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Winding Back the Clock, Part I

Enda O’Doherty writes: “Hungary’s pro-family culture,” Breitbart News tells me, “has resulted in a rising fertility rate for married women which is ‘winding back the clock’ on demographic decline — a trend once deemed irreversible in Europe and used by globalists to justify mass migration from the third world.” Breitbart’s report is based on a study published by the Institute for Family Studies (headquarters Charlottesville, Virginia). The trend it perceives in Hungary is unusual, writes the report’s author, Lyman Stone, “as most countries around the world are currently experiencing stable or falling fertility, especially in Europe”.

But does Lyman speak the truth? Well, I have to say that I am often baffled by statistics, but how the IFS arrives at the conclusion that demographic decline is in the process of being “wound back” in Hungary remains something of mystery to me after a quick read-through of his report. In 2017 Eurostat published population projections, first to 2040 and then to 2080, for the European Union as a whole and for individual states. The projections for Hungary are that its already declining population will have fallen by another 3.9% in 2040 and by 11.8% in 2080. For purposes of comparison, Ireland’s population is projected to grow by 16.6% by 2040 and 34.4% by 2080. Significant population growth is projected too for other northern European states which are relatively prosperous and relatively open to immigration (Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Sweden, the United Kingdom – but not Germany), while the “Visegrad” states of central Europe, those who appear most keen on preserving a “white Europe”, are all facing long-term population decline (that is the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland in addition to Hungary).

It is in this context that Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán proposed (on February 10th) that the Hungarian birth rate should be boosted by exempting from income tax all women who give birth to four or more children. Orbán is normally lumped together in left or liberal thinking with a number of other European politicians of the far-right – Le Pen, Salvini, Wilders etc – though his style is rather different, less the populist firebrand or bullyboy exploiting grievances and stirring up the masses against the treason of supposed elites, more the national-conservative and Catholic political philosopher, quite secure in power and keen to explain to the people, often at considerable length, just what his politics consists of and how different it is from everyone else’s. A liberal democracy, as it has been conventionally understood in Europe or elsewhere in “the West”, is a limited democracy. A party, or more often a coalition of parties, may be “in power”, which is to say that it or they will occupy government ministries and try to implement policies which are a response to the challenges the country faces and as much as possible in line with the party’s or parties’ general ideological orientations. They will accept that their power is temporary, that they may not in the end be judged successful and may have to leave office as a result of a future election or a breakdown of the coalition arrangement; and they also accept that they must not try, while in office, to change the rules of the game by radically skewing the electoral system, packing the judiciary with political appointees, taking effective control of important media outlets or making it difficult for independent or oppositional voices to be heard through the suppression of independent centres of thinking. An illiberal democracy on the other hand – and it’s worth stressing that this is a label which Viktor Orbán embraces, not a tag used by his enemies ‑ is a winner-takes-all system in which, if you are endorsed by the electorate (and Orbán has won the last two elections handsomely) you can do what you want, not just in government but across the wider society. The electorate has put you in power not just to tinker with a few economic policies here and there but to take the country in hand and mould it to your vision. And no one should feel they have the right to stand in your way.

It is widely agreed that a declining population in a developed society represents a threat to its future. And with fertility rates generally having declined as prosperity increased many states are willing to compensate for this trend by facilitating a certain level of immigration. But a preparedness to welcome, or at least accept, immigration implies a willingness to accept that in the longer term the ethnic profile of one’s country will change to some degree. This is a prospect which most Irish people seem to be quite relaxed about: many indeed would see the changes that have already occurred bringing more variety and diversity to our national profile as a welcome development. But this is not a universally shared perspective. And again Viktor Orbán is quite explicit about what he wants and doesn’t want. In a speech just over a year ago he stated that

we must defend Hungary as it is now. We must state that we do not want to be diverse and do not want to be mixed: we do not want our own colour, traditions and national culture to be mixed with those of others. We do not want this. We do not want that at all. We do not want to be a diverse country. We want to be how we became 1100 years ago here in the Carpathian Basin.

Back in 1992, in the wake of the collapse of communism in Russia and eastern and central Europe, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama appeared to argue that history was effectively over, the good guys having won. (Trump and Brexit seem to have since induced in him a partial change of mind.)

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

But here we have the prime minister of Hungary calling for history – in the sense of change or flux ‑ to stop, or have stopped, in the 890s, when Magyar tribes arrived (from the Asian steppes most likely) in the areas of the Carpathian basin that they still occupy (not all of them inside the current Hungarian state). When I was a youth it was fairly common to hear Irish people speaking, sometimes seriously, sometimes whimsically, of “eight hundred years of oppression”, a dark period that had begun in 1169 and which it was hoped would soon end when we finally succeeded in pushing the Saxon into the sea, re-establishing the Gaelic status quo ante. We were far-sighted indeed, but it would appear that the Hungarians are way ahead of us – or is it behind?

Is Breitbart correct in stating that Hungary is currently “winding back the clock” on demographic decline? Are Orbán’s “pro-natalist” policies even realistic? Are they principally about addressing the problem they say they are meant to address? Or are we talking about winding back the clock in some other senses of that phrase? Exploring these questions would require a further look at “pro-natalist” and other “traditionalist” social policies, and indeed the question of “the place of women” in conservative politics in general. To which we will return.

19/2/2019