Contrary to certain Left-wing claims, Boris Johnson is not Viktor Orban
This week Owen Jones warned that Britain is at risk of turning into Hungary, a “Right-wing authoritarian state” — and encouraged his followers to vote for Labour to prevent it from happening. It is a claim he has made repeatedly of late. Profound anxiety among Labour activists about their party’s showing in this week’s elections is understandable, but as someone who has a foot in both countries, the parallels could not be more wrong.
Comparing the UK under a Conservative government to Hungary under Fidesz is becoming commonplace in UK Left-liberal discourse. It has been invoked not only by Jones but also more ‘moderate’ voices including Ian Dunt and Jeremy Cliffe. Each one reveals a deep unease about Boris Johnson’s Brexit Britain and the purportedly illiberal turn it has taken.
Leaving aside the ridiculous comparison that a libertarian like Boris Johnson is some kind of Orban-style figure, there are a host of political, civic and historical reasons for why the comparison between Hungary and the UK is so flawed.
For one, Britain has been an established liberal democracy for centuries, with no history of communism to speak of. By contrast, Hungary’s decades-long communist era saw a decline in a respect for the rule of law, autonomous public bodies and civil institutions, all of which laid the conditions for Orban’s ‘Hybrid regime’.
Since he became leader in 2010, Orban has overseen a mass personalisation of power. He is close to omnipotent, and the legislature is, in effect, another arm of the government. The idea of a ‘backbench rebellion’ in the Hungarian Parliament is an amusing fantasy — especially when MPs can be fined for defying the whip and their re-selection depends on Orbán’s support. This is the sort of Party management that Tory leaders can only dream of.
Such a comparison would not be so invidious if it were not for the poverty of Labour’s foreign policy engagement with Hungary under (and after) Corbyn. Since 2010 there has been no visit made by a senior Labour figure to the country and over the last five years, the state of Hungary’s endangered democracy has barely been mentioned by Labour MPs in the Commons.
That is because, for certain progressives in Britain, Hungary is a handy weapon with which to clobber British Tories, but it is not an object of concern in its own right. Until Britain’s liberals stop treating Hungary like a political football and offer genuine support to Hungary’s beleaguered Left-wing parties, they have no right to make such crude — and unhelpful — comparisons.