Can Europe Make It?

Right-wing authoritarianism in Britain: lessons from Hungary and Poland

Britain is hardly living in splendid isolation. It has much to learn from several other European countries.

Gavin Rae
7 October 2019
Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel and Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, February 2019.
Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel and Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, February 2019.
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Omar Marques/PA. All rights reserved.

Right-wing authoritarianism has arrived in Britain. In recent weeks the government has unlawfully suspended parliament, announced it may ignore some of the laws passed through the Commons, and cemented a strategic political alliance with the Trump administration in the USA. Meanwhile, the Conservative Party government, without a majority in parliament, remains tied to and partially a hostage of Nigel Farage’s nationalist Brexit Party, whilst PM Boris Johnson wilfully uses language and posturing to inflame the passions of the far-right. Such events are new in British politics and are related to the particular events surrounding Brexit. However, especially when viewed from the vantage point of Central and Eastern Europe, Britain seems to be following an already well-trodden path.

Authoritarianism in Europe

The rise of authoritarian right-wing governments has tended to be viewed as a phenomenon confined to the countries on Europe’s eastern ‘peripheries’. This view is derived from an assumption that political authoritarianism is spreading westwards from eastern Europe, potentially destabilising the political democracies in the west. This account is erroneous in two ways. Firstly, countries such as Hungary and Poland have been integrated into the western economic and political order for over three decades. The shift towards conservative authoritarianism has not involved a break from this process, but is rather a consequence of the neo-liberal transition enacted in these countries. Secondly, examples of authoritarianism are not confined to the ‘peripheries’ of Europe. The locking up of politicians and activists in Catalonia or the brutality of the police against demonstrators in France, go further in their severity than the actions so far carried out by the governments in Budapest or Warsaw.

The locking up of politicians and activists in Catalonia or the brutality of the police against demonstrators in France, go further in their severity than the actions so far carried out by the governments in Budapest or Warsaw.

Such a perspective is made clearer when one considers the European Union’s own democratic deficit; its undemocratic imposition of austerity in countries like Greece; and the recent announcement that the European Union’s most senior official on migration would now be given the job title: ‘protecting our European way of life’. Britain is certainly not living in splendid isolation.

Hungary and Poland

It is therefore worth considering how the current situation in Britain compares to that in countries like Hungary and Poland. What are the similarities and differences between these situations? What do they tell us both about what is happening currently in Britain and how this shift towards right-wing authoritarianism may be opposed?

A major difference, with the situation in Britain, is that the conservative right came to power in Hungary and Poland after the defeat of the left. The Hungarian and Polish centre-left parties had both become entwined with a series of corruption scandals and implemented unpopular neoliberal policies when in government during the 2000s. Consequently, the left came to be seen as being part of a corrupt elite that had unfairly usurped economic power. This allowed the parties of the conservative right to benefit in two ways. Firstly, they were able to replace the left as the major political force that is regarded as best defending living standards and challenging inequalities and injustices. Secondly, the absorption of the left into the liberal status quo, meant that politics divided between a liberal ‘centre’, defending the legal and political order, and a resurgent conservative right promising to return power ‘to the people’. Part of the appeal of right-wing ‘populist’ politicians such as Viktor Orban and Jarosław Kaczyński (or indeed Donald Trump and Boris Johnson) is that they ostensibly promise to give a democratic voice to the people, that has for so long been ignored and overruled by the political establishment.

Once in power the right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland began to dismantle many of the checks and balances of the liberal democratic system. This has included such things as gaining control of the courts (including the Constitutional Court), politicising the public media, and partially reducing the independent functioning of NGOs. Simultaneously they have adopted a nationalist ideology, replete with hostility towards groups such as refugees and the LGBT community. The governments of Fidesz and the Law and Justice Party have partly allied with and contained far-right parties and movements, adopting many of their policies and rhetoric.

There are, however, some important differences between these administrations. Most notably, Fidesz (partly due to Hungary’s electoral system) has had a constitutional majority in parliament, allowing it to push its reform programme further than its counterparts in Poland. It approved a new constitution in 2011, helping it to gain control of the Constitutional Court and introduced political reforms that have cemented its grip on power. However, these have been carried out in a more orderly manner than in Poland, as they have not contravened the constitution. It was partly for this reason that the Polish government initially faced stronger opposition both domestically and from within the European Union.

Despite these differences, both of the conservative right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland have managed to shift their political systems in a more authoritarian and nationalist direction and to neutralise opposition towards them. This was most clearly shown recently, when the Polish government temporarily suspended parliament, facing virtually no opposition either from the Constitutional Court, opposition parties or demonstrators.

The Polish government temporarily suspended parliament, facing virtually no opposition either from the Constitutional Court, opposition parties or demonstrators.

Similarities and differences in Britain

How does this compare to the situation in Britain? Three decades of harsh neoliberalism, the de-industrialisation of large parts of the economy and the creation of high social inequalities and areas of poverty led to a rise in social dissatisfaction. Simultaneously, the political establishment and media, lied to justify launching a war against Iraq, and became embroiled in a series of corruption and hacking scandals. Legitimate dissatisfaction towards the established order was harnessed by the right, and directed into hostility towards the European Union and migrants. The narrow majority for Brexit, gained at the 2016 referendum, provided the conservative and authoritarian right with a supposed mandate to expand its influence in British politics, through representing the democratic ‘will of the people’.

There are however some very important differences in the situation in Britain, compared to that in Hungary and Poland. Firstly, the government now lacks a political majority in parliament, which it can use to advance its political agenda. The uniqueness of Britain as a Constitutional Monarchy, with no written constitution, an unelected upper house and a more independent judiciary and civil service also create different challenges for the Conservative Party government. Its attempts to undemocratically force through a no-deal Brexit is meeting robust resistance from the courts and parliament.

Secondly, and most importantly, the Conservative Party faces a left-wing opposition and labour movement that remains infinitely stronger than those in Hungary and Poland. The Labour Party’s move to the left in recent years means that it has been able to retain strong roots in workplaces and communities, helped by its historical ties to the trade unions. The left has mobilised parts of the electorate in a way that the liberal centre has been unable to do. This was seen in the 2017 General Election, when the Labour Party raised its share of the vote by the greatest amount since 1945 and wiped out the Tory Party majority in parliament. As a consequence of this, Boris Johnson finds himself politically boxed in and having to try and break democratic standards in an attempt to deliver a hard Brexit. Just as the Polish government has had to bend democratic rules more than in Hungary, so the Conservative Party administration will have to go further than both of these governments if it is to be successful in its aims.

Just as the Polish government has had to bend democratic rules more than in Hungary, so the Conservative Party administration will have to go further than both of these governments if it is to be successful in its aims.

Response of the left

The British left has to use its relative strength and learn from the failures of the opposition in Hungary and Poland. The best way to challenge the conservatives and the far-right is to put forward a radical economic and social alternative from the left which challenges existing inequalities and injustices. The left must not allow a section of the elite, centred around a conservative and nationalist right-wing programme, to claim this anti-establishment mantle. For this reason, whilst the left has to oppose the erosion of democratic standards and institutions, it must also avoid being subsumed into a legalistic framework, whereby it is seen to be defending the establishment and status quo.

It was in such a political divide that the conservative-authoritarian right in Hungary and Poland prospered and it is precisely such a scenario that Boris Johnson (and his ghostly sidekick Dominic Cummings) wish to recreate in Britain. The British left still has time to defeat Johnson and his effort to force through a no-deal Brexit. However, this can only be achieved by mobilising a majority of society to defeat them politically, not just legally, before the country’s democratic rights are more permanently dismantled.

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