Looking East: Hungary’s Lessons for Britain

There is a thought-provoking new documentary, produced by Peter Whittle’s New Culture Forum, examining what western European conservatives can learn from Viktor Orbán’s government. The film, ‘Orbán’s Hungary: Lessons for Britain? Is Hungary Unfairly Demonised in the West?’ is bound to reaffirm that deeply conservative nation’s pride in what the governing Fidesz party has achieved since winning the 2010 election.

But further west, particularly in Britain, the NCF’s special is likely to evoke more plaintive sentiments, if not downright fury. Indeed, the UK Conservative government has altogether less to show for itself than the Hungarians do after an equivalent period of now twelve years in Downing Street. It has fixated on the economy—which has now cratered in any case as a result of Boris Johnson’s heavy-handed lockdowns, which caused a recession the likes of which has not been witnessed since 1709—while neglecting the country’s wider culture and institutions, which are still dominated by an out-of-touch, left-wing elite.

Whereas under the misery of the Iron Curtain Eastern Europeans once looked west for inspiration, there are now a considerable number of conservatives across western Europe who feel inclined to return the favour. In the west, we find ourselves not so much under the despotic grip of commissars as drowning in a whirlpool of ‘Woke’ ideology that countries such as Hungary appear to have dodged. It is even more gloomy to reflect that in Britain at least, the Left’s cultural hegemony has only strengthened under the watch of a nominally Conservative government.

In truth, leaving the European Union has been the only real achievement in which the UK Conservative party can take pride—and even that was more an accident of David Cameron’s political miscalculations combining with Johnson’s opportunistic character than the pursued aim of a Tory party led by men and women of principle.

Regarding social, moral, and cultural issues, the Conservative record since 2010 has been pitiful. Why, for instance, does it remain lawful for the National Health Service to waste taxpayers’ money hiring ‘Head of Equalities’ bureaucrats and ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’ secretaries? Recently, I met a former special advisor to a Conservative Prime Minister who said this was inevitable because the power to spend NHS funds is not centralised, but local. Yet this same individual also expressed passionate support for the crushing lockdowns to which Johnson subjected the British people from March 2020 onwards. If this person’s views are representative of the broader Conservative Party, then Britain is now governed by people who believe the right of NHS middle-managers to blow treasury funds on ‘woke’ nonsense is more fundamental than the basic freedom to associate and to make personal risk assessments in the light of our own unique circumstances. Indeed, it was precisely in order to “save” this wasteful NHS that the government violated so many of our civil liberties in the first place.

The cases of Toby Young and the late Sir Roger Scruton are also instructive—not just for how poorly mainstream Conservatives are willing to treat their own, but as evidence of their cowardice in the culture war. From 1997 to 2010, the Labour government did not waste any time getting its loyalists into influential posts at QUANGOS and other bureaucratic institutions. But when the moment came for Conservatives to use this power after 2010, Toby Young and Sir Roger Scruton only enjoyed the prestige of being appointed to their respective positions for a matter of days before, faced with confected outrage mobs, the governing Tories lost their nerve and threw both men to the left-wing bullies.

It is not for nothing that Peter Hitchens has suggested that the Conservative Party would guillotine the Queen in Trafalgar Square if it calculated that doing so might boost their odds at the next election. It is also not surprising that disaffected conservatives in Britain—along with many others in western European nations, equally frustrated by the wetness of their supposed right-wing parties—are more inspired by the resolve of Orbán to defend national culture and conservative values.

Indeed, as we learn from Whittle’s documentary, Hungary’s government has been willing to employ the commanding heights of institutional power to do just this against the dreary, bloodless, and ‘progressive’ schemes of globalist liberals. It has donated €1.2 billion to the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, an educational institute based in Budapest that honours Scruton’s contributions to intellectual life a great deal more than his own Conservative countrymen. The residential college, as the NCF film explains, also “offers conservative students fellowships, stipends, and networking events” as part of a wider strategy to cultivate a future elite of Hungarian patriots.

Whittle succinctly describes the political focus of Fidesz: “Hungarian conservative thinking has always been about the preservation of the country’s sovereignty and freedom in the face of threatening forces, from whatever direction and in whatever form they may come.” As such, polite but firm distinctions are made between Hungarians and non-Hungarians, between Christian roots and secular liberal daydreams, between individuals who feel bound to some common good and egos enslaved by their own socially destructive appetites.

This is strictly forbidden in Western Europe—or at least, unschooled visitors to the main countries in that region might be forgiven for assuming as much. This is why the Western European Left, not least in Britain, loathes Hungary: such people cannot tolerate even the faintest hint of moralism that does not emanate from their own prejudices. Their hatred of Hungary’s achievements thus stems from the most ill-repressed projection, because at least since Gramsci it has always been the Left’s aim to pursue cultural hegemony as the continuation of politics by other means. Meanwhile, the UK Conservative Party, though it does not necessarily share this prejudice, fears being associated with a Hungarian government that stands widely accused of ‘backsliding’ from democratic, so-called ‘liberal’ norms. One of the chief virtues of Whittle’s film is that it addresses this propaganda, featuring educational interviews with many figures, from John O’Sullivan to Tibor Fischer, who in recent years have suffered the disadvantage of being well-informed about Hungary and therefore avoided by the mainstream media.

Hungary’s past is more tragic than Britain’s. As such, the country’s leadership is acutely aware of the fact that history rarely gives countries too long a holiday from challenges and threats. Hungary has learned through its experience that profound bonds of mutual loyalty are not only necessary for national survival, but are never more firmly established than within the married family. Only within this social unit can the virtues of sacrifice, self-discipline, and personal responsibility leave their strongest imprint on the developing mind. Fidesz has thus marshalled the resources of the state to ensure that conservative family values, if not crammed down people’s throats, are at the very least rewarded and made easier for the average person to practise. Married couples with three children or more, for example, are entitled to a grant of roughly £26,000.

As Whittle puts it, Hungary’s pronatalist policy is now “reaping a bountiful harvest.” €7.5 billion were allocated to family support in the 2021 budget—equal to 5.2 per cent of the country’s overall GDP. Moreover, in 2020 there were more than 92,000 births—3.4 per cent higher than in 2019—as well as a 50 per cent rise in the number of marriages. True, these accomplishments were pursued in part to address Hungary’s forty-year-long demographic decline. But more deeply, they are important for having crowned the married family as the main social unit that determines the strength of nations.

Naturally, the rule of law is central to the conservative tradition in the United Kingdom. But there is nothing about being impressed by Hungary’s cultural self-confidence or aspiring to integrate its family policies into a British context that necessarily conflicts, as Hungary’s critics claim, with the importance of ranking law above power.

The law cannot properly be said to rule a political community unless the three following principles are sacrosanct. First, the state can exercise no power that is not expressly granted to its ministers by the law. Second, the law must apply equally to every member residing within the territory. Finally, only independent, politically impartial judges may interpret the law in a binding, enforceable way.

The phrase ‘rule of law’ has English origins, but the fundamental idea can be traced back to Aristotle’s Politics: “It is more proper that law should govern than any one of the citizens.” This is crucial because while Aristotle certainly believed that the law should never become the plaything of tyrants, he was also distinct from modern liberals in thinking that the polis was inextricable from some conception of the common good. Far from trusting in the idea of a ‘neutral’ state, the ancient Greek philosopher held that man is by nature a political animal precisely because “he alone possesses a perception of good and evil, of the just and the unjust, and other qualities; and it is association in these things which makes a family and a city.”

These qualities are also what make a country, although Aristotle can be excused for living before an age of nation states. Moreover, Aristotle’s word for ‘association,’ koinōnia (κοινωνία), did not simply mean living within a community for the mere enjoyment of its benefits. Koinōnia more fully corresponds to the idea of a ‘shared undertaking’—a communal project—of public life with a clear moral purpose. Hungarians have decided that their own such undertaking is to conserve the country’s sovereignty, including its unique national culture and moral norms, as well as its broader share in the civilisation of the Christian West. Hungarians demand no more than the right to pass down these religious values and secular achievements so that their children may inherit what they deserve.

Contrary to the most bitter left-wing moaning, no part of Fidesz’s aim to strengthen public morality and to foster a sense of collective patriotism means making Orbán, rather than the law, the absolute sovereign of the Hungarian state. There is no such thing as a spotless, immaculate character on this earth, least of all among leaders of governments. But it is a promising sign to see the New Culture Forum branching out into stylishly produced documentaries, questioning the liberal platitudes about Hungary, and showcasing genuine curiosity of a kind that, while much needed, has been banished from everywhere else.

Harrison Pitt is a writer for The European Conservative. Based in the UK, he has also been published in The Spectator, Quillette, Spiked-Online, The Critic, and others.

To learn more about Peter Whittle and the New Culture Forum, read Robert Semonsen’s interview here.