This week the Tories became the only ruling conservative party in Europe to support the right-wing Hungarian government, as it defied the EU’s demands to uphold basic freedoms and the rule of law. Theresa May’s party whipped its representatives in the European Parliament to protect the controversial Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban, in the hope that he would back Britain’s position in Brexit negotiations.
The row with Hungary is a sign that, all across the EU, parties of the mainstream centre-right are under pressure from racist and xenophobic voters – and being increasingly forced to make a choice between defending the status quo or losing votes to groups prepared to express that xenophobia, and mobilise on the streets.
Let’s be clear first about the Hungarian ruling party, Fidesz. It is not, as some have argued, fascist – though there is a large fascist party called Jobbik which opposes Orban from the right. Rather it is a right-wing nationalist party, whose leader has made a specialism out of attacking ethnic minorities, suppressing the rights of charities who try to help refugees, and playing on the darkest fears of a population in which, in repeated polls, a majority admit to being anti-Semites.
Mr Orban’s government has passed a law to shut down a liberal university sponsored by the financier George Soros, plastered Mr Soros’ face all over the capital in thinly-veiled anti-Semitic propaganda, passed a law stigmatising NGOs that help migrants, undermined the freedom of the press, attacked the independence of the judiciary and allegedly mis-spent European funds on a vast scale.
If that were not enough to awaken principles among Conservative party managers, maybe Orban’s record in supporting Vladimir Putin should have been. Orban’s government is alleged by former secret service agents to have obstructed their work in monitoring Russian intelligence. Putin’s entire project for Europe has been summed up, by his own state media, as “Orbanisation”. He wants to divide the EU into warring nationalist elites, which can be picked off as satellites, their commitment to collective security and defence reduced to paper promises.
Why did the Tories baulk?
So why, at the first real opportunity to place real diplomatic pressure on Orban, did the Tories baulk?
The obvious answer is that, for all their public shouting against Putin, the Brexit project relies ultimately on the same outcome. Brexit has been driven by hard, Atlanticist Tory politicians who – both in the current phase of negotiations and strategically – see Britain’s interest as best served by dividing the EU powers against each other. And it’s a geopolitical response hardwired into British Toryism since the days of the French Revolution, summed up by the phrase “perfidious Albion”.
Unfortunately, the political wind is in the sails of the racist right all across Europe. In Sweden last week, the right-wing nationalist Sweden Democrats scored 18 per cent. Though mainstream centre right coalition has ruled out forming a government with the Sweden Democrats, the precedent to do so comes from Austria, where the centre-right switched overnight from coalition with the socialists to coalition with the far-right Freedom Party.
In Poland, where right-wing nationalist Law and Justice Party rules, it is in part reliant on the votes of Nazi-supporting nationalists, and owes its majority to repeated populist gestures and racist language against migrants. In Italy the right-wing nationalist Lega lured the chaotic populist party M5S into a coalition after a general election in March sidelined the traditional centrist parties.
And in Germany, the far-right Alliance fur Deutschland shocked the political establishment by scoring 12 per cent in last year’s election. It has brought racist language to the podium of the Bundestag, mobilised on the streets alongside outright neo-nazis, and again placed pressure on the traditional centre right. Though Angela Merkel looks determined to resist the magnetism of the AfD, a some of her own ministers now speak, in response, of a “conservative revolution” to roll back the social liberalism that began in 1968. Her party alliance haemorrhaged a million votes to the racist right last year, and would lose yet more in any new election.
The questions the centre-right can’t answer
The centre-right is in crisis because, despite all the advantages of corporate support, technocratic expertise and incumbency, it has run short of answers to the questions right-wing voters ask. For 30 years, Europe’s elites played the game of economic globalisation alongside a gestural political nationalism. They let their industries move offshore, and ceded sovereignty to Brussels – but from the conference podium always told their voters that “their” country was the greatest.
Though they expressed their own nationalism in cosmopolitan terms, beneath the surface they tolerated, and rarely confronted, the ethnic nationalism that has now surfaced among large numbers of Europe’s small-town working poor.
For now, the far right and those conservative parties that have joined them in coalitions are contained by the machinery of government. Italy’s Matteo Salvini may promise voters that he will expel Roma families back to other European countries, but European law will not allow it. Orban himself now faces losing billions of Euros worth of EU money, even if his allies in Prague and Warsaw will protect Hungary from the ultimate sanction of expulsion from the EU.
‘You might think I would revel in the failure of the traditional centre right. But I don’t.’
As a Labour supporter, who has travelled throughout Europe this year encouraging other socialist parties to copy Labour’s revival under Corbyn, you might think I would revel in the failure of the traditional centre right. But I don’t.
After the nightmare of the Second World War, these parties were rebuilt under Allied instruction and support as lynchpins of a liberal order. They are as crucial to its maintenance as central banks and supreme courts are. As the current with the strongest roots in business, agriculture, the military and the technocracy, mainstream conservatism plays a crucial role in maintaining and renewing the liberal political culture without which Europe cannot survive.
So they need to fight back. As they do so they will learn what political scientists have been shouting about for 15 years. What’s driving voters to authoritarian nationalism is not just the failure of the economic model; it is economic stress combined with fears among those born here that “their” culture is being diluted – by refugees, by Islam, by liberal social values.
A new economic model will help stem tide of racism
A new economic model, that delivers high growth, high wages and high welfare may not on its own stem the rising tide of racism, but it will help. It has to be combined with a clear and radical defence of the principles on which democracies are built: tolerance, diversity and the rule of law. Until we see centre-right parties aggressively defining citizenship and nationality along cosmopolitan lines, and aggressively promoting democracy and human rights, the closet racist in small-town central Europe is never going to get the message.
However, with very few exceptions, the centre-right in Europe has responded in exactly the opposite way. From Italy to Sweden, the mainstream right has started to ape the language and borrow the policies of the far right.
‘If you want to know what it looks like to lose the centre right as a political institution, look at America, where Trump has cowed traditional right-wing technocrats into submission inside the Republican Party’
Here in Britain, May’s first speech as party leader was a diatribe against cosmopolitanism; Amber Rudd threatened to jail landlords who house illegal migrants, while Boris Johnson, currently plotting a power grab, thinks it’s funny to call black people “grinning picanninies”.
If you want to know what it looks like to lose the centre right as a political institution, look at America, where Trump has cowed traditional right-wing technocrats into submission inside the Republican Party. If you think the judiciary and the media, on their own, can contain far-right politics once it is unleashed – again the USA proves they cannot.
We need a narrative of hope
At the heart of the fightback has to be a narrative of hope. For 30 years the free-market system created a rough narrative in people’s heads that said things will get better if we let market forces take their course. Ten years ago that illusion blew up – but centrist politicians stuck to the old story.
But if the story makes no sense it is no surprise to see voters looking for another story – and the easiest one to grasp was the old one: of nationalism, racism, misogyny and xenophobia. Until the business and political class comes up a story about how the future gets better, they will continue to flounder in the face of the far right challenge.
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