Stop monstering Hungary
Our brave author put his head in the mouth of the Hungarian dragon
Last week, you might have noticed about forty people — journalists, diplomats, publicists, intellectuals and among them yours truly — being carefully ticked off an invitation list as they filed in to a conference room in a well-proportioned Edwardian building, a stone’s throw from Trafalgar Square. The attraction was an educational event with a difference. Many of us had never met before: but what we all had in common was an interest, or something to say about, one particular European country.
In case you hadn’t guessed, the subject was Hungary. The reason we were there was that, despite that country’s affection and admiration for Britain, most discussion of it in the press and elsewhere is neither open nor dispassionate. Journalists and commentators, almost none of whom read Hungarian, too often take the easy way out and resort to political cliché. Think of the phrases that run so readily off the word-processor of a typical journalist with 800 words to file by midday: “far-right government …” “skewed national media …” “Fidesz’s well-known contempt for EU values and the rule of law …” “open support for dictators …” and so on.
The view of Hungary as an authoritarian hotbed is rather superficial
The aim of this meeting, organised by among others Mathias Corvinus College, the right-of-centre Danube Institute and the Hungarian Embassy (I say this in the interests of transparency), was to act as a corrective to this. It was far from a whitewashing exercise, but it did try to help those present come to a more nuanced, even if at times critical, view. A good deal of time was spent in discussing national matters often glossed over. One issue was why the recent election went so egregiously wrong for the supposedly moderate Péter Márki-Zay, Fidesz’s opponent and darling of Guardian readers, progressive Europhiles and the EU. It was pointed out that the coverage of the election in the media, which many Hungarians do not take much notice of on political matters anyway, was relatively small beer. A much bigger part seemed to have been played by his lack of positive policies, by the petty jealousies of the very mixed grouping he fronted (ranging from radical Greens to the slightly poujadiste Jobbik), and by his failure to appreciate that against the background of the Ukraine war the Fidesz message of “steady as she goes” was likely to resonate.
As regards that war, it also had to be remembered that Hungary (which incidentally has clearly condemned Russia’s aggression) nevertheless needed to tread carefully. Not only did public opinion demand a measure of detachment, but the country was economically vulnerable. Not for the first time the point was made that Hungary’s caution was a great deal more justifiable than, say, Germany’s pusillanimous Chancellor Scholz.
There was the elephant in the room: values and the rule of law. The view of Hungary as a hotbed of creeping authoritarianism is commonly held, but it is actually rather superficial. True, many Hungarians recoil from the kind of slightly boorish cosmopolitan progressivism to be found in Brussels and in many university faculties all over western Europe. This factor explains why one of the most pro-EU states in Europe also fights hard against Brussels’s attempts to weaponise the “rule of law” for interference in the social and moral rather than the economic affairs of member States. But overall, this country of 10 million people is actually rather liberal in an old-fashioned way. It is taken for granted that there is nothing wrong with people speaking their mind, if necessary provocatively, over a very wide spectrum of views. The idea of limiting speech because of some perceived tendency to hurt or traumatise a supposedly oppressed group is largely rejected. Universities so far remain largely untouched by the censorious speech-suppressors found elsewhere. Gay emancipation (in the sense of decriminalisation) the country has largely taken in its stride. Hungary is a good deal more liberal on matters like same-sex marriage than a number of other European countries.
So far so good. However, to an English reader the real interest of this conference was the fact that it happened at all. Imagine its mirror image: a proposal from a British embassy in some distant land to back a similar conference in tandem with the Spectator (or for that matter Prospect) on British values: free speech, standing up to dictators, keeping in check the pretensions of Jack (or Jill) in office.
There is a growing gulf of incomprehension between East-West European values
The FO would almost certainly kill the idea forthwith. So much is clear: but why? There are two reasons, each of which tells us a good deal about the growing gulf of incomprehension between eastern and western European values.
For one thing, there is the problem of the idea of morality or values being associated with, and legitimately promoted by, a particular nation. In much of eastern Europe this is seen as entirely natural. Public opinion, morality and ethics are seen as spontaneously going together as a matter of course. If Hungarians overwhelmingly support the traditional family, whereas Dutch or Swedes prefer looser arrangements, then state family support is entirely right in Budapest, whatever the position in in Amsterdam or Malmö.
In most western European countries including England, however, the EU elite and the great and the good find such a view not so much unpalatable as incomprehensible. Europhiles and progressives of their kind increasingly accept two things as articles of incontrovertible faith. One is the ultimate perniciousness of national differences as shown by the events of 1939–1945. The other is a profoundly anti-conservative worldview, under which the function of politics is not to mould and take advantage of existing social institutions but to build up new and supposedly rational ones from scratch.
Hence to a member of the ruling elite in London, Lille or Luxembourg it goes without saying that the only values that governments have any business in adhering to are either those of disembodied rationalism, such as human rights, or safe supranational ones such as those appearing in Article 2 of the EU Treaty (“respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law”, etc., said to be “common to the Member States”). Any suggestion that particular states might have their own values different from these is immediately sent down the memory hole as an instance of nationalism, or worse.
But it goes even further. The idea of a nation promoting any moral values at all is not unproblematical. In eastern Europe, including Hungary, it is taken for granted. It is seen as obvious that since without some social morality society is in danger of losing cohesion, it must be right for the state to take sides. It must encourage and protect cohesive families, the non-sexualisation of little children, free discussion even where it offends people, or whatever. If it didn’t it would be falling down on its duties. Unfortunately the ruling class in much of the West finds this more and more difficult to accept.
Any overt attempt by the state to nudge people in a particular moral or ethical direction, even non-coercively, it instinctively sees as “imposing” that view on them in an unacceptably illiberal way. To avoid such a heinous accusation, it carefully limits itself to easy-listening abstractions like the need to promote equality and avoid harm (which increasingly means offence). Anything beyond that must be a matter for spontaneous acceptance by an individual on his own terms.
Thank heavens that there are still two Europes, with very different world outlooks, and that people in the West are waking up to the fact. Academics in search of genuinely free enquiry are now moving towards universities in eastern Europe to avoid the stifling pressure of political orthodoxies in the west. Likewise, we can expect to see more conferences of this sort from those who think it important to promote free thought and open argument, rather than presume their view of the world includes those who do not want it.
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