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In the face of strongmen, conservatives are letting their principles vanish

3 February 2018

9:00 AM

3 February 2018

9:00 AM

In 1989, the year Soviet communism collapsed, John O’Sullivan, Margaret Thatcher’s former speechwriter, gave the world O’Sullivan’s First Law of Politics. ‘All organisations that are not actually right wing,’ he pronounced, ‘will over time become left wing.’ No one who watched Amnesty International’s descent from austere principle to cultural relativism can deny he spoke with a little truth. Yet if you listened carefully, you also caught notes of self-satisfaction and self-regard.

Subversives corrupt impartial organisations, O’Sullivan continued. They rig the system and impose their prejudices against ‘private profit, business, making money, the current organisation of society and, by extension, the Western world’. Who fought them? Who reinvigorated the West and brought down the dictatorships of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe? Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the men and women of principle who followed them. Leftists appeased the Soviet Union because they saw elements of their own beliefs in communism. The right stood tall and won an epoch-defining victory for freedom.

From the vantage point of 30 years, it is clear that the difficulty many on the right had with godless communist dictatorships was not that they were dictatorships but that they were godless. Give them dictatorial movements that revere Christian Europe, and hate not just communism but every variety of liberalism, and their principles vanish like breath on a windowpane.

Take O’Sullivan as a prime example. In last week’s Spectator he wrote one of the slyest apologias for authoritarianism I have seen in the serious press. Those who whine about attacks on the checks and balances of a free society in Hungary under Viktor Orbán and Poland under Law and Justice are indulging in the ‘fanaticism of the centre’, he said. Press freedom? Perfectly safe. Just look at the ‘lively coverage of government scandals’ from Hungary’s opposition press. Democracy and the rule of law? Europe’s new right is just upholding the good old causes of ‘the nation state, the family, prudential politics, the Christian religion and majoritarian democracy’.


Survey the field and everywhere you see other respectable conservatives, who once lectured us on the virtues of sound money, basic liberties and sexual continence, echoing his plea for sympathy for the Devil.

US Republicans’ belief in fiscal responsibility is dead: the casualty of their abasement before a charlatan. The Republican party is now the Trump party, as it proved when its leaders cheered themselves hoarse at his State of the Union address. Even they will struggle to find the brass neck to condemn profligate tax-and-spend Democrats after they passed tax cuts that will increase the national debt by more than a trillion dollars. Their insistence on ‘family values’ and constitutional propriety are in the mortuary too. They died when they endorsed a leader with a dirty mouth and filthier mind who purges the FBI of officials who might investigate his alleged crimes.

The endorsement of Orbán’s Hungary is as sinister. The US right trumpets Orbán’s conspiracy theory that the Jewish financier George Soros is using supernatural powers to undermine Christendom by flooding Europe with Muslims. Supposedly solid German conservatives praise him for respecting ‘the rule of law’. Hungary may be a small nation but more than any country in Europe, it shows how modern democracies die. Today’s strongmen do not always arrive at the head of armed convoys. They win democratic elections, as Orbán did in Hungary and Hugo Chávez did in Venezuela. They then rig the electoral system, the media, the judiciary and armed forces so thoroughly that successful opposition becomes impossible. Opposition parties and journalists can carry on working but they retain their limited freedom on condition that they never threaten the ruling clique.

A ‘lively’ free press, in Hungary? In 2016 oligarchs close to Orbán’s Fidesz party bought the best-selling opposition newspaper Népszabadság and shut it. All state media outlets follow Orbán’s line. Government advertising is used as a weapon against independent news organisations. Say what the government wants and you are paid off. Hold your rulers to account and you suffer.

Nor are we seeing the triumph of ‘prudential politics, the Christian religion and majoritarian democracy’. I’ve never heard corruption called Christian before and as for respecting the wishes of the majority, Orban’s party took 45 per cent of the vote in the 2014 election. The alchemy of ballot rigging turned this into a two-thirds parliamentary mandate, giving the ruling elite the power to amend the Hungarian constitution at will.

As well as believing in free societies, I remember conservatives of the Thatcher-Reagan era shouting about the virtues of free markets. The Corruption Research Centre Budapest examined 125,000 state tenders awarded between 2009 and 2015 in Hungary and found 62 per cent went to insiders. Meanwhile, Orbán’s cronies have become oligarchs. They did not need to invent a new product or found a new business. A willingness to bend the knee was sufficient.

Across the world, you see traditional conservatives genuflecting before the new right. The shameful failure of establishment Republicans to challenge Trump will enter the histories of our century. I hope the willingness of western conservatives to defend crony capitalism, gerrymandering and censorship in Eastern Europe will rate a mention too. It’s time to replace ‘O’Sullivan’s First Law of Politics’ with Cohen’s: ‘All organisations that are not actually liberal will over time become far-right wing.’

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