The European election results were fairly clear — the mainstream centrist parties declined again; the Greens and Left-Liberals benefited from this and rose in much of Western Europe; and the populists gained too in France, Poland, Italy, and Hungary, but not quite as well as expected elsewhere. (For a deeper dive into these events and their significance, see my column here). Not all is clear, however. A pall of obscurity hangs over the “populist” parties, not only about what they believe but even about what should they be called.
Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin have written a good book about them — National Populism. While they concede that there are quite deep ideological divides between different parties, arising from their different national political cultures, they put them all into the same box labelled “national populism.” That’s not an unfair label. Indeed, many analysts in the European media, being left-liberal and acting on the principle of “No Friends to the Right,” calls them many much more hostile names.
But the term “populism” reflects the earliest stage in the rise of these parties when they were essentially protest parties angry that remote liberal elites had misgoverned their countries and avoided being held to account for their failures. Populists were then groping towards an understanding of what went wrong and how to put it right. The longer they are around in politics — and most European countries now have populists in their parliaments — they develop more serious analyses and more positive policies. If they don’t manage that, they will eventually disappear as the voters move on from being angry to wanting problems solved. And if they do, we will discover the color of their political philosophy and give them a different and more informative name.
Several populist parties have now won majorities and govern countries as opposed to complaining about the government. The most prominent example is Viktor Orbán in Hungary whose Fidesz party won its third successive landslide victory last year and has just gained 52 percent of the vote in the European elections. Fidesz is different from other insurgent parties in that it didn’t emerge as a populist resistance to a mainstream center-right party. It was a mainstream center-right party that expanded rightwards to absorb the angry protesters who elsewhere were rebelling in new groups. It now sprawls across the center and right of Hungarian politics with smaller parties on both extremes with little immediate prospect of ousting it.
Orbán’s own politics have been a matter of curiosity, even fascination, for some time. He began as a conventional center-right leader in the 1990s and ran what is now generally regarded as successful liberal conservative government from 1998 to 2002. After losing unexpectedly in 2002, he took a break, went off to a mountain top to rethink, and on his return led his party on a journey through several ideological identities. By the time he regained power in 2010 (significantly two years after the 2008 financial crash), he had developed a new philosophy more suspicious of hands-off social and economic liberalism that fused national patriotism with what might be called a workfare state rooted in activist government and fiscal/financial stability. Orbán has described his own politics as “plebeian” in the past. But the term he now uses is not national populism but national conservatism.
What exactly does it mean? The current issue of the European Conservative (a serious journal of politics and culture edited in Vienna by Mario Fantini, and associated with younger European conservatives who in bodies such as the Vanenberg Society trace their principles to writers like Roger Scruton and the Polish philosopher-politician Ryszard Legutko) has an interview with a rising star of the Fidesz party, Balázs Orbán (deputy minister in the PM’s office but no relation), who unpacks the meaning of that interesting definition here.
He does so with great clarity so that, whatever you think of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz, you will simply have a better understanding of what they think as a result of reading the interview. My own interpretation is that national conservatism turns out to be what a traditional conservative would likely believe after experiencing such events as the 2008 financial crash, the migration crisis of 2015, the twinned Euro and Greek crises, and the apparently unstoppable drift of power from elected national governments to remote unaccountable elites. Much of what the junior Orbán believes is very similar to what most conservative and Christian Democratic parties in the West believed before they split in two after 1989, with their leaderships becoming “social-democratized” (in the German phrase) and their grassroots supporters turning first to apathy and then to populism. The moral and literary influences he cites, for instance, are Russell Kirk; Yoram Hazony, the Israeli author of the recently-published The Virtue of Nationalism; and Mihaly Babits, a 20th-century Hungarian poet who believed that “personal freedom cannot be guaranteed without a solid legal framework based on common sense.” Not unfamiliar ideas to a Tory. And there are echoes of the statement “A Europe We Can Believe In,” signed by 13 distinguished European conservative intellectuals in Paris in 2017, contrasting their Europe with the Europe of bureaucrats and corporations here. But read the interview for yourself.
Two more comments, however. Prime Minister Orbán seems to be engaged in Hungary — and maybe elsewhere — in a task of knitting together the conservative and populist tendencies on the right after their divergence in the post-1989 years. That would help explain his decision, which surprised many people, not to join a plainly populist group headed by Mario Salvini in the European Parliament, but to stick with the center-right European People’s Party (EPP). He’s making concessions to do so, but anyone who knows Orbán will expect him to make gains too, especially since the EPP and the German Christian Democrats are suffering from an identity crisis of their own. Secondly, whatever criticisms can be leveled against Orbán — and, of course, many are leveled — it cannot be plausibly argued that he stands for protest rather than policy. Orbán’s government makes policy and tries to solve problems. So if other populist parties are to survive into the long-term, they will be looking at what policies he pursues and how successfully.
For the moment, however, Eatwell and Goodwin may want to consider changing the title of second edition of their book to National Conservatism.