NOTES TOWARDS A DEFINITION OF CIVIC CONSERVATISM – REFLECTIONS ON FIVE YEARS OF GOVERNANCE

It is important to draw a distinction between ideology and ideals. Ideology is a blinkered view of the world, and it results in people being under constant pressure to conform, to somehow bring reality into line with an idea. This most commonly results in dogmatism or rigidity, and simplistic approaches. On the other hand, politics driven by ideals allows room to develop a pragmatic response to changes in the world around us.

[…] Everything that we have done in recent years can be described as a new economic philosophy. The Governor of the National Bank has described it as the “new mercantilism”. It is worth introducing this term into our vocabulary.

[…] The hidden source of success in Hungary has been tax reform, and the tax system must be defended. All tax systems can be criticised, and any tax system can be simultaneously attacked from a number of different angles. No tax system can be appropriate and fair in all respects. One must address the question: what system can bring about both fairness and efficiency. That is what we did. Anyone today who changed the pillars of this tax system would be condemning the Hungarian economy to failure. Any discussion of redistribution would be pointless since there would be no revenue to distribute. So this tax system must enjoy our unconditional protection.

[…] In the modern world there is a dogma which runs thus: there is economic policy for which a government is responsible; and there is monetary policy for which an independent central bank is responsible. But if there is no cooperation between the two – or if there is even (God forbid) hostility and differences of strategic vision expressed in differing goals – then a country can find itself in deep trouble. That is exactly what we have seen in Hungary several times in our history.

This is why I need to say now with due gratitude, in the presence of its Governor, that without the National Bank the economy could not have been reformed, and we could have not achieved the economic success that we are talking about right now. When the post of Governor of the National Bank fell vacant, I took a very difficult decision to imvite György Matolcsy – Hungary’s most creative economist, and Minister of Economic Affairs in our government – to become Governor, instead of letting him continue in his ministerial work. The decision has been vindicated.

What the Governor said about the timing of the decision on mortgages denominated in foreign currencies is very important. There are moments when you cannot afford to kick the can down the road. One has to see that if the opportunity is missed, you will still be paying for that mistake years or even decades later. The conversion of foreign currency-denominated mortgages into forint-denominated mortgages was one such moment. Without that decision, monthly repayments for borrowers with foreign currency-denominated mortgages would have increased by an average of 70 per cent. The country could not have withstood such a situation. Families would have faced ruin. Hungary would have been overwhelmed by chaos.

Today the debate is about the extent of the decrease.

[…] I read in the news that recently there were demonstrations outside a town hall with local Roma residents expressing their demands. What they were demanding was work. Not welfare support, but work! This was the moment when I felt we had won – that the tough period of transition from Communism had ended, and that we had all now entered a new era. This will be an era in which those members of Hungarian society with the lowest living standards, who have hitherto found no alternative to life on welfare, understand that it is not aid that they must demand but work. If so, this is a moment when all of us can together look to the future with hope.

[…] Consider Hungarian life until recently: Economic growth in negative territory. Government debt at over 85% of GDP. Inflation over 6% a year. The budget deficit close to 7%. Unemployment rate heading for 12%. Out of a population of ten million, only three and three quarter million Hungarians in work – and of these, only one point eight million paying taxes.

This is a frightening series of figures, is it not? No wonder, then, that in 2010 – the year we had to confront reality – blood ran cold in the veins of the whole country. One question reverberated: “My God, where is this leading?” From this despair there came first unity, and from that unity there came an election victory and a two-thirds majority. In 2010 we had to stand at the wheel of a ship which had run onto a reef, with water flooding in through the broken hull and everybody on the shore watching to see when we would finally succumb to the waves. First hand, we were experiencing the truth of Adenauer’s words: “History is the sum total of the things that could have been avoided.”

Now I havethe honour of telling you that it is now a historical fact that we Hungarians have overcome these dangers, and even though there may still be many problems to solve, we can look to the future with confidence and hope. Today we are the citizens of a country which is stronger in all senses, which stands more firmly, and which is performing well internationally, even in comparison with other EU countries. Our success in handling the biggest ever Danube flooding in 2013 symbolises the larger achievement of the whole country. No one – not even our opponents – can question the tremendous work that has been done.

[…] As usual, in the process we have made mistakes and blunders – some of them fairly big. For example there was the proposal to extend the telecommunications tax, which is lodged in the public consciousness as “the internet tax”. We should be given some credit for having the common sense not to insist on continuing with it when we saw our error. And with the national consultation on the internet and its hoped-for results, something useful might come out of this. Alas, I cannot promise that we will not make mistakes in the future, but Hungarians can count on us to continue to hear their voices and listen to their opinions.

On the other hand the possibility of making mistakes should not frighten us into not making decisions at all, or shirking responsibility, or passing the buck. Excessive risk avoidance and political idleness are among the worst mistakes in politics. Errors and mistakes are inevitable in our line of work. They should not discourage us. Nor limit our imagination and capacity to innovate.

[…] When was the last time that the inflation rate was close to zero?

When was the last time that the value of pensions could be preserved from one to the next – and could even be increased?

When was the last time that personal income tax, corporate tax and the tax burden on families were reduced simultaneously?

And all of this happened amidst a raging crisis in Europe.

In earlier crises, tax benefits for families with children and mothers’ monthly childcare benefits were scrapped.

When was the last time – in Hungary or anywhere in Europe – that households’ monthly utility bills were drastically reduced?

When was the last time that 90% of Hungarian pre-school children got at least three free meals a day? When was the last time that multinational companies and banks shared the burden for public expenditure? (And we are not talking about voluntary donations here.)

When was the last time that the state provided justice to borrowers in distress as a result of actions by the banks?

When was the last time that Hungary was the fastest growing economy in Europe?

At no time over the past 23 years have so many people been in employment as they are now.

When, until now, have we had a Fundamental Law which laid out our national values and took a stand on our Christian heritage, defending marriage, the family and national unity?

When and where was the last time that the number of parliament representatives was halved?

(Note that this period has also been the first time since the fall of Communism that the number of law enforcement officers has been increased by a figure like three and a half thousand.)

Nor do I remember a time when Budapest’s bus fleet was completely renewed within a few years. Do you?

When was the last time that we Hungarians stood up firmly and proudly for our country and for Hungarian interests in the international arena?

This has been the first time that Hungary has opted to go its own way on key matters and dared to try new solutions. Several of those who initially made sarcastic comments about our unorthodox methods are now politely asking for our recipe.

Today everybody recognises our achievements – from the IMF to the Europeanc Commission and the credit rating agencies.


So I have been able to run off a list of fifteen unprecedented achievements that have occurred in Hungary over the last five years – fifteen towering columns that prove this nation has courage and vision.

[…] Today we should also mention the circumstances in which we achieved all this. We must not forget that we were subjected to serious pressure from the very first moment. The country, my colleagues, and I found ourselves subjected to a barrage of criticism, and aggressive attacks. We fought major battles from the start; we confronted taboos and dogmas and we asked questions on sensitive subjects. This is fairly unusual for a Central European nation, especially Hungarians, because our Communists and Liberals were famous for toeing the line in an unprincipled way. So this was what the world had come to expect from us.

But I can admit that even I was surprised with what followed, as the Hungarians loudly and clearly endorsed the Government’s policies, and in three elections approved the path that the country had been following since 2010. I thought – and perhaps I was not the only one to think so – that this clear message would, for a while at least, see spirits soothed and life running a quieter course. That did not happen. We were subjected to even more ferocious attacks and accusations. What is more, they came from all sides at once. But slowly we adjusted to this, and soon we came to the point, like the Székely [Szekler] sergeant in the joke: he was happy that his battalion was completely surrounded, because at least that way he could attack in any direction.

[…] A quarter of a century is a long time, and it leaves its mark on everybody. That is also cruelly reflected every morning in the mirror – at least it is for men. Even if somehow you manage to avoid these signs, you will be reminded by your children entering adulthood. Over the course of twenty-five years a lot can change.

But there are some things that do not change. We who brought down Communism can be proud of – and are proud of – the things which have not changed in twenty- five years. From the beginning we stood for a free and independent Hungary, and we do so now. We stood for this during Communism and during the fall of that system. And that is also what we stand for now.

We are the ones for whom Hungary’s sovereignty cannot be negotiable. We want to live in a free and independent Hungary that is part of Western civilisation and an equal and respected member of the European Union and NATO.

Due to the current decline of the Left, the party out on the right seems to be the leading opposition force. Time will tell whether or not this situation is temporary, but here we must make something clear: I am ready to criticise the EU where criticism is deserved, and I am ready to enter into a debate with the bureaucrats in Brussels on any issue, but I strongly oppose – and if need be we should even fight – anybody steering the country towards leaving the European Union or NATO.

Admittedly, terrible ideas and proposals verging on lunacy sometimes emerge from the EU’s bureaucratic machine. For us Hungarians, however, this is our family, and it is in our best interests to improve it, rather than to leave it. We shall not break with it. Similarly, we had good reasons for joining the ranks of NATO. We wanted to protect ourselves from eastern military threats, and we still want to do so. We should never forget what the Communists and the Soviets did to our people, to our spirit, to our culture, and to our way of life.

At the same time it is in our fundamental interest to maintain the good economic relations with Russia that we now enjoy. For there is another truth we must recognise: it is critically important for our future to be one of those nations where trade between the East and the West flourishes. The Germans have realised the importance of maintaining the strongest economic ties with Russia, while supporting the highest level of freedom in the West. We can learn from their example.

[…] It is well known that we have serious disagreements with EU bureaucrats on immigration. Indeed, we are among those countries which are most critical of the new immigration regulations that Brussels is trying to impose on Hungary and other countries. We hope that in Brussels they will listen to and understand our arguments. Anyone who wants to take away my fundamental right to choose who I should let into my house, my home and my country wishes me harm.

They want to deprive me of my most basic means of self-preservation. And just as we should not deprive individuals of their most basic rights, neither should we do this with a community. This is our future, our country, our interests, and our concerns, and it is we who must decide them.

So we are members of a large family, in which there are disputes from time to time. We are in a particularly sensitive state of equilibrium, but while maintaining this balance, it is vital for the future of Hungary that we maintain the best possible relations with our major partners. We want Hungary to be successful. We would like all great powers to have an interest in Hungary’s continued success.

Some say that such politics is not possible. In my opinion, anyone who says this does not know the West, because all Western countries aim for such politics – some with more success and some with less. The foreign policy mindset that sees the different tendencies in international relations as mutually exclusive is in fact a legacy of Communism and it is, in my view, obsolete.

We need to lead Hungary towards a world in which it has its own national interests and goals as well as joining with others who have similar values and interests in common endeavours. It seems to me that we have managed to do this, albeit with some tough debate at national and international levels.

Only one thing has been needed for this: courage. A left-wing outlook on foreign policy considers courageous stands unnecessary, fidgety, counterproductive, or whatever. But this merely highlights the essential difference between the civic and the leftist camps. Anyone can be happy: the beautiful and the ugly, the old and the young – but the coward can never be happy.

[…] As we have known since Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Balatonőszöd speech, the previous government has been discredited even (or especially) by its own admissions. We in Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party have worked hard to create a government of which people can be proud because it meets the moral standards that this nation deserves.

No one can be above the law and no one can be allowed to abuse their position and power. But it should not be acceptable for pure envy to lead to attacks on others who are brave and successful – those who do more and achieve more.

After all, we want to encourage everybody to do more and to achieve more. We must not accept the abuse of power, but equally we must not accept envy dragging us into a swamp of pettiness, defeatism and failure.

To obtain trust, one must work hard. We have worked hard for it. Now we must understand that it is not enough to do our job well, but we also have to do more in order to maintain trust. We must follow up on all accusations and exercise zero tolerance both against all abuses and against all baseless accusations. We are in government to serve the people. For our government, Hungary will continue to come first. We should not be embarrassed to say that we want to be the best ever government for all Hungarian people.

The object of our passion is Hungary. And this is not an outmoded failing, but a virtue that never grows old.

In the end, one important question remains. We have cleared away the rubble and the obstacles left from the past and we have continued and completed the transition from Communism. Now we have got to the point at which we can realise our shared goal: civic consolidation.

Thirty years ago we thought that it would be enough for the Soviet troops to leave. We could transform ourselves into a democratic multiparty system and market economy and there would be nothing more to do. Now we know that the task is far more complicated, and we also know that a civic governance is not just about ideals.

The biggest mistake that a government can make is to become engrossed in the business of governance and to let this distract its attention away from the people. If a government has become detached from everyday life, it will not matter how wonderful its latest policy is. So we cannot allow the Government to lose itself in the great issues of governance and to give people the feeling that we no longer search for solutions to their problems or that the most important issues are irrelevant to their well-being, their security or their lives.

That is why national consultations were held in the previous term – and why we have launched a new one on immigration. We will continue to consult the people on all the important issues facing Hungary. We are and will continue to be a government of national consultation.

Civic governance encompasses many things, but its essence is that it is close to people and human in scale. The budget of 2016 focused on this idea: everyone can take a step forward. Our emphasis in all policies must now be shifted to the creation of a civic quality of life.

Civic governance is about making the country a better home for those who go out to work and who live from their work. Now the task is to create more comfortable and better living conditions for those who live from their work month by month and want to get on in life.

We can all aim for a life that in previous decades was at best a dream for the average Hungarian.

For a few years yet we may not earn as much as the Germans or the French. But we can start the process of furnishing the home that is our country in a way which enables all of us to lead lives of increasing quality and comfort. We can build on the performance of a reformed economy. We all know that there are still things which mar people’s everyday lives. Civic governance is also about protecting people in the face of everyday frustrations. In this regard I expect much from our programmes for the reduction of bureaucracy.

Civic consolidation also means that Hungary will be a Hungarian country. We will tailor all our actions towards the prosperity and well-being of all Hungarians who work, take their children to school, provide for their families, and look after their parents. Maybe their patriotism is not as strident as that of some, but they know that Hungary is their nation and they create around themselves a world of everyday patriotism which has always been the greatest sustaining strength of the Hungarian nation.

[…] Over the past five years the key word of governance has been strength. A dangerously weakened country had to be strengthened.

This was achieved and now Hungary can stand on its own feet. Of course, strong leadership must not be weaken because we still need to stand firm in the face of the swirling, relentless competition of nations. We need strong leadership when rapid and firm decisions are called for. Today, however, the most important quality in governance is not strength but attentiveness: paying attention to people and paying attention to everyday life.

Make no mistake, however. This might even be harder work than what has gone before.

Excerpts from an address to the conference of the Foundation For a Civic Hungary, Budapest, 29 May, 2015

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