THE HIGH PRICE OF POLITICAL INTEMPERANCE

More than 60 years ago the British socialist politician Aneurin Bevan, founder of Britain’s National Health Service, shocked the British political classes by describing Conservatives as “lower than vermin”. Throughout his life, the phrase, for which he refused to apologise, was repeated in virtually every assessment of his career and figured prominently in the obituaries which followed his death in 1960. The traditional style of British parliamentary debate is robust, but many clearly believed that Bevan’s intemperate words, uttered in defiance of the normal conventions, rendered him unsuitable for high office. Pointing to the possible consequences of such intemperance, the following comment which appeared in the Catholic newspaper The Tablet was typical of much media comment at the time. The “vermin speech” was an illustration of one of the habits of mind which could destroy parliamentary democracy, the fastening of labels on classes and groups in preparation for the day when intellectual injustice can be followed up with physical injustice. Standards have fallen somewhat and contemporary examples of intemperate attacks by British politicians on their opponents, and of similar instances elsewhere in the Western world, are not hard to find. However, it is evident that intemperance of this kind is far more common in the countries of the former Soviet bloc. Why should this be so? As a general rule, it may be asserted that the states in which the tendency appears in its most exaggerated form are those ex-communist states with no experience of self-government prior to their absorption into the Soviet empire. During travels to Central Asia and Eurasia I gained first-hand experience of this. In 2005, as a member of election observation mission to Kazakhstan led by a former British cabinet minister, I was struck by the gulf in between the attitudes of the populace at large and those of the leaders of the political opposition towards the incumbent president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Members of the former would often speak of President Nazarbayev with a degree of reverence seldom, if ever, accorded to political leaders in Western democracies, while the latter expressed visceral hatred of him. One prominent opposition leader assured me that Nazarbayev was a vicious dictator, an oppressor of his people whose only concern was to line his own pockets. Even if the country’s human rights record was far from perfect, wasn’t it the case that things were far better since the Soviet collapse? I asked. And did not President Nazarbayev at least deserve some credit for the country’s rapid economic growth and the steady rise in per capita incomes, as reflected in data from international organisations such the IMF and the World Bank? “The figures were based on lies peddled by the Kazakh Government”, I was told. “No one here believes them. We were better off economically under communism.” At this point in our conversation another member of the election observation mission, a senior British academic, beckoned the politician over to the first-floor window of the room in which we were meeting and pointed to that by-product of modern capitalist success – a queue of German cars crowding the streets outside. “What’s that?” he asked, somewhat disingenuously. “A traffic jam. It happens here every day.”“A traffic jam, eh? Ten years ago, you didn’t even have traffic!” Despite the fact that the words quoted above could be disproved by the evidence of our own eyes, similar claims about Kazakhstan and Nazarbayev are accepted uncritically by the Western media, when the truth is far more complex, and, as it happens, far more interesting. To be sure, Western journalists who repeatedly write in this vein may be influenced by the fact that the description of Nazarbayev given above comes close to fitting other political leaders in the region, most notably Islom Karimov of Uzbekistan, a highly authoritarian if less successful political leader. Even foreign editors of national daily newspapers, it seems, have difficulty distinguishing one “stan” from another. More to the point, the mood of intemperance which extravagant claims or wilful misrepresentation produces discourages analysts from making important distinctions, and renders them wholly incapable of making fine ones. Examples of political intemperance, whether taking the form of wilful exaggeration, misrepresentation or the rabid denunciation of foes, are easily ridiculed, but it would be a mistake not to grasp their significance or to underestimate their ability to place a brake on the growth of political pluralism and the development of democratic institutions. Of course, the animosity that exists between competing parties in the new democracies of the former Soviet bloc can be partly explained by the hatred for those who once wielded the communist levers of power felt by those who opposed them despite the consequent risk to life and liberty. But that cannot be the whole explanation: the same phenomenon of intemperance, combined with an unwillingness to engage with opponents, can be observed in those countries in which there was little or no organised political opposition to communism prior to its collapse. Part of the explanation would seem to be that while those peoples who are new to democracy or who may, through no fault of their own, have forgotten much of what they once knew, understand very well that the job of a political opposition is to oppose, they do not understand the importance of the conventions which regulate the conduct of the political players in a mature liberal democracy. Nor do they grasp the collaborative nature of important aspects of the liberal democratic system. For many opposition politicians democracy is the political equivalent of law of the jungle, a free for all in which anything is permissible. They have failed to grasp that a much more accurate comparison is with sport or games than with the law of the jungle: highly competitive human activities which nevertheless cannot take place without agreement about the rules and conventions of the game, a general adherence to such rules and a show of respect for opponents. This is not to say that those in the ex-Soviet bloc who wildly exaggerate the blemishes and failings of their political opponents have not been given a certain amount of Western encouragement. Much of the Western media has been keen to listen to the complaints of opposition leaders about the authoritarian ways of the leaders of post-communist states, having grossly exaggerated the ease with which it was possible for ex-communist states to turn themselves into functioning liberal democracies in a fraction of the time taken by the Western democracies to travel the same road. As a consequence, they have accepted, often uncritically, the accusations which they heard. And those making such allegations have been delighted to discover that while their claims might not resonate with the electorate they have a ready audience among Western journalists. That being so they have couched their messages in terms which they correctly judged would be received sympathetically by the predominantly liberal/leftish Western press corps. In the Anglosphere countries there has been a convention that politicians show restraint when criticising their opponents while travelling abroad and also when speaking to the foreign media; they have generally avoided saying anything that would damage their country’s economic reputation or prospects. Almost the opposite applies in many ex-communist states; in these opposition spokespersons appear to have concluded that the best chance of finding someone to take them seriously lies in informing the wider world about the inherent wickedness of their governments and the lamentable failure of their countries to live up to their democratic aspirations. If the message is at first ignored, the next step will be to turn up the volume. A further factor may lie in the continuation of the pervasive mood of cynicism that was common during the lifetime of the Soviet Union, particularly during its latter stages. This was reflected in a well-worn Russian joke: First citizen: “What is the definition of capitalism, comrade?” Second citizen: “Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man.” First citizen: “And what is the definition of communism?”Second citizen: “Why comrade, the matter is completely the other way round!” Those who were on the losing side in the greatest ideological struggle of the 20th century have been given ample reason not to doubt the economic superiority of the liberal market-based order. But few of them have acknowledged its moral superiority. Only a tiny number of them have been held to account for the crimes committed in the name of communism; the rest have been given little reason to feel bad about themselves and many no doubt subscribe to a belief in the moral equivalence of the two systems as reflected in the hoary Soviet joke quoted above. Indeed, the antagonism which exists in Central Europe between communists and ex-communists is partly fuelled by the resentment by the former at the success of their opponents; there is precious little evidence that this is tempered by a recognition that they backed the wrong side morally. No reason then to treat the victors with particular respect or to act in a spirit of intellectual humility that might be judged appropriate in those who helped sustain brutal totalitarian regimes. As a newcomer to Budapest, I am struck by the innate decency of the people in their dealings with one another, as much as by the visual beauty of the city. But I am also struck by the fact that the former trait does not necessarily apply to members of the political class who display many of the characteristics described above and who give the impression of seeking to avoid serious political engagement with one another. Given the country’s achievements much of the rhetoric employed by government critics appears to me to be shrill and disproportionate; this has not, however, prevented it from influencing coverage of Hungarian politics and society by Western journalists and broadcasters who with few exceptions have uncritically accepted their criticisms. Hungarians should realise not only that the international media is not neutral but has a marked left wing bias – but also that their intemperance confirms and entrenches that bias. I may have lived here only a short while but I simply do not recognise the description of modern Hungary provided by Paul Lendvai, a Vienna-based Hungarian writer whose book My Wasted Country represents an indictment of the past 20 years of Hungarian democracy, and who alleges that Viktor Orbán currently presides over a climate of “hate and intolerance”. Or that of a former minister and MSZP MP who alleged that the Hungarian Prime Minister is currently leading “a truly totalitarian dictatorship”. I do not recognise those descriptions, but I recognise the animus from which they spring. In Britain the politician that has been the target of more vitriol than any other was Margaret Thatcher. She was accused of seeking to create an authoritarian state and of suppressing liberty, including the freedom of the press. Part of the vitriol was a reflection of class and sex biasbut there was no doubting the desire of the European left to discredit a strong and successful conservative leader who challenged their own orthodoxies, especially their claim that the nation-state was dead. At its best the collaborative character of democratic politics has enabled men and women of quality and character who happen not to share the beliefs of the incumbent government, to find themselves out of favour with it, to play an important role in the public lives of their country. At a parliamentary level it enables elected representatives to work together in committee in order to improve legislation regardless of party allegiance and it allows those of different views to combine in order to undo perceived injustices. At times of national danger it is a crucial factor in demonstrating a common determination to stand up to external aggression. Those who raise the political temperature carelessly without a proper regard for the facts and without regard for the consequences, threaten the social cohesion on which such cooperation depends.

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