Monday, 20 July 2009

Conservatism UK- or Polish-style?

In the UK my natural tendency is to vote Conservative. The party of small(er) government, low(er) taxes, (more) balanced budgets; devolving responsibility to the citizen rather than garnering power in the hands of the State. And individual freedom. So how do I vote in Poland - where the two largest political groupings are ostensibly both 'centre right'?

My impeccable Tory credentials. Election night, May 1987.

The answer is simple - I vote Platforma Obywatelska. PO has shortcomings, of which the most obvious is its inertia when it comes to reforming a thoroughly inefficient state, but among Poland's political parties, to me it's quite clearly the least bad, and by a long shot. It might not quite 'walk the walk', but it's on message and understands the imperatives of getting Poland's economy right.

So when I read in yesterday's Observer and Sunday Telegraph - about the hoo-hah caused by the British Conservatives being in league with Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, I was deeply puzzled. What on earth have David Cameron's Tories got in common with Jarosław Kaczyński's party? Not a whole lot.

PiS - lazily labelled 'right wing' by British commentators - is a not party I'd naturally associate with Norman Tebbit's 'get on your bike' self-reliance, nor with Michael Heseltine's deregulation nor with Margaret Thatcher's reformist zeal and focus on economic competitiveness. PiS panders to older Poles, nostalgic for the certainties of a time when the state provided everything, yet who were against the communist party, and who were and still are staunchly Catholic and patriotic. [I recommend examining the parallels between General Franco's supporters and those of PiS]

I won't go as far as saying that PiS are national socialists - they are nowhere near that far along the spectrum of human intolerance - but patriotic, religious socialists - certainly. They have a deep mistrust of the private sector. While Kaczyński (J) was in power (his twin's power extends only to blocking legislation, not initiating it), privatisation ground to a halt, public-private partnerships failed to move ahead, roads, railways, bridges, sewage treatment works, power grids, power stations, were not being built because there was always the suspicion that someone would actually profit from it.

Demographically, PiS's voters are generally middle-aged and old. The party makes far less headway than PO or left-of-centre SLD among younger votes.

From the economic perspective, PiS was way to the left of Tony Blair. But from the social point of view, PiS is way to the right of Cameron's Tories - on issues such as religious tolerance, gay rights, abortion, in vitro etc. In both these fields, you'd be hard-pressed to find major policy differences between the Tories and PO.

So why have Britain's Conservatives aligned themselves with PiS?

One word - Europe. Michał Kamiński

The one bit of ideology that PiS shares with the Tories - going back to Margaret Thatcher's days - is Euroscepticism. PO is unashamedly Euroenthusiastic. Yet drill down into the roots of the Euroscepticism and you see two different sets of causes. The Tories of Middle England dislike Brussels bureaucracy, daft regulations, metric measures, Britain being ruled by foreigners with funny names. Prawo i Sprawiedliwość supporters fear Germans buying up Poland, loss of fought-over sovereignty and having secularism, diversity and gayness foisted upon the nation.

David Cameron needs to mull over his party's alliances in Brussels. Britain has always been rather weedy in Europe, tiptoeing around the issues central to the EU's strategic direction allowing the French and others to determine it instead, to the advantage of other global players. British Tories should fight in Brussels for a strong and globally competitive Europe and pick partners with the same vision.


Adam said...


Have to say I agree and i don't agree with what you've written. As you know I don't see PIS in the same light as you do and disagree with the generalisations you make in this last blog comment.
This article,338070_Rasista__homofob__nacjonalista____.html
I think paints a more reasoned comparison between where we were and where we are going Europe wise.
I don't understand your comment regarding PIS being on the 'right' in with regards to race, gay rights or abortion. Are you saying many people on the 'left' aren't concerned about race, abortion or homosexuality in the same way? Are many catholics not socialist? Do socialist mothers and fathers give the green light to abortion much more readily than capitalist ones? I appreciate you have discerned between economic and social approach but you're tarring with somewhat of a broad brush, though perhaps not intentionally. Sure, I understand it is difficult to sum up in a few words, however I think the delineation is much more on religious and moral grounds than on political.

Michael Dembinski said...

Adam - you have summed it up neatly - the division of politics into 'left' and 'right' just doesn't work in Poland.

You need two axes to define a party. Horizontal axis would have 'secular/ cosmopolitan/ liberal' on the left, and 'religious/ patriotic/ traditional' on the right.

Vertical axis would have 'free market/ low tax' on the top, 'regulated economy/ redistributive taxation' below.

On this basis, PO and PiS would not share a quadrant. PiS would, however, share one with Samoobrona (further down the vertical axis) and LPR (further right along the horizontal axis).

mis said...

Right, classic division doesn't work here. Notice that PiS reduced some taxes (składka rentowa, legacy tax), but "low tax" PO going to push them up :) It's really messy. In fact
democracy doesn't work in Poland.

Michael Dembinski said...

@Mis - there's a global economic crisis going on. USA, UK have increased their budget deficits massively (we're talking trillions), whereas Poland's will go up (by 18 billion zlotys). PO shouldn't raise taxes but cut costs (KRUS, early pensions, reduce bloated administration).

It's not that democracy doesn't work it's that there's many Poles (esp. in state sector) who don't understand basic economics - someone has to pay for the inefficiencies inherent in the public administration. One solution - shared services for the state sector, which Deloittes reckon could save 15 billion PLN a year (one payroll department paying all state clerks, not 437 of them as at present)

White Horse Pilgrim said...

Having grown up in the UK but lived in Eastern Europe for a decade, it soon became clear (as other commentators have noted) that the Western paradigm of Left and Right don't apply across the former Communist countries. Uniquely national characteristics apply.

Actually Poland is doing a whole lot better than Romania, where I lived - a place where only the former communists were organised, and then mainly just to line their pockets with EU funds. A dismal example of just what exposure to the Ottoman Empire followed shortly afterwards by Communism can do to a country.

The view that "one can get something for free" seems pretty universal across Eastern Europe. But then the British believed for years that "property prices can only go up" so we are all capable of suffering delusions!