Last week, Hungary Today interviewed Sir Roger Scruton, who was in Budapest giving a talk at this year’s Brain Bar festival. During the interview, Scruton discussed Trump, Orbán, the nature of conservatism, the ongoing “Lex CEU” controversy, and the role he played in Eastern European dissident movements during the Communist era.
Sir Roger Scruton is a British philosopher and writer. He has published widely on conservatism, aesthetics, and politics. He is the founder of the conservative Salisbury Review, and was active in dissident movements in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland during the 1980s. He has held professorial posts at numerous prestigious universities, and his articles have been published in international outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and The Times. He was knighted in 2016.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision. In addition, the interviewee made edits to the original discussion prior to its publication.
This is not your first time in Budapest I take it?
No. I first came here in 1985, something like that, just as Communism was beginning to crack. So, you would not have been born…Yes, it was a very interesting time.
Can you speak a bit about your involvement with samizdat/tamizdat/underground classes?
Well, here in Hungary, the opposition was not the same sort of thing as in the rest of Eastern Europe. It was very much concentrated in certain narrow circles of Budapest intellectuals. In particular, there were the leftish intellectuals around János Kis and Miklós Haraszti. Then, there were people a little bit more in the system like Bálint Magyar; but they were still essentially social democrats who had been pushed to the margins by the Communist system. They published a Samizdat journal, Beszélő, which I and other interested friends supported.
You were involved with Beszélő?
At least with some of the people around it, such as Gábor Demszky, who had a little publishing house, and who became Mayor of Budapest later. I used to send him ink and paper and that sort of stuff, although I don’t suppose he remembers. But we organized visits too. Then there were little groups that we supported with photocopiers and things like that, and the environmental and educational movements around Ivan Bába and his friends. But there wasn’t a real underground culture here, such as there was in the Czech lands, and which I have described in Notes from Underground. There were some highly eccentric people like Tamás Gozsi, who did his own thing always, and still does I assume.
It was not a very frightening business, being a dissident here. You couldn’t get a good job, and you were pushed around, but you didn’t run the risk of being five years in jail or anything like that.
So, you were more involved in dissident activity in Prague then?
Yes, it was more in Prague, and Slovakia, and Poland too.
How do current right-wing populist politics fit (or not) into your conception of conservative thought and conservative politics?
Well, I’m not a populist. I’m a believer in institutions. I think that institutions are the only guarantee we have of continuity and freedom. If you make direct appeals to the people all the time, the result is totally unstable and unpredictable, like the French Revolution. The revolutionaries made direct appeal to the people, and then discovered that they hated the people. So, they cut off their heads.
I believe [British historian] Simon Schama wrote a book on the topic…
Yes, Simon Schama’s book on the French Revolution is very revealing about this. The attempts to get rid of all mediating institutions just leaves the people in a dangerous condition, and a demagogue in charge. You can see this in Robespierre and Saint Just. And the only good thing about the French Revolution is that the demagogue gets his head chopped off as well.
So, I believe in institutions, and in using institutions to direct the people towards the kind of continuity and stability that they actually need, but doing it with their consent, obviously. That’s where the democratic process comes in.
What are your thoughts on the balance between consent and stability?
Well, first of all, stability requires legitimacy of opposition. There has to be a discussion of all the issues. That means that there must be a voice for the opponent, that’s what Congress and Parliament are about. And the first victim of real populism is the opponent, who is shut up. The press is taken away from him, parliamentary positions are taken away from him, so that the leading power has no voice opposed to it. And, if you think about it, that’s when people start making the really big mistakes. If there’s no opposition, who’s going to correct you, who’s going to tell you that you’re doing something stupid? That is the great mistake that Lenin made, namely to destroy all the institutions that made it possible for him to realize that he was making a mistake. He created a machine without feedback
Where is, in your view, the line between populism (or ‘majoritarian democracy’) and authoritarianism/demagoguery?
I think that line is in the division of powers. In a constitutional democracy, there is no one person who has the complete power of the state.
You have a very good illustration with Trump. He wanted to exclude immigrants from certain Muslim countries, and he couldn’t do it because the judiciary didn’t let him. Maybe it will be changed in the Supreme Court: nevertheless, the decision has been shifted, from the President to the courts. In contrast with Erdogan in Turkey, Trump did not arrest all the judges, they’re all still there. So that’s a very good proof of the fact that power is divided in such a way that no particular person can gain the whole of it.
On a related note: on that scale between Trump and Erdogan, where do you place Viktor Orbán?
Well, Viktor Orbán is a special case, obviously. I mean I’ve known Viktor for years, ever since he was 19 or 20, when he first started setting up Fidesz as an oppositional faction within the students here at university. And he’s a very intelligent and striking character. He doesn’t have the American approach to the division of powers, that’s undeniably so.
On the other hand, he’s not the kind of demagogic tyrant that the liberal establishment in Europe want to make him out to be. He has not arrested all the judges, he allows the constitutional court to overthrow decisions of Parliament. He is a democrat, but not a liberal-democrat.
It’s a matter of degree; you can say that perhaps he throws his weight around more than most Western politicians would. And he has an oligarchic approach to civil society. But whether Bálint Magyar is right in condemning Orbán’s Hungary as a ‘mafia state’ I very much doubt. After all, has Bálint been arrested? Let’s say at least that the question remains an open one.
Well, the CEU legislation seemed to me to be a mistake. The CEU is a perfectly reasonable institution. Ok, it’s got ridiculous aspects like Gender Studies, and no doubt the professors mostly lean to the left. But what university in the modern world is different in those respects? So, I think it was a mistake to move against it. Indeed, it has been very beneficial to Hungary to have the international network that relies on the CEU, and to be able to offer graduate education that is fully integrated into the network of European scholarship. The university was also a major gesture when it was first established; it was an attempt to say ‘look, we can have a proper system of our own, a proper university of our own’ after the collapse of Communism. It was a very important gesture to set it up, and an initiative for which George Soros deserves credit, whatever you think of his political stance today.
NGOs are a problem, because they are very political here in Hungary. In Britain, they enjoy a special status that derives from the Charitable Uses Act of 1606, exempting them from taxation but insisting on their withdrawal from political activism. Here the NGOs tend to be radical left, do they not? Well not all of them, but a great many of them, and in particular the ones that George Soros funds, which are like an unofficial opposition to the government, a compensation for the lack of opposition in Parliament.
In response to that, the one thing that people have been talking about is that all of these groups do have to register with the government, that the new law is more onerous.
I don’t know this law, and I won’t give an opinion about it. Moving against the NGOs is also not very sensible. You in America and we in Britain have a long-standing way of dealing with this. You can get tax relief, but not if your association is set up for political purposes. And there’s a long tradition of charitable giving which defines the nature of our civil society, as a thing outside the control of the state.
You should remember that, under Communism, NGOs didn’t exist. Not just that: charity was illegal, you went to prison if you loved your neighbor as yourself, since that suggested you were not part of the network of mutual suspicion on which the communists depended for their power. Kindness was a threat to the system, and had to be suppressed.
Since Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and Hofer all lost, some commentators have been arguing that the ‘populist wave’ has crested, at least in Europe. Is that how you see this playing out?
Well, possibly. I don’t know. We’ll have to see, because what happened in France was actually pretty shocking to most people, since the Socialists and the Republicans, the two traditional parties, were both out. Ok, Macron is a sort of European apparatchik, so we probably will see a restoration of the European agenda. But you don’t know what’s going to happen in Greece, or Spain, or Italy. The Italians, it seems to me, are close to withdrawing from the Euro.
Where do you see the EU as an institution in five years’ time?
I don’t know. I would like to see a new EU with a completely different treaty, I don’t know if that’s possible to achieve, in which there’s much more freedom for the nation-state, and much less dictatorship from above.
Did you happen to see George Soros’ essay that he published two days ago about re-envisioning the EU?
From what I gather Soros is saying the same kind of thing as I have been saying: that the old treaty needs to be torn up and a new one proposed in its stead, one that returns significant sovereignty to the component states. I think many people think that the EU has got to a dead-end as it is now, but nobody knows how to retreat and reshape it, because there’s no reverse gear. Lenin’s mistake, all over again.
Some people have argued that what is needed is a ‘European identity’ of sorts. Is that reasonable or possible?
You can’t make people think of themselves as something: it has to come from the heart. People do think of themselves as Hungarian or English or French, but very few people identify as a European. It would only come about if it came about naturally. And it’s had a lot of time to come about naturally, without doing so, so I suspect it’s not going to work.
What is your reaction to the first four and a half months of the Trump presidency?
Has it been four and a half months? Well, I was amazed that he was elected, but my thought was that he couldn’t have been elected, except against her, because she was unelectable.
But I don’t disapprove of all his policies in the way that my liberal friends do. They all think of him and his policies as exhibiting some kind of tyrannical usurpation of the American system. I think he has to take some measures against illegal immigration, because that’s deeply destabilizing of America. It doesn’t afflict the liberal, East-Coast, city dwelling intellectuals, but for the ordinary American in ordinary industries in the heartland of the country, illegal immigration is a seriously disturbing fact that undermines all security and trust. Trump must take action about that, and Obama never would take action about it. So, in that respect I’m in favor of Trump. I don’t know about other matters.
Does “Trumpism” as an ideology exist, and if it does, is it conservative, or is it just opportunism?
It is opportunism. He probably does have conservative instincts, but let’s face it, he doesn’t have any thoughts that are longer than 140 characters, so how can he have a real philosophy?
What is your view of Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accords?
I think it’s an extremely brave thing to do. My own view is that those climate treaties are a load of nonsense. They never lead to any positive result, and they lead to extremely expensive pseudo-results. They impose a huge cost on ordinary people in the form of energy bills, and it’s not clear that they do any good for the climate.
I think that people are trying to get a solution before they have any real grasp of the problem. We need to know more about alternative sources of energy, and we need to know more about the climate. It could be that, although the climate is warming, if it weren’t for all the carbon we’re putting into it, it would be cooling. We’re due for an ice age, some people say. Nobody understands these things. His [Trump’s] thought is, why sign away such a fortune for a purpose that you don’t know you can achieve? I sympathize with that. I’m not an expert, but when writing Green Philosophy I looked into the matter and found that the whole field of climate science is in a state of flux. There’s so much disagreement that you can’t assume that we yet know what we need to know.
Well, it isn’t a huge cost in Europe, because you’ve got so many energy suppliers you can draw on. But in America, which has to produce its own energy, to insist on renewable resources is to commit to a huge change in the whole energy infrastructure of the country, trillions of dollars.
So, in your view, it’s something that works more easily in Europe?
Yes, because here you have the French grid, which is entirely run on atomic power, and you just plug in. The Germans, for instance, are always saying how they don’t use this carbon stuff, but then they run out of electricity once a week and have to plug in to the French system. So, it’s much easier to avoid confronting the truth when you’re living in Europe.
Reporting by Tom Szigeti
Photos by Riley Dunbar