When Movement46 was founded, it was never my expectation that I would be posting book reviews. However, Twilight of Democracy the latest book (the inside cover describes it as an essay) by Pulitzer prize winner Anne Applebaum traces the tectonic shifts that have taken place in politics during the last 20 years, causing the fracture of the right, and tearing apart friendships in the process. In its wake has come the rise of nationalist, authoritarian governments whilst liberal internationalist movements have struggled to stay relevant.
Ms Applebaum begins her story at a New Year’s Eve party she threw in a Polish country house to welcome in the millennium. She describes the guests as being what was generally described at that time as being in the general category of ‘the right’:
“Free-market liberals, classical liberals, maybe Thatcherites. Even those who might have been less definite about the economics did believe in democracy, in the rule of law, in checks and balances…”
Twenty years later they had become separate groups, some retaining their belief in a diverse, liberal society; others having moved towards authoritarianism and a one-party state. In many cases not even being prepared to speak to those in the opposing camp.
We are taken through the rise in Poland of the Law and Justice Party. How they first appealed to those who felt they had missed out when Communism was overthrown. How they used conspiracy theories to give the impression of a country under threat from external forces abroad or hidden forces at home. How they never resorted to the ‘Big Lie’, but hundreds of ‘Mid-size lies’ so that, when the facts were against them, they accused the press of deception and encouraged people to look for the ‘truth’ elsewhere.
She then goes on to outline how, once power had been achieved, it was consolidated by awarding contracts, and appointing people to key roles, based not on ability, but on loyalty to the party and its objectives. By running roughshod over constitutional checks and balances. By neutering the legal system.
A similar path has been mapped in Hungary over recent years, where Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party created the twin spectres of George Soros, a native Hungarian, and Middle East immigrants (although there are hardly any in the country) to deliver their version of a nationalist, one-party state.
With a short detour to Spain, where the recently created far-right Vox party has now gained 52 seats in the country’s 350-seat Congress of Deputies, using similar methods, the book arrives at Brexit and Donald Trump. It does not take a degree in political science to realise that, in both cases, these events fit into exactly the same pattern – the claims of foreign countries not showing sufficient respect; the constant lies; the blaming of immigrants for all the country’s ills. The only difference being that here, and in the USA, the new right assumed power not of their own accord, but by infiltrating and taking over established parties.
Ms Applebaum also draws attention to the close parallels with how those parties are now using their power. Not, as in the past, to protect and strengthen the institutions of the state, but to hollow them out and put them to the service of the party – think the US postal service now run by a Trump loyalist and Johnson’s appointment of 36 new members of the House of Lords, including his brother and a Brexiteer-backing former supporter of the IRA.
This is not a book with a happy ending. There is no comforting “this is just a passing phase.” There is no moment of revelation when we are told that a certain course of action will turn back the tide.
But it is all the better for that. It makes us realise that if we want to return to a society where people welcome diversity and complexity rather than fearing it, where choice is considered a benefit, and where countries work together (as opposed to in national silos) to improve the lives of their citizens, then we are going to have to work for it.
In that way Twilight of Democracy may turn out to be the most prescient and important wake-up call for this coming decade.
Twilight of Democracy – The Failure of Democracy and the Parting of Friends by Anne Applebaum is published by Allen Lane and available from your local high street bookseller at £16.99.
Ian Collard was a Conservative activist for over 20 years, before leaving the party in 2018. These are his personal views and do not represent those of Movement46.