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6 February 2019

The chill wind blowing across Europe, our crumbling party system and the Windies’ win

The eastern European states, in particular, are tilting ever closer towards authoritarianism.

By Jason Cowley

On a trip to Bucharest last week I spoke at a seminar on media freedom. It’s nearly 30 years since the Ceausescu dictatorship came to a violent and bloody end on Christmas Day 1989 – “I only recognise the working class,” Ceausescu announced, without irony, as he and his wife stood trial – and the country has changed in so many ways since then, being a member of both the EU and Nato.

And yet, the local journalists I met, some of whom I was delighted to discover were New Statesman readers (Matthew Engel’s report on Romania from last week had been widely read and shared), were deeply uneasy about creeping media censorship in the country. They spoke of government ministers who refused to give interviews to any outlet other than “pet” pro-government television stations, some of which are state-funded. They complained about oppressive corruption and a lack of government transparency. They lamented the absence of trusted international media outlets, such as the Romanian branch of the BBC World Service, which was closed after 69 years in 2008. Google and Facebook, they said, were sucking up 80 per cent of all advertising revenue and were thus slowly killing plural digital media. They were resilient but frustrated.

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A chill wind is blowing across Europe as the eastern states in particular tilt ever closer towards authoritarianism. “It’s not just Hungary and Poland that you should be concerned about,” one Romanian journalist said to me. “It’s happening here, now!” I raised the case of Viktoria Marinova, the prominent Bulgarian television journalist who last year, while investigating the misuse of EU funds in her country, said: “The number of forbidden topics is growing all the time. Investigative journalists are being systematically removed.” Shortly after, her body was discovered in a riverside park in Ruse in north-eastern Bulgaria. She had been raped and murdered, the latest journalist to die in the line of duty.

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While I was in Bucharest I started reading Mihail Sebastian’s novel For Two Thousand Years, which is set during the interwar period as repression in Romania deepened and anti-Semitism hardened. It was published in 1934 but was only recently translated into English. Written in the first person, the novel is episodic and at times it feels as if you are reading an intimate diary, or perhaps a confession. The prose as translated is tense and urgent and the book’s aphoristic style recalls the work of the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, whom Sebastian knew. For Two Thousand Years has a ominous clairvoyance: Sebastian, who was Jewish (his birth name was Iosif Hechter), could see the coming storm in Europe.

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The bookish, restless student narrator chronicles the daily humiliations he has to endure as a young Jewish man who simply wants to support his mother and get on with his life of intellectual discovery and adventure. But he is never self-pitying; his tone is mostly sardonic. “I received two punches during today’s lectures and I took eight pages of notes. Good value for two punches,” he writes early on. The book is radiant with felt experience and it documents a time of menace: democracy is in retreat and the forces of reaction are in the ascendant. Sound familiar? Mihail Sebastian survived the Second World War but died, aged 38, in May 1945 after being hit by a truck as he made his way to deliver a lecture.

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Ever since Jeremy Corbyn was elected, Joe Haines, Harold Wilson’s former press secretary and an occasional contributor to our letters pages, has been urging Labour MPs to split from the party and sit as an alternative faction or quasi-party in the Commons, as the Peelites did in the 1850s. But for whom would they speak and how would they reform our broken political system? Certainly, Labour is wretchedly divided and its tortuous equivocations on Brexit reveal a party struggling to hold together an out-dated coalition between urban liberals and the working class.

In Scotland, Labour – once the natural party of government – is in rapid retreat as politics divides along a nationalist/unionist fault line. The notion that defectors to the SNP would one day return to Labour as and when it elected a proper socialist leader was always fanciful. What’s obvious is that our party system – the Conservatives are even more divided than Labour – is frozen in time. “The old categorisations of socialism, or social democracy, and conservative have been left behind by events,” Bryan Magee, a philosopher and former Labour MP, said to me last year. “The parties themselves are now out of touch with the realities of social change. Both our main parties are fundamentally responses to situations that no longer exist or have become very weak. They are responses to a society that isn’t there.”

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The England cricket team were deservedly thrashed in the Caribbean. Geoffrey Boycott, a rancid loud-mouth much admired by Theresa May, traduced the West Indies in the run-up to the series, dismissing them as distinctly ordinary and ripe for an easy beating. In the event, led by their impressive young captain, Jason Holder, the Windies played good, organised cricket, humbling an England team full of complacent middle-order dashers.

Several of the England players, including the captain, Joe Root, had prepared for the challenges of the series in the Caribbean by operating as hired guns in Australia’s Big Bash, a Twenty20 thrash. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose, even if you end up losing a Test series after just seven days of competitive cricket. Our old friend and former NS columnist Ed Smith, who now selects the England team, has much left field thinking to do after this debacle.

This article appears in the 06 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Broken Europe