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5 June 2019updated 08 Jun 2021 11:27am

Central Europe’s authoritarians show where an unleashed Boris Johnson could lead Britain

By Jeremy Cliffe

A party secures near-hegemonic power by building a wide electoral coalition. It purports to be centrist or conservative but in fact is heterodox, combining clientelistic public spending with populist sorties against institutions, external bogeymen and certain minorities. It has a charismatic, high-profile leader whose personal outlook draws less on a particular political philosophy than on a vague blend of national boosterism and macho self-belief. The forces of leftism and liberalism are scattered and ineffective, allowing the governing party to undermine established norms. The nation’s governance suffers. So does its democracy.

This description sums up the style of government prevalent in the “Visegrad”, the group of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia named after the Hungarian town where they held a summit in 1991. Observers of British politics will note a few similarities. The comparison contains both warnings and lessons as Britain enters the Johnson era.

It is, to be sure, an imperfect one. The Visegrad is a diverse group with differing political cultures. Hungary and Poland are both sliding into authoritarianism but the opposition is stronger in the latter, for example. Where Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) government has lavished welfare goodies on low (but also many middle) earners, Andrej Babis in the Czech Republic is more fiscally hawkish. But there are enough similarities for a broad model to be observable.

Is it applicable to Britain, with its more firmly established democratic institutions? The country, it is true, has an almost uniquely robust and combative political culture. It is said that Boris Johnson is a “liberal conservative” and that he is not to be taken literally, yet similar things were claimed of the US and Donald Trump. And the British system is especially amenable to strongman leadership: its government is highly centralised, its second chamber and local government are feeble and its prime minister can wield vast executive power with a majority.

The primary lesson of the Visegrad is that authoritarianism does not have to mean jackboots on streets and dissenters in jail. It can creep forward subtly. Norms get gradually chipped away; language demonising minorities becomes harsher and more accusatory; challenges to the legitimacy of checks and balances become more daring. PiS’s semi-authoritarian Poland or Fidesz’s entirely authoritarian Hungary did not happen overnight but over years of erosion, each successful act of norm-defiance emboldening the defiers for the next.

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Already Johnson and those around him have started probing the limits of Britain’s liberal-democratic culture. The unlawful prorogation of parliament, the threat of political vetting of judges, and the subsequent electoral narrative of “people versus politicians” requiring rescue by a muscular father-of-the-nation type is straight out of the Visegrad playbook. Then came the calculated provocations during the campaign: the smirking evasion of rigorous broadcaster coverage and dog-whistle attacks on EU nationals who treat Britain as “their own”.

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A thumping election win has prompted some optimistic commentary about Johnson’s majority granting him the luxury of moderation. The Visegrad precedents suggest that is naive; that untrammelled power stokes appetites for still less trammelled power. The “people’s government” has already threatened to defund the BBC, seemingly in retribution for its election coverage. The Tory manifesto ominously pledges to “look at… the relationship between the government, parliament and the courts”. For Johnson to seize greater power does not require him to be a convinced authoritarian. It just requires him to believe that by indulging illiberal forces he is “containing” them (a common self-serving defence of central European authoritarians and also Dominic Cummings’s view of Brexit) or simply to be the sort of believe-in-little opportunist that the Prime Minister’s whole political career to date suggests he is.

What to do? The first thing is to strap in. The Visegrad countries show that governments willing to rewrite norms, meld populist streaks of left and right, and tilt the playing field against opposition forces can hold power for long stretches of time. If things go wrong there are always debt-fuelled electoral giveaways, quick-and-dirty deals with outside powers and an array of convenient scapegoats to which to turn. Witness Babis, who despite a fraud investigation and mass protests remains on track to win another big victory at the next Czech election.

The second thing, however, is not to give up. Consider the past year. In March Zuzana Caputová, a progressive lawyer, surprisingly won the Slovak presidency on a platform of minority rights, environmentalism and police independence. In May a coalition of centrist and centre-left Polish opposition forces ran PiS close at the European elections. In October Gergely Karacsony, an anti-Orbán liberal, won the mayoralty of Budapest.

Such examples are not conclusive: none of the Visegrad governments looks likely to lose power imminently. But they show what can be achieved against a populist executive by cooperation between anti-government parties; vigorous campaigning not just at general elections but at other votes too; outspoken mayors as advocates for liberal values; and a resilient commitment to a vision of democracy that encompass pluralism, minority rights and curbs on the executive.

Liberal-minded Brits who look at the Visegrad and say “that could never happen here” are, then, short-sighted and over-certain. But so are those who look at the troubled polities of central Europe and see only grounds for gloom.

Jeremy Cliffe is the New Statesman’s international editor

This article appears in the 18 Dec 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning