A Defence Of Values

To many people, the pictures of the President of the European Commission meeting with the President of Ukraine in Kyiv will not have registered greatly amid the graphic and inhumane stories from the war, the latest scandals involving our government ministers, or the more immediate issues of rising costs of fuel, energy and food that most of us face.

Yet they signify something very important and very real that stands against threats to our society few have yet to fully register. It didn’t start with Putin’s invasion and isn’t restricted to countries far away, but this year could well be a tipping point in the defence of democratic values that have broadly prevailed since the last world war.

Last week Viktor Orban won a fourth term as Hungarian president against the united opposition forces of left, right and centre, having ensured total dominance of the media and control of the way the election was fought with a supermajority in the Hungarian parliament. Orban is an unpleasant nationalist, close to Putin and barely able to cloak his government in the thinnest of democratic coverings. Hungary is a member of the European Union, and this week they finally threatened to take action if he did not recommit to the democratic values and rule of law that the EU has underpinning it’s existence as an alliance defending peace in a continent scarred by centuries of conflict.

In the coming weeks we may see one of the founding members of that alliance, and a pillar of democracy in Europe, fall to similar populist, nationalist, xenophobic leadership. Marine Le Pen will once again reach the run-off stages of a French Presidential election, but this time not as a minority threat but as a candidate polling level with her primary opponent, and with an even more extreme alternative to her right making her appear “moderate”. On the centre-right, centre-left and centre, each of the last three Presidents of the French Republic have been able to call upon an anti-Front National majority. This time perhaps not. The consequences of Le Pen in the Elysee would be catastrophic.

Of course the United States has been there with Trump, and on January 6th last year came closer than anyone realised to losing control of its two hundred and fifty year project of forging an ever more perfect democratic union. Before the various inquiries and court cases against Trump and his allies can conclude, an incoming Republican majority in both Houses of Congress may bring them to a premature end. Despite record levels of employment and a booming economy, Biden’s ratings are terrible, and his prospects (or indeed those of any Democrat) of victory in 2024 seem poor. The culture wars rage on, with assaults on LGBTQ, abortion, women’s rights, immigration and other Fox New talking points turning ever more dystopian.

Here the rise of xenophobic populism seem less threatening, because like the proverbial frog in hot water, we don’t really notice the temperature rising. Brexit, and the battle to “get it done”, carried with it the same attacks on immigrants, “liberal judges” and the politically correct” or “woke” that are familiar from all three of the above. The changes to electoral law and constituency boundaries are not as extreme as the ones imposed in Budapest, and certainly not egregious enough to make headlines, but the effects will be the same in terms of shoring up the position of the incumbents. The imbalance in the media, present for a generation or more, is tilting sharply in their favour with the proliferation of new populist-leaning outlets and pressures on more liberal-leaning ones like Channel Four.

It is voices in that same media that will dismiss accusations of the influence of Putin, his oligarchs and social media bot operation as overblown, and the influence of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire as hyperbole. And there is plenty of evidence in the left-wing, “citizen” media of that overblown hyperbole to point to. That doesn’t mean the influence and threat isn’t real.

The “Western” model of democracy, with a free press, free elections, freedom of speech and individual rights underwritten by a rule of law is most certainly under threat. At best this is to remove the “burdens” of taxation against a tier of wealthy interests who were prompted by incoming EU taxation measures to turbocharge an effort to undermine it via Brexit. That failed, but the impact of Orban and Le Pen may succeed where Farage, Johnson et al did not. It will entrench defence of the fossil fuel industry so vital to Russia’s economy and many other groups around the world, turning back the vital work to tackle devastating climate change.

At worst these threats could unleash a wave of Christian Nationalist/fundamentalist regimes that crack down hard on individual rights of anyone that doesn’t meet a very narrow definition of what a “citizen” is. A different religion, sexuality, identity or political viewpoint could see people in a broad swathe of countries facing levels of repression unheard of for generations. Look at the imprisonment of even the mildest demonstrator against the war in Russia, the “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida, the imminent overturn of Roe v Wade in the US, and even the bans on “noisy” and obstructive protest here, introduced under the cover of the “Insulate Britain” blockades.

I don’t believe there is some unified global conspiracy, with Putin, Murdoch, Trump, Xi and the rest sat round a table or joining some international league of dictators Zoom call, but there is a broad overlap of interests and alliances, with many useful idiots too willing to help out (I’m looking at you, Nigel). In the absence of the European Union or NATO (from which Trump is committed to withdrawing the US) many of them would probably find themselves at war with each other over territory. Territory that has mineral, agriculture and other resources.

Which brings us back to Ukraine. For all of Putin’s propaganda about “uniting the Russian peoples” and “de-Nazifying” his neighbour, there’s much about this brutal invasion that is about controlling the Black Sea ports, Ukraine’s huge mineral resources and access to the “breadbasket of Europe” I remember learning about at school. Democracy, consent to being governed, the rule of law and individual freedoms are an obstacle to that.

The war in Ukraine has brought all of this into sharp focus. Whose side are you on? NATO, the European Union, a free and liberal US, or the nationalist gangster capitalism of Putin, Trump, Xi and their proxies? Previously neutral states like Finland are scrambling to join NATO, and returning to where we started, Ukraine is seeking and obtaining a fast-tracked membership to the Union we so glibly abandoned, and which now more than ever stands as a testament to the peace and rights we and much of Europe have enjoyed for well over half a century.

Be in no doubt that this year, with the outcome of elections in Europe and America, and the outcome of this horrific war, that is most certainly under threat. What is incumbent on us now is how united we are in defence of those unfashionable liberal, “moderate” values, and how muscular and robust we are prepared to be in their defence.

Author: Warren Morgan


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