Reflections on The Woke versus the West:
Awkward Questions for a Progressive Age by John O’Sullivan
During my student days in Oxford the distinguished poet Robert Graves was the university’s ‘Poet in Residence’. The duties of the person voted into this position did not seem unduly onerous in those days, but it was expected, or at any rate hoped, that they would occasionally amble down to the lecture halls on the High and impart some wisdom to those who had elected them. One of these lectures has stuck in my memory. After some rambling reminiscence Graves asked if anyone would like to ask a question. At this, a rather earnest-looking bespectacled girl put up her hand and asked the great man if he thought our civilization was in decline. Graves slowly brought his leonine head with its impressive white mane to bear on her. ‘No’, he said thoughtfully, ‘I do not think it is declining;’ [longish pause for dramatic effect] ‘I think it is disintegrating.’
Was Graves right? At any time in human history there have been eloquent Cassandras. The original prophetess of that name, it will be recalled, laboured under the curse of Apollo, namely that she should utter true prophecies but none would ever believe her. We recall also a sort of corollary to the fate of King Priam’s daughter that is memorably expressed in the Biblical assertion that a ‘prophet is not without honour, except in his own country’ (see O’Sullivan on Mrs Thatcher below). Nowadays, however, doom-mongering is mostly a bargain-basement product consisting of conspiracy theories given great currency on Facebook and Twitter and what Donald Trump delighted in calling ‘fake news’. John O’Sullivan is by no means a doom-monger, but he might sympathize a bit with Cassandra insofar as many of his wise observations often seem to be out of kilter with the zeitgeist.
Of course, some of what is branded fake news by the bien pensants (for instance Trump’s insistence that the coronavirus escaped from the Wuhan laboratory) turns out to be true, despite the inconvenient fact of having originated with Trump. That said, most conspiracy theories from the bargain basement have no more purchase on credibility than the Da Vinci Code or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But we do not in fact need conspiracy theory to feel somewhat depressed; we need only to take a close look at what is well documented and happening before our wondering eyes. This is what John O’Sullivan does in this coruscating collection of forty-three essays 1Published by Hungarian Review in 2020. written for various publications over thirty years. And he does it brilliantly.
It is, I think, a not unreasonable claim that the most effective conservative intellectuals in the modern age generally prefer the rapier to the bludgeon. This was not always the case (the satires of Dean Swift come to mind), but generally the Buckleys, the Minogues, the Scrutons, the O’Sullivans, and even the Jordan Petersons find courteous irony is more effective against the ubiquitous Tartuffes than abuse. Roger Scruton, for example, once disconcerted a leftist interviewer by saying that he really did not hate his ideological opponents as they seemed to hate him, and it rather puzzled him when people thought they had won an argument merely by shouting ‘homophobe!’ at him. When another interviewer whom he had invited into his home subsequently wrote an article misrepresenting him in the most vindictive manner, he merely asked that the journalist should make the whole tape of the interview available so that people could judge for themselves if the article was a fair reflection of his views and the sort of person he was.
John O’Sullivan’s conservatism is of this kind, and far removed from the rancid and often mendacious ad hominem approach of Fox News. It is true, however, that the list of his enthusiasms and causes—Mrs Thatcher, Reagan, Brexit, Hungary under Orbán, tighter laws on abortion—are in themselves quite enough to give urban liberals a fit of the vapours, while his dry irony is likely to turn a temper tantrum into unforgiving rage in some quarters. Likewise his dislikes—the Playboy ‘philosophy’, unbridled mass migration, the BBC’s pharisaism—are unlikely to earn him a rave review in The Guardian or The New York Times. The pieces in this volume amount, however, to a consistent and in my view humane conservative perspective on politics and society. Though the author will not thank me for saying so, a fundamental decency and generosity of spirit shines through the polemic, not unconnected with his devout Catholicism. (Full transparency: the writer of this review is a colleague of John O’Sullivan, though no verbal, legal or [sadly] pecuniary pressure has been put on him to supply a character reference.)
A true conservative (though not, unhappily, all Conservatives) is a person loyal to various basic principles—individual fulfilment in life (as opposed to collectivism), incentives rather than prohibitions, taxes as low as are commensurate with the preservation of a basic social net but not so high as to encourage state profligacy and creeping bureaucracy, freedom of thought and speech, patriotism, loyalty, and above all democracy. These are held as principles rather than dogmas, although it is true that Mrs Thatcher once lamented the absence of an ideology equally potent electorally for the Conservatives as the one that had served her political opponents so well since the Communist Manifesto was first published. ‘Monetarism’ was supposed to fill the gap, but since this is a mechanism not an ideology, its usefulness tends to be measured against results, whereas Marxism continually reinvents itself like a mutant virus.
Apropos Mrs Thatcher and apropos loyalty, O’Sullivan is both passionate and penetrating in his loyalty to his former boss (he served as one of her policy advisers). I defy the most hardened Thatcher hater not to be moved by his magnificent tribute (‘Farewell to the Iron Lady’) and his postscript to her ungracious dismissal by her own party (‘After She Lost, Did Margaret Thatcher Win?’). There is also an extremely funny dismantling of the default leftist argument that Conservative rule under Mrs Thatcher entailed diminution of freedom and authoritarian rule (‘Britain under the Iron High Heel’). In view of what has subsequently been documented in respect of Mrs Thatcher’s loyalty to, and empathy for, her own staff (one of whom, a socialist civil servant, even wrote a book about it), and in view of the liberation(s) that many of her policies brought about, from the abolition of exchange controls to the heavily discounted sale of council houses to their tenants, it is ironic—as O’Sullivan points out—that those ideologically inclined to more rather than less restrictions on the citizen should wax so indignant about a regime that the incorrigible voters had supported so strongly.
Readers would be well rewarded if they began with the three pieces about Margaret Thatcher. She has, of course, been the subject of a definitive biography by Charles Moore, and aspects of her policies and legacy have been much analysed. What O’Sullivan brings to the party is a subtle sketch of someone he knew and greatly admired, combined with empathy for her political aims. Revealingly, he records her outburst to a journalist just before her election victory of 1979, when she almost despairingly said, ‘I can’t bear Britain in decline. I just can’t bear it.’
But despair was not Mrs T’s style. Once she became prime minister, she went into battle with the two-headed monster of destructive unionism and a defeatist establishment, the latter well entrenched in the snobbish and appeasement-oriented elite of her own party. Yet, despite the patronizing depictions of her in the besserwisserisch liberal press as provincial and literal-minded, she displayed political skill and cunning as much as determination; she chose the ground for her great fight with the abuse of union power, making sure that large stocks of coal had been piled up before the confrontation. The most condescending and useless of her opponents among the Tory grandees were despatched to the equivalent of managing the Siberian power plant only after having been given a chance to fail in office. After a year or two it became clear who had got the message from the electorate and who had not, and the former were promoted until a loyal cabinet could be relied upon not to flinch from confronting vested interests.
O’Sullivan makes the point, and it is well taken, that most of the time Mrs Thatcher was more admired abroad than at home. This was particularly the case in countries like Hungary and Poland, which she visited as communism was in its death throes, but communist rulers were still juggling to hang onto power. General Jaruzelski invited her to Poland, apparently in the mistaken belief that her well-known animus against excessive union power might be used to persuade Solidarność to cool it a bit. Instead, of course, she delivered a fine speech to the shipyard workers of Gdańsk underlining the advantages of free market enterprise as against eternally loss-making state-run business. In a deeply moving passage, O’Sullivan relates how she herself was moved to tears as hundreds of workers threw their caps in the air and the huge industrial cranes dipped their masts in salute as she left the yard. She was again lachrymose when she visited the Solidarity church and the congregation of families rose at her entrance to sing ‘God Give Us Back Our Free Poland’.
What her home-grown critics could not stomach about Mrs Thatcher was that in so many areas she was proved right in the end, until she began to lose her touch for domestic policies in the very moment that her greatest desires in foreign policy were coming to fruition thanks to the powerful stance taken by her friend and ideological companion, Ronald Reagan. O’Sullivan, himself a former Conservative candidate, describes with resignation how, the more its policies became irrelevant, the bitterer the left became. Also more petty-minded, as epitomized by Oxford University’s refusal to grant Margaret Thatcher an honorary degree from her alma mater, as was usual for almost all significant political personages who had studied there.
During the Thatcher years, you could see opulent cars cruising the London streets with a sticker in the back window declaiming ‘Ditch the bitch’. Street parties celebrated her death in 2013 with chants of ‘Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead’, rather too eagerly reported on the BBC. A pompous letter to The Times, signed by 364 economists, denounced her economic policies just as the economy was beginning to take off as a result of them. What was later dubbed the ‘blob’ described her as ‘bigoted’ and ‘suburban’, and a particularly self-important lady don objected to her taste in hats. Ten years after she had left office she was still greeted on arrival at a speech venue by a mob shouting, ‘Thatcher, Thatcher, Thatcher, Fascist, Fascist, Fascist, Out, Out, Out!’ Turning to her speech-writer, Robin Harris, she said ‘Oh Robin, doesn’t it make you feel nostalgic?’
Mrs Thatcher’s secret weapon was that her opponents, basking as they did in self-love and hubris, made the fatal mistake of underestimating her intellectually. O’Sullivan describes very well how she applied her scientific and barrister training to the matter in hand, welcoming robust debate and always briefing herself with what O’Sullivan aptly describes as the diligence of a scholarship girl. When Gorbachev first visited the UK after his election as general secretary of the Soviet Union, she engaged him over lunch in a lively debate on the respective merits of capitalism and communism which won her his respect. On a visit to the Soviet Union, she wiped the floor with two communist worthies in a televised debate. But the European Economic Community (EEC) leaders were at first inclined to follow the condescending line of the liberal press. François Mitterrand, whose zigzag political career had begun as an official of the Vichy regime, referred to her as la fille d’épicier (the grocer’s daughter), but soon changed his tune; Helmut Schmidt, a man of legendary intellectual vanity, pretended to fall asleep as she kept the negotiators at the table until they conceded that the UK was indeed due a rebate on its (then) excessive annual EEC payments.
On the other hand she and Ronald Reagan achieved instant and lasting rapport. The ‘amiable dunce’ (as The New York Times would have it) and the lady with the awful hats thereafter changed the political weather at home and abroad, one of the most remarkable and effective political alliances of modern times, notwithstanding that Mrs Thatcher was naturally the junior partner. They successfully worked together on the Falklands crisis, even if this was at best only of symbolic importance geopolitically, and that mostly to the Brits. More importantly, the two leaders were clear about the virtues of non-appeasement, and led the way in policies (or support of them) that culminated in a successful and largely peaceful dissolution of the ‘evil empire’—as Reagan used to describe it to the great indignation of the bien pensants. This success was such a thorn in the flesh of the liberal American intelligentsia that a great deal of ink was spilled explaining to a public obviously in need of instruction that the collapse of communism had nothing to do with Reagan’s policies, would have happened anyway, etc. (this often from members of a huge tribe of Kremlinologists who had previously assured us that the totalitarian states were now securely established and were here to stay for the foreseeable future).
I have dwelled somewhat on the Reagan–Thatcher years as a keynote of the book, but of course the topics arising are only a small part of O’Sullivan’s rich mix. The back cover blurb gives the impression that the book is almost entirely about ‘woke’ culture, which is not the case. However it most certainly is about principles and values and one of the most interesting sections is entitled ‘Crimes of the Soul’. This begins with a piece written on the death of Hugh Hefner, founder of the soft porn Playboy magazine, which happened to occur as the storm broke over Harvey Weinstein, Hollywood’s serial sex abuser. Hefner was about to be interred in a plot next to Marilyn Monroe, who had once been paid $50 for some nude photos that ended up in Playboy—since they were used without payment from the latter, O’Sullivan wonders drily whether she would not have appreciated a little earlier some of the $75,000 that Hefner paid to be next to her in death. He is very amusing about the obituaries written with ‘a sympathy at times amounting to reverence’ of this vulgar and sexploitative con man whom a New York Times columnist called ‘the grinning pimp of the sexual revolution’. His successful PR pitch was to sell masturbation as sophistication. Unfortunately, American feminists did not quite see it that way, and ‘Hef’s’ cool image gradually faded into that of a pathetic old lecher.
At this point O’Sullivan segues into the Weinstein scandal, which was then like a long dormant volcano suddenly erupting all over Hollywood. His take on this is interesting, since he points out that this event represents a dramatic cultural turn, but not necessarily an inspiring one. That is because those who had known about Weinstein’s proclivities and activities had winked at them for many years (the ‘omertà of the film industry’ O’Sullivan calls it), yet they now appeared before our wondering eyes as outraged progressives. Transactional casting couch sex is of course as old as the film industry itself, but Weinstein had long insured himself by adopting liberal causes and donating heavily to the Democrats. His last throw of the dice was an offer to destroy the National Rifle Association, favourite villain of the progressive liberals (‘You could not make it up’, says O’Sullivan).
These cultural turns occur swiftly, although they may have been building up over the years. When they come, they stimulate an unedifying overnight transformation from complicity to Salem witch trial. ‘It is always unpleasant’, writes O’Sullivan, ‘to watch a pack of hounds turn on and rend a fugitive even when the fugitive has it coming. All his old associates run for cover; no chits for past favours can be redeemed; his accusers grow in number and vehemence (though not necessarily in credibility).’ This is not a defence of Weinstein’s behaviour, but rather a warning about the emetic pharisaical world of American celebrity. It generates a new puritanism that is no more attractive than and sometimes just as opportunistic as the exploitation it replaces. The new puritanism crossed the Atlantic in a trice: shortly after the Weinstein wave broke, ‘researchers’ claimed that forty MPs (all Conservatives, of course) had abused people they worked with—a list that had to be reduced to twenty-five within days, as one MP after another identified himself as on the list and invited the ‘researchers’ to show their evidence, of which they had none. The secretary of state for defence resigned because he had kissed a female journalist and placed his hand on another’s knee fifteen years earlier (although the journalist concerned insisted that ‘no one was remotely upset or distressed’).
What I think O’Sullivan elegantly unmasks is the real nature of ‘woke’ culture which is the ideal vehicle for people, as the poet Samuel Butler put it, ‘to compound for sins they are inclined to / By damning those that they’ve no mind to’. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have nurtured a self-righteous, self-absorbed, and narcissistic culture of virtue signalling, unrestrained by healthy introspection or a shred of humility. There is, refreshingly, the beginnings of a backlash against intolerant and politically motivated wokeism as applied to the public media. Writers, perturbed at journalists being hounded out of their jobs, publishers being subjected to politically motivated strikes, and writers as celebrated as J. K. Rowling being physically threatened by ‘activists’, published a joint letter in Harper’s Magazine repudiating censorship in 2020.
Despite the fact that signatories of the letter came from across the political spectrum, objections poured in. O’Sullivan analyses the principal motives with clarity. Firstly, the objection was that there were more compelling issues (Black Lives Matter, climate change, etc.) than free speech, and why were the writers not busying themselves with these? The second was that the signatories, as mostly quite well-known writers, were merely exerting their privileged position, and drowning out minority voices. The third objection was that, in any case, cancel culture did not exist and the only threat to free speech was the failure of mainstream media to provide more employment for minority, female, and radical voices.
These objections are, of course, all question-begging, and remind me of a piece in Die Zeit a few years ago which observed that, if you asked a liberal about the problem of illegal immigration, which had become highly controversial, you would get a three-fold reply. First the liberal would deny that it posed any problem. Then he would say, ‘Well, it has always gone on’. Then he would say, ‘Well, it is good for our society’. The question-begging of the protests against the Harper’s letter is likewise three-fold, firstly denying that freedom of speech is comparatively an important issue, secondly claiming that the letter merely reinforced the privileges of the status quo, and thirdly asserting that there was, after all, a problem, but it lay with the letter writers themselves through their denial of publishing space to minority voices. These objectors were generally pushing a thinly-disguised version of the old neo-Marxist line laid out by Antonio Gramsci for obtaining hegemony in the public discourse. Claim that you are discriminated against, then claim that you are rectifying the discrimination by discriminating against others—until you have complete control of what can be published. O’Sullivan ends this piece with a splendid old Soviet joke about a regional commissar of the Union of Soviet Writers delivering his report on the rising production of literature in his province: ‘I’m proud to announce’, he said, ‘that this year’s literary output has been outstanding. We have no fewer than 385 novelists working full-time for the proletariat—whereas in the backward tsarist times we had only one writer here, by the name of Tolstoy.’
A piece I would particularly like to draw attention to (reluctantly having to leave out his various elucidatory essays on the nature of conservatism and his pen-portraits of people he has known, such as the great Irish diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien and the historian of Stalinist atrocities, Robert Conquest, who fought the good fight against anti-democrats) is his ‘Introduction’ to a hugely important book by John Fonte: Sovereignty or Submission: Will Americans Rule Themselves or Be Ruled by Others? This should indeed be read in conjunction with the first two articles in the book—‘Conservatism, Populism, and Liberalism in the Post-Democratic Age’ and ‘Does the West Still Exist?’ (The latter is a review of two relevant books on the issue of Western political identity and the former is the John Howard Lecture of 2017, inter alia a tribute to one of the quietly most successful conservative politicians of modern times.) But the Fonte piece—‘Global Governance or National Democracy: Who Rules?’ addresses a core issue of democracy that will preoccupy voters more and more as time goes by. The point at issue is the difference between international agreements—NATO for instance—and transnational governance.
In the case of NATO, while you are a member, you are committed to going to the defence of any other member should they be attacked. The agreement is based on mutual interest and has a clear and specific purpose. Any country can, however, leave if they feel their national interest is not best served by being a member—indeed General de Gaulle did in fact ordain that France should (half)-leave for a while because he felt France’s interests were not being sufficiently protected.
Although not everybody seems to appreciate it, global transnational agreements are fundamentally of a different nature, as both Fonte and O’Sullivan explain in detail. Their origins are shrouded in the journals of legal and academic specialists, well below the public radar, and their proposals filter into the bureaucratic and political elites slowly. Invariably they sail under irreproachable flags, usually human rights defined in one way or another. Once enshrined in a global agreement, they are (as O’Sullivan puts it) often ‘subject to extravagant re-interpretation by international courts, national courts, and even—under the rubric of the new customary international law—conferences of law professors claiming transnational legislative force for their law review articles’. Modern liberals, who are often either openly or clandestinely in favour of global governance, will probably dismiss these objections as a conspiracy theory. However, John Fonte’s book gives some very clear examples of the process. In any event, the essential point is that the electorates of democracies, who choose governments to enact certain policies proclaimed in an electoral manifesto, are entirely shut out of this process. It is top-down and pre-emptive, whereas the point of democracy is that lawmaking should be from the bottom-up, through a recognized process of legitimacy.
If I may add one example of my own, derived from research I was doing for a study on democracy, not everyone seems to realize that the reach of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) is itself an example of entirely self-created powers, starting with a self-legitimizing coup that gave it precedence over national judiciaries in the 1960s. Claims of autonomy for the ECJ are very wide-ranging indeed. So much so that in 2014 it rejected the accession of the EU as a body to the non-EU European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on the grounds (somewhat camouflaged) of jurisdictional priority.
The ECJ noted that it was not representative of a state as was necessary for accession to the ECHR, but a ‘new legal order’ (whatever that might mean). It seemed the real reason for its objection was the fear that there might be a rival jurisdiction to itself, and ironically argues in defence of this that the EU is intrinsically not a national state. As one legal expert comments: ‘While such a clear statement may come as a relief to those who fear the growth of the EU into a superstate, what follows in the Opinion amounts to a robust declaration of the autonomy of EU law, which has some troubling consequences, and ultimately led the ECJ to find the draft agreement [for ECHR accession] incompatible with EU law.’ 2See: Sionaidh Douglas-Scott, ‘Anniversary Chair in Law at Queen Mary University of London’, 24 December 2014, https://verfassungsblog.de/opinion-213-eu-accession-echr-christmas-bombshell-european-court-justice-2/.
Ironically therefore, this seemingly opaque dispute was in reality a struggle for precedence between bodies, at least one of which was not legitimated by bottom-up, i.e. genuine, democracy. The fact is that the precedence of the ECJ over national law is nowhere stated in the European Treaties (as the pro-EU journalist Wolfgang Münchau has pointed out). Moreover the German Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe has recently reminded the European Central Bank, and thus indirectly the EU (to their great indignation), that the sovereign nations comprising the EU are ‘the masters of the Treaties’, and indeed declared that the ECJ had acted ultra vires. The exposure of the innate gap between claims and reality in regard to democratic accountability is of course unwelcome to the Brussels blob. ‘EU politicians have clearly given up on winning popular support for the “European Project”’, writes the historian Robert Tombs. ‘Instead, they rely on the Court of Justice, the Central Bank and the secretive Council to build an unaccountable technocracy. Such a shallow system is doomed to weakness.’
As for transnational enforcement, it is clearly not subject to democratic accountability in the traditional sense, and is more a system of juristocracy (rule by lawyers). Even if liberals have a vague idea that the pressure applied by unelected NGOs and other pressure groups on global bodies is somehow legitimated because their ostensible causes are just, the democratic deficit should worry them. For example ‘Monitors’ of UN Conventions have quasi-judicial powers, and the system is vulnerable to abuse—usually a politicized attempt to lambast the USA or Israel. ‘Once it emerges’, writes O’Sullivan, ‘that a country like Canada has agreed to submit its welfare budget for approval by a UN rapporteur who is also the diplomatic representative of a notorious dictatorship […] the public reacts along the lines of “what the hell is going on?” Advocates of global governance respond with variations on ‘nothing to see here, folks, move along please. Just a small earthquake in theory, not many disenfranchised.’ The manoeuvring of ‘global governance’ slips back down public awareness until another scandal is revealed.
The two most contentious personages featured in these essays will be Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán. The author is perhaps fortunate that the book went to press before Trump finally burned his democratic credentials by refusing to accept the result of an election and encouraging his supporters to attack the Capitol in order to prevent the ceremony validating the election result from taking place. Although Trump got some things right (for instance the liquidation of the head of Iranian terrorism, who thought he was untouchable, which noticeably dialled down Iran’s trouble-making in the Middle East), and although the liberal media set out to destroy him from the beginning (and political opponents to impeach him), no democrat could possibly support or defend a politician who aims to destroy the very core of democracy. The Republicans have put themselves in the impossible position of airbrushing out insurrection, and only a few in their ranks (such as the courageous Liz Cheney) have dared to call a spade a spade. They receive death threats for their pains.
O’Sullivan refers to Trump’s ‘infuriating mix of cleverness, boldness, impulsiveness, touchiness, and at times mean-spiritedness’—which sounds curiously like someone trying to retten was zu retten ist from the car-crash of a Trump presidency. The democratic conservative may well applaud the fact that Trump made heard the voices of American voters who had been taken for granted. Equally however he or she needs to respect the result of a free and legal vote if it goes against him or her. After all, it was the undemocratic attempts of Remainers in the UK to sabotage a free and legal vote over Brexit that resulted in a Conservative win at the following election with a majority of over eighty seats. You cannot pick and choose which free democratic votes you choose to accept and still call yourself a supporter of democracy. Of course O’Sullivan does not write articles claiming Trump won the election and the insurgents on Capitol Hill were just tourists. But all conservatives must in the end choose between a Liz Cheney and a complicit Republican majority, as also between ‘redistricting’ (gerrymandering) and objective electoral demographics, between inclusive voting rights and attempts to distort the process to exclude minorities voting Democrat. There is a red line here—at least if my definition of conservatives above is accurate.
In his piece on ‘Hungary 2014: Image and Reality—Whose Democracy? Which Liberalism?’ O’Sullivan makes some good points about Hungary’s distorted image in the world. He aptly quotes someone from Berlin’s Global Policy Institute as follows: ‘Taking a page from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s playbook, Orbán has wielded his Fidesz party’s two-thirds parliamentary majority to push through a number of laws that attack what freedom remains in Hungary’s media, civil society and academic community.’ The attempt to depict Orbán as a ‘pocket Putin’ (Financial Times) is key to the image carefully built up of a ‘dictatorship’ (as Anne Applebaum actually calls it). Much of the relevant script is in fact home-grown and then offered for export to journalists only too eager for the copy; the late Ágnes Heller, for example, wrote a pamphlet about the ‘tyranny’ of Orbánism, which she describes as a mix of Horthyism and Kádárism. For good measure she alleges the ‘refeudalization’ of a Hungarian population more used to being supplicants than citizens, which is a good example of the patronizing contempt that urban intellectuals have for those who do not share their ideology.
O’Sullivan is surely right to push back against this kind of thing, pointing out, inter alia, that Germany was content under Merkel to pursue its own interest with Russia, so had no business complaining if Orbán pursued a pragmatic line in that regard, and that the idea that Hungary looks remotely like Putin’s Russia is sheer fantasy. He also disposes of the canard that Orbán is ‘anti-Semitic’ (if all else fails, play the Jewish card). He points out that Orbán has spoken out against anti-Semitism and established close relations with Israel. He might have added that the chief rabbi in Budapest has said that Hungary is one of the safest countries in Europe for Jews (no doubt having regard to rising anti-Semitism in France, among the British socialists, and—most awkwardly for the left—among Muslim immigrants). The main problem for Hungarian democracy, O’Sullivan asserts (in my view correctly), has been the weakness and incoherence of the opposition.
There is an immense amount of red meat in this book, material for robust debate and mind-expanding seminars. O’Sullivan also has a refined sense of humour, something of which the ‘woke’ generation can hardly be accused. I particularly enjoyed his account of the demotion of the Catholic Church in Ireland from bullying killjoy to embattled and disempowered, often scandal-ridden, bystander. ‘The social power of bishops’, he writes, ‘took a series of massive hits. The first was from television: a popular broadcaster, Gay Byrne of RTÉ’s Late Late Show, had asked a newly married woman what she wore on her wedding night. ‘“Nothing”, she replied, to the consternation of the bishop of Limerick, who phoned in to complain. Parishioners were told not to watch the show in future.’
Reading John O’Sullivan, one realizes that the contemporary incarnations of the bishop of Limerick in the ‘woke’ community—the unfortunate persons who have set to work ‘decolonizing’ Shakespeare’s texts, the council officials who tell you what their pronouns are at the bottom of a letter explaining that more of your council tax is to be spent on ‘diversity’, the ‘decolonizing’ group of British Library employees who require the busts of Beethoven and Mendelssohn to be removed because they represent ‘white cultural hegemony’—are almost certainly destined to go the way of the bishop and probably quite soon. This is simply because intolerant revolutions soon start devouring their own—there are signs that this is already happening in the LGBTQ+ community where an entirely ridiculous fight to the death is raging over whether gender is determined biologically or is a ‘social construct’ and a matter of choice.
One suspects that, like Mrs Thatcher, John might feel quite nostalgic if he were to be deprived of such good copy because everybody had returned to ‘planet normal’. Until that happens we can all enjoy his coruscating texts.
- 1Published by Hungarian Review in 2020
- 2See: Sionaidh Douglas-Scott, ‘Anniversary Chair in Law at Queen Mary University of London’, 24 December 2014, https://verfassungsblog.de/opinion-213-eu-accession-echr-christmas-bombshell-european-court-justice-2/.