Two months ago, in these pages, I predicted that Robert Fico’s Smer-SD party would win the Slovakian elections and everybody would start worrying about what this meant for Ukraine. Why do I mention this now? Because what I predicted happened — and while you may think it rather bad form of me to remind you of my extraordinary insight, the thing is I feel a little embittered that I am not given the respect I am due as an oracle. Perhaps only an oracle on Slovakian politics, but still. It is only a week since the Financial Times predicted, with great confidence, that Michal Simecka’s “Progressive Slovakia” would win the poll. Whoever wrote that piece clearly hadn’t read my analysis, or perhaps had and didn’t take it seriously. This is what annoys me. I would like to be known as the foremost journalistic expert on Slovakian affairs in the world and perhaps offered a chair at a university. But when I go to universities I am not offered a chair, I am more frequently offered the door.
The liberals will argue that populist parties play to the ‘baser instincts’ of the electorate, tapping into their fears
Anyway, the worries have begun that Putin has a foothold in the West, a suspicion not helped by Fico’s assertion that the war in Ukraine was begun by “Ukrainian Nazis and fascists.” His party’s lack of sympathy for Ukraine comes partly from a pan-Slavism which has always placed the Russkies at the pinnacle, plus the vestigial tail of Bolshevism wagging inside their minds (Fico is a former member of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia) as well as a healthy distrust of the US and the European Union.
The only upshot, so far as Ukraine is concerned, is that Slovakia might get its MIGs back but otherwise Kyiv will not be hugely discommoded. More interesting for me is the rest of the stuff in Smer-SD’s political program and the confusion it occasions in observers from west of the Elbe. None seemed more confused than the BBC Radio 4’s Nick Robinson on the Today program on Tuesday when he was interviewing Katarina Roth Nevedalova, an MEP who represents Smer and who was treated by Nick as if she represented Smersh. “You’re a left-wing party — so how come your victory has been welcomed by Viktor Orbán?” was the gist of Robinson’s bewilderment. He then started bandying around the word “populist,” which is the go-to insult for all broadcasters when faced with a politician who doesn’t fit neatly into the archaic left-right divide which still, to a degree, governs our politics.
What does “populist” actually mean? Smer-SD (the title means Direction–Social Democrats) is redistributive and well to the left of center economically. However, it is also very conservative on social issues — you will not see the rainbow flag flying in Bratislava for a while — and anti-immigration. Its opposition to incomers is not couched in the genteel terms usually used by those politicians who say it is just a matter of controlling numbers. Indeed, Fico has been called an “extreme Islamophobe” by Arab websites and, in fairness to them, he has said that Islam has no place in Slovakia. He fears that Islam will “change the face” of the country. Nor is he hugely enamored of Slovakia’s large Roma minority. So much, so Orban, then.
But I am not sure why any of this should see the party classed as “populist.” As I say, the SD in their name means “Social Democrats” and that is exactly what they are: traditionalist, patriotic, pro-family, pro-Christian but also economically radical. His party’s stance on LGBTQ issues and immigration would more normally be characterized, totally wrongly, as “far-right” by people such as Nick Robinson when they are looking to denigrate people with whom they disagree. Shove Smer-SD in the box with Orbán and Germany’s AfD, the Brothers of Italy, Vlaams Belang in Belgium and the Front National in France. But this doesn’t quite work with Smer-SD, because of its radical economic policies — and so the term “populist” is wheeled out.
Semantically, “populist” simply means a party which adopts policies which are popular with many voters. At a deeper level, it is a party which, the liberals will quietly argue, plays to the “baser instincts” of the electorate, tapping into their fears about social change occasioned by an influx of people from a different culture and their profound misgivings about the clear and obvious insanity of the current gender debate.
There is no reason, however, why a pride in your nation’s history and tradition allied to a legitimate objection to the la-la-land fantasies of gender politics should be classed as a “baser instinct.” It is a disaffection with a liberal program which has been foisted on populations who did not consciously vote for it and who, having gradually awakened, will not vote for it any longer. In truth, the term populist seems to mean only this: “People whom Today program presenters would not invite over for lunch.” It has no greater purchase than that. Any political description which can encompass, within its folds, Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, Robert Fico, Viktor Orban and Greece’s radical left Syriza Party, Nigel Farage… well, it is so broad as to be meaningless. It is an insult to any politician, from left or right, who does not accord with the conventional agenda. Anyone who believes the EU may be undermining national sovereignty or who has a faith in the traditional family: all populist. It has become a nonsense term which conceals far more than it reveals.
But what, then, of the term “liberal?” I know some readers object when I use the word as a kind of ad-hominem insult directed at people whom I wouldn’t invite to a tea. I do not mean Gladstone or J.S. Mill, obviously. But it is probably a little lazy of me to have adopted this Americanism — for when I use it, I mean it in its modern, American, sense. I shall try to come up with a new term for these people who have predated upon us all for too long.