The victory was due to a small group of self-styled modernisers who had seized the Labour Party and made it a party of the ‘left and centre-left’, at least for the time being, though by the end of the following thirteen years, and after two more elections, they had taken it further to the right than anyone expected on that balmy early summer morning; there was no room for cynicism amid all the euphoria. Labour was rejuvenated, and that was all that mattered.

A record number of women were elected to Parliament, 119, of whom 101 were Labour MPs, the so-called ‘Blair’s babes’. Despite becoming one of the first countries in the world to have a female prime minister, in 1987 there were just 6.3% of women MPs in government in the UK, compared with 10% in Germany and about a third in Norway and Sweden. Only France came below the UK with 5.7%.

Official portrait of Dame Margaret Hodge crop 2.jpgBefore the large group of women MPs joined her in 1997, Margaret Hodge (pictured below, c.1992, and right, in c. 2015) had already become MP for Barking in a 1994 by-election, following the death of Labour MP Jo Richardson. While still a new MP, Hodge endorsed the candidature of Tony Blair, a former Islington neighbour, for the Labour Party leadership, and was appointed Junior Minister for Disabled People in 1998. Before entering the Commons, she had been Leader of Islington Council and had not been short of invitations from constituencies to stand in the 1992 General Election. Given that she is now referred to as a ‘veteran MP’ it is therefore interesting to note that she had turned these offers down, citing her family commitments:

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“It’s been a hard decision; the next logical step is from local to national politics and I would love to be part of a Labour government influencing change. But it’s simply inconsistent with family life, and I have four children who mean a lot to me. 

“It does make me angry that the only way up the political ladder is to work at it twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That’s not just inappropriate for a woman who has to look after children or relatives, it’s inappropriate for any normal person.

“The way Parliament functions doesn’t attract me very much. MPs can seem terribly self-obsessed, more interested in their latest media appearance than in creating change.” 

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Patricia Hewitt.jpg

Patricia Hewitt (pictured above, in 1992, and more recently, right) had first begun looking for a seat in the 1970s when she was general secretary of the National Council of Civil Liberties (NCCL). She later commented that… looking for a seat takes an enormous amount of time, and money, too if you’re travelling a lot. Eventually, she was chosen to fight Leicester East in 1983, a contest which she lost by only nine hundred votes to the Conservative in what was then a relatively safe Tory seat. She later recalled driving up to Leicester on two evenings every week:

“I was planning to have a child after the elections – looking back I don’t know I imagined I was going to cope if Labour had won the seat… Even without children, I was leading such a pressured life – and my partner was doing the same as a Labour councillor – that it did put a strain on our relationship.”

She then became Neil Kinnock’s press and broadcasting secretary. In this role, she was a key player in the first stages of the ‘modernisation’ of the Labour Party, and along with Clive Hollick, helped set up the Institute for Public Policy Research and was its deputy director 1989–1994. By the time of the 1992 General Election she had two small children, so she decided not to look for a seat. Following Labour’s defeat in 1992, Hewitt was asked by the new Labour Leader, John Smith, to help establish the Commission on Social Justice, of which she became deputy chair. She then became head of research with Andersen Consulting, remaining in the post during the period 1994–1997. Hewitt was finally elected to Parliament to the House of Commons as the first female MP for Leicester West at the 1997 General Election, following the retirement of Greville Janner. She was elected with a majority of 12,864 and remained the constituency MP until stepping down in 2010.

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Mary Kaldor (pictured right in the 1980s, and below in 2000), by contrast, never became an MP, one of the ‘loves’ Labour lost. A British academic, currently Professor of Global Governance at the London School of Economics, where she is also the Director of the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, she was the daughter of the economist Nicholas Kaldor, an exiled Hungarian economist who became an adviser to Harold Wilson in the 1960s. In the nineties, she was a senior research fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit of Sussex, and former foreign policy adviser to the Labour Party. She was shortlisted for Hackney and Dulwich in 1981, attending masses of meetings, many of which were boring at which she was endlessly having to be nice to people. Her youngest child was two years old at the time and was therefore ambivalent about the idea of becoming an MP:

“I was very well-equipped with baby minders and a nice understanding husband, but what on earth is the point of having children if you’re not going to see them?

“Building links with eastern Europe through the peace movement was more exciting than anything I could ever have done as an MP … (which seemed) entirely about competitiveness and being in the limelight, giving you no time to think honestly about your political views.”

Mary Kaldor crop.jpg

In 1999, Kaldor supported international military intervention over Kosovo on humanitarian grounds, calling for NATO ground forces to follow aerial bombardment in an article for The Guardian. I have written about the war in Kosovo in a separate article in this series. Significantly, however, by the end of the next decade Kaldor lost faith in the principle and practice of humanitarian intervention, telling the same paper:

The international community makes a terrible mess wherever it goes…

It is hard to find a single example of humanitarian intervention during the 1990s that can be unequivocally declared a success. Especially after Kosovo, the debate about whether human rights can be enforced through military means is ever more intense.

Moreover, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have been justified in humanitarian terms, have further called into question the case for intervention.

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Blair needed the support and encouragement of admirers and friends who would coax and goad him. There was Mandelson, the brilliant but temperamental former media boss, who had now become an MP. Although adored by Blair, he was so mistrusted by other members of the team that Blair’s inner circle gave him the codename ‘Bobby’ (as in Bobby Kennedy). Alistair Campbell, Blair’s press officer and attack-dog is pictured above, in a characteristic ‘pose’. A former journalist and natural propagandist, he had helped orchestrate the campaign of mockery against Major. Then there was Anji Hunter, the contralto charmer who had known Blair as a young rock-singer and was his best hotline to middle England. Derry Irvine was a brilliant Highlands lawyer who had first found a place in his chambers for Blair and Booth. He advised on constitutional change and became Lord Chancellor in due course. These people, with the Brown team working in parallel, formed the inner core. The young David Miliband, son of a well-known Marxist philosopher, provided research support. Among the MPs who were initially close were Marjorie ‘Mo’ Mowlem and Jack Straw, but the most striking aspect about ‘Tony’s team’ was how few elected politicians it included.

The small group of people who put together the New Labour ‘project’ wanted to find a way of governing which helped the worse off, particularly by giving them better chances in education and to find jobs, while not alienating the mass of middle-class voters. They were extraordinarily worried by the press and media, bruised by what had happened to Kinnock, whom they had all worked with, and ruthlessly focused on winning over anyone who could be won. But they were ignorant of what governing would be like. They were able to take power at a golden moment when it would have been possible to fulfil all the pledges they had made. Blair had the wind at his back as the Conservatives would pose no serious threat to him for many years to come. Far from inheriting a weak or crisis-ridden economy, he was actually taking over at the best possible time when the country was recovering strongly but had not yet quite noticed that this was the case. Blair had won by being ruthless, and never forgot it, but he also seemed not to realise quite what an opportunity ‘providence’ had handed him.

Cool Britannia and the Celebrity Princess:

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Above: a page from a recent school text.

Tony Blair arrived in power in a country with a revived fashion for celebrity, offering a few politicians new opportunities but at a high cost. It was not until 1988 that the full shape of modern celebrity culture had become apparent. That year had seen the publication of the truly modern glossy glamour magazines when Hello! was launched. Its successful formula was soon copied by OK! from 1993 and many other magazines soon followed suit, to the point where the yards of coloured ‘glossies’ filled the newsagents’ shelves in every town and village in the country. Celebrities were paid handsomely for being interviewed and photographed in return for coverage which was always fawningly respectful and never hostile. The rich and famous, no matter how flawed in real life, were able to shun the mean-minded sniping of the ‘gutter press’, the tabloid newspapers. In the real world, the sunny, airbrushed world of Hello! was inevitably followed by divorces, drunken rows, accidents and ordinary scandals. But people were happy to read good news about these beautiful people even if they knew that there was more to their personalities and relationships than met the eye. In the same year that Hello! went into publication, ITV also launched its the most successful of the daytime television shows, This Morning, hosted from Liverpool by Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, providing television’s celebrity breakthrough moment.

This celebrity fantasy world, which continued to open up in all directions throughout the nineties, served to re-emphasise to alert politicians, broadcasting executives and advertisers the considerable power of optimism. The mainstream media in the nineties was giving the British an unending stream of bleakness and disaster, so millions tuned in and turned over to celebrity. That they did so in huge numbers did not mean that they thought that celebrities had universally happy lives. And in the eighties and nineties, no celebrity gleamed more brightly than the beautiful yet troubled Princess Diana. For fifteen years she was an ever-present presence: as an aristocratic girl, whose childhood had been blighted by her parents’ divorce, her fairytale marriage in 1981 found her pledging her life to a much older man who shared few of her interests and did not even seem to be truly in love with her. Just as the monarchy had gained from its marriages, especially the filmed-for-television romance, engagement and wedding of Charles and Diana, the latter attracting a worldwide audience of at least eight hundred million, so it lost commensurately from the failure of those unions.

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Above: Hello! looks back on the 1981 Royal Wedding from that of 2011.

Diana quickly learned how to work the crowds and to seduce the cameras like Marilyn Monroe. By the end of the eighties, she had become a living fashion icon. Her eating disorder, bulimia, was one suffered by a growing number of young women and teenage girls from less privileged homes. When AIDS was in the news, she hugged its victims to show that it was safe, and she went on to campaign for a ban on the use of land-mines. The slow disintegration of this marriage transfixed Britain, as Diana moved from a china-doll debutante to painfully thin young mother, to an increasingly charismatic and confident public figure, surprising her husband who had always assumed she would be in his shadow. After the birth of their second son Harry in 1987, Charles and Diana’s marriage was visibly failing.

When rumours spread of her affairs, they no longer had the moral impact that they might have had in previous decades. By the nineties, Britain was now a divorce-prone country, in which ‘what’s best for the kids’ and ‘I deserve to be happy’ were phrases which were regularly heard in suburban kitchen-diners. Diana was not simply a pretty woman married to a king-in-waiting but someone people felt, largely erroneously, would understand them. There was an obsessive aspect to the admiration of her, something that the Royal Family had not seen before, and its leading members found it very uncomfortable and even, at times, alarming. They were being challenged as living symbols of Britain’s ‘family values’ and found wanting, just as John Major’s government would also be hoisted by its own petard as its ‘Back to Basics’ campaign was overwhelmed by an avalanche of sexual and financial scandals.

By the mid-1990s, the monarchy was looking shaky, perhaps even mortal. The strain of being at once a ceremonial and a familial institution was proving a bit much. The year 1992, referred to as the Queen as her ‘annus horribilis’ in her Christmas speech, first saw the separation of the other royal couple, Andrew and Sarah, followed by a major fire at Windsor Castle in November. The journalist Andrew Morton claimed to tell Diana’s True Story in a book which described suicide attempts, blazing rows, her bulimia and her growing certainty that Prince Charles had resumed an affair with his old love Camilla Parker-Bowles, something he later confirmed in a television interview with Jonathan Dimbleby. In December, John Major announced the separation of Charles and Diana to the House of Commons. There was a further blow to the Royal Family’s prestige in 1994 when the royal yacht Britannia, the floating emblem of the monarch’s global presence, was decommissioned.

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 Above: Prince William with his mother, c. 1994.

Then came the revelatory 1995 interview on BBC TV’s Panorama programme between Diana and Martin Bashir. Breaking every taboo left in Royal circles, she freely discussed the breakup of her marriage, claiming that there were ‘three of us’ in it, attacked the Windsors for their cruelty and promised to be ‘a queen of people’s hearts’. Finally divorced in 1996, she continued her charity work around the world and began a relationship with Dodi al-Fayed, the son of the owner of Harrods, Mohammed al-Fayed. To many in the establishment, she was a selfish, unhinged woman who was endangering the monarchy. To many millions more, however, she was more valuable than the formal monarchy, her readiness to share her pain in public making her even more fashionable. She was followed all around the world, her face and name selling many papers and magazines. By the late summer of 1997, Britain had two super-celebrities, Tony Blair and Princess Diana.

It was therefore grimly fitting that Tony Blair’s most resonant words as Prime Minister which brought him to the height of his popularity came on the morning when Diana was killed in a car-crash, together with Dodi, in a Paris underpass. Blair was woken from a deep sleep at his constituency home, first to be told about the accident, and then to be told that Diana had died. Deeply shocked and worried about what his proper role should be, Blair spoke first to Campbell and then to the Queen, who told him that neither she nor any other senior member of the Royal Family would be making a statement. He decided, therefore, that he had to say something. Later that Sunday morning, standing in front of his local parish church, he spoke words which were transmitted live around the world:

“I feel, like everyone else in this country today, utterly devastated. Our thoughts and prayers are with Princess Diana’s family, in particular her two sons, her two boys – our hearts go out to them. We are today a nation in a state of shock…

“Her own life was often sadly touched the lives of so many others in Britain and throughout the world with joy and with comfort. How many times shall we remember her in how many different ways, with the sick, the dying, with children, with the needy? With just a look or a gesture that spoke so much more than words, she would reveal to all of us the depth of her compassion and her humanity.

“People everywhere, not just here in Britain, kept faith with Princess Diana. They liked her, they loved her, they regarded her as one of the people. She was – the People’s Princess and that is how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and our memories for ever.”

Although these words seem, more than twenty years on, to be reminiscent of past tributes paid to religious leaders, at the time they were much welcomed and assented to. They were the sentiments of one natural charismatic public figure to another. Blair regarded himself as the people’s Prime Minister, leading the people’s party, beyond left and right, beyond faction or ideology, with a direct line to the people’s instincts. After his impromptu eulogy, his approval rating rose to over ninety per cent, a figure not normally witnessed in democracies. Blair and Campbell then paid their greatest service to the ancient institution of the monarchy itself. The Queen, still angry and upset about Diana’s conduct and concerned for the welfare of her grandchildren, wanted a quiet funeral and to remain at Balmoral, away from the scenes of public mourning in London. However, this was potentially disastrous for her public image. There was a strange mood in the country deriving from Diana’s charisma, which Blair had referenced in his words at Trimdon. If those words had seemed to suggest that Diana was a saint, a sub-religious hysteria responded to the thought. People queued to sign a book of condolence at St James’ Palace, rather than signing it online on the website of the Prince of Wales. Those queuing even reported supernatural appearances of the dead Princess’ image. By contrast, the lack of any act of public mourning by the Windsors and the suggestion of a quiet funeral seemed to confirm Diana’s television criticisms of the Royal Family as being cold if not cruel towards her.

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In particular, the Queen was criticised for following protocol, which prohibited the flying of flags at Buckingham Palace when she was not in residence, rather than fulfilling the deep need of a grief-stricken public to see the Union flag flying there at half-mast. According to another protocol, flags were only flown at half-mast on the deaths of the monarch or their immediate blood relatives. But the crown lives or dies by such symbolic moments, and the Queen relented. Also, with Prince Charles’ full agreement, Blair and his aides put pressure on the Palace first into accepting that there would have to be a huge public funeral so that the public could express their grief, and second into accepting that the Queen should return to London. She did, just in time to quieten the genuine and growing anger about her perceived attitude towards Diana. This was a generational problem as well as a class one. The Queen had been brought up in a land of buttoned lips, stoicism and private grieving. She now reigned over a country which expected and almost required exhibitionism. For some years, the deaths of children, or the scenes of fatal accidents had been marked by little shrines of cellophane-wrapped flowers, soft toys and cards. In the run-up to Diana’s funeral parts of central London seemed almost Mediterranean in their public grieving. There were vast mounds of flowers, people sleeping out, holding up placards and weeping in the streets, strangers hugging each other.

The immense outpouring of public emotion in the weeks that followed seemed both to overwhelm and distinguish itself from the more traditional devotion to the Queen herself and to her immediate family. The crisis was rescued by a live, televised speech she made from the Palace which was striking in its informality and obviously sincere expression of personal sorrow. As Simon Schama has put it,

The tidal wave of feeling that swept over the country testified to the sustained need of the public to come together in a recognizable community of sentiment, and to do so as the people of a democratic monarchy.

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The funeral itself was like no other before, bringing the capital to a standstill. In Westminster Abbey, campaigners stood alongside aristocrats, entertainers with politicians and rock musicians with charity workers. Elton John performed a hastily rewritten version of ‘Candle in the Wind’, originally his lament for Marilyn Monroe, now dedicated to ‘England’s Rose’, and Princess Diana’s brother Earl Spencer made a half-coded attack from the pulpit on the Windsors’ treatment of his sister. This was applauded when it was relayed outside and clapping was heard in the Abbey itself. Diana’s body was driven to her last resting place at the Spencers’ ancestral home of Althorp in Northamptonshire. Nearly a decade later, and following many wild theories circulated through cyberspace which reappeared regularly in the press, an inquiry headed by a former Metropolitan Police commissioner concluded that she had died because the driver of her car was drunk and was speeding in order to throw off pursuing ‘paparazzi’ photographers. The Queen recovered her standing after her live broadcast about her wayward former daughter-in-law. She would later rise again in public esteem to be seen to be one of the most successful monarchs for centuries and the longest-serving ever. A popular film about her, including a sympathetic portrayal of these events, sealed this verdict.

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HM Queen Elizabeth II in 2001.

Tony Blair never again quite captured the mood of the country as he did in those sad late summer days. It may be that his advice and assistance to the Queen in 1997 was as vital to her as it was, in the view of Palace officials, thoroughly impertinent. His instinct for popular culture when he arrived in power was certainly uncanny. The New Age spiritualism which came out into the open when Diana died was echoed among Blair’s Downing Street circle. What other politicians failed to grasp and what he did grasp, was the power of optimism expressed in the glossy world of celebrity, and the willingness of people to forgive their favourites not just once, but again and again. One of the negative longer-term consequences of all this was that charismatic celebrities discovered that, if they apologised and bared a little of their souls in public, they could get away with most things short of murder. For politicians, even charismatic ones like Blair, life would prove a little tougher, and the electorate would be less forgiving of oft-repeated mistakes.

(to be continued).

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Years of Transition – Britain, Europe & the World: 1992-1997.   Leave a comment

Epilogue to the Eighties & Prologue to the Nineties:

I can recall the real sense of optimism which resulted from the end of the Cold War, formally ending with President Gorbachev’s announcement of the dissolution of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991. Although never an all-out global war, it had resulted in the deaths of up to forty million people throughout the world, involving more than a hundred and fifty smaller ‘proxy’ conflicts. Moreover, we had lived under a continual sense of doom, that it was only a matter of time until our brief, young lives would be snuffed out by a nuclear apocalypse. Now, politicians and journalists in the West talked of a coming ‘peace dividend’ and the end of the surveillance, spy and secret state in both east and west. The only continuing threat to British security came from the Provisional IRA. They hit Downing Street with a triple mortar attack in February 1991, coming close to killing the new Prime Minister, John Major, and his team of ministers and officials directing the Gulf War.

Margaret ThatcherBy the time Margaret Thatcher left office in tears on 28 November 1990, ‘Thatcherism’ was also a spent force, though its influence lingered on until at least the end of the century, and not just among Conservatives. Only a minority even among the ‘party faithful’ had been true believers and the Tory MPs would have voted her out had her cabinet ministers not beaten them to it. As Andrew Marr has written, History is harshest to a leader just as they fall. She had been such a strident presence for so long that many who had first welcomed her as a ‘gust’ of fresh air now felt the need for gentler breezes. Those who wanted a quieter, less confrontational leader found one in John Major.

Yet most people, in the end, had done well under her premiership, not just the ‘yuppies’ but also her lower-middle-class critics who developed their own entrepreneurial sub-cultures rather than depending on traditional sponsorship from arts councils and local authorities. By the early nineties, Britons were on average much wealthier than they had been in the late seventies and enjoyed a wider range of holidays, better food, and a greater variety of television channels and other forms of home entertainment. Nor was everything the Thatcher governments did out of tune with social reality. The sale of council houses which corresponded to the long passion of the British to be kings and queens of their own little castles. Sales of state utilities, on the other hand, presupposed a hunger for stakeholdership that was much less deeply rooted in British habits, and the subsequently mixed fortunes of those stocks did nothing to help change those habits. Most misguided of all was the decision to implement the ‘poll tax’ as a regressive tax. In the end, Thatcher’s 1987-90 government became just the latest in a succession of post-war British governments that had seen their assumptions rebound on them disastrously. This ‘trend’ was to continue under John Major. The upper middle-class ‘Victorian Values’ of the grocer’s daughter from Grantham were replaced by the ‘family values’ of the lower middle-class garden gnome salesman from Brixton, only for him to be overwhelmed by an avalanche of sexual and financial scandals.

The single most important event of the early nineties in Britain, possibly globally too, had nothing to do with politics and diplomacy or warfare and terrorism, at least not in the nineties. Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist, invented the World Wide Web, or the Internet. His idea was for a worldwide ‘hypertext’, the computer-aided reading of electronic documents to allow people to work together remotely., sharing their knowledge in a ‘web’ of documents. His creation of it would give the internet’s hardware its global voice. He was an Oxford graduate who had made his first computer with a soldering iron, before moving to CERN, the European Physics laboratory, in Switzerland in 1980, the world’s largest scientific research centre. Here he wrote his first programme in 1989 and a year later he proposed his hypertext revolution which arrived in CERN in December 1990. The ‘internet’ was born the following summer. He chose not to patent his creation so that it would be free to everyone.

The Election of 1992 – A Curious Confidence Trick?:

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John Major called an election for April 1992. Under a pugnacious Chris Patten, now Party chairman, the Tories targeted Labour’s enthusiasm for high taxes. During the campaign itself, Major found himself returning to his roots in Brixton and mounting a ‘soap-box’, from which he addressed raucous crowds through a megaphone. John Simpson, the BBC correspondent, was given the task of covering Major’s own campaign, and on 15 March he travelled to Sawley, in the PM’s constituency of Huntingdon, where Major was due to Meet the People. I have written elsewhere about the details of this, and his soap-box campaign, as reported by Simpson. Although Simpson described it as ‘a wooden construction of some kind’, Andrew Marr claims it was ‘a plastic container’. Either way, it has gone down in political history, together with the megaphone, as the prop that won him the election. The stark visual contrast achieved with the carefully stage-managed Labour campaign struck a chord with the media and he kept up an act that his father would have been proud of, playing the underdog to Neil Kinnock’s government in waiting. Right at the end, at an eve of poll rally in Sheffield, Kinnock’s self-control finally gave way and he began punching the air and crying “y’awl’ right!” as if he were an American presidential candidate. It was totally ‘cringe-worthy’ TV viewing, alienating if not repulsing swathes of the very middle England voters he needed to attract.

On 9 April 1992 Major’s Conservatives won fourteen million votes, more than any party in British political history. It was a great personal victory for the ‘new’ Prime Minister, but one which was also based on people’s fears of higher taxes under a Labour government. It was also one of the biggest victories in percentage terms since 1945, though the vagaries of the electoral system gave the Tories a majority of just twenty-one seats in parliament. Neil Kinnock was even more devastated than he had been in 1987 when he had not been expected to defeat Thatcher. The only organ of the entire British press which had called the election correctly was the Spectator. Its editor, Dominic Lawson, headlined the article which John Simpson wrote for him The Curious Confidence of Mr Major so that the magazine seemed to suggest that the Conservatives might pull off a surprise win. Simpson himself admitted to not having the slightest idea who would win, though it seemed more likely to him that Labour would. Yet he felt that John Major’s own apparent certainty was worth mentioning. When the results started to become clear on that Friday morning, 10 April, the Spectator stood out favourably from the shelves of newsagents, surrounded by even the late, or early editions of newspapers and magazines which had all been predicting a Labour victory.

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The only politician possibly more disappointed than Neil Kinnock, who immediately left front-line politics, was Chris Patten, who had been the real magician behind Major’s remarkable victory. He lost his seat to the Liberals in marginal Bath and went off to become the final governor of Hong Kong ahead of the long-agreed handover of Britain’s last colony in 1997. Kinnock, a former long-term opponent of Britain’s membership of the EEC/ EC went off to Brussels to become a European Commissioner. Despite his triumph in the popular vote, never has such a famous victory produced so rotten an outcome for the victors. The smallness of Major’s majority meant that his authority could easily be eaten away in the Commons. As a consequence, he would not go down as a great leader in parliamentary posterity, though he remained popular in the country as a whole for some time, if not with the Thatcherites and Eurosceptic “bastards” in his own party.  Even Margaret Thatcher could not have carried through her revolutionary reforms after the 1979 and 1983 elections with the kind of parliamentary arithmetic which was dealt her successor. In Rugby terms, although the opposition’s three-quarters had been foiled by this artful dodger of a full-back, he had been dealt a ‘hospital pass’ by his own side. For the moment, he had control of the slippery ball, but he was soon to be forced back into series of crushing rucks and mauls among his own twenty-stone forwards.

 John Smith – Labour’s lost leader and his legacy:

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After Neil Kinnock gave up the Labour leadership following his second electoral defeat in 1992, he was replaced by John Smith (pictured above), a placid, secure, self-confident Scottish lawyer. As Shadow Chancellor, he had been an effective cross-examiner of Nigel Lawson, John Major and Norman Lamont and had he not died of a heart attack in 1994, three years ahead of the next election, most political pundits agreed that, following the tarnishing of the Major administration in the mid-nineties, he would have become Prime Minister at that election. Had he done so, Britain would have had a traditional social democratic government, much like those of continental Europe. He came from a family of herring fishermen on the West Coast of Scotland, the son of a headmaster. Labour-supporting from early youth, bright and self-assured, he got his real political education at Glasgow University, part of a generation of brilliant student debaters from all parties who would go on to dominate Scottish and UK politics including, in due succession, Donald Dewar, Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and Douglas Alexander. Back in the early sixties, Glasgow University Labour Club was a hotbed not of radicals, but of Gaitskell-supporting moderates. This was a position that Smith never wavered from, as he rose as one of the brightest stars of the Scottish party, and then through government under Wilson and Callaghan as a junior minister dealing with the oil industry and devolution before entering cabinet as President of the Board of Trade, its youngest member at just forty. In opposition, John Smith managed to steer clear of the worst in-fighting, eventually becoming Kinnock’s shadow chancellor. In Thatcher’s England, however, he was spotted as a tax-raising corporatist of the old school. One xenophobic letter he received brusquely informed him:

You’ll not get my BT shares yet, you bald, owl-looking Scottish bastard. Go back to Scotland and let that other twit Kinnock go back to Wales.

Smith came from an old-fashioned Christian egalitarian background which put him naturally out of sympathy with the hedonistic culture of southern England.  Just before he became Labour leader he told a newspaper he believed above all in education, because…

 … it opens the doors of the imagination, breaks down class barriers and frees people. In our family … money was looked down on and education was revered. I am still slightly contemptuous of money.

Smith was never personally close to Kinnock but was scrupulously loyal to him as his leader, he nevertheless succeeded him by a huge margin in 1992. By then he had already survived a serious cardiac arrest and had taken up hill-walking. Though Smith swiftly advanced the careers of his bright young lieutenants, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, they soon became disappointed by his view that the Labour party needed simply to be improved, not radically transformed. In particular, he was reluctant to take on the party hierarchy and unions over issues of internal democracy, such as the introduction of a one-member, one-vote system for future leadership elections. He was sure that Labour could regain power with a revival of its traditional spirit. At one point, Tony Blair was so dispirited by Smith’s leadership style that he considered leaving politics altogether and going back to practising law. Smith died of a second heart attack on 12 May 1994. After the initial shock and grief subsided, Labour moved rapidly away from his policy of ‘gradualism’ towards ‘Blairite’ transformation. One part of his legacy still remains, however, shaping modern Britain today. As the minister who had struggled to achieve devolution for Scotland in 1978-9, he remained a passionate supporter of the ‘unfinished business’ of re-establishing the Holyrood Parliament and setting up a Welsh Assembly. With his friend Donal Dewar he had committed Labour so utterly to the idea in Opposition, despite Kinnock’s original strong anti-nationalist stance, that Blair, no great fan of devolution himself, found that he had to implement Smith’s unwelcome bequest to him.

Black Wednesday and the Maastricht Treaty:

The crisis that soon engulfed the Major government back in the early autumn of 1992 was a complicated economic one. From August 1992 to July 1996 I was mainly resident in Hungary, and so, although an economic historian, never really understood the immediate series of events that led to it or the effects that followed. This was still in pre-internet days, so I had little access to English language sources, except via my short-wave radio and intermittent newspapers bought during brief visits to Budapest. I had also spent most of 1990 and half of 1991 in Hungary, so there were also longer-term gaps in my understanding of these matters. I have written about them in earlier articles in this series, dealing with the end of the Thatcher years. Hungary itself was still using an unconvertible currency throughout the nineties, which only became seriously devalued in 1994-96, and when my income from my UK employers also fell in value, as a family we decided to move back to Britain to seek full-time sterling salaries. The first thing that happened was that they lost their fiscal policy in a single day when the pound fell out of the ERM (European Exchange Rate Mechanism). In his memoirs, John Major described the effect of this event in stark terms:

Black Wednesday – 16 September 1992, the day the pound toppled out of the ERM – was a political and economic calamity. It unleashed havoc in the Conservative Party and it changed the political landscape of Britain.

For Major and his government, the point was that as the German central bank had a deserved reputation for anti-inflationary rigour, having to follow or ‘shadow’ the mark meant that Britain had purchased a respected off-the-shelf policy. Sticking to the mighty mark was a useful signal to the rest of the world that this government, following all the inflationary booms of the seventies and eighties, was serious about controlling inflation. On the continent, however, the point of the ERM was entirely different, intended to lead to a strong new single currency that the countries of central Europe would want to join as members of an enlarged EC/EU. So a policy which Margaret Thatcher had earlier agreed to, in order to bring down British inflation, was now a policy she and her followers abhorred since it drew Britain ever closer towards a European superstate in the ‘Delors Plan’. This was a confused and conflicted state of affairs for most of the Tories, never mind British subjects at home and abroad.

The catalyst for sterling’s fall was the fall in the value of the dollar, pulling the pound down with it. Worse still, the money flowed into the Deutschmarks, which duly rose; so the British government raised interest rates to an eye-watering ten per cent, in order to lift the pound. When this failed to work, the next obvious step would have been for the German central bank to cut their interest rates, lowering the value of the mark and keeping the ERM formation intact. This would have helped the Italian lira and other weak currencies as well as the pound. But since Germany had just reunited after the ‘fall of the wall’, the whole cost of bringing the poorer East Germans into line with their richer compatriots in the West led to a real fear of renewed inflation as well as to memories of the Berlin Crisis of 1948-49 and the hyperinflation of the Weimar period. So the Germans, regardless of the pain being experienced by Britain, Italy and the rest, wanted to keep their high-value mark and their high interest rates. Major put considerable and concerted pressure on Chancellor Kohl, warning of the danger of the Maastricht treaty failing completely since the Danes had just rejected it in a referendum and the French were also having a plebiscite. None of this had any effect on Kohl who, like a previous German Chancellor, would not move.

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In public, the British government stuck to the line that the pound would stay in the ERM at all costs. It was not simply a European ‘joint-venture’ mechanism but had been part of the anti-inflation policy of both the Lawson and Major chancellorships. Then, the now PM had told the unemployed workers and the repossessed homeowners in Britain that if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working, so his credibility had been tied to the success of the ERM ever since. It had also been, as Foreign Secretary and now as Prime Minister, his foreign policy of placing Britain ‘at the heart of Europe’. It was his big idea for both economic and diplomatic survival in an increasingly ‘globalised’ environment. Norman Lamont, who as Chancellor was as committed as Major, told ‘the markets’ that Britain would neither leave the mechanism nor deviate from it by devaluing the pound. ERM membership was at the centre of our policy and there should not be one scintilla of doubt that it would continue. Major went even further, telling a Scottish audience that with inflation down to 3.7 per cent and falling, it would be madness to leave the ERM. He added that:

“The soft option, the devaluer’s option, the inflationary option, would be a betrayal of our future.”

However, then the crisis deepened with the lira crashing out of the ERM formation. International money traders, such as the Hungarian-born György Soros, began to turn their attention to the weak pound and carried on selling. They were betting that Major and Lamont would not keep interest rates so high that the pound could remain up there with the mark – an easy, one-way bet. In the real world, British interest rates were already painfully high. On the morning of ‘Black Wednesday’, at 11 a.m., the Bank of England raised them by another two points. This was to be agonising for home-owners and businesses alike, but Lamont said he would take whatever measures were necessary to keep the pound in the mechanism. Panic mounted and the selling continued: a shaken Lamont rushed round to tell Major that the interest rate hike had not worked, but Major and his key ministers decided to stay in the ERM. The Bank of England announced that interest would go up by a further three points, to fifteen per cent. Had it been sustained, this would have caused multiple bankruptcies across the country, but the third rise made no difference either. Eventually, at 4 p.m., Major phoned the Queen to tell her that he was recalling Parliament. At 7.30 p.m., Lamont left the Treasury to announce to the press and media in Whitehall that he was suspending sterling’s membership of the ERM and was reversing the day’s rise in interest rates.

Major considered resigning. It was the most humiliating moment in British politics since the IMF crisis of 1976, sixteen years earlier. But if he had done so Lamont would have had to go as well, leaving the country without its two most senior ministers in the midst of a terrible crisis. Major decided to stay on, though he was forever diminished by what had happened. Lamont also stayed at his post and was delighted as the economy began to respond to lower interest rates, and a slow recovery began. While others suffered further unemployment, repossession and bankruptcy, he was forever spotting the ‘green shoots’ of recovery. In the following months, Lamont created a new unified budget system and took tough decisions to repair the public finances. But as the country wearied of recession, he became an increasingly easy ‘butt’ of media derision. To Lamont’s complete surprise, Major sacked him as Chancellor a little over six months after Black Wednesday. Lamont retaliated in a Commons statement in which he said: We give the impression of being in office, but not in power. Major appointed Kenneth Clarke, one of the great characters of modern Conservatism, to replace him.

In the Commons, the struggle to ratify the Maastricht Treaty hailed as a great success for Major before the election, became a long and bloody one. Major’s small majority was more than wiped out by the number of ‘Maastricht rebels’, egged on by Lady Thatcher and Lord Tebbit. Black Wednesday had emboldened those who saw the ERM and every aspect of European federalism as disastrous for Britain. Major himself wrote in his memoirs that it turned …

… a quarter of a century of unease into a flat rejection of any wider involvement in Europe … emotional rivers burst their banks.

Most of the newspapers which had welcomed Maastricht were now just as vehemently against it. The most powerful Conservative voices in the media were hostile both to the treaty and to Major. His often leaded use of English and lack of ‘panache’ led many of England’s snobbish ‘High Tories’ to brand him shockingly ill-educated and third-rate as a national leader. A constantly shifting group of between forty to sixty Tory MPs regularly worked with the Labour opposition to defeat key parts of the Maastricht bill, so that Major’s day-to-day survival was always in doubt. Whenever, however, he called a vote of confidence and threatened his rebellious MPs with an election, he won. Whenever John Smith’s Labour Party and the Tory rebels could find some common cause, however thin, he was in danger of losing. In the end, Major got his legislation and Britain signed the Maastricht Treaty, but it came at an appalling personal and political cost. Talking in the general direction of an eavesdropping microphone, he spoke of three anti-European ‘bastards’ in his own cabinet, an obvious reference to Michael Portillo, Peter Lilley and John Redwood. The country watched a divided party tearing itself apart and was not impressed.

By the autumn of 1993, Norman Lamont was speaking openly about the possibility that Britain might have to leave the European Union altogether, and there were moves to force a national referendum. The next row was over the voting system to be used when the EU expanded. Forced to choose between a deal which weakened Britain’s hand and stopping the enlargement from happening at all by vetoing it, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd went for a compromise. All hell broke loose, as Tory MPs began talking of a leadership challenge to Major. This subsided, but battle broke out again over the European budget and fisheries policy. Eight MPs had their formal membership of the Tory Party withdrawn. By this point, John Smith’s sudden death had brought Tony Blair to the fore as leader of the Opposition. When Major readmitted the Tory rebels, Blair jibed: I lead my party, you follow yours. Unlike Lamont’s remark in the Commons, Blair’s comment struck a chord with the country.

The concluding chapter of the Thatcher Revolution:

While the central story of British politics in the seven years between the fall of Thatcher and the arrival to power of Blair was taken up by Europe, on the ‘home front’ the government tried to maintain the momentum of the Thatcher revolution. After many years of dithering, British Rail was divided up and privatised, as was the remaining coal industry. After the 1992 election, it was decided that over half the remaining coal mining jobs must go, in a closure programme of thirty-one pits to prepare the industry for privatization. This angered many Tory MPs who felt that the strike-breaking effect of the Nottinghamshire-based Union of Democratic Mineworkers in the previous decade deserved a better reward, and it aroused public protest as far afield as Cheltenham. Nevertheless, with power companies moving towards gas and oil, and the industrial muscle of the miners long-since broken, the closures and sales went ahead within the next two years, 1992-4. The economic effect on local communities was devastating, as the 1996 film Brassed Off shows vividly, with its memorable depiction of the social impact on the Yorkshire village of Grimethorpe and its famous Brass Band of the 1992 closure programme. Effectively, the only coalfields left working after this were those of North Warwickshire and South Derbyshire.

Interfering in the railway system became and remained a favourite ‘boys with toys’ hobby but a dangerous obsession of governments of different colours. Margaret Thatcher, not being a boy, knew that the railways were much too much part of the working life of millions to be lightly broken up or sold off. When Nicholas Ridley, as Transport Secretary, had suggested this, Thatcher is said to have replied:

“Railway privatisation will be the Waterloo of this government. Please never mention the railways to me again.”

It was taken up again enthusiastically by John Major. British Rail had become a national joke, loss-making, accident-prone, with elderly tracks and rolling stock, and serving curled-up sandwiches. But the challenge of selling off a system on which millions of people depended was obvious. Making it profitable would result in significant and unpopular fare rises and cuts in services. Moreover, different train companies could hardly compete with each other directly, racing up and down the same rails. There was, therefore, a binary choice between cutting up ‘BR’ geographically, selling off both trains and track for each region, so that the system would look much the way it was in the thirties, or the railway could be split ‘vertically’ so that the State would continue to own the track, while the stations and the trains would be owned by private companies. This latter solution was the one chosen by the government and a vast, complicated new system of subsidies, contracts, bids, pricing, cross-ticketing and regulation was created, but rather than keeping the track under public control, it too was to be sold off to a single private monopoly to be called Railtrack. Getting across the country would become a complicated proposition and transaction, involving two or three separate rail companies. A Franchise Director was to be given powers over the profits, timetables and ticket-pricing of the new companies, and a Rail Regulator would oversee the track. Both would report directly to the Secretary of State so that any public dissatisfaction, commercial problem or safety issue would ultimately be the responsibility of the government. This was a strange and pointless form of privatization which ended up costing the taxpayer far more than British Rail. The journalist Simon Jenkins concluded:

The Treasury’s treatment of the railway in the 1990s was probably the worst instance of Whitehall industrial management since the Second World War.

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One success story in the rail network was the completion of the Channel Tunnel link to France in 1994 (the Folkestone terminal is pictured above), providing a good example of the inter-relationship between transport links and general economic development. The Kent town of Ashford had a relationship with the railways going back to 1842, and the closure of the town’s railway works between 1981 and 1993 did not, however, undermine the local economy. Instead, Ashford benefited from the Channel Tunnel rail link, which made use of railway lines running through the town, and its population actually grew by ten per cent in the 1990s. The completion of the ‘Chunnel’ gave the town an international catchment area of eighty-five million within a single day’s journey. The opening of the Ashford International railway station, the main terminal for the rail link to Europe, attracted a range of engineering, financial, distribution and manufacturing companies. In addition to the fourteen business parks that were opened in and around the town itself, four greenfield sites were opened on the outskirts, including a science park owned by Trinity College, Cambridge. As the map above shows, Ashford is now closer to Paris and Brussels in travelling time than it is to Manchester and Liverpool. By the end of the century, the town, with its position at the hub of a huge motorway network as well as its international rail link, was ready to become part of a truly international economy.

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Many of the improvements in transport infrastructure on both islands of Britain and Ireland were the result of EU funding, especially in Northern Ireland, and it was also having an impact on transport planning in Britain, with projects in the Highlands and Islands. In 1993 the EU decided to create a European-wide transport network. Of the fourteen priority associated with this aim, three are based in Britain and Ireland – a rail link from Cork to Northern Ireland and the ferry route to Scotland; a road link from the Low Countries across England and Wales to Ireland, and the West Coast rail route in Britain.

As a Brixton man, Major had experienced unemployment and was well prepared to take on the arrogant and inefficient quality of much so-called public service. But under the iron grip of the Treasury, there was little prospect for a revival of local democracy to take charge of local services again. This left a highly bureaucratic centralism as the only option left, one which gained momentum in the Thatcher years. Under Major, the centralised Funding Agency for Schools was formed and schools in England and Wales were ranked by crude league tables, depending on how well their pupils did in exams. The university system was vastly expanded by simply allowing colleges and polytechnics to rename themselves as universities. The hospital system was further centralised and given a host of new targets. The police, faced with a review of their pay and demands by the Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke for their forces to be amalgamated, were given their own performance league tables. The Tories had spent seventy-four per cent more, in real terms, on law and order since 1979, yet crime was at an all-time high. Clarke’s contempt for many of the forces as ‘vested interests’ was not calculated to win them round to reform. Across England and Wales elected councillors were turfed off police boards and replaced by businessmen. In 1993 Clarke, the old Tory dog who had clearly learned new tricks during his time at the Department of Health where he was said to have castrated the regional health authority chairmen, defended his new police league tables in the ‘newspeak’ of governments yet to come:

The new accountability that we seek from our public services will not be achieved simply because men of good will and reasonableness wish that it be so. The new accountability is the new radicalism.

Across Britain, from the auditing of local government to the running of courts and the working hours of nurses, an army of civil servants, accountants, auditors and inspectors marched into workplaces. From time to time, ministers would weakly blame Brussels for the imposition of the cult of central control and measurement. But this was mostly a home-grown ‘superstate’. Major called this centralising policy the ‘Citizen’s Charter’, ignoring the fact that Britons are ‘subjects’ rather than citizens. He himself did not like the ‘headline’ very much because of its unconscious echoes of Revolutionary France. Every part of the government dealing with public service was ordered to come up with proposals for improvement at ‘grass-roots level’, to be pursued from the centre by questionnaires, league tables and a system of awards, called ‘Charter Marks’ for organizations that achieved the required standards. He spoke of ’empowering’, ‘helping the customer’ and ‘devolving’ and thought that regulation from the centre would not last long, rather like a Marxist-Leninist anticipating the ‘withering away’ of the state. In his case, though, this would come about as the effects of growing competition are felt. In practice, of course, the regulators grew more powerful, not less so. Despite the rhetoric, public servants were not being given real freedom to manage. Elected office-holders were being sacked. Major’s ‘withering away’ of the state was no more successful than Lenin’s.

Britain and Ireland – first steps on the road to peace:

009Above: US President Bill Clinton addressing a peace rally in Belfast during his visit in 1995. Clinton played a significant role as a ‘peace broker’ in negotiations leading up to ‘the Good Friday Agreement’.

In December 1993, John Major stood outside the steel-armoured door of Number Ten Downing Street with the ‘Taoiseach’ of the Irish Republic, Albert Reynolds. He declared a new principle which offended many traditional Conservatives and Unionists. If both parts of Ireland voted to be reunited, Britain would not stand in the way. She had, said Major, no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland. He also stated that if the Provisional IRA, which had lately bombed the very building Major was standing in front of and murdered two young boys in Cheshire, renounced violence, Sinn Fein could be recognised as a legitimate political party. In the run-up to this Downing Street Declaration, which some saw as a betrayal of the Tory Party’s long-held dedication to the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the government had been conducting ‘back channel’ negotiations with the terrorist organisation. In August 1994 the IRA finally declared a complete cessation of military operations which, though it stopped a long way short of renouncing the use of violence altogether, was widely welcomed and was followed a month later by a Loyalist ceasefire. A complicated choreography of three-strand talks, framework documents and discussions about the decommissioning of weapons followed, while on the streets, extortion, knee-capping and occasional ‘executions’ continued. But whereas the number of those killed in sectarian violence and bombings in 1993 had been eighty-four, the toll fell to sixty-one the following year, and in 1995 it was in single figures, at just nine deaths.

Long negotiations between London and Dublin led to cross-border arrangements. These negotiations had also involved the United States, where an influential pro-Irish lobby had helped to sustain the IRA campaign into the nineties through finance provided through ‘Noraid’. In the mid-nineties, President Clinton acted as a peace-broker, visiting Belfast in 1995 and helping to maintain the fragile cease-fire in the North. The contradictory demands of Irish Republicanism and Ulster Unionism meant that Major failed to get a final agreement, which was left to Tony Blair, with the ongoing help of the American ex-senator George Mitchell. The fact that in 1991 both countries had signed the Maastricht Treaty for closer political and economic unity in Europe, set a broader context for a bilateral agreement. However, while Irish political leaders eagerly embraced the idea of European integration, their British counterparts, as we have seen, remained deeply divided over it.

Economic decline/ growth & political resuscitation:

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The closure of the Swan Hunter shipyard on the Tyne in May 1993 is an illuminating example of the impact of de-industrialisation. Swan Hunter was the last working shipyard in the region but had failed to secure a warship contract. An old, established firm, it was suffering some of the same long-term decline that decimated shipbuilding employment nationally to 26,000 by the end of a century. This devastated the local economy, especially as a bitter legal wrangle over redundancy payments left many former workers with no compensation whatever for the loss of what they had believed was employment for life. But the effects of de-industrialisation could spread much further than local communities. The closure of the shipyard, as shown in the map above, but the failure of the firm also had a ‘knock-on’ effect as suppliers as far afield as London and Glasgow lost valuable orders and, as a result, jobs.

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By 1994, employment in manufacturing in Britain had fallen to four million from the nine million it had reached at its peak in 1966. The resulting mass unemployment hurt the older industries of the Northwest worst, but the losses were proportionately as high in the Southeast, reflecting the decline in newer manufacturing industry. Across most of Britain and Ireland, there was also a decline in the number of manufacturing jobs continuing into and throughout the 1990s. The service sector, however, expanded, and general levels of unemployment, especially in Britain, fell dramatically in the nineties. Financial services showed strong growth, particularly in such places as London’s Docklands, with its new ‘light railway’, and Edinburgh. By the late nineties, the financial industry was the largest employer in northern manufacturing towns and cities like Leeds, which grew rapidly throughout the decade, aided by its ability to offer a range of cultural facilities that helped to attract an array of UK company headquarters. Manchester, similarly, enjoyed a renaissance, particularly in the spheres of music, the media and sport.

In July 1995, tormented by yet more rumours of right-wing conspiracies against him, Major riposted with a theatrical gesture of his own, resigning as leader of the Conservative Party and inviting all-comers to take him on. He told journalists gathered in the Number Ten garden that it was “put up or shut up time”. If he lost he would resign as Prime Minister. If he won, he would expect the party to rally around him. This was a gamble, since other potential leaders were available, not least Michael Heseltine, who had become Deputy Prime Minister, and Michael Portillo, then the pin-up boy of the Thatcherites, whose supporters prepared a campaign headquarters for him, only for him to then decide against standing. In the event, the challenger was John Redwood, the Secretary of State for Wales and a highly intelligent anti-EU right-winger. Major won his fight, though 109 Tory MPs refused to back him.

Fighting the return of Fascism in Europe:

Major was also having to deal with the inter-ethnic wars breaking out in the former Yugoslavia, following the recognition of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia as independent states in the early nineties. The worst violence occurred during the Serbian assault on Bosnia (I have written about the bloody 1992-94 Siege of Sarajevo, its capital, in an article elsewhere on this site based on John Simpson’s reporting). The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ was used for the first time as woeful columns of refugees fled in different directions. A nightmare which Europeans thought was over in 1945 was returning, only a couple of days’ drive away from London and half a day’s drive from where I was living on the southern borders of Hungary with Serbia and Croatia.

Six years after the siege, during a school visit to the Hague, I sat in the courtroom of the International War Crimes Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia and listened, in horror, to the testimonies of those who had been imprisoned and tortured in concentration camps during the Bosnian War. I couldn’t believe that what I was hearing had happened in the final decade of the twentieth century in Europe. Those on trial at that time were the prison camp guards who had carried out the atrocities, claiming what had become known as the Nuremberg Defence. Later on, those giving the orders, both Mladko Radic and Radovan Karadzic (pictured below with John Simpson in 1993), the military and political leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, went on trial in the same courtroom, were convicted of war crimes and duly locked away, together with the former Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic. Major had asked how many troops it would take to keep the warring three sides apart and was told the number was four hundred thousand, three times the total size of the British Army at that time. He sent 1,800 men to protect the humanitarian convoys that were rumbling south from the UN bases in Hungary.

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Although many British people sent food parcels, warm clothes, medicine and blankets, loaded onto trucks and driven across the Croatian border and into Bosnia, many in the government were reluctant for Britain to become further involved. But the evening news bulletins showed pictures of starving refugees, the uncovered mass graves of civilians shot dead by death squads, and children with appalling injuries. There was a frenzied campaign for Western intervention, but President Clinton was determined not to risk the lives of American soldiers on the ground. Instead, he considered less costly alternatives, such as air strikes. This would have put others who were on the ground, including the British and other nationalities involved in the UN operation, directly into the line of retaliatory fire of the Serbian troops. When the NATO air-strikes began, the Serbs took the UN troops hostage, including British soldiers, who were then used as human shields. When the Serbs captured the town of Srebrenica and carried out a mass slaughter of its Muslim citizens, there were renewed calls for ‘boots on the ground’, but they never came.

Following three years of fighting, sanctions on Serbia and the success of the Croat Army in fighting back, a peace agreement was finally made in Dayton, Ohio. The UN convoys and troops left Hungary. Major became the first British Prime Minister of the post-War World to grapple with the question of what the proper role of the West should be to ‘regional’ conflicts such as the Balkan wars. They showed quite clearly both the dangers and the limitations of intervention. When a civil conflict is relayed in all its horror to tens of millions of voters every night by television, the pressure to ‘do something’ is intense.  But mostly this requires not air strikes but a full-scale ground force, which will then be drawn into the war itself. Then it must be followed by years of neo-colonial aid and rebuilding. Major and his colleagues were accused of moral cowardice and cynicism in allowing the revival of fascist behaviour in one corner of Europe. Yet, especially given the benefit of hindsight of what happened subsequently in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps Western leaders were right to be wary of full-scale intervention.

Back to basics?

For many British voters, the Major years were associated with the sad, petty and lurid personal scandals that attended so many of his ministers, after he made an unwise speech calling for the return as old-style morality. In fact, back to basics referred to almost everything except personal sexual morality; he spoke of public service, industry, sound money, free trade, traditional teaching, respect for the family and the law and the defeat of crime. It gave the press, however, a fail-safe headline charge of hypocrisy whenever ministers were caught out. A series of infidelities were exposed; children born out-of-wedlock, a death from a sex stunt which went wrong, rumours about Major’s own affairs (which later turned out to be truer than realised at the time). More seriously, there was also an inquiry as to whether Parliament had been misled over the sale of arms to Iraq, but these were all knitted together into a single pattern of misbehaviour, referred to as ‘sleaze’.

In 1996, a three-year inquiry into whether the government had allowed a trial to go ahead against directors of an arms company, Matrix Churchill, knowing that they were, in fact, acting inside privately accepted guidelines, resulted in two ministers being publicly criticised. It showed that the government had allowed a more relaxed régime of military-related exports to Saddam Hussein even after the horrific gassing of five thousand Kurds at Falluja, also revealing a culture of secrecy and double standards in the process. Neil Hamilton MP was accused of accepting cash from Mohammed al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods, for asking questions in the Commons. One of the most dramatic episodes in the 1997 election was the overwhelming defeat he suffered in his Tatton constituency by the former BBC war reporter, Martin Bell, who had been badly injured in Sarajevo who became Britain’s first independent MP for nearly fifty years. Jonathan Aitken, a Treasury minister was accused of accepting improper hospitality from an Arab business contact. He resigned to fight the Guardian over the claims, with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play. He was found guilty of perjury, spending eighteen months in prison.

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By the end of Major’s government, it seemed that the Tories might have learned the lesson that disagreements over the EU were capable of splitting their party. However, there was a general mood of contempt for politicians and the press, in particular, had lost any sense of deference. The reforms of the health service, police and schools had produced few significant improvements. The post-Cold War world was turning out to be nastier and less predictable than the early nineties days of the ‘peace dividend’ had promised. The Labour Opposition would, in due course, consider how the country might be better governed and reformed, as well as what would be the right British approach to peace-keeping and intervention now that the United States was the last superpower left standing. But in the early months of 1997,  Tony Blair and his fresh young ‘New Labour’ team, including Alistair Campbell (pictured above), were oiling their effective election-winning machine and moving in to roll over a tired-looking John Major and his tarnished old Tories.

Sources:

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

Simon Schama (2018), A History of Britain, 1776-2000; The Fate of Empire. London: BBC Worldwide.

John Simpson (1999), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Pan-Macmillan.

Peter Caterall, Roger Middleton, John Swift (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

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Britain and the World, 1979-84: A post-imperial postscript.   Leave a comment

Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher’s main supporter in her election as Conservative leader and in her early governments, once said that, in the past, Britain’s trouble had been that she had never had a proper capitalist ruling class. In 1979, the first Thatcher government sought consciously to put this right. The task it set itself was daunting – the liberation of British enterprise from a hundred years of reactionary accretions, in order to return the machine to the point along the path where it had stood when it was diverted away. It was helped by the fact that, with the empire gone, very little remained to sustain the older, obstructive, pre-capitalist values any longer, or to cushion Britain against the retribution her industrial shortcomings deserved. This movement promised to mark the real and final end of empire, the Thatcher government’s determination to restore the status quo ante imperium, which meant, in effect, before the 1880s, when imperialism had started to take such a hold on Britain. Thatcher looked back to the Victorian values of Benjamin Disraeli’s day, if not to those of William Gladstone. She itemized these values in January 1983 as honesty, thrift, reliability, hard work and a sense of responsibility. This list strikingly omitted most of the imperial values, like service, loyalty and fair play, though she did, later on, add ‘patriotism’ to them. Nevertheless, the new patriotism of the early 1980s was very different from that of the 1880s, even when it was expressed in a way which seemed to have a ring of Victorian imperialism about it.

Part of the backdrop to the Falklands War was the residual fear of global nuclear war. With hindsight, the Soviet Union of Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko may seem to be a rusted giant, clanking helplessly towards a collapse, but this is not how it seemed prior to 1984. The various phases of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START) were underway, but to well-informed and intelligent analysts the Soviet empire still seemed mighty, belligerent and unpredictable. New SS20 missiles were being deployed by the Soviets, targeted at cities and military bases across western Europe. In response, NATO was planning a new generation of American Pershing and Cruise missiles to be sited in Europe, including in Britain. In the late winter of 1979 Soviet troops had begun arriving in Afghanistan, Mikhail Gorbachev was an obscure member of the Politburo working on agricultural planning, and glasnost was a word no one in the West had heard of. Poland’s free trade union movement, Solidarity, was being crushed by a military dictator. Following the invasion of Afghanistan, President Carter had issued an ultimatum: the Soviets must withdraw or the United States would boycott the Moscow Olympic Games due to be held in the summer of 1980. Margaret Thatcher supported the call for a boycott, but the British Olympic Association showed its independence from government and defiantly sent a team, supported by voluntary contributions from students, among others. Two British middle-distance runners, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett each won gold medals.

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Western politics echoed with arguments over weapons systems, disarmament strategies and the need to stand up to the Soviet threat. Moscow had early and rightly identified Margaret Thatcher as one of its most implacable enemies. She had already been British Prime Minister for eighteen months when Ronald Reagan’s administration took over in Washington. He may have been many things Thatcher was not, but like her, he saw the world in black and white terms, especially in his first term to 1984. She was from a Methodist background, he was from a Presbyterian one, so they both shared a view of the world as a great stage on which good and evil, God and Satan, were pitched against each other in endless conflict. Reagan found a ‘soul mate’ in Thatcher. Already dubbed the ‘Iron Lady’ by the Russians, Thatcher was resolute in her determination to deregulate government and allow the benefits of capitalism to flourish at home and abroad. Although the UK was committed to Europe, Thatcher was also a strong believer in Britain’s “enduring alliance” with the United States. Reagan and Thatcher saw eye-to-eye on many key issues. Their shared detestation of socialism in general and Soviet communism, in particular, underpinned their remarkably close personal relationship which was eventually to help steer the world away from Armageddon.

Of course, in a sense, the Falklands War of 1982 could be seen as an imperial war, fought as it was over a fag-end of Britain’s old empire: but that was an accident. There was no imperial rationale for the war. Britain did not fight the Argentines for profit, for potential South Atlantic oil reserves (as some suggested), or for the security of her sea lanes, or indeed for the material or spiritual good of anyone. She fought them for a principle, to resist aggression and to restore her government’s sovereignty over the islands in the interests of the islanders themselves. The war also served to restore to Britain some of the national pride which many commentators had long suggested was one of the other casualties of the empire’s demise. That was what made an otherwise highly burdensome operation worthwhile if that sense of pride could be translated into what Sir Nicolas Henderson had described three years earlier as a sense of national will. Similarly, Margaret Thatcher believed that if British Leyland could be injected with some of the same ‘Falklands spirit’ then there was no reason why British industry could not reverse its decline. The popular jingoism the affair aroused and encouraged showed that a post-imperial Britain would not necessarily be a post-militaristic one. But it was not an imperial jingoism per se, more one which expressed a national pride and patriotism. It did not indicate in the least that ‘imperialism’ proper was about to be resurrected, even if that were practicable; or that anyone intended that it should be.

However proud Britons were to have defended the Falklands, no one was particularly proud any longer of having them to defend. Most of Britain’s remaining colonial responsibilities were regarded now as burdens it would much rather be without and would have been if it could have got away with scuttling them without loss of honour or face. In her new straitened circumstances, they stretched its defence resources severely, and to the detriment of its main defence commitment, to NATO. They also no longer reflected Britain’s position in the world. When Hong Kong and the Falklands had originally been acquired, they had been integral parts of a larger pattern of commercial penetration and naval ascendancy. They had been key pieces in a jigsaw, making sense in relation to the pieces around them. Now those pieces had gone and most of the surviving ones made little sense in isolation, or they made a different kind of sense from before. If the Falklands was an example of the former, Hong Kong was a good example of the latter, acting as it now did as a kind of ‘cat-flap’ into communist China. The Falklands was the best example of an overseas commitment which, partly because it never had very much value to Britain, now had none at all.

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Diplomatically, the Falklands ‘Crisis’ as it was originally known, was an accident waiting to happen, no less embarrassing for that. At the time, the defence of western Europe and meeting any Soviet threat was the main concern, until that began to abate from 1984 onwards. The British Army was also increasingly involved in counter-insurgency operations in Northern Ireland. Small military detachments helped to guard remaining outposts of the empire such as Belize. But Argentine claims to the Falklands were not taken seriously, and naval vessels were withdrawn from the South Atlantic in 1981. In April 1982, though, Argentina launched a surprise attack on South Georgia and the Falklands and occupied the islands.

001Even if oil had been found off its shores, or South Georgia could have been used as a base from which to exploit Antarctica, Britain was no longer the sort of power which could afford to sustain these kinds of operations at a distance of eight thousand miles. The almost ludicrous measures that had to be put into place in order to supply the Falklands after May 1982 illustrate this: with Ascension Island serving as a mid-way base, and Hercules transport aircraft having to be refuelled twice in the air between there and Port Stanley, in very difficult manoeuvres. All this cost millions, and because Britain could not depend on the South American mainland for more convenient facilities.

But it was not only a question of power. Britain’s material interests had contracted too: especially her commercial ones. For four centuries, Britain’s external trade had used to have a number of distinctive features, two of which were that it far exceeded any other country’s foreign trade and that most of it was carried on outside Europe. However, between 1960 and 1980, Britain’s pattern of trade had shifted enormously, towards Europe and away from the ‘wider world’. In 1960, less than thirty-two per cent of Britain’s exports went to western Europe and thirty-one per cent of imports came from there; by 1980, this figure had rocketed to fifty-seven per cent of exports and fifty-six per cent of imports. In other words, the proportion of Britain’s trade with Europe grew by twenty-five per cent, compared to its trade with the rest of the world. Of course, this ‘shift’ was partly the result of a political ‘shift’ in Britain to follow a more Eurocentric commercial pattern, culminating in the 1975 Referendum on EEC membership.

By 1980 Britain was no longer a worldwide trading nation to anything like the extent it had been before. Moreover, in 1983, a symbolic turning-point was reached when, for the first time in more than two centuries, Britain began importing more manufactured goods than it exported. It followed that it was inappropriate for it still to have substantial political responsibilities outside its own particular corner of the globe. British imperialism, therefore, was totally and irrevocably finished, except as a myth on the right and the left. I remember Channel Four in the UK screening a programme called ‘the Butcher’s Apron’ in 1983 which argued, from a left-wing perspective, that it was still very much alive, and that the Falklands War was clear evidence of this. Likewise, there were, and still are, many nationalists in Scotland and Wales who used the term as a metaphor for the ‘domination’ of England and ‘the British state’ over their countries. Of course, in historical terms, they could only do this because the British Empire was a thing of the past, and the sending of Welsh guardsmen to recover islands in the South Atlantic was an unintended and embarrassing postscript, never to be repeated.

The imperial spirit had dissipated too, despite Mrs Thatcher’s brief attempt to revive it in Falklands jingoism and whatever might be said by supercilious foreign commentators who could not credit the British for having put their imperialist past behind them so soon after Suez and all that and certainly by 1970, when they had abandoned overseas defence commitments ‘east of Suez’. But Britain had indeed left its past behind it, even to the extent of sometimes rather rudely ‘putting its behind in its past’ to emphasise the point. Scattered around the globe were a few little boulders, ‘survivals’ from the imperial past, which were no longer valued by Britain or valuable to her. There were also some unresolved problems, such as Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe, as an independent territory in 1980. Britain had clearly dissociated itself from its white racist leaders even at the cost of bringing an ‘unreconstructed Marxist’ to power. After that, smaller island colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific continued to be granted their independence, so that by 1983 the Empire had effectively ceased to exist.

In 1984 Bernard Porter wrote, in the second edition of his book on British imperialism, that it was…

… unlikely that any subsequent edition of this book, if the call for it has not dried up completely, will need to go beyond 1980, because British imperialism itself is unlikely to have a life beyond then. That chapter of history is now at an end.

It was not a very long chapter, as these things go; but it is difficult to see how it could have been. The magnificent show that the British empire made at its apogee should not blind us to its considerable weaknesses all through. Those who believe that qualities like ‘will’ and ‘leadership’ can mould events might not accept this, of course; but there was nothing that anyone could have done in the twentieth century to stave off the empire’s decline. It was just too riddled with contradictions.

The Imperialists themselves were the first to predict the decline; that Britain could not help but be overhauled and overshadowed by the growing Russian and American giants. Britain did not have the will to resist this development and the empire was not, in any case, a fit tool for resistance. While Britain had it, in fact, the Empire was rarely a source of strength to the ‘mother country’, despite the attempts of imperialists to make it so.

A part of the narrative of the Falklands Crisis not revealed at the time was the deep involvement, and embarrassment, of the United States. Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan had already begun to develop their personal special relationship. But the Argentine junta was important to the US for its anti-Communist stance and as a trading partner. Prior to 1982, the United States had supported the Argentine generals, despite their cruel record on human rights, partly because of the support they gave the ‘Contras’ in Nicaragua. Therefore, they began a desperate search for a compromise while Britain began an equally frantic search for allies at the United Nations. In the end, Britain depended on the Americans not just for the Sidewinder missiles underneath its Harrier jets, without which Thatcher herself said the Falklands could not have been retaken, but for intelligence help and – most of the time – diplomatic support too. These were the last years of the Cold War. Britain mattered more in Washington than any South American country. Still, many attempts were made the US intermediary, the Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, to find a compromise. They would continue throughout the fighting. Far more of Thatcher’s time was spent reading, analysing and batting off possible deals than contemplating the military plans. Among those advising a settlement was the new Foreign Secretary, Francis Pym, appointed after Lord Carrington’s resignation. Pym and the Prime Minister were at loggerheads over this and she would punish him in due course. She had furious conversations with Reagan by phone as he tried to persuade her that some outcome short of British sovereignty, probably involving the US, was acceptable.

Thatcher broke down the diplomatic deal-making into undiplomatic irreducibles. Would the Falkland Islanders be allowed full self-determination? Would the Argentine aggression be rewarded? Under pulverizing pressure she refused to budge. She wrote to Ronald Reagan, who had described the Falklands as that little ice-cold bunch of land down there, that if Britain gave way to the various Argentine snares, the fundamental principles for which the free world stands would be shattered. Reagan kept trying, Pym pressed and the Russians harangued, all to no avail. Despite all the logistical problems, a naval task force set sail, and with US intelligence support, the islands were regained after some fierce fighting.

Back in London in the spring of 1984, Margaret Thatcher’s advisers looked into the new, younger members of the Soviet Politburo who had emerged under Konstantin Chernenko, the last of the ‘old guard’. He was old and frail, like his predecessor, Yuri Andropov. The advisors to the Prime Minister wondered with whom she, and they, would be dealing with next, and issued a number of invitations to visit Britain. By chance, the first to accept was Mikhail Gorbachev, who visited Thatcher in London. He arrived with his wife, Raisa, itself remarkable, as Soviet leaders rarely travelled with their wives. By comparison to the old men who had led the Soviet Union for twenty years, the Gorbachevs were young, lively and glamorous. The visit was a great success. After Thatcher and Gorbachev met, the Prime Minister was asked by reporters what she thought of her guest. She replied with a statement that, again with the benefit of hindsight, was to usher in the final stage of the Cold War:

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Sources:

David Killingray (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Bernard Porter (1984), A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. Harlow: Longman.

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

Britain in the Seventies: 1974-79 – The Three-day week to The Winter of Discontent, Part One.   Leave a comment

Part One: The Economic Storm and Europe.

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Denis Healey, chancellor during Britain’s economic storm,

making a characteristic point to his opponents.

The Return of Harold & the Advent of The Social Contract:

In January 1974, the Heath government announced a three-day working week to save fuel. It is remembered as the darkest month, quite literally, in the story of mid-seventies’ Britain. I was in my first year of A Level studies in Birmingham, writing essays on the kitchen table by candlelight since all the lights went out by 10.30 p.m. each evening. At least there was no TV to act as a distraction! Heath and his government struggled to find a solution to the miners’ claim, but this process was hardly helped when he asked Mick McGahey, the legendary Scottish Communist mineworkers’ leader what he really wanted and was met by the typically blunt reply, to bring down the government. After much messing about with intermediaries and mixed messages, not least from the government’s own Pay Board, it became clear that no effective compromise could be found. The miners voted 81% in favour of striking, including those in some of the traditionally most moderate areas in the country. In February, Heath asked the Queen to dissolve Parliament and he went to the country on the election platform he had prepared two years earlier; Who Governs Britain? The country’s answer was not the one he had hoped for.

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Harold Wilson had expected the Tories to win another term and began the campaign in a low-key mood. However, Labour’s cause was helped by its offer of a referendum on EEC membership, which led many Powellites and anti-EEC Tories to think of voting for them, at least covertly. Also, his year in opposition had given him the opportunity to come up with a more workable solution to the problems posed by inflation and union wage demands. The Social Contract was a joint agreement between the union leaders and the Labour shadow cabinet, and was essentially a return to the politics of the forties, with price controls, a complex system of food subsidies and the end of the Tory union laws. In return for this Attlee-age ‘austerity’ manifesto, the unions gave vague promises of voluntary pay restraint. It was a one-way deal, but it was in Wilson’s interests to pretend that he could find practical agreements with ‘the brothers’ where Heath could not.  It was in the unions’ interests to pretend that they were signing up to a new era of sweetness and light which would replace the bitter hostility towards the Tories and their anti-union legislation. Outside observers saw it as it as a ploy for the TUC to gain a privileged place in government in return for very little and a recipe for further inflation.

As it turned out, and with the benefit of hindsight, the three-day week was not the outright disaster it had seemed it would be. Industry had managed to maintain production levels, providing an interesting perspective on the limitations of five and six-day working which economists have periodically pointed to since. It had even provided for greater efficiency, and relatively few jobs had been lost. But Heath’s authority had gone, and in the election campaign the idea of the Social Contract caught on with voters. Wilson was able to present himself on television as the calm bringer of reason and order. A slew of bad economic news arrived during the campaign and was followed by Powell’s declaration that he was quitting the Conservatives over their failure to offer a Referendum on Europe and would be recommending everyone to vote Labour in order to ensure a choice on the subject. A mistake by the Pay Board revealed that the miners were more relatively poorly paid than had been recognised. A surge in support for the Liberals to a quarter of the popular vote also helped Labour more than it aided the Tories. Having decided that Heath should not rule, the government seemed undecided about whether Wilson should replace him. Enjoying a late swing in its favour, Labour won the most seats, 301 against 297, but no party had an overall majority. Heath hung on, trying to do a deal with the Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, who had just fourteen MPs despite the surge in the support for the party, but he eventually conceded defeat. This resulted in the Queen asked Harold Wilson to form his third administration, a decade after his first.

But Wilson was governing without a Commons majority at a time when the economy was still coming to terms with the oil price hike, with rampant inflation, rising unemployment and the pound under almost constant pressure. Furthermore, the fragile ‘Social Contract’ had yet to be tested. Almost the first thing the Labour government did was to settle with the miners for almost double what Heath had thought was possible. The chances of the new government enjoying easy popularity, even with its working-class base, were practically nil, however. Nevertheless, an opposition comprising divided Tories, Liberals, Nationalists and Irish Unionists was unlikely to combine to defeat it on a regular basis. The new Chancellor, Denis Healey, introduced an emergency Budget a few weeks into the new Parliament, followed by another in the autumn which raised income tax to 83% at the top rate of earnings, and 98% for unearned income, eye-wateringly high. Healey claimed that his aim was to squeeze the rich until the pips squeak, a phrase which was to come back to haunt Labour for a generation to come. In the spirit of the ‘Social Contract’ Healey also increased help for the poorest, with higher pensions and housing and food subsidies. He was delivering for the unions as promised, just as Wilson himself was doing in abolishing the Conservative employment legislation. Heath remained as Tory leader, for the time being, convinced that Wilson would soon have to call a second election, which he would win. However, when this came in October, Wilson gained eighteen seats, enough to give him a workable overall majority of three.

Wilson, though, had privately decided that he would go in 1976, and he publicly acted accordingly. The question as to who would succeed him, Jenkins or Callaghan, Healey or even Benn, had become one about the direction of the Labour government, rather than a personal threat to Wilson. He seems likely to have known about the early stages of Alzheimer’s, which was to wreak a devastating toll on him in retirement. He forgot facts, confused issues and repeated himself. For a man whose memory and wit had been so important, this was a grim burden. If Roy Jenkins had been Wilson’s most important minister in the mid-sixties, it was Denis Healey who dominated public perceptions of the Labour government of the mid-seventies. As a Chancellor of the Exchequer during the worst economic storm of post-war times, through both the Wilson and Callaghan governments, he rivalled each of them as a public icon. Healey was one of the most widely read, cultured intelligent and self-assured politicians of modern times, whose early Communism, active war service and a vast range of international contacts did much to establish him in this role.

But the economy Wilson and Healey inherited from Heath and Barber in 1974 meant that much of his energy for the next five years would be thrown into dealing with the newly unstable world economy. The following Labour governments faced huge balance-of-payments crises and the tumbling value of the pound. Healey was taxing and cutting as much as he dared, but his only real hope was to control inflation by controlling wages. Wilson insisted that any incomes policy must be voluntary, with no going back to legal restraints. The unions became increasingly worried that rampant inflation might bring back the Tories. So for a while, the ‘Social Contract’ did deliver fewer strikes. In 1974-75, the number of days lost to strikes halved and then halved again in 1976. Contrary to popular myth, the seventies were not all about mass meetings and walk-outs. The real trouble did not start again until 1978-79. But the other half of the ‘Social Contract’ was supposed to deliver lower wage settlements, and this was an utter failure. By the early months of 1975, wage settlements were already running at thirty per cent above inflation. By June inflation was already up to twenty-three per cent and wage settlements were even further ahead. Healey reflected later that…

Adopting a pay policy is rather like jumping out of a second-floor window: no one in his senses would do it unless the stairs were on fire. But in postwar Britain the stairs have always been on fire.

By refusing to allow companies to pass on inflationary wage increases as higher prices, and by endless haggling with union leaders, Healey did manage to squeeze inflation downwards. It had reached twenty-four per cent by 1975 and came to be seen as a far more important issue than unemployment. On reflection, Healey believed that if the unions had kept their promises it would have been down to single figures by the autumn of 1975. The government was also at the mercy of the International Monetary Fund, which insisted on severe spending cuts. The contraction of manufacturing began to accelerate. There was a national and international political swing to the right as a reaction to against perceived high-taxing and high-spending governments. Demands were being made that governments cease propping up ‘lame duck’ industries with public money. Attacks on trade union power were becoming more and more popular, owing to a growing perception that they had become too powerful and disruptive, as the Miners’ Strike and the three-day week had graphically illustrated. At the same time, Healey was under constant pressure within the Labour party and wider ‘movement’ to show that he was delivering for socialism. He never accepted the Tory argument that high taxes stopped people from working harder and blamed Britain’s poor industrial performance on low investment in industry, poor training and bad management. Healey ultimately suffered quite personally from his own policies. He wrote:

As a result of my tax changes and my determination to prevent ministerial salaries from rising as fast as the pay norm, my own real take-home pay as Chancellor fell to only half what I had been earning as Defence Secretary, although I was working harder and longer.

The Great Debate – The EEC Referendum of 1975:

Against the background of the international economic crisis, Wilson kept his election promise and carried out a largely sham renegotiation of Britain’s terms of entry to the EEC. The reopened talks were understood to be more for Wilson’s benefit than for anyone else’s. He needed to persuade people that he was putting a different deal to the country than the one Heath had put to Parliament two years earlier. Helmut Schmidt, the new German Chancellor (pictured below), travelled to London to help win round the Labour conference, a trip that he regarded more as a cosmetic operation than a mission.

Wilson then put the result to the country in the Benn-inspired 1975 referendum, though when the referendum campaign actually began, his old evasiveness returned and he mumbled vaguely in support, rather than actively or enthusiastically making the European case. There were plenty of others to do this for him, however, and the campaign became a rare high-point in the political decade. To preserve longer-term party unity, he allowed the anti-EEC cabinet ministers to speak from the ‘No’ platform and Barbara Castle, Tony Benn, Peter Shore and Michael Foot were among those who did so, in alliance with Enoch Powell, Ian Paisley, the Scottish Nationalists and others. But the ‘Yes’ campaign could boast most of the Labour cabinet, with Roy Jenkins the chief protagonist, plus most of the Heath team, and popular Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. Although I missed out on voting by just four days, my eighteenth birthday coming just after referendum day, I remember the sixth form debates, formally in General Studies sessions and informally out on the school playing fields at lunchtime. The arguments ranged from the effects of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) on the British economy through to the preservation of peace in Europe. This latter issue was important not just to younger voters, but also to their parents and grandparents who had experienced the Second World War.

Yes girls: Pro-EEC campaigners back Brussels at the 1975 referendum

Business was also strongly in favour of remaining in, a CBI survey of company chairmen found that out of 419 interviewed, just four were in favour of leaving the Community. Almost all the newspapers were in favour of staying in, including the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Daily Express. So was every Anglican bishop, but their ‘flocks’ were more divided, believing, like my own nonconformist father, that the EEC was a ‘rich man’s club’ formed to rip off the poorer nations more effectively. The fight between ‘the Establishment’ and its critics was far from being funded on an equal basis. Britain in Europe, leading the ‘Yes’ campaign, outspent the ‘No’ camp by more than ten pounds to one. Both sides used scare stories. Britain in Europe constantly warned of a huge loss in jobs if the UK left the Community. The ‘No’ camp warned of huge rises in food prices if Britain remained in the CAP.

Yet this was also an almost carnival-like exercise in participatory democracy of a kind Britain had never seen. There were meetings, several thousand strong, night after night around the country, with hecklers and humour. There were all kinds of stunts and the country was covered with posters. The spectacle of politicians from rival parties who normally attacked one another sitting down together agreeing was a tonic to those watching. There were good television arguments, most notably between Jenkins and Benn. On the Labour side, however, there were awkward moments when rhetoric got too fierce and Wilson had to intervene to mediate between warring minister. Margaret Thatcher was also out campaigning, in a spectacularly hideous jumper with the flags of the member states knitted across her chest. The pictures from the time, shown above and below, captured something of the carnival atmosphere of the campaign.

Margaret Thatcher,  William Whitelaw and Peter Kirk, at a referendum conference. June 1975. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images

In the end, the people voted on the simple question on the ballot paper, Do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)? Their response produced seventeen million, a two-thirds majority (68.3 per cent) voting ‘Yes’, with 32.8 per cent, some 8.5 million voting ‘No’. Only in the Shetland and Western Isles of Scotland were there majorities for ‘No’. Benn instantly conceded defeat though privately considered the vote some achievement considering we had absolutely no real organisation, no newspapers, nothing. Powell, however, warned that the decision was only ‘provisional’ and might be reopened in the future. As so often, his was a lone voice. More than forty years later, and in the light of the 2016 Referendum result, the biggest question which remains is whether the British were told, by either Heath or Jenkins, the full implications of membership of the supranational organisation they were signing up to. Campaigners in 2016 on both ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ sides reported that people ‘on the doorstep’ complained that in 1975 we voted to remain in a Common Market, we didn’t vote to join a political union. Many among the third of the people who originally voted to leave the EEC in 1975 were joined by younger people over the following decades in suggesting that Heath and Jenkins had lied to the country, at least by omission, because they had not explained that the European Community’s law and institutions would sit above those of Westminster. What is the truth about this? Britain in Europe campaigners can point to speeches and advertisements which directly mention loss of sovereignty. One of the latter read:

Forty million people died in two European wars this century: Better lose a little national sovereignty than a son or daughter.

Yet both in Parliament and the referendum campaign, although the importance of securing a Pax Europa was constantly featured, the full consequences of membership for national independence were mumbled, not spoken clearly enough. Besides, it was the job of NATO to keep the peace, not the EEC. Undoubtedly, a free trade area in Europe would assist in this process, but it was not the primary purpose of the European Community. Geoffrey Howe, who drafted Heath’s European Communities Bill, later admitted that it could have been more explicit about lost sovereignty. Heath talked directly about the ever closer union of the peoples of Europe but was never precise about the effect on British law, as compared to an incoming tide. It flows into the estuaries and rivers. It cannot be held back. Hugo Young, the journalist and historian who studied the campaign in great detail, wrote:

I traced no major document or speech that said in plain terms that national sovereignty would be lost, still less one that categorically promoted the European Community for its single most striking characteristic that it was an institution positively designed to curb the full independence of the nation-state.

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Above: In the 1975 referendum, both sides campaigned more about the cost of food than about the constitutional implications of surrendering sovereignty.

There were, of course, the explicit warnings about lost sovereignty delivered by the ‘No’ campaigners among the more populist arguments about food prices. Above all, these arguments came from Enoch Powell, Michael Foot and Tony Benn. Powell’s language can be gauged from a speech he gave to political journalists in the Commons while the Bill was being debated. He lamented that the Commons was…

…perishing by its own hand. Week by week, month by month, the House of Commons votes to divest itself of what it had gained by through a length of time not much shorter than the History of England itself.

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Of course, a lot depends on when you begin your reading of the History of England from, but Powell (pictured above) would almost certainly have traced it back to the end of the tenth century, a period of a thousand years. In fact, the History of Parliament could be traced back only to the early thirteenth century, to the time of the De Montfort Rebellion, and it was only in the seventeenth century that it acquired real power. Michael Foot, though recovering from an operation and so not as prominent in the campaign as he might have been, wrote in The Times that the British parliamentary system had been made farcical and unworkable. Historians, he said, would be amazed…

that the British people were urged at such a time to tamper irreparably with their most precious institution; to see it circumscribed and contorted and elbowed off the centre of the stage. 

Tony Benn, confiding to his diary his reaction to the possibility of a Europe-wide passport, showed how much the left’s instincts could chime with those of the right-wing opponents of European change:

That really hit me in the guts… Like metrication and decimilisation, this really strikes at our national identity.

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All these arguments were made in the press, despite the overall bias, and repeatedly in public meetings and broadcast debates. So it is not as if people were not told, but the truth revealed by opinion polls both at the time and more recently, is that sovereignty as an issue did not, and does not concern the British public as much as jobs and food prices. By later standards under Thatcher, Major and Blair, the position of Parliament was not taken as seriously in public debates as it was by some leading, vociferous parliamentarians. It may be that ‘sovereignty’ as an abstract concept is always only of great interest to the political ‘classes’, not to the ordinary working-classes and professional middle-classes, except where a loss of sovereignty directly impacts on daily life and produces resented laws. In the seventies, as now, Britain’s political class was not highly respected, and Europe seemed to offer a glossier, richer future, especially for younger voters. Though the pro-Community majority in business and politics did not strive to ram home the huge implications of membership, the idea that they deceitfully hid the practical, political nature of what was happening was, and is a myth, a convenient one for those who subsequently changed their minds about the benefits of membership. The argument would return fifteen years later to the Conservative backbenches, though few people cared about it elsewhere until the divisions among Tory MPs spread to the cabinet a full forty years after the first referendum, provoking the second vote on the issue in 2016. This time, the issue of sovereignty was given a popular edge by the ‘inability’ of successive governments to control internal migrations to Britain from within the EU, and their continued failure to control immigration from the Commonwealth and elsewhere in the world.

Goodbye to Ted and Harold, and All That… :

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Much of the remaining time of Wilson’s final government was taken up with foreign affairs. Despite American disapproval, the Labour government began the final withdrawal from east of Suez, giving up any pretensions of continuing British influence in the Far East. The Empire was finally, formally, over. A few ‘outposts’ remained, most significantly Hong Kong, and the lines it had drawn on the map in the Middle East – Transjordan, Israel, Iraq – were to provide the focus for continuing and future conflicts. In Iraq, an unpopular king was overthrown in a military coup, leading to the régime of Saddam Hussein. The Commonwealth was never a coherent policy-setting organisation, and this was particularly so after the UK decided to stay in the European Economic Community. Her members often had diametrically opposed trading interests. Time and again, on issues such as Apartheid South Africa, Rhodesia, and questions of migration, the Commonwealth would fracture, or embarrass London. Was it kept going out of nostalgia and sentimentality or to give the Queen a role outside the UK? At least it provided the last English-speaking worldwide ‘club’ not dominated by the USA.

Wilson, by now clearly to the right of the party, was equally determined that Tony Benn would not introduce a socialist economy via the National Enterprise Board. When it eventually arrived, the NEB was a weak, ill-funded repository for lost economic causes, British Leyland in particular. Benn’s enthusiasm for workers’ control continued to irritate most of the other ministers and civil servants he worked with, so that he confided in his diary that he felt like he was trying to swim up the Niagara Falls. He was particularly keen on co-operatives, and took up the cause of the Meriden Motorcycle factory, struggling to survive under workers’ control. But these were the last days in the era of planning and public control of industry and Benn’s support for these made him a traditionalist rather than a radical. Later, Healey brutally summed up his rival’s contribution as minister to British industry. There were only two monuments to Benn in power, he said: a uranium mine in Namibia he had authorised as energy secretary, which helped support apartheid; and Concorde, used by rich people on expense accounts and subsidised by poorer taxpayers.

Wilson retired, as he had always said he would, at the age of sixty. Nevertheless, his announcement astonished his cabinet and left London awash with rumours. He was still witty enough to joke that, in respect of his preferred successor Jim Callaghan, that he was making way for an older man, and wily enough to give Callaghan a tip-off which helped him steal a march on the other candidates, including Healey, who only heard the news of Wilson’s retirement from Wilson himself in the gents toilet before the cabinet meeting at which he formally announced it. Wilson saw his reputation sink steadily downwards with his memory. It was a sad way for a fundamentally decent man to subside.

Meanwhile, in the middle of June 1974, a speech by Sir Keith Joseph signalled a major shift in Tory thinking. Joseph was the son of a rich London businessman, who had risen to become housing and then health minister under first Macmillan and then Heath. He had spent heavily on a bigger bureaucracy for the NHS and higher social security levels. Now he was quite literally wringing his hands and rolling his eyes with mortification. There had, he said, been thirty years of government interventions, good intentions and disappointments, thirty years of socialism under both Labour and the Tories. He admitted: I must take my blame for following too many of the fashions. His conversion to free-market, small-state economics had the force of a religious experience. He had joined the Conservative Party in the 1950s, but now felt that he had never really been a Conservative. Within five years, this kind of thinking would lead to the Thatcher revolution and the wholesale rejection of the Heath years, building on the ideas of academic economists right into the centre of British public life. Other fellow travellers were Americans and a few Powellite Tories who were outside the Tory mainstream. Crucial to the success of these ideas in government would be controlling the amount of money in the economy to keep out inflation, which meant squeezing how much was borrowed and spent by the State. As a former cabinet minister with close and direct experience of government. With his Centre for Policy Studies, he was the rain-maker, the storm-bringer, the Old Testament prophet denouncing his tribe. For now, however, the approaching cloud was no bigger than a man’s hand.

Keith Joseph argued that the Britain of the mid-seventies had a fundamental choice to make between a socialist siege economy or a breakaway into proper liberal capitalism, in effect between Benn and Joseph. He could not have formed his ideas without the libertarian and monetarist thinkers of the fifties and sixties. During the Tories’ years in opposition from 1964 to 1970, Joseph had educated himself in free-market economics and was soon using as his speechwriter Alfred Sherman, an East End boy from a left-wing family who had fought as a machine-gunner in the Spanish Civil War before swinging right round later and becoming an insistent right-wing critic of the British way. But in Heath’s government, Joseph’s radicalism had gone into hiding again, and Sherman described him dismissively as a good man fallen among civil servants. But the defeat of 1974 had shaken Joseph and with other monetarists he began a rethink of the Heath years, culminating in a shadow cabinet post-mortem when they argued that the early radicalism of 1970-71, led by the Cliveden group, had been right, and the subsequent U-turn a disaster. Heath blankly refused to listen, or at any rate to heed, the attack. Heath’s haughty assessment in his autobiography was that Joseph…

had resumed a friendship with a person called Alfred Sherman, a former communist, and undergone what he liked to call “a conversion” as a result … (this) failed to cut any ice with the great majority of his colleagues, though we did them the courtesy of listening.

In fact, many Tories were beginning to listen. With Joseph were Geoffrey Howe and Margaret Thatcher. Early on, Howe warned,

I am not at all sure about Margaret. Many of her economic prejudices are certainly sound. But she is inclined to be rather too dogmatic for my liking on sensitive matters like education and might actually retard the case by simplification.

There were other new radicals, such as the Powellite MP John Biffen, the young economist Nigel Lawson and a crowd of journalists and academics. They produced an intellectual analysis, hard and uncompromising, which excited a generation of new recruits to the party, while it repelled Tories of the comfortable, compromising Macmillan persuasion. Macmillan himself said of Joseph that he was the only boring Jew I’ve ever known. and later there would be much snide muttering about the men Thatcher learned from and worked with – Hayek, Sherman, Joseph, Lawson and Friedman. Jews were prominent in intellectual thinking on the right, as they had been on the left, bringing opposite lessons to Britain from the disasters of continental Europe. A serious commitment to ideas and old-fashioned attitudes to education gave them their unique influence in politics. Thatcher was open to these ideas, ready to listen, unprejudiced, unlike many traditional Tories.

In the winter of 1974-5, after Heath had lost his second successive election to Wilson, there was no such thing as ‘Thatcherism’. Margaret Thatcher was still expressing her public support for the politics of ‘consensus’. She backed intervention in the housing market and queried the sale of council housing by Tory-run local authorities. Neither was there any sign that she would become the leader of the Tory party. Heath was stubbornly determined to stay on, insisting that his supporters, who included most of the well-known Tories of the day, were backing him in this determination. Indeed, polls suggested that seventy per cent of Tories wanted him to stay on. Yet there was deep dissatisfaction on the Tory benches in Parliament. Sir Edward Du Cann, who chaired the all-important backbenchers’ 1922 Committee, began to take soundings about a challenge to Heath. He was backed by the arch-intriguer Airey Neave, but Neave soon pulled out in favour of Keith Joseph. He then made a catastrophically ill-judged speech in which he suggested that working-class women were having too many babies and should be prevented from degrading the gene pool. This finished the man who Private Eye had already dubbed the mad monk.

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Heath had failed to accept that two successive general election defeats meant he really had to go so that Tory moderates were not lining up to replace him. Airey Neave persuaded many of them to vote for Thatcher because she had no chance of defeating Heath, but a contest might force him out, as a ‘stalking horse’, then allowing more serious candidates to stand. On 4 February 1975, she shocked everyone by defeating Heath in the first ballot by 130 votes to 119. She then went on to beat the two other candidates easily. The undercurrent of free-market thinking that had been gurgling around since the fifties broke to the surface in spectacular fashion, changing Britain for good. Few of the Tory MPs in what was called the peasants’ revolt realised quite where their new leader would take them. For the next four years, supercilious, misogynist remarks from first Wilson and then Callaghan would be continually directed against her, but then she would turn her femininity, if not her feminism, against them to great effect. She was to break the mould of the Wilson-Heath era in more ways than one.

(to be continued…)

Beginnings of the Cold War in Central/Eastern Europe, 1946-56: Territory, Tyranny and Terror.   1 comment

019Eastern Europe in 1949. Source: András Bereznay (2002), The Times History of Europe.

Following the defeat of the Third Reich, the map of the European continent was radically transformed. The most striking transformation was the shrinking of Germany, with Poland the principal beneficiary, and the division of what remained of the two countries. But Poland lost vast territories on its eastern border to the Soviet Union. West Germany (from 1949, ‘the Federal Republic’) was formed from the American, French and British areas of occupied Germany; East Germany (‘the Democratic Republic’ from 1949) was formed from the Soviet-occupied zone (see the maps below). The former German capital followed this pattern in miniature. Czechoslovakia was revived, largely along the lines it had been in 1919, and Hungary was restored to the borders established by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. Yugoslavia was also restored in the form it had been before the war. The Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – together with the Ukraine and Bessarabia, were all incorporated into the Soviet Union. Austria was detached from Germany and restored to independence, initially under a Soviet-sponsored government reluctantly recognised by the western powers. It gradually moved away from Soviet influence over the following ten years.

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It rapidly became clear that Stalin’s intentions were wholly at variance with the West’s goals for western Germany. The two zones of Germany followed wholly divergent paths: while denazification in the west followed the Austrian model, with the first free elections taking place in January 1946. However, in the east the Soviets moved quickly to eradicate all pre-war political parties other than the communists, sponsoring the German Communist Party, which became the Socialist Unity Party in April 1946. All other political organisations were suppressed by November 1947. As it became clear that the western and eastern halves of the country were destined for separate futures, so relations between the former Allies deteriorated. Simultaneously, the Soviet Army stripped the country of industrial plunder for war reparations. Germany rapidly became one of the major theatres of the Great Power Conflict of the next forty years. Berlin became the focal point within this conflict from the winter of 1948/49, as Stalin strove to force the Western Allies out of the city altogether. In September 1949, the Western Allies, abandoning for good any hopes they had of reaching a rapprochement with Stalin, announced the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany. This was followed, the next month, by the creation of the Soviet-sponsored GDR. More broadly, it was clear by the end of 1949, that Stalin had created what was in effect a massive extension of the Soviet Empire, as well as a substantial buffer zone between the USSR proper and the West. Western-Soviet relations were plunged into a deep freeze from which they would not emerge for decades: the Cold War. In escaping Nazi occupation, much of Central/Eastern Europe had simply exchanged one form of tyranny for another.  

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In July 1947, the USA had issued invitations to twenty-two European countries to attend a conference in Paris, scheduled for 12th July, to frame Europe’s response to the Marshall Plan, the proposal put forward by President Truman’s Secretary of State to provide an economic lifeline to the countries of Europe struggling to recover from the devastation caused by the World War. Stalin and his Foreign Minister, Molotov, had already given their reaction. Stalin saw the issue not only in economic but also political terms, his suspicious nature detecting an American plot. He thought that once the Americans got their fingers into the Soviet economy, they would never take them out. Moreover, going cap-in-hand to capitalists was, in his view, the ultimate sign of failure for the Communist system. The socialist countries would have to work out their own economic salvation. Nevertheless, Molotov succeeded in persuading Stalin to allow him to go to Paris to assess the American offer.

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The ‘big four’ – Britain, France, the USA and the USSR – met first at the end of June in Paris. Molotov agreed to back limited American involvement in the economies of Europe with no strings attached. However, Soviet intelligence soon revealed that both Britain and France saw Marshall’s offer as a plan for aiding in the full-scale reconstruction of Europe. Not only that, but Molotov was informed that the American under-secretary, Will Clayton, was having bilateral talks with British ministers in which they had already agreed that the Plan would not be an extension of the wartime Lend-Lease Agreement which had almost bankrupted Britain in the immediate post-war years. The British and the Americans also saw the reconstruction of Germany as the key factor in reviving the continent’s economy. This was anathema to the Soviets, who were keen to keep Germany weak and to extract reparations from it. The Soviet Union was always anxious about what it saw as attempts by the Western allies to downplay its status as the chief victor in the war. Molotov cabled Stalin that all hope of effecting Soviet restrictions on Marshall aid now seemed dead. On 3rd July, Molotov, accusing the Western powers of seeking to divide Europe into two hostile camps, gathered up his papers and returned to Moscow that same evening.

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With the Soviets out-of-the-way, invitations went out to all the states of Western Europe except Spain. They also went to Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Albania, Finland, Yugoslavia, Poland and Czechoslovakia. After initial hesitation, Moscow instructed its ‘satellites’ to reject the invitation. On 7th July, messages informed party bosses in the Eastern European capitals that…

…under the guise of drafting plans for the revival of Europe, the sponsors of the conference in fact are planning to set up a Western bloc which includes West Germany. In view of those facts … we suggest refusing to participate in the conference.

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Most of the Communist parties in the Central-Eastern European countries did just as they were told, eager to display their loyalty to Stalin. But the Polish and Czech governments found the offer of US dollars too appealing since this was exactly what their economies needed. In Czechoslovakia, about a third of the ministers in the coalition government were Communists, reflecting the share of the vote won by the party in the 1946 elections. Discussions within the government about the Marshall aid offer, however, produced a unanimous decision to attend the Paris conference. Stalin was furious and summoned Gottwald, the Communist Prime Minister, to Moscow immediately. Jan Masaryk, the foreign minister, an independent non-Communist member of the Prague Government. Stalin kept them waiting until the early hours and then angrily told them to cancel their decision to go to Paris. He said that the decision was a betrayal of the Soviet Union and would also undermine the efforts of the Communist parties in Western Europe to discredit the Marshall Plan as part of a Western plot to isolate the Soviet Union. He brushed aside their protests, and they returned to Prague, where the Czechoslovak Government, after an all-day meeting, unanimously cancelled its original decision. Masaryk, distraught, told his friends:

I went to Moscow as the foreign minister of an independent sovereign state; I returned as a Soviet slave.

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Above: Conflicting cartoon images of the Marshall Plan and the Cold War. Fitzpatrick, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, shows the Kremlin’s noose tightening around Czechoslovakia. Krokodil has the Europeans on their knees before their US paymaster. 

The Poles forced them into line as well, and their government made a similar announcement. Stalin had his way; the Eastern Bloc now voted as one and from now on each state took its orders from the Kremlin. Europe was divided and the Cold War was irreparably underway. From Washington’s perspective, the Marshall Plan was designed to shore up the European economies, ensure the future stability of the continent by avoiding economic catastrophe, thereby preventing the spread of communism, which was already thriving amidst the economic chaos of Western Europe. But from the Kremlin’s point of view, the plan appeared to be an act of economic aggression. Stalin had felt his own power threatened by the lure of the almighty ‘greenback’. In Washington, Stalin’s opposition to the plan was seen as an aggressive act in itself. The US ambassador in Moscow described it as nothing less than a declaration of war by the Soviet Union. Both sides were now locked in mutual suspicion and distrust and the effects of the Marshall Plan was to make the Iron Curtain a more permanent feature of postwar Europe.

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The same day as the Conference on European Economic Cooperation (CEEC) opened in Paris, 12th July 1947, the first meeting of Cominform, the short form of the Communist Information Bureau took place in the village of Szkliarska Poremba in Poland. A revival of the old Communist alliance, or Comintern, established by Lenin, this was a direct response to the Marshall Plan, and an attempt to consolidate Stalin’s control over the Soviet satellites and to bring unanimity in Eastern Bloc strategy. Andrei Zhdanov, the Soviet ideologue, Stalin’s representative at the meeting, denounced the Truman Doctrine as aggressive and, playing on Eastern European fears of resurgent Nazism, accused the Marshall Plan of trying to revive German industry under the control of American financiers. Along with the representatives of the Communist parties of France and Italy, which had been encouraged to operate through left-wing coalitions in a Popular Front, the Czechoslovak Communist delegates were ordered to move away from their coalition and to seize the initiative.

The coalition government in Czechoslovakia had previously operated on the principle that Czechoslovak interests were best served by looking both to the West and to the East, an idea dear to the hearts of both President Benes and Foreign Minister Masaryk. But as relations between the two power blocs worsened, the position of Czechoslovakia, straddling East and West, became ever more untenable. Masaryk, though not a Communist, felt increasingly cut off by the West after Prague’s failure to participate in the Marshall Plan. Washington regarded the capitulation to Stalin over the Paris conference as signifying that Czechoslovakia was now part of the Soviet bloc. The harvest of 1947 was especially bad in Czechoslovakia, with the yield of grain just two-thirds of that expected and the potato crop only half. The need for outside help was desperate, and Masaryk appealed to Washington, but the US made it clear that there would be no aid and no loans until Prague’s political stance changed. Although Masaryk tried to convince the US government that the Soviet line had been forced on them, he failed to change the American position. Then the Soviets promised Czechoslovakia 600,000 tons of grain, which helped prevent starvation and won wide support for Stalin among the Czechoslovak people. Foreign trade Minister Hubert Ripka said…

Those idiots in Washington have driven us straight into the Stalinist camp.

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When the Soviet deputy foreign minister arrived in Prague, supposedly to oversee the delivery of the promised grain, the non-Communist ministers took a gamble. On 20th February, they resigned from office, hoping to force an early election. But President Benes, who was seriously ill, wavered. Following orders from the Cominform, the Communists took to the streets, organising giant rallies and whipping up popular support. They used the police to arrest and intimidate opponents and formed workers’ assemblies at factories. On 25th February, fearing civil war, Benes allowed Gottwald to form a new Communist-led government. In the picture on the left above, Klement Gottwald is seen calling for the formation of a new Communist government, while President Benes stands to his left. In the picture on the right, units of armed factory workers march to a mass gathering in support of the takeover in the capital.

In five days, the Communists had taken power in Prague and Czechoslovakia was sentenced to membership of the Soviet camp for more than forty years. Masaryk remained as foreign minister but was now a broken man, his attempt to bridge East and West having failed. A fortnight later, he mysteriously fell to his death from the window of his apartment in the Foreign Ministry. Thousands of mourners lined the streets for his funeral, which marked the end of the free Republic of Czechoslovakia which had been founded by his father, Tomás Masaryk thirty years earlier. News of the Communist takeover in Prague sent shock waves through Washington, where the Marshall Plan was still making its way through Congress. Now the case had been made by events: without US intervention, Europe would fall to the Communists, both East and West. Had Washington not written off Czechoslovakia as an Eastern bloc state, refusing to help the non-Communists, the outcome of those events might have been different. This was a harsh but salient lesson for the US administration, but it made matters worse by talk of possible immediate conflict. The Navy secretary began steps to prepare the American people for war and the Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up an emergency war plan to meet a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. On 17th March, Truman addressed a joint session of Congress with a fighting speech:

The Soviet Union and its agents have destroyed the independence and democratic character of a whole series of nations in Eastern and Central Europe. … It is this ruthless course of action, and the clear design to extend it to the remaining free nations of Europe, that have brought about the critical situation in Europe today. The tragic death of the Republic of Czechoslovakia has sent a shock wave through the civilized world. … There are times in world history when it is far wiser to act than to hesitate. There is some risk involved in action – there always is. But there is far more risk involved in failure to act.

Truman asked for the approval of the Marshall Plan and for the enactment of universal military training and selective service. On 3rd April, Congress approved $5.3 billion in Marshall aid. Two weeks later, the sixteen European nations who had met in Paris the previous year, signed the agreement which established the OEEC, the body which the US Administration to formalise requests for aid, recommend each country’s share, and help in its distribution. Within weeks the first shipments of food aid were arriving in Europe. Next came fertilisers and tractors, to increase agricultural productivity. Then came machines for industry. The tap of Marshall aid had been turned on, but too late as far as Poland and Czechoslovakia were concerned. The plan was political as well as economic. It grew out of the desire to prevent the spread of communism into Western Europe. No longer could European nations sit on the fence. Each country had to choose whether it belonged to the Western or the Soviet bloc. In the immediate post-war years the situation had been fluid, but the Marshall Plan helped to accelerate the division of Europe. Forced to reject Marshall aid, Czechoslovakia became part of the Soviet sphere of influence, albeit abandoned to this fate by Washington, sacrificed once more by the Western powers. On the other hand, France and Italy were now firmly in the Western camp.

Paranoia permeated the Soviet system and Communist Central/GeorgeEastern Europe in the late forties and early fifties, just as it had done during Stalin’s reign of terror in the thirties. Hundreds of thousands of people were sent to labour camps and many thousands, loyal party members, were executed. In Hungary, as many as one in three families had a member in jail during the Stalinist period. As one Hungarian once told me, recalling his childhood forty years earlier, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1948 but only recently (in 1988) available to Hungarians to read, was 1948 in Hungary. In the Soviet Union and throughout the Soviet bloc, conformity was everything and no dissent was allowed. Independent thought was fiercely tracked down, rooted out, and repressed.

In the first phase of the Soviet takeover of Central/ Eastern Europe, Communist parties, with the backing of the Kremlin, had taken control of the central apparatus of each state.  Sometimes there were tensions between the local Communists, who had been part of the underground resistance to the Nazis, and those who had been exiled in Moscow and who had been appointed at the behest of Stalin to senior positions in the local parties. Initially, they were devoted to condemning their political opponents as class enemies. In 1948 a new phase began in the Sovietisation of the ‘satellite’ states, in which each nation was to be politically controlled by its Communist Party, and each local party was to be subject to absolute control from Moscow.

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In Hungary, the arrests had begun at Advent in 1946, with the seizure of lawyer and politician, György Donáth by the ÁVO, the state security police, on a charge of conspiracy against the Republic. Prior to his arrest, Donáth had left Budapest for a pre-Christmas vacation near the Hungarian border, so the ÁVO, who had had him under surveillance for some time, feared that he might attempt to flee the country and wasted no time in arresting him there, using the secret military police, KATPOL. Following this, a number of his associates were also arrested. In order to save these fellow leaders of the secret Hungarian Fraternal Community (MTK), which he had reactivated in the spring of 1946, he took all responsibility upon himself. He was condemned to death by a People’s Tribunal on 1st April 1947, and executed on 23rd October the same year. Cardinal Mindszenty, the representative of the religious majority in the country, was arrested soon after and put on trial on 3rd February 1949.

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(Following his release from prison a week before, in 1956)

In Czechoslovakia, where the Party had seized control in February 1948, a series of ‘show trials’ highlighted different stages in the imposition of Communist authority. Between 1948 and 1952 death sentences were passed against 233 political prisoners – intellectuals, independent thinkers, socialists, Christians. The execution of Zavis Kalandra, an associate of the Surrealists and a Marxist who had split with the prewar Communist Party, shocked Prague. Nearly 150,000 people were made political prisoners in Czechoslovakia, seven thousand Socialist Party members among them.

The crisis that prompted this strengthening of control was the split with Tito in 1948. The war-time partisan leader of Yugoslavia headed the only Communist country in Eastern Europe where power was not imposed by Moscow but came through his own popularity and strength. Although Stalin’s favourite for a while, Tito was soon out of favour with him for resisting the Soviet control of both Yugoslavia’s economy and its Communist Party.  In June 1948, Yugoslavia was expelled from Cominform for having placed itself outside the family of the fraternal Communist parties. Stalin even prepared plans for a military intervention, but later decided against it. The ‘mutiny’ in Yugoslavia now gave Stalin the opportunity he sought to reinforce his power. He could now point not just to an external ‘imperialist’ enemy, but to an ‘enemy within’. ‘Titoism’ became the Kremlin’s excuse for establishing a tighter grip on the Communist parties of Eastern Europe. Between 1948 and 1953 all the parties were forced through a crash programme of Stalinisation – five-year plans, forced collectivisation, the development of heavy industry, together with tighter Party control over the army and the bureaucratisation of the Party itself. To maintain discipline the satellites were made to employ a vast technology of repression.

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‘Show trials’ were used were used to reinforce terror; “justice” became an instrument of state tyranny in order to procure both public obedience and the total subservience of the local party to Soviet control. The accused were forced, by torture and deprivation, to ‘confess’ to crimes against the state. Communist Party members who showed any sign of independence or ‘Titoism’ were ruthlessly purged. The most significant of these trials was that of László Rajk in Hungary. Rajk had fought in the Spanish Civil War and had spent three years in France before joining the resistance in Hungary. After the war, he became the most popular member of the Communist leadership. Although he had led the Communist liquidation of the Catholic Church, he was now himself about to become a victim of Stalinist repression. He was Rákosi’s great opponent and so had to be eliminated by him. Under the supervision of Soviet adviser General Fyodor Byelkin, confessions were concocted to do with a Western imperialist and pro-Tito plot within the Hungarian Communist Party. Rajk was put under immense pressure, including torture, being told he must sacrifice himself for the sake of the Party. János Kádár, an old party friend and godfather to Rajk’s son, told him that he must confess to being a Titoist spy and that he and his family would be able to start a new life in Russia. Rajk agreed, but on 24th September 1949, he and two other defendants were sentenced to death and executed a month later. In the picture below, Rajk is pictured on the left, appearing at his trial.

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The Rajk confession and trial became a model for show trials across Eastern Europe. But in Hungary itself, the trial and execution of Rajk, Szebeny and General Pálffy-Oesterreicher were to ‘fatally’ undermine the Rákosi régime. Rákosi and Gerő were typical of the Communists who had lived in exile in Moscow during the war. Compared with Rajk, and the later Premier Imre Nagy, they were never popular within the Party itself, never mind the wider population. Yet, with Stalin’s support, they were enabled to remain in power until 1953, and were even, briefly, restored to power by the Kremlin in 1955. A recent publication in translation of the memoirs of the Hungarian diplomat, Domokos Szent-Iványi, has revealed how, prior to his arrest and imprisonment in 1946, he had made plans to replace them with General Pálffi-Oesterreicher, the head of the dreaded military police, who had had him arrested and placed him in ‘a very small and very dirty hole of a dungeon’ under the police headquarters:

During our conversations I did my best to convince ‘Pálfi’ that the greatest evil to the Hungarian people, to the country, and even to the Communists and the Soviet Union consisted in the policy and machinations of Rákosi and of his gang, and seemingly I succeeded in my efforts in this respect. The execution of Rajk, Szebeny and Pálffy-Oesterreicher seemingly strengthened Rákosi’s position. This, however, was not so. The ruthless liquidation of old Communist Party members was one of the main acts which some years later led to Rákosi’s downfall.

The light-mindedness of Pálffy-Oesterreicher contributed to his own downfall and put my life in peril also. It happened once that Pálffi, sending one of his collaborators, … made the grave error of instructing this man to tell me that “the pact between Pálffi and Szent-Iványi is still effective”.    

In the course of the Rajk trial, my name and that of the “conspirators” were brought up by the prosecution, and Szebeny, Rajk’s Secretary of State, made a statement to the effect that the Rajk-Pálffi group sympathised with the so-called conspirators with whom they intended to co-operate “as soon as the Rákosi gang are out of power”. Rózsa, a young man (whom Pálffy had used as a go-between with Szent-Iványi in prison) … then reported this affair to Rákosi and the consequences as we know were very grave for all parties involved.

Right after the arrest of Rajk, Szebeny, Pálffy-Oesterreicher and many of their followers, I was locked up in a single cell in the so-called “Death Section” of Gyüjtő Prison where those prisoners were kept who were to be executed. … an old Communist Party member whispered to me in the silence … that I was there due to the Rajk case. Among the many indictments brought up against Rajk and Pálfi, their contacts with me and “the conspirators” had particular weight.

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Szent-Iványi argued that the reaction to the Rajk trial, among others, demonstrated that the Hungarian people were sharply opposed to any Soviet policy which was carried out by  Rákosi, Gérő and others in the pro-Moscow leadership. Yet, until Rajk’s rehabilitation in 1955 and especially his re-burial on 6th October, which amounted to the first open demonstration against the Rákosi régime, there was little that could effectively be done to bring it down, either from inside prison or on the outside. He later reflected on the reasons for this:

This was a most distressing time, dominated by man at his most vengeful, envious and cruel.

Revenge and hatred was harboured by all kinds, prisoners and guards alike. Ex-soldiers who had endured the cruelties and horrors of battles, hated those who had lived peacefully in their own homes. … Jewish guards and Jewish prisoners hated their Gentile neighbours for their past suffering. Ex-Arrow-Cross members (fascists) were hated by Communists and Jews. It is strange that the common criminals in general hated nobody; they wanted money and ultimately did not hate their victims … but I could believe that they themselves had some kind of sympathy for their victims, like Tyrrell in Richard III.

Hatred was born of emotions and passion, and emotions had too many times intruded into Hungarian political life also, leading the country and its people to tragedy.

During my detention and prison years I had time to think and ponder over the political blunders, emotions and in particular the passions, of bygone years. Szálasi (the ‘Arrow Cross’ Premier in 1944-45) and Rákosi can be considered as typical examples of authors of such blunders. Both men felt that they were not popular in the country and that they had just a small fraction of the population behind them. In consequence they needed support from abroad. Szalási found his support in Hitlerite Germany, and in consequence adopted Nazi political principles and methods. These include Anti-Semitism and a “foreign policy” against the Allied Powers. Rákosi got the necessary support in Stalin-Beria run Soviet Russia and based his interior policy on revenge and jealousy. His vanity could not tolerate differences of opinion, whether outside the Communist Party … or inside the Party … Wherever he found opposition to his policy or to his person he set out to liquidate real or imaginary opponents.

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Above: Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria (1899-1953). When he began to think of himself as Stalin’s successor, the other members of the Politburo were alarmed that he might attempt to seize power following Stalin’s death. He was arrested, tried in his absence, and shot some time before December 1953, when his death was announced.

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The lack of popular support for Rákosi and his dependence on Stalin and Beria was clearly demonstrated by the establishment of the first Imre Nagy government following Stalin’s death in 1953. Although Moscow then replaced the initial Nagy government by one headed by Gérő and Rákosi, the latter was finally ousted by them in July 1956. Although the subsequent Uprising was put down by the invasion of the Soviet Union under Khrushchev, Szent-Iványi was at pains to point out in his memoirs that the Soviet Union finally dropped the Stalinist leadership of Hungary and that the Kádár régime (János Kádár, left) which it installed was one which was able to win the confidence of both the Hungarian people and of the Soviet Union, bringing peace to the country and its inhabitants.

Szent-Iványi reflected on how the life of the prisoners he had witnessed and experienced under the Rákosi régime, including health conditions, food, and fresh air had steadily worsened until it was impacted by these events:

The fact that some of the prisoners were able to survive was down to two causes; firstly, the honest among the jailers, in the majority of Hungarian peasant stock, did their best to alleviate the sufferings of the prisoners as well as to improve upon the harsh and very often cruel conditions imposed by Rákosi’s régime upon political prisoners; secondly, the death of Stalin and the elimination of Beria in 1953 … The most important “innovation” was that after more than a full year or so, the daily walks for prisoners as prescribed by law were resumed. Under the more humane régime of Premier Imre Nagy further improvements took place. And two years later prisoners were released in increasing numbers. By 1956 … many of the political prisoners were already outside the prison walls or were preparing to be released.Without these two factors, few prisoners would have survived the prison system after ten or twelve years of endless suffering.

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Szent-Iványi was himself released in mid-September, five weeks before what he called ‘the October Revolution’. But, contrary to the claims of the pro-Rákosi faction’s claims, neither he nor the ex-political-prisoners played a major role in the events, which I have covered in great detail elsewhere. Even the hated ÁVO, the Secret Police, admitted that none of the “Conspirators” of 1946-48 had actively participated in the Revolution and that…

… the blame has remained firmly on the shoulders of the provocateurs, the Rákosi-Hegedüs-Gerő gang which, of course, greatly contributed to the stability and success of the Kádár regime. … The dictatorship of Rákosi and his gang had no other support than the bayonets of the Red Army or rather the power of the Russian Communist Party and of the Red Army.

With real and imaginary political opponents exterminated, the next phase of Stalinisation in Czechoslovakia was a purge of the Communist Party itself. One out of every four Czechoslovak party members was removed. Stalin wanted to make an example of one highly placed ‘comrade’, Rudolf Slánsky, the general secretary of the Czech Communist Party, who was then leading a security purge within it. Stalin personally ordered Klement Gottwald, who had replaced Eduard Benes as President of the country, to arrest Slánsky. When Gottwald hesitated, Stalin sent General Alexei Beschastnov and two ‘assistants’ to Prague. Gottwald gave in. On 21 November 1951, Slánsky was arrested. In this case, there was a new ingredient in the Moscow mix: Slánsky and ten of the other high-ranking Czechoslovak party members arrested at that time were Jews.

The case against Slánsky was based on Stalin’s fear of an imagined Zionist, pro-Western conspiracy. Stalin appeared to believe that there was a conspiracy led by American Jewish capitalists and the Israeli government to dominate the world and to wage a new war against communism. This represented a complete turnaround by Stalin on Israel. The Soviet Union had supported the struggle of the Zionists against the Palestinian Arabs and had supplied them, through Czechoslovakia, with essential weapons in 1947 and 1948. The Soviet Union was the first state to recognise de jure the state of Israel, within minutes of its birth in May 1948. Two years later, perhaps fearful of Israel’s appeal to the hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews, and suspicious of its close ties to the United States, Stalin became convinced that Israel was in the vanguard of an international Jewish conspiracy against him.

011Slánsky was, in fact, a loyal Stalinist. But he was forced to confess that, due to his bourgeois and Jewish origins, he had never been a true Communist and that he was now an American spy. Slánsky and his co-accused were told that their sacrifice was for the party’s good. Their confessions were written out in detail by Soviet advisers in Prague, and each of the accused was carefully rehearsed for his “performance” at the trial to come. They had time to learn their “confessions” by heart, for preparations took a year. In November 1952, the show trial began. One by one, Slánsky and the others confessed to the most absurd charges made against them by their former associates.

Public prosecutor Josef Urvalek read out the indictment, condemning the gang of traitors and criminals who had infiltrated the Communist Party on behalf of an evil pro-Zionist, Western conspiracy. It was now time, he said, for the people’s vengeance. The accused wondered how Urvalek could fein such conviction. The ‘defence’ lawyers admitted that the evidence against their clients confirmed their guilt. In his last statement, Slánsky said, “I deserve no other end to my criminal life but that proposed by the Public Prosecutor.” Others stated, “I realise that however harsh the penalty – and whatever it is, it will be just – I will never be able to make up for the damage I have caused”; “I beg the state tribunal to appreciate and condemn my treachery with the maximum severity and firmness.” Eleven were condemned to death; three were sentenced to life imprisonment. When the sentences were announced, the court was silent. No one could be proud of what had been done. A week later, Slánsky and the other ten were executed.

010

Absolute rule demanded absolute obedience, but it helped if people loved their leader rather than feared him. In the Soviet Union, the cult of Stalin was omnipresent. In the picture on the left above, Stalin appears as the ‘Father of His People’ during the Great Patriotic War, and on the right, world Communist leaders gathered in the Bolshoi Theatre to celebrate Stalin’s seventieth birthday on 21st December 1949. Stalin treated the whole of Central/Eastern Europe as his domain, with the leaders of the Communist parties as his ‘vassals’, obliged to carry out his instructions without question. When he died on March 1953, the new spirit which emerged from the Kremlin caused nervousness among the various ‘mini-Stalins’ who held power, largely due to his support. In the Soviet zone of Germany, control was in the hands of Walter Ulbricht, a hard-line Stalinist of the old school who had spent most of the era of the Third Reich in Moscow. One of Stalin’s most loyal lieutenants, he had begun, in the summer of 1952, the accelerated construction of socialism in East Germany, aimed at building a strict command economy. A huge programme of farm collectivisation was started, along with a rush towards Soviet-style industrialisation, with great emphasis on heavy industry at the expense of consumer goods. Stalin had intended to force the East German economy to complement that of the Soviet Union, to supply the USSR with iron and steel, of which it was in desperate need. Ulbricht allowed no opposition inside East Germany. His secret police, the ‘Stasi’, were everywhere, urging friends to inform on friends, workers on fellow-workers.

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Ulbricht was therefore uneasy with the changes taking place in Moscow. In May 1953, the collective leadership in the Kremlin summoned him to Moscow. For some time, the Kremlin had been considering a review of its German policy, supporting the idea of a re-unified but neutral Germany. The Soviets had no hope of controlling all of Germany, but a neutral Germany would at least prevent the western half, with its huge industrial base, from becoming a permanent part of the Western bloc. The Kremlin encouraged Ulbricht to follow a new course of liberalisation and to ease the pace of enforced industrialisation. But Ulbricht ignored the advice, and in June imposed new work quotas on industrial workers, demanding higher productivity without any increase in pay. Angry at their expectations being dashed, East German workers erupted in protests calling for a lifting of the new quotas. As their employer was the state, industrial protest over work norms soon became a political demand for free elections and a call for a general strike. The American radio station in West Berlin, RIAS, publicised the demands and reported that there would be major demonstrations the following day. On 17 June protests took place in East Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, Magdeburg, and all the major towns of East Germany.

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Over the next four days, more than 400,000 German workers took to the streets. Ulbricht and his unpopular government were terrified by this vast, spontaneous display of worker power. But the demonstrations lacked any central direction or coherent organisation. Beria called on the Soviet tank units stationed all over East Germany to confront the strikers, to prevent the Ulbricht régime from collapsing. He told the Soviet high command “not to spare bullets” in suppressing the rising, and forty workers were killed, more than four hundred wounded. When thousands of strike leaders were arrested, the demonstrations ended as suddenly as they had begun. Ulbricht had learned a lesson and in time acceded to many of the workers’ economic demands. There were also anti-government riots in Czechoslovakia, and strikes in Hungary and Romania. There was even a prisoners’ strike in Siberia.

011

The Soviets saw behind these events a well-orchestrated campaign to undermine the Soviet Union and its allies, part of the “rollback” policy of the new Eisenhower administration, which had replaced the Truman Doctrine of 1947. The United States ‘suggested’ openly that it would now take the initiative in ‘rolling back’ communism wherever possible. The architect of this new, more ‘aggressive’ policy in support of ‘freedom’ movements in Eastern Europe was the new Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who proclaimed a new era of liberty, not enslavement. He added that…

… the Eisenhower era begins as the Stalin era ends. … For ten years the world has been dominated by the malignant power of Stalin. Now Stalin is dead. He cannot bequeath to anyone his prestige. 

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The British prime minister, Winston Churchill, had written to Eisenhower suggesting a meeting with Malenkov in case both of us together or separately be called to account if no attempt were made to turn over a new leaf. But for the moment Eisenhower had ruled out any direct meeting with the new Soviet leadership. In reality, it was never clear how this new policy could be put into practice, especially in Europe, without provoking a direct confrontation. On 16 April 1953, Eisenhower had made a speech in which he called on the Kremlin to demonstrate that it had broken with Stalin’s legacy by offering “concrete evidence” of a concern for peace. He had appeared to be holding out an olive branch, hoping the Kremlin would grab it. His ‘Chance for Peace’ speech had been widely reported in the Soviet Union and throughout Central/Eastern Europe, raising hopes of ‘a thaw’ in the Cold War.

Only two days later, however, Dulles spoke in much harsher terms, declaring we are not dancing to any Russian tune. A secret report for the National Security Council had also concluded that the Soviet interest in peace was illusory, but at the same time that any military confrontation would be long drawn out. But Radio Free Europe continued to promise American assistance for resistance to Soviet control in its broadcasts into the satellite countries. In doing so, it was promising more than the West was willing or able to deliver. In Hungary in 1956, these ‘mixed messages’ were to have tragic consequences.

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The power struggle in the Kremlin now reached a new intensity. Molotov continued to see the Cold War as an ideological conflict in which the capitalist system would ultimately destroy itself, and his diplomacy exploited the differences he perceived between the United States and its Western European allies. However, for Malenkov and Beria, the conflict was viewed in strictly practical terms.

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First of all, the Cold War was an arms race. Stalin had quickly realized how important it was to break the US atomic monopoly and in 1945 had put Beria in charge of the Soviet atom bomb project. In the summer of 1949, several years ahead of the West’s predictions, the first Soviet bomb had been successfully tested. After Stalin’s death, Beria took more direct control of the Soviet nuclear project, ordering scientists to race ahead with developing a hydrogen bomb to rival America’s thermonuclear weapons. If Soviet strength rested on ever more powerful nuclear weapons and he was in charge of developing them, Beria calculated, then he would control the mainsprings of Soviet power. But this sort of arrogance was no longer acceptable inside the Kremlin. Within days of the quelling of the rising in East Germany, Khrushchev became convinced that Beria was preparing to make a grab for absolute power. Malenkov denounced Beria at a meeting of the Presidium. Forever tainted from heading Stalin’s terror apparatus, Beria was arrested on trumped-up charges of being a Western agent. In what to many seemed a just reversal of fate, the man who had sent hundreds to their deaths was not even allowed to attend his own trial. He was found guilty and shot. His removal marked a huge shift in the power balance within the Kremlin, but he was the only Soviet leader at this juncture whose fate was settled by a bullet.

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During the next two years, Khrushchev simply out-manoeuvred his remaining rivals to become the new leader. In September 1954 he visited Beijing to repair the damage to Sino-Soviet relations resulting from the Korean War, agreeing to new trade terms that were far more beneficial to the Chinese than they had been under Stalin. In Europe, Khrushchev negotiated a farsighted agreement with Austria. Soviet troops, occupying part of the country since the end of the war, were withdrawn in return for an Austrian commitment to neutrality. In May 1955 a state treaty was signed in Vienna by the four occupying powers, and Austria remained neutral throughout the Cold War. In the same month, he also made a dramatic visit to Yugoslavia to try to “bury the hatchet” with Tito. However, he was not so pleased when, also in May, the Western Allies formally ended their occupation of West Germany, and the Federal Republic was admitted to NATO. The response of Moscow to this setback was the creation of the Warsaw Pact, a formal military alliance of all the ‘satellite’ states with the Soviet Union and each other. The Pact was really no more than a codification of the existing military dominance of the USSR over Central/Eastern Europe, but it did signify the completion of the division of Europe into two rival camps.

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The rejection of Stalinism and the widespread acceptance of the new process of reform culminated in the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow in February 1956. This was not merely a Soviet Russian affair, as delegates from throughout the Communist world, and from non-aligned movements involved in “liberation struggles” with colonial powers were invited to Moscow. In his set-piece speech, Khrushchev challenged the conventional Marxist/Leninist view that war between communism and capitalism was inevitable. Then, on the last day of the Congress, Khrushchev called all the Soviet delegates together in a closed session. For six hours, he denounced Stalin’s ‘reign of terror’ and its crimes, going back to the purges of the 1930s. The speech was never intended to remain secret; copies were immediately made available to party officials and to foreign Communist parties. News of the speech spread by word of mouth to millions of citizens within the Soviet bloc. Washington also acquired a copy of the text through the CIA and Mossad, Israeli intelligence. It was passed on to the press and appeared in Western newspapers in June 1956. The Eisenhower administration was convinced that genuine change was taking place in the Soviet Union; the Chinese, on the other hand, were deeply offended. In Eastern Europe, many Communist party leaders, gravely upset by the impact, were concerned for the continued stability of their authoritarian régimes.

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Two months after the Party Congress, the Kremlin dissolved the Cominform, the organisation that Stalin had created in 1947 to impose his orthodoxy over the satellites. Molotov was dismissed as foreign minister and banished to Mongolia as Soviet ambassador. A loyal supporter of Stalin throughout his career, Molotov had been firmly opposed to any reconciliation with Tito, but now the door was open again. Tito made a state visit to Moscow in June 1956, amidst much pomp. Nothing could have been more symbolic of the new Soviet attitude towards Eastern Europe. But how far would the Soviets be prepared to go in relaxing its influence there?  In both Poland and Hungary, now released from the yoke of Stalinist rule after almost a decade down at heel, people wanted more control than ever over their own individual lives and their national identities and destinies.

 

Sources:

Jeremy Isaacs (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press (Transworld Publishers).

Mark Almond, Jeremy Black, et.al. (2003), The Times History of Europe. London: Times Books (Harper Collins Publishers).

Gyula Kodolányi & Nóra Szekér (eds.) (2013), Domokos Szent-Iványi: The Hungarian Independence Movement, 1939-46. Budapest: Hungarian Review Books.

 

Posted June 3, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Arab-Israeli Conflict, Austerity, Austria-Hungary, Baltic States, Britain, British history, Cartoons, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Civilization, Cold War, Communism, Conquest, decolonisation, Empire, English Language, Europe, Factories, Family, First World War, France, Gentiles, Germany, Hungarian History, Hungary, Israel, Jews, Journalism, Marxism, Mediterranean, Middle East, Mythology, Narrative, nationalisation, nationalism, Oxford, Palestine, Population, Poverty, Russia, Satire, Second World War, Serbia, terror, terrorism, tyranny, United Nations, USA, USSR, War Crimes, Warfare, World War One, World War Two, Zionism

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