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What Went Wrong in Eastern Europe?

I first met Viktor Orban, the not-quite-dictator of Hungary, in 1989 in Budapest – and the man who introduced us was none other than George Soros.

Orban was then a firebrand student leader, anti-Communist and keen for Hungary to join the West. Soros, a Hungarian refugee who became an American billionaire, was devoting his time and money to finding and subsiding young Eastern Europeans who would lead their countries into the European Union and a liberal democratic future.

But Orban is now the prime minister of an ‘illiberal’ Hungarian government that controls the mass media and regards the EU as the enemy. In last April’s election, he portrayed Soros as the Jewish evil genius who, with the EU’s help, was planning to flood Hungary with Muslim refugees and destroy the country’s culture and identity.

That’s ridiculous, but Orban won almost half the votes and more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament. Poland, a far bigger country, now also has a far-right, ‘illiberal’ government that is ultra-nationalist and hostile to the EU (although both countries depend heavily on EU subsidies).

The extremists are not yet in power in other Eastern European countries, but similar trends are visible in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania. The dreams and hopes that drove the anti-Communist revolutions of 1989 are not yet dead, but they are definitely fading. What went wrong?

These countries are among the most ethnically homogenous in the world (due to the Holocaust and the widespread ‘ethnic cleansing’ that followed both world wars). They have admitted almost no refugees, yet their politics is dominated by the fear of being swamped by them.

It’s beyond bizarre, but Bulgarian political philosopher Ivan Krastev has a persuasive explanation for it. He points out that the question “isn’t so much where the nationalism has come from, but where it’s been hiding all these years.” His answer is that it was hiding in plain sight.

During the 1970s and 1980s the nationalists who wanted independence from Soviet rule formed a close alliance with the pro-Western activists who wanted a liberal, democratic future. From Poland to Bulgaria the liberals and the nationalists worked together, and even after the overthrow of the Communists in 1989 they continued to believe (or at least hope) that democracy could accommodate them both.

Maybe it could have, but the nationalist wars that destroyed the former Yugoslav federation in the 1990s put an end to the partnership. As Krastev says, the violence there persuaded liberals that “nationalism was the very heart of darkness, and that flirting with it could only be sinful.”

So the liberals broke their alliances with the nationalists, and for a while the nationalists went very quiet. Nobody, not even Polish or Hungarian nationalists, wanted to be seen in the same light as monsters like Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic.

But nationalism was the most powerful political force in Eastern Europe throughout the 20th century, and it wasn’t going to just fade away. It re-merged in the early 21st century, shorn of its liberal associations with tolerance and diversity, as a major political force in the region – and the driver behind it was what Krastev calls “demographic panic”.

After 1989 many people in Eastern Europe not only aspired to emulate the prosperous liberal democracies of Western Europe. They actually wanted to live in them, and when their countries joined the EU they acquired the right to free movement. If Poles thought that life would be better in England, for example, they could just move there and find work – and a million of them did.

Since 1989, 27 percent of Latvia’s population has emigrated to Western Europe, and Bulgaria has lost 21 percent. Hungary is not so hard hit, but it has lost 3 percent of its population to Western Europe in the past ten years – and almost all the emigrants are young, leaving behind an aging population with a low birth rate.

This is the real source of the demographic panic, but it finds its political expression in a paranoid fear that the country’s dwindling population will be overrun by immigrants with a radically different culture, particularly refugees. It doesn’t matter that there are virtually no immigrants in Hungary, and that it’s about the last place a refugee would want to go. In these matters, perception is all.

The anti-immigrant hysteria is almost universal in Eastern Europe, and it will bring more illiberal nationalist regimes to power before it is finished. The remedy, if there is one, is for the liberals to acknowledge the nationalists’ concerns and rebuild the old alliances with them without pandering to the panic.

That’s not easy to do, but it’s what every Western European democracy has actually been doing for generations. Although they’re not doing too well with it at the moment themselves.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“Since…rate”)

Varadkar and Bernabic

19 June 2017

Varadkar and Bernabic
By Gwynne Dyer

For most Irish people the most striking thing about their new prime minister, Leo Varadkar, is that he is very young. (At 38, he is the country’s youngest leader ever.) It’s mainly the foreign press that goes on about the fact that he is a) half-Indian, and b) gay.

Varadkar himself, the son of a doctor from India and a nurse from Ireland who met while working in a hospital in southern England, is definitely not keen on being seen as a symbol of changing public attitudes: “I’m not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician or a gay politician, for that matter. It’s just part of who I am. It doesn’t define me.”

No, it doesn’t, but it is still worth focussing on for a moment to think about what it tells us not just about Ireland but about the West as a whole, and even about the world.

Homosexuality was legalised in England in 1967, and it was decriminalised in Canada the following year (when Pierre Trudeau, then the justice minister, told the CBC that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”). It only became legal in Ireland a quarter-century later, in 1993. But two years ago same-sex marriage was made legal in Ireland by a referendum in which 62 percent of the voters said yes.

Well, we already knew that Ireland had changed. It has lots of immigrants now – one in every eight people is foreign-born – and the political power of the Catholic Church has collapsed. So it’s no longer a surprise that an Indo-Irish gay man can become prime minister. But what about Serbia?

The only “immigrants” in Serbia are ethnic Serbs who were stranded in other parts of former Yugoslavia after the break-up. The Serbian Orthodox Church is still strong, and it has no truck with degenerate Western ideas about human rights. As one Orthodox monk wrote: “Homosexuality is not a problem in Serbia. There are hardly any gay people, and society wouldn’t permit them to organize or (publicly advocate) their abominations.”

Two-thirds of Serbians think that homosexuality is an illness, and almost four-fifths believe that gay people should stay in the closet. But Ana Brnabic is an out and proud lesbian, and she has just been appointed prime minister of Serbia. She is also of Croatian descent. How has this happened?

Brnabic was appointed by Alexandar Vucic, who was prime minister himself until he ascended to the presidency in last month’s election. The prime minister is constitutionally the most powerful person in the government, but Brnabic is a technocrat, not really a politician. It is widely expected that she will concentrate on making the trains run on time, so to speak, and leave the sensitive political decisions to Vucic.

The general assumption in Serbian political circles is that Brnabic’s appointment is window-dressing. Serbia wants to join the European Union, and the government would quite like to divert the EU’s attention from a few little image problems: its close ties with Russia, its hostility to refugees, and rampant corruption.

So what could be better than a woman prime minister (a Serbian first) who is openly gay (another Serbian first) and even has foreign antecedents (her father was born in Croatia)? Why, the Serbs are even more enlightened than the Irish! We should make them full members of the EU as soon as possible!

That may well be the plan – and if it is, so what? The European Union knows that there was a considerable amount of calculation behind Brnabic’s appointment, but it will not condemn President Alexandar Vucic for trying to make Serbia look like a suitable candidate for EU membership.

Lots of ordinary Serbs will be shocked by this assault on “Serbian values”, but many of them will understand that it serves the national interest. And little by little, just because Brnabic is the prime minister, they will grow less uncomfortable with the notion of gays – and indeed just women in general – having a legitimate role in public life.

This is how change really happens: not sudden enlightenment, but a gradual acceptance of new rules and values. And the most encouraging take-away from this little story is that even a man like Vucic, once an ally of the murderous demagogue Slobodan Milosevic, understands the new political and social rules of the West.

They are not yet the new rules everywhere. Eastern Europe is way behind Western Europe, North America and Latin America, largely because it spent between forty and seventy years isolated from the rest of the world under Communist rule. The struggle is still intense in parts of Asia, and it has scarcely begun in most of Africa and the Muslim world.

Gay rights, feminism, human rights in general are not really “Western” values: a hundred years ago the West was just as intolerant of difference as everybody else. The change has come to the West earlier mainly because it is richer, but we are all traveling on the same train, and the other end will pull into the station just a little bit later.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit 6 and 8. (“The only…abominations”; and “Brnabic…Vucic”)

Dutch Election

The Dutch political system may not have been deliberately designed to produce middle-of-the-road outcomes, but it certainly works that way in practice: many small parties, multi-party coalitions to create a majority government, perpetual compromise. It is almost impossible to radicalise a system like this, but Geert Wilders is going to try.

Wilders is the founder and leader of the Freedom Party (PVV), which currently holds only twelve seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament. But he is aiming to make it the largest single party in the March 15 election – which, in ordinary times, would probably give it the leading role in the next coalition government.

But these are not normal times, and the PVV is far from a normal party. It really only has one policy – stop the immigrants – and it is unshamedly racist and anti-Muslim in its rhetoric. Wilders recently called Dutch residents of Moroccan origin “scum”. He vows to close mosques and Islamic schools, ban the sale of the Koran, and stop all further immigrants or asylum seekers from Muslim countries.

He is the Dutch Donald Trump, a silver-maned provocateur who deploys the maximum possible nastiness in his campaign talk and his frequent abusive tweets. In fact, some people argue that Trump must have taken lessons from Wilders, who has been working this side of the street for at least a decade already, but the concept of convergent evolution probably applies. Populists are almost always racists too.

Which brings us to the question that is most interesting for people who don’t live in the Netherlands. Can racism and xenophobia alone, without any help from economic desperation, persuade a traditionally liberal Western electorate to cast its values aside and vote for an authoritarian bully with an anti-Muslim obsession?

Trump had lots of help from economic despair. The key voters who gave him an electoral college victory last November were in the Rust Belt states: men (they were mostly men) who would usually have backed Democratic candidates, but switched to Trump because he promised to “bring back the jobs” and stop the non-white immigration.

There was certainly a large element of racial panic in the American vote. A survey by Zack Beauchamp of the opinion polling and recent academic research on the topic, entitled “White Riot” and published on Vox on 20 January, documented the argument that “the real sources of the far-right’s appeal are anger over immigration and a toxic mix of racial and religious intolerance.”

On the other hand, the Rust Belt states south of the Great Lakes, the former industrial heartland of the United States, are the places that have suffered the greatest job losses over the past few decades, which is why cities like Cleveland and Detroit are decaying and partly abandoned. And they are emphatically NOT major destinations for new immigrants to the US.

Trump himself always ensures that he hits on both immigration and job losses in his speeches and tweets, and he is the world’s expert on the fears and prejudices of his supporters. Could we perhaps speculate that his supporters say that they are frightened about immigration and especially Mulim immigration, but that their racism is really driven in large part by their anger at the steep decline in the number of well-paid industrial jobs?

Of the six states with over a million immigrants – California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey – only Florida (where Trump won by a whisker) and Texas (which has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1980) voted for Trump. California, whose ten million immigrants make up 27 percent of the state population, voted two-to-one for Hillary Clinton.

It would seem that, in the words of the old Phil Spector song, to know, know, know them is to love, love, love them (the immigrants), or at least not to fear them. Whereas Michigan, a Rust-Belt state that voted Democratic in the previous six elections and where only 6 percent of the population are immigrants, voted for Trump.

You can see the same pattern in the Brexit vote in England last June. The prosperous big cities are where the immigrants are, and every one of them except Birmingham voted Remain (in the European Union). London, where half the school population is non-white, voted Remain by a 60-40 majority, as did Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol.

The narrow Leave majority countrywide was won in depressed northern industrial cities where immigrant populations are low, and in prosperous rural areas where there are virtually no immigrants at all. So there was again racial panic at the changing ethnic face of England in areas where immigrants were largely absent, but especially in post-industrial areas where they are (wrongly) blamed for the loss of well-paying jobs.

In populist revolts elsewhere, the manifest racism and anti-immigrant sentiment that dominated in the opinion polls masked a deeper resentment about the loss of jobs. In the Netherlands, where unemployment is only 5 percent, Geert Wilders is depending on racism alone, and he is not heading for a Brexit- or Trump-style victory. The latest opinion poll gives him just 15 percent of the vote.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“You..jobs”)

The Index of Ignorance

To cut to the chase, the five most ignorant countries in the world are Mexico (a world leader at least in this), India, Brazil, Peru and New Zealand. And the five best informed are South Korea (take a bow), followed by Ireland, Poland, China and the United States. Ignorant about what? About the realities in their own country.

Every year the London-based polling organisation Ipsos Mori does its “Perils of Perception” poll, asking people in many countries what they believe about, say, the proportion of the population who are immigrants, or overweight, or over 65, and comparing their answers with the true numbers.

Putting all the results together, Ipsos Mori then comes up with its famous Index of Ignorance. The level of ignorance is startling – and yet these mistaken beliefs can play a big role in the political choices that countries make.

Take immigration. Almost every country over-estimates the number of immigrants in their population, sometimes by huge amounts. The Chinese, for example, believe that 11 percent of the people in their country are immigrants. The real number is 0.1 percent, so their guess is 110 times too high (and maybe just a little paranoid). Brazilians are just as bad: they think 25 percent of the population are immigrants; it’s really just 0.3 percent.

Most countries do better than that, but not that much better. Americans think 32 percent of their population are immigrants, when actually only 13 percent are. The Japanese think it’s 10 percent, when it’s really only 2 percent. And the Poles recently elected a right-wing nationalist government in large part because they fear being overrun: they think 14 percent of the population are immigrants, when it’s really less than half of one percent.

Or take the number of Muslims living in countries that are historically non-Muslim. The highest proportion of the population is in France, where 8 percent are Muslims – but the average guess of the French people polled was 31 percent (and Fox News seems to believe it’s nearly half). Only one percent of Americans are Muslim, but Americans believe it is 15 percent. In Canada it’s 2 percent, but Canadians think it’s 20 percent.

These huge over-estimates are probably driven in part by the fear of Islamist terrorism, which in turn is driven by the media’s fascination with the subject. It’s quite striking, for example, that while Americans guess three times too high when asked about the proportion of immigrants in the country, they guess fifteen times too high when asked specifically about Muslims.

One could go on and on about how wrong people get things. Indians (urban, educated Indians who take part in internet polls) think that one-third of the country’s population is non-religious. In fact, less than one percent is.

Saudi Arabians think that 28 percent of the population are overweight or obese, when actually 71 percent are (the highest proportion of all 35 countries polled). But the more interesting question is: how much do these misperceptions affect politics and policy?

Not much, probably, when we’re talking about religion or obesity or the share of the population that is over 65 years old (which was over-estimated in every country polled). But it’s pretty clear that a huge popular over-estimate of the number of immigrants in Great Britain contributed to the “Leave” victory in last June’s referendum on British membership of the European Union.

But the ignorance often gets a lot of help. London’s population, for example, is more than a third foreign-born: almost 37 percent. But Londoners are quite comfortable with this, and voted strongly for “Remain”. In fact, almost all of the big English cities voted “Remain”. Whereas in suburban and rural parts of England, where immigrants are rare or entirely absent, people were so panicked by immigration that they voted equally strongly for “Leave”.

This was not just a coincidence. For many years a big chunk of the British media, including the country’s three largest-circulation morning papers, the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, has constantly exaggerated the scale of the immigration and the problems it causes. So in parts of England where immigrants are scarce, people don’t believe the evidence of their own eyes; they believe the media instead.

The same phenomenon has played a big part in the rise of Donald Trump in the United States. When he talks about building a wall to stop hordes of Mexican rapists pouring across the southern border of the US, or promises to ban all Muslim immigration to the country, the media-fed misconceptions of Americans about immigrant and particularly Muslim numbers make his lies easier to believe.

There is a chicken-and-egg question here, of course. Are the media just pandering to existing popular fears, or are they actually creating them? The unsatisfactory but inevitable answer is: a bit of both.

In the century and a half when there have been free mass media (and now social media as well), nobody has come up with a solution for this problem. “Free” includes free to make mistakes, and free to distort facts and tell outright lies.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“But the…instead”)