Saturday, 14 April 2018

The swing away from Europe's forgotten Spring

From my Daily Record column 13/04/18

Kenneth Murray, Murdo Morrison and myself, Czechoslovakia, March 1990

In the spring of 1990, as the walls came tumbling down, I travelled with two friends on an 2000-mile round car trip to the newly liberated countries of central Europe.

We had our passports stamped at Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie, as East Germany held its first free elections since 1932.

We drank in Prague beerhouses and stayed in art deco splendour as Czechoslovakia went to the polls, and we swam in the steam baths of Budapest as old men played chess after voting.

We made it there and back in a 950cc Ford Fiesta with a battery tape recorder blasting out Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World.

I realise this is not everyone’s idea of an Easter break but after the Soviet Union collapsed, the prospect of a liberated, united Europe drew everyone east.

We met Labour’s Brian Wilson in Berlin, bumped into Lib Dem veteran Russell Johnston in Budapest’s Intercontinental hotel. For once, Russell wasn’t in Brussels.

Budapest, when we arrived in our sewing machine car, was the most westernised capital of them all.

The legacy of the 1956 uprising, the education system and liberalised economy gave it a real head start on other eastern neighbours.

Last weekend, after the re-election of right-wing populist Victor Orban as Hungary’s PM, I messaged a friend in Budapest, a descendant of one of the small pocket of Hungarian Jews who survived the Nazis.

In good news, she is expecting a baby. But as for her country, she texted back: “Extremely sad.” It is likely she’ll move her life to Paris.

The pendulum swing from communism to neo-nationalism that has barbed wire fences going back up on Hungary’s border is tragic.

Orban was re-elected on a single issue – immigration, with anti-Semitic and anti-Islam overtones.

He used the same image of queuing migrants as UKIP played in the last days of the Brexit referendum (I feel sorry for Scots photographer Jeff Mitchell, whose image of refugees in Slovenia has been misappropriated).

Results like Orban’s – he controls two thirds of parliamentary seats – show voters aren’t going to back to the “sensible centre” any time soon.

Not under the old rules anyway. Politics is in the grip of populists.

I reckon this is why talk of a new centrist party in the UK is a dead loss.

Despairing of Jeremy Corbyn, some in the centre left are sniffing around for a new political vehicle.

The money is there but the backing isn’t because splitting the Labour vote simply allows the Conservatives to remain in government and sustain the SNP at Westminster.

And what would a centrist party have to say to voters driven to tribal extremes?

When radicals gain ground, even people with reasonable views are driven into the bunkers. The lesson of the post-crash world is that populism is an easier sell than reason.

The only European exception is president Macron, who I’m beginning to think is not the new radical centre but a throwback to market-driven Blairism which France skipped out on for years.

Soon enough, populists move on to scapegoats or sell mirages too ludicrous to accept. Just watch Brexit unfold.

The mainstream challenge is to respond with optimism about what can be achieved, to somehow find a voice that squares identity politics with a bigger picture, that addresses fears of migrants and resists the downsides of globalisation.

With voters not hankering for the middle ground, it is a big ask.

Another liberalising European spring is down a rocky road. Democracy needs more than an underpowered hatchback for the journey.

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