Paul's Column: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

09 October 2018

While sitting in the European Parliament in September listening to Viktor Orbán, the increasingly authoritarian leader of Hungary, address MEPs it brought to mind that elements of the British establishment, including the uncrowned king the Duke of Windsor, were attracted to Hitler and his National Socialists in the 1930s. 

The EU’s concern at Hungary’s drift away from democracy has been gathering pace leading to a vote by the European Parliament (EP) to trigger the EU’s most serious disciplinary procedures.  The vote caused difficulties for the largest political grouping in the EP, the conservative European People’s Party (EPP), because Orbán’s MEPs from Hungary sit in the EPP.  To their credit the majority of the EPP voted with their leader, Manfred Weber, to discipline Hungary.  Not so the British Conservative MEPs. 

Politics of course can involve making some unpalatable decisions so let’s take the Conservatives explanation at face value as to why they do not support disciplining Hungary.  While they too are not happy with what is happening in the Member State they think the EU will have more influence over Hungary if we hold them close rather than push them away.

I don’t agree with this argument but I understand how they may have come to it.  However what I don’t understand is why Conservative MEPs such as the frightfully well-spoken former British army brigadier Geoffrey Charles Van Orden MBE repeatedly applauded Orbán while he spoke?

It was this applause, joined in by UKIP and the Parliament’s outright fascists (yes, alas we have them), which made me think of the 1930s historical parallel.  What is it that pulls parts of the establishment towards right wing authoritarian figures?

There is a lot more to a healthy democracy than an election once every four or five years.  Orbán, Trump, sections of the Conservative Party and the far right all seem to think that having won an election you may then be entitled to set about rigging the courts in your favour, attacking the media, undermining civil society, rubbishing trade unions and undertaking wholesale denigration of your political opponents. 

It’s an uncomfortable reality but Hitler came to power in 1933 when the National Socialists became the largest party in the Reichstag as a result of winning two successive democratic federal elections. Having achieved a democratic victory he then set about ruthlessly dismantling the key components of a democratic state.  The worry is that Hungary could be embarking on a similar path.

A section of the Tory Party has always flirted with the far right but Conservative MEPs’ support for Orbán should be ringing alarm bells nonetheless.  Their Westminster counterparts don’t appear to be holding back on controversial statements either, with the Conservative Foreign Secretary comparing living in the EU to living in the Soviet Union.  Quite understandably the EU’s response was that Jeremy Hunt would, “benefit from opening a history book from time to time”.

That the Conservatives are being pulled ever rightward may in part be from a desire to hoover up UKIP supporters as their party collapses.  At the same time former UKIP members are joining the Conservative Party to ensure that when Theresa May falls under the proverbial bus she is replaced by a hard line Brexiteer. As a result of some of their saner MEPs and members leaving, UKIP have lurched even further to the right under their latest leader Gerard Batten MEP who has flirted openly with Tommy Robinson the founder of the neo-fascist English Defence League (EDL).  Appallingly, Batten turned up in Sunderland last month to support a demonstration called by the Football Lads Alliance, a grouping described by Stand Up to Racism as “the EDL mark two, except they are much bigger and have tried to learn the lessons of the EDL”.

This realignment of the right and far right needs careful monitoring and strong opposition.  Democracy is fragile and it has always had it opponents on the far right and the far left but a Brexit economic downturn on top of the years of austerity could provide a fertile breeding ground for extreme views which could quickly infect mainstream political thinking.  As the philosopher George Santayana put it, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’   

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