Thursday, 8 March 2012

The LSE Hungary Debate 1: An impression

Preparation for this debate had been a major worry for me. I don't usually debate politics, or at least when I do it isn't against ministers of state and MEPs, even less in a situation as highly charged as this, on the very day when the EU sent the Hungarian government away to rethink - rather rapidly - its responses to the main criticisms regarding the central bank, the retirement age for judges and data protection. That was announced yesterday, and I was coming straight from Reading where having delivered the Finzi Memorial Lecture the day before, I had just done an hour long reading of poetry at lunchtime. I was falling asleep in Delaunay's in Aldwych, a stunning konditorei/restaurant where I had arranged to meet my fellow debater, the historian and journalist Victor Sebestyen, whom I had never properly met to talk to and with whom I had only had a couple of brief phone conversations ahead of the event, just so we shouldn't overlap too much.

The meeting was chaired by Abby Innes of the LSE, our opponents were Zoltán Kovács, Hungarian Minister of State for Government Communication, György Schöpflin MEP. The order of speaking, at maximum 10 minutes each, was Kovács, Sebestyen, Schöpflin, Szirtes. This was followed by questions from the packed and rather distinguished floor.

I can't give a verbatim blow-by-blow account since I don't have the other people's speeches but I am pretty sure that we won our case on a clear points decision. In any case I will try to sum up the essence of what was said, then add a copy of most of what I myself said, since the text of that is before me. Considering their positions and experience it seems to me now, in retrospect, that our opponents weren't fully prepared. In any case, I stress that this is just an impression and there will, I think, be a podcast available of the whole session so readers can check for themselves in due course. I'll link to that in the blog as and when it is ready.

Kovács had notes but mostly extemporised. He spoke a great deal of 'narrative', of how the twenty years following 1989 was dominated by a socialist, ex-communist, narrative that had brought the country to the verge of ruin; that Hungary was 'at the cross roads' so something drastic needed to be done (hence the over-350 new laws), and that half-measures were no longer enough. He stressed that Hungary was deeply misunderstood by the foreign press and, generally misrepresented, that this was, he hinted, a conspiracy by the liberal-left press. He said it was nonsense to think that there was any attempt to rein in free speech or stifle opposition in Hungary, and that, on the contrary, there was no real free speech before the current government, and that what Fidesz set out to achieve was 'a balanced, symmetrical system'. He also reminded us of Prime Minister Orbán's words that he wanted to turn Hungary into 'a normal European country'.

Sebestyén, had written notes and spoke from them. He began with Orbán and developed a history of the journey of Fidesz from the 'cool' party for under thirty-fives, citing Orbán's dictum never to trust anyone over thirty-five, through to its current position on what might or might not be defined as centre-right. He said that Hungary had been very badly governed since 1989 admitting that the last socialist government was probably the most incompetent. His case rested on unnecessary steps taken by Fidesz since assuming power. Why were such steps necessary? Why the illiberalism? Why, for example, the prosecution of a rapper called Dopeman, for his 'mocking' use of the Hungarian national anthem? Why were all foreign correspondents in the country deemed to know nothing? How was it that the methods of the Hungarian government seemed to resemble those of the pre-1989 regime? He went through the major issues addressed by the EU today and wondered why the tensions with the EU were necessary.

Schöpflin, once a professor at the LSE, was sitting next to me and had typed and copious hand-written notes and he went through some ten points, but his case was very similar to Kovács's: He accused those accusing Hungary of never giving any details; he accused the western press of deliberate distortion and misconstruction; he pointed to what he considered to be a widening gap between the western members of the EU and the eastern ones, claiming the eastern ones were sympathetic to Hungary; he claimed Hungary was 'the whipping boy' for the EU whose other members had problems just as great; and suggested that people in the west regarded Eastern Europoeans, especially Hungary, as 'hairy barbarians', a charge that would only turn the Hungarian people even more enthusiastically into the arms of Fidesz.

I think that's a reasonably fair summing up - at least it's the best I can do for now. If anyone thinks I have missed a major point (I might have) or have misread or misrepresented the thrust of the various arguments they are welcome to comment on the post and tell me.

It seems unfair that I should offer the text of my own speech, but, awaiting the podcast, at least it is available now. The next post is the text of the speech. It will be curious to see reports on the evening in the Hungarian press, that is if it does report it.

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