29th May 2021
One of the more complacent views of the last few decades is that there is a necessary link between democracy and liberalism.
The notion that if you believe in one then you believe in the other.
And, in turn, there is the converse view – that illiberals will tend to be undemocratic, if not actively anti-democratic.
This is assumption is evident in a spate of books over the last few years about the death of democracy where, if you read carefully, they describe the (possible) death of liberal democracy.
For – and this is still a shock for many – there is nothing necessarily liberal about a democracy.
It is possible – and indeed not uncommon – for a conservative bloc to mobilise sufficient support to prevail in elections.
There can sometimes even be sufficient conservative support for illiberalism to be majoritarianism.
Liberal democracy is only one form of democracy (and, also, of liberalism).
The notion that illiberals are also undemocratic, if not anti-democratic, is a comforting notion for the superficial liberal.
The truth is that in any democratic system there will be a great deal of opposition to liberal views.
Here it is instructive to read this 2014 speech (in translation) by the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán – who visited the United Kingdom this week.
It is a speech that should be read in full by any liberal and anyone else who wants to understand the illiberal turn in modern politics.
It is perhaps, in its way, one of the most politically significant speeches of recent years – though what it signifies is not pleasant.
One of the things that stands out is in the speech that it is openly – explicitly – ‘illiberal’.
An exposition of liberalism is set out (and not altogether inaccurately) and then critiqued.
This dismissal of liberalism is unapologetic.
It is blatant, with no sugar-coating.
Orbán is an illiberal and he knows it, and he claps his hands.
Another thing that stands out is that – unlike many Western (supposed) defences of (and apologies for) liberalism, it is not flimsy.
It is an articulation of an illiberal position.
The position being articulated is vile and wrong, but it is not superficial.
A third thing that stands out, of course, is that it does not really explain, still less justify, the specific assaults on civil society in Hungary of his government – it is a speech which largely stays in the realm of the abstract.
And the fourth thing which is striking about the speech is that – on the face of it – it is not an undemocratic speech – it is the speech of a politician who seems confident that there will be sufficient political support for illiberalism within a democratic system.
It is even a speech of a politician who does not see membership of the European Union as being incompatible with his illiberalism.
This blog is written from a liberal, constitutionalist perspective.
But as a practical blog, it is not enough to disdain illiberalism, let alone deride it.
As the old saying goes: know your enemy.
Scoffing at Orbán – just like sneering at Donald Trump or Boris Johnson – is not a complete political answer to the challenges presented by modern illiberalism.
As long as these individuals and their parties can mobilise their bases, they will use political means to defeat or hinder liberalism, and they will claim to be democratic in doing so.
The ‘will of the people’ is rarely invoked by those who respect the wills of individual people.
And what happens when liberal democracy is, well, trumped by democracy itself?
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