COVID-19 AND THE EROSION OF DEMOCRACY
Nicola Sturgeon’s attempts to suspend jury trials in Scotland during the Covid-19 crisis were widely criticised as an overreaction. Trying to rush the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill through the Holyrood Parliament on April Fools’ Day, Mike Russell MSP, the SNP government’s minister responsible for the Bill, argued that the new powers were ‘exceptional’ and ‘would have to be used exceptionally carefully.’ The Scottish Criminal Bar Association were outraged, declaring that suspending jury trials and handing the powers to a judge represented an ‘attack on principles that have been built over 600 years and are at the very cornerstone of Scotland’s criminal justice system’. Thankfully, good sense prevailed and that part of the Bill was withdrawn “pending further consultations”.
It is interesting how the coronavirus has led to a swathe of emergency measures being rushed through parliaments across Europe and the wider world, leading inexorably to an erosion of freedom and a rapid extension of the power of governments. The worst example has, of course, been Hungary, whose autocratic prime minister Viktor Orbán, has long been considered a cuckoo in the nest by the EU’s family of centre right political parties. Orbán has systematically intimidated Hungary’s judiciary, emasculated the free press and manipulated electoral law to the specific advantage of his own ruling Fidesz party. He was the first to put armed guards on the Hungarian border to prevent an influx of refugees, in direct breach of EU humanitarian conventions. Now, Orbán has seized upon the coronavirus pandemic as a way of effectively killing off democracy.
On 30th March, Hungary’s parliament, where Fidesz has a two-thirds majority, passed a Bill that gave Orbán far-reaching emergency powers, with no expiry date. The Bill closed down parliament, called off all future elections and gave the prime minister the right to rule by decree, suspending existing laws wherever he sees fit. Announcing the draconian new law, which allows courts to sentence citizens to five years imprisonment for spreading false information, Orbán said: “Changing our lives is now unavoidable. Everyone has to leave their comfort zone. This law gives the government the power and means to defend Hungary.”
Waves of angry criticism swirled across Europe, with some politicians suggesting that Hungary’s emergency powers threatened the core values of the EU and could lead to its expulsion from the bloc. Thirteen leaders of national European People’s Party (EPP) member factions formally requested Orbán’s Fidesz be kicked out of the centre-right Christian Democratic family in the European Parliament. Of course, the hard right, who regard Orbán as a nationalist hero, has raced to his support, with Italy’s far-right leader Matteo Salvini stating that the new law had been enacted as part of the “free choice” of a democratically elected parliament. He also has an ally across the Atlantic, having been welcomed to the White House by Donald Trump.
But Orbán’s EU critics have historic precedence on their side when they express grave fears over his fascist authoritarianism. They can point to events in Germany in 1933 which paved the way to a dictatorship and gave Hitler the right to rule by decree. Hitler had become Reich Chancellor in January 1933. On February 27th, that year, around 9pm, the Berlin fire brigade were called to the Reichstag, where a destructive blaze had gutted the building. Hitler immediately labelled the arson attack a communist plot to overthrow the government and called on President Hindenburg to declare a state of emergency and invoke Article 48 of the Weimar constitution. Article 48 gave the president the power to rule by decree ‘to ensure public safety and order’.
Hitler and his Nazi ministers drafted the ‘Reichstag Fire Decree’ giving further extensive powers to the president and essentially introducing a police state, controlling political meetings and curtailing the freedom of the press. There were mass arrests of communists and the suppression of political opposition to the Nazis, allowing them to sweep to power in elections to the Reichstag in March 1933, when they introduced the ‘Enabling Act’, effectively cementing one-party rule and creating a dictatorship based on the totalitarian and autocratic ideology of National Socialism.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that Victor Orbán has used the excuse of Covid-19 to create a fascist dictatorship, but his declaration of the need to secure the safety of his people by implementing emergency powers, has a sinister ring of familiarity about it. Hitler said the same thing in 1933. In Britain we have accepted emergency powers that have locked us in our homes, closed down schools, shops, pubs, cafes, restaurants, theatres, and sports stadia. We have allowed business and industry to be brought to a standstill in the name of public safety. We have seen on the TV how the police have used drones to catch people breaking the stay-at-home rules and we have meekly accepted these erosions of our liberty.
But governments and politicians should beware. In his ill-famed book ‘Mein Kampf’, Hitler wrote: “The best way to take control over a people and control them utterly is to take a little of their freedom at a time, to erode rights by a thousand tiny and almost imperceptible reductions. In this way, the people will not see those rights and freedoms being removed until past the point at which the changes cannot be reversed.” There is a tipping point beyond which we must not go in the name of safety. It was admirably outlined by Benjamin Franklin in a famous letter he wrote to the Governor of Pennsylvania, the key quotation of which now adorns the stairwell of the Statue of Liberty. Franklin wrote: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
A day after Viktor Orbán's Hungarian government introduced its Bill to rule by decree without a set time limit, the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, said: "It is of utmost importance that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values as set out in the Treaties. Democracy cannot work without free and independent media. Respect of freedom of expression and legal certainty are essential in these uncertain times. Any emergency measures must be limited to what is necessary and strictly proportionate. They must not last indefinitely. Moreover, governments must make sure that such measures are subject to regular scrutiny.” Even Brexit Britain should heed her words.