When the death of Roger Scruton was greeted with genuine sadness by Tory England, I did not make the nasty but accurate observation that the philosopher had betrayed whatever good was in him. It was not the time to show how he had gone from being the brave man of the 1980s, who had defied the Soviet dictatorship in eastern Europe by delivering lectures to dissidents studying in underground universities in Prague, to the degraded figure of 2019 that accepted “honours” from Viktor Orbán, who is busily turning his corner of eastern Europe into a corrupt, ethno-nationalist dictatorship.
Politeness is a curse as well as a courtesy. Scruton’s journey from opponent to courtier of tyranny has been taken across western conservatism. Respect for the friends and relatives of the dead should not stop you showing where they could take the rest of us. Nor should it stop you realising that Hungary is the Venezuela of the new right, the grim terminus of its twisted logic.
It wants to intimidate or abolish independent checks on its power – and before I go any further I should add, for the sake of balance, that everything I say about the new right applies to the Corbynite left. Boris Johnson is threatening the future of the BBC. Maybe he won’t begin the process of abolishing it as a universal service free at the point of use, but he knows, as all political thugs know, that a little fear goes a long way in BBC news and will push its managers into playing nice with the ruling party. Johnson has followed up by restricting Whitehall briefings to favoured political correspondents. He is engaging in the language policing he deplores when practised by the intolerant left by ordering civil servants to hide the bitter realities of Brexit in an obfuscatory fog.
In his Orwellian Whitehall, diplomats must say a “trading relationship with the EU like Australia’s” rather than “a no-deal Brexit”. They must never let on that Australia does not yet have a free-trade deal with the EU so a “trading relationship with the EU like Australia’s” is a no-deal Brexit. Remainers are often accused of thinking Leavers are stupid. As you can see, Johnson takes them for the greater fools.
In Hungary, the train has trundled further down the line. The Hungarian equivalents of the BBC are just propaganda outlets for Orbán’s Fidesz party. In 2018, 476 press and broadcasting outlets were offered free of charge by their Fidesz-friendly proprietors to a pro-government conglomerate, the Central European Press and Media Foundation. The favour is likely to be met with favours in return. Transparency International reports that Hungary is now one of the most corrupt countries in Europe: a land where no back is left unscratched.
The threat to freedom of speech and of the press did not stop Scruton saying that Orbán must be congratulated for preserving Hungary’s national identity. Or Tim Montgomerie, a former adviser to Johnson, who can now best be described as a Tory social media influencer, praising Hungary’s “interesting early thinking” on “the limits of liberalism” and suggesting that Orbán and Johnson had much in common. Or the Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski joining Orbán, Spanish Francoists and assorted French and Italian far rightists at a conference in Rome last week.
Race and power are entwined. When the right talks of “Christian Europe” or “Christian traditions”, it does not include black pentecostal churches in the inner cities. Christianity has become a synonym for “white”. When Orbán talks of defending “Christian Europe”, he is not defending religious dogma – only 15% of Hungarians go to church each week. He is advocating a modern version of the fascist conspiracy theory instead.
In his limitless malevolence, Orbán explains, the Jewish financier George Soros has the supernatural power to destroy Christian Europe by flooding it with Muslim migrants. Soros’s “mafia-like networks” are everywhere and are tirelessly plotting to eradicate white Christianity. Such is the man Scruton abased himself before and Montgomerie and Kawczynski admire. Such is the man the European People’s party, an alliance of supposedly moderate conservatives, cannot bring itself to expel. Such is the terminus for the right unless authentic moderate conservatives start defining the borders of conservatism and banishing those who cross them.
They do nothing because the dynamism in conservative politics is with their opponents. Johnson, Orbán and Trump feel like the future and old-school Tories and Christian Democrats yesterday’s men and women. Trump’s America, where the fears of white voters that they will become a minority in their own country can be played on by an accomplished rabble-rouser, may be an extreme case. But politicians everywhere are learning that the old morality no longer applies. The cynical wisdom that politicians always lie, for instance, was once a lie itself.
Jonathan Portes, who worked as a senior civil servant from 1987 to 2011, told me he and his colleagues would warn ministers that they would be exposed by the media and parliament if they lied and would never recover from the disgrace. Johnson is showing that in an age of extremes there is no disgrace. He can lie about Brexit bringing £350m a week to the NHS or deny he is putting a border in the Irish Sea and his supporters simply don’t care.
You could say that in elected dictatorships, the state purges the civil service and judiciary and controls the media and Britain has not reached that point. But instead of looking at the terminus, notice the direction of travel. Johnson has suspended parliament and purged his party of dissenting pro-European voices. Attacks on the independence of the judiciary and civil service are now standard for a right that cannot tolerate constraints.
Britain is not Hungary. But if you want to stop your country heading that way, is it not more effective to start fighting back at the first sign of danger rather than waiting until it is too late? • Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist