President Kaczynski was a symbol of the emerging Polish nation, and his death on that critical occasion, at the very moment when he was travelling to pay homage to the victims of the Katyn massacre, was one of the most heart-rending moments in recent European history. We in Britain, who had depended on our Polish allies in our hour of need, suffered during the last war. But we did not undergo what the Poles underwent, which was the genocide of a whole section of the population, and the decapitation of the remainder at Katyn. In his determination that the Russian elite recognize the latter crime, and acknowledge the right of the Polish people to honour the victims, Lech Kaczynski established himself as a fitting representative of Poland, in its new position as a free nation and a proud part of Europe. I am gratified that my name has been associated in this way with his, small though my part in the fight against communism has been.
The medal conferred on me today is in fact due to others as much as to me. My involvement in Poland came through the late Kathy Wilkes, who was my mentor in the business of giving support to oppressed intellectuals living under communist regimes. It was thanks to a wide group of people, including the late Dennis O’Keeffe, Tim Garton-Ash, Caroline Cox and many more, that I was encouraged to join in the efforts to liberate Poland. And when a group of us, including Marek Matraszek, Agnieszka Kolakowska and Jessica Douglas-Home, established the Jagiellonian Trust it was in order to continue work that had already been begun by others.
That said, each person had his own part to play in those days of fear and frustration, and my part was that of a conservative philosopher. I saw the liberation of Poland in the context of a wider cause, which was the defence of national identities against the global forces that threatened to extinguish them. Communism was only one of those forces, and other forces have survived its collapse – the old-fashioned imperialism of Russia today, the new-fangled imperialism of the European Union, the marketing and acquisition strategies of the multi-nationals, and now the mass migration of peoples. All of these threaten the stability and identity of the European nation states, and it was from my own attempts to defend our British nationhood and inheritance in the 1970s that my interest in Eastern Europe arose.
Poland has been many times invaded, thrice partitioned and continuously oppressed. Yet it has never accepted the right of foreigners to dictate its law, to suppress its religion or to control its borders. It is a nation conscious of its identity, which has lived on as an idea, a memory and a yearning through recent times, regardless of what the Nazis and the communists did to extinguish it.
Not surprisingly, therefore, for those of us who were recovering from the decades of post-war British socialism, and looking around us for what we might affirm against the prevailing orthodoxies, Poland had a romantic aura all of its own. This mysterious country, which could be visited only with difficulty, and which was as though imprisoned by its neighbours, held between Russia and East Germany like a defiant prisoner between two stony-faced prison guards, became nevertheless a symbol of the national idea. It was proof that human beings do not live by bread alone, that people who had been brought together by language, religion, territory and common customs could grow in another and more spiritual way, so as to affirm their freedom and independence even at the very moment when those things were being denied to them. The Poles were impractical, romantic and half crazy in their determination to go on existing as an imaginary nation when denied the chance to exist as a real one. And we were inspired to do the same. We would re-imagine our country as our homeland, our inheritance. And it was for her contribution to that great work of the imagination, rather than her economic liberalism, that we most admired Margaret Thatcher.
I say ‘we’, though of course I am speaking for myself. I was, among university intellectuals, a fairly isolated voice, and my attempts to define a believable conservatism for our times were both condemned by the left and ignored by the right. Precisely because I was without power or influence I spontaneously identified with my East European contemporaries, from whom all power and influence had been forcibly taken away. My first visit to Poland, in 1979, was frightening, in bringing me face to face with the police state, and the experience of this, both here and in neighbouring Czechoslovakia, had a profound effect on my thinking and also, I believe, on my character.
Young Poles today have only dim memories of communism. They hear things from their parents. But their attention is elsewhere. Of course they know about the control exerted by the Communist Party over the economy, the schools, the universities, the forms of entertainment, and over every aspect of daily life. They understand that their parents were not free, in ways that they are free. They probably know that the Catholic Church had been locked in a long struggle with the communists, from1948 until 1989, and had been instrumental in securing for their parents what small spaces of independent thought and action were available to them. They understand the inevitable result of a centralised economy: shortages, queues, the exhausting daily business of providing for a family, and the unpredictable value of money from month to month and from day to day. But they find it much more difficult to envisage exactly what daily life under communism was like.
I came to this country for the first time in 1979, shortly after the pilgrimage of John Paul II to his homeland, at a time of great tension all across Eastern Europe. I did not understand very much about how people lived under communism. But the feeling of communism came to me immediately like a slap in the face. Without knowing the exact cause I found myself surrounded and invaded by fear. I saw faces that did not smile except sarcastically, that did not look at you except suspiciously, that did not speak except in whispers. And in everything I felt the touch of a mysterious aggression. It was as though the whole country were under threat from a secret enemy, and no-one knew whence the first blow would come.
This was, in those days, a haunted country – a country haunted by fear. You would catch sight of it in the eyes that looked at you across a restaurant, in a tram, on a train – is that person watching me, following me? You would start awake in the night because the phone was ringing in your hotel bedroom, and be greeted by silence when you picked it up. In the street people hurried past each other, avoiding eye contact. In restaurants they whispered or murmured, or just sat in silence. At night-time, when the streets were deserted, you often heard the footsteps behind you, that stopped and started when you did. In the middle of a conversation you would realise that the other person was avoiding your questions or concealing the truth.
After a few visits I learned to put the all-pervasive threat out of mind, and to spend my energies in the search for people who lived in defiance of it. I came across people who lived in what Václav Benda later was to call the ‘parallel polis’, the imaginary world of the nation. I was immediately drawn to the dissidents wherever I encountered them, and was particularly excited to discover that many of them thought as I did, that none of them repeated the Marxist slogans that were dominant in my own university of London, and that they were all of them romantics like me. Meeting such people in bleak high-rise estates on the edge of crumbling cities, on streets guarded by the faceless Zomo, or in run-down university buildings where, to my astonishment, they had the right to organize meetings, I felt as though each mission was doomed to be my last. I was associating with people who were officially non-existent, and yet more abundantly alive than any of my colleagues back home. It amazed and perplexed me that these non-persons could conduct seminars in the official universities, and that someone like me, a renowned criminal, could speak at these seminars and be respectfully listened to by both students and staff. At the time I was not able to give a public speech at a British University without being shouted down or threatened with violence. For me therefore our Polish gatherings were a kind of paradox: havens of free speech, where only we, the visitors, were truly free.
In establishing the Jagiellonian Trust we had two broad purposes. One was to support independent thought and intellectual networks in Poland. To this end we provided materials and financial assistance to the samizdat press, sent lecturers to universities and organized conferences that could be attended by our colleagues from the West, so involving them in the collective effort on behalf of intellectual freedom. In all this work we tried to maintain strict impartiality – supporting people on their merits, and not because we happened to sympathize with their views. It has to be said, however, that, despite our efforts to provide support to democratic socialists and others of a leftist persuasion, we had great difficulty in finding them. It was only after 1989, when political options could be defined in Western terms, that anybody expressed much sympathy for the socialist position. In the early 1980s even Adam Michnik was claiming affinity with the philosophy of Edmund Burke.
Our other purpose was to provide the bank of ideas and the network of connections that would enable free-spirited Poles to move their country towards independence. This work was difficult and risky, and involved visits from us and our colleagues, an elaborate messaging service, and the constant attempt to draw the attention of Western media and governments to abuses in Poland. Before Malcolm Rifkind visited Poland in 1984, on an official visit as Minister of State for Eastern Europe, I was able to brief him on our work. In defiance of General Jaruzelski, Malcolm placed a wreath on the grave of Father Popiełuszko – defying also our own Foreign Office in doing so. This marked a major change of posture towards Poland, and was received by our network with great joy and satisfaction.
Of all the places in which I formed friendships during those difficult years, two stand out for me as symbols of Polish resistance – the Catholic University of Lublin, which retained its intellectual autonomy throughout the communist years, and Przemyśl, the town in South Eastern Poland that had been at the centre of many conflicts, and where something of the old civic spirit remained. There already existed in Przemyśl a discussion group dedicated to philosophical and political ideas, and our visitors were enthusiastically welcomed by the participants. We made contact there with artists and samizdat writers, and soon found that Przemyśl was a place that wished to be itself, and to cast off the grim routines of communism.
Marek Kuchcinski in particular played an important part in turning Przemyśl into a genuine civil society, and like many young Poles of his generation, he saw free market economics and cultural conservatism as continuous parts of a single transformation – one that would return Poland to its history and put it in contact with its identity as a nation. The people who attended our talks were from all walks of life, united by their pride in their town and their defiance of the regime that had stolen it. For us it was especially rewarding to see the difference that we could make, in a small town that was of no significance to Western journalists, but which made more use of our lifeline than any major city.
In a provincial town like Przemysl, where people had lived in defiance of the official distinction between the private life of whispers and the public life of commands, the streets were lively and cheerful, even at night. You could walk in them as you could in London, talking freely to your friend, or standing to look about you without attracting the attention of some uniformed figure at the corner. In Warsaw the prohibitions were evident everywhere, ready to be thrown like a blanket across every smallest spark of human fire. Especially at night was this disturbing. The Warsaw night was not like a London night, in which the overlapping energies of daytime die one by one to silence. The Warsaw night had an absolute quality. It contained no residue, no dwindling reminder of work and energy. It moved in quickly and quietly to occupy every outpost, every strategic point, with the vigilance of an invading army. And if your meeting in Praga lasted into the night, your walk back to the hotel would have a suddenly clandestine and troubled quality. The parked cars and their motionless occupants were like sleeping monsters that would spring up at the slightest vibration, and the eerie silence, in which your footsteps were blurted out like a confession, reminded you that you were alone and defenseless in a hostile world.
Rather than reminisce about those times, I will just say a little about where we are today. When everything changed in 1989 I was naturally delighted. Like many who had actively opposed communism I was anxious that the Communist Party should be punished, and its leaders put on trial. I saw no reason then that the Nuremberg process should not be revived, and the Poles helped thereby to distance themselves from an unfortunate episode in their history. As time went on, however, and it became increasingly clear that the Communist Party would never pay for its crimes, its principal members having melted away, I began to fear that recriminations and accusations of collaboration would remain to poison the air for the foreseeable future. One thing that nobody in Poland foresaw, I think, was the way in which Western political forces would rush in to fill the political vacuum left by the Communist Party, offering connections, money, and privileges to whoever was willing to adopt their policies for Poland. And many from the old communist networks took advantage of this. Moreover, Poland was encountering an ideology every bit as determined to impose itself as Marxism-Leninism. This ideology, which has found a haven in the institutions of the EU, speaks the language of human rights, acknowledges no religious authority and is firmly attached to the left-liberal causes of the day. It came as a shock to many Poles to discover that, as far as European officialdom goes, abortion is a ‘human right’, so that those opposed to it are not just wrong but criminal. Further shocks were to come, when Poles discovered that a host of pressing issues, from gay marriage to border control, are no longer theirs to decide, since decisions made in the Sejm can be overthrown by foreign judges. And when Martin Schulz, the leftist President of the European Parliament, denounced the recent Polish elections as a coup d’état, and set in motion the process for reviewing and annulling them, the Polish people might well have begun to wonder what remains of the independence for which they fought during the long hard decade of the 1980s.
In this connection the legacy of the communists is still not fully understood. The Communist Party was not merely the instrument of foreign occupation. It was the military arm of a world-wide attempt at thought control. We in Britain suffered as much from this as you – perhaps more so, since we did not have the reality of communism against which to measure the theory of it. We too suffered, in our universities, under an intellectual orthodoxy that told us that the people could not be trusted, that ‘false consciousness’ was the inevitable result of a capitalist economy, and that only when led by an educated vanguard would the people choose what is right for them. Hence any election which led to a conservative government was immediately dismissed as a ‘threat to democracy’. This posture has survived into our times. Viktor Orbán, twice elected with a two-thirds majority, is for that very reason considered a threat to Hungarian democracy, just as Mrs Thatcher was a threat to democracy in my country. The Law and Justice Party here in Poland, having had the impertinence to win the first majority government since 1989, is manifestly a threat to democracy. For the threat comes from what the people want, and, as everybody on the left knows, they want the wrong things. They want a stable social order, security of property, respect for religion and family, strong defences and secure national borders. In short, they want to repossess themselves of their nation, to be secure in the place that is theirs.
And this is the other mistake that the common people make, in the eyes of their educated guardians. They define their loyalty and the legitimacy of their government in national terms. The German left has made the denunciation of nationalism into its ruling principle, and when it comes to German nationalism the world agrees. But when has the world been threatened by Polish nationalism, by Czech nationalism, by Hungarian nationalism? And how are the people of those countries, settled within historically defined borders, speaking languages that distinguish them and living according to religious and cultural precepts of their own, to govern themselves if they are denied the identity of nations? Yet so powerful is the anti-national propaganda machine established by the European Union that none of the post-communist governments will be allowed to assert national identity and indigenous culture as the foundation of their rule. Legitimacy is now conferred from outside, by bureaucrats and judges who neither live in the country nor share its values, but who are animated by a trans-national agenda that recognizes the national idea only as something to be contained and resisted.
It is not surprising, therefore, if the Law and Justice Party has become controversial since its election, or that it is now the target of a vigorous campaign of denunciation in the Western media. I don’t wish to take sides in this controversy, which involves complex matters that I do not fully understand. But it is worth noting that, as a defender of the English national inheritance, and of the British political system and way of life, I have often been the target of similar attacks, and am acutely aware that the left-liberal orthodoxy, which dominates higher education in my country and also the propaganda of the European Union, is in need of a ‘right-wing conspiracy’ against which to define itself. Our respectable liberal media constantly reminds us of the menacing nationalists who are at this moment polishing their jackboots and looking for the rifle under the bed. My own ‘right-wing conspiracy’, so far as I can discover, consists of me and my friend Bob Grant with whom I get drunk from time to time. So I am apt to be sceptical of the alarm bells rung by Civic Platform here, and by Martin Schulz in the European Parliament. Nevertheless imaginary enemies are much more useful than real ones, since they can be constructed according to the agenda of the moment. It is therefore no defence to the charge that you are part of a right-wing conspiracy that no such conspiracy exists: its non-existence is part of its point. This, indeed, has been my role in Britain for the last 35 years: to represent the non-existent.
Life is therefore bound to be difficult for the Law and Justice Party, and I hope I will be forgiven if I offer a piece of advice. There is no doubt in my mind that national identity, and secure national borders, are fundamental to democracy. People will accept to be governed by those for whom they did not vote only if there is some larger, pre-political loyalty that everyone shares. It is the absence of that shared pre-political loyalty that has made democracy impossible in the Middle East, and neglect of this truth is responsible for the chaos now inflicted on our continent by the European Union. But this also means that the leftist opposition – at least the more civilized and amenable part of it – must also be incorporated into the national idea.
It is necessary for a ruling party to say to the person who did not vote for it: we have your interests at heart. Even if you don’t agree with us, we will do our best for you. Discussion, negotiation and compromise should be the rule of the day, in the hope that Poles will recognize their shared national interest, and continue to believe that their government represents that interest, whatever its mistakes. I don’t doubt that the current opposition in Poland is making it difficult to behave in this way. But this is surely where the Christian inheritance that enabled Poland to assert itself against the communists will serve the national interest yet again. Turning the other cheek is hard, especially in politics. But of all the weapons available to man it is the most disarming. Even the most virulent leftist cannot go on accusing you of hatred when you are manifestly refusing to respond to his blows. Replying to the propaganda of Martin Schulz with a quiet and reasoned argument would surely disempower him far more effectively than resurrecting the memories of the last war.
My feeling is that Poland has depended too much on the EU for its laws, and has impetuously seized the advantages offered by the EU’s freedom of movement provisions, while not foreseeing the cost, which is the mass emigration of the skilled workforce, and the ‘nomadisation’ of the Polish people. The ‘freedom of movement’ provisions contained in the Treaty of Rome have been, to my mind, the greatest disaster for our continent. They have been a disaster for us in Britain, an over-crowded country that stands to lose its national identity under the pressure of migration.
And they have been a disaster for countries like Poland, whose citizens can now flee from the place that needs them to places where they can enjoy the fruits of a free economy and a long-standing rule of law, without paying the real cost of them. The demographic crisis that Poland now faces, with its qualified middle class and its most energetic young people in permanent or near permanent exile, is matched by the terminal overcrowding suffered by my country, whose infrastructure, schools and health service, whose cities without housing and whose much treasured countryside, are all beginning to degrade under the pressure of inward migration.
When we worked for the liberation of Poland’s intellectual and professional class during the 1980s, our intention was to help the best and most needed of Poland’s citizens to remain here, and to work for the liberation of their country. It never occurred to us that we were, thanks to the EU, working to deprive Poland of the people that the country most needs in the work of restoration. Of course, it is impossible to grudge the Poles their new freedoms. But this particular freedom – the freedom of movement – we must remember, was imposed by the EU, with the intention of undermining national identities across the Union, Poland’s identity included.
By the same process Poland’s traditional Catholic culture has been brought into sudden and inflammatory contact with the new culture of ‘non-discrimination’, which is the ruling principle of the European institutions. The Polish people have therefore had to deal with issues that fuel the conflict between the Christian past and the secular present. For the moment, thanks to the legacy of Lech Kaczynski, a conservative party is in office which has the mandate to reaffirm some of what the Poles have lost in this sudden encounter with the new and disenchanted Europe. One thing is certain, which is that, in the face of a crumbling Europe and an expanding Russia, the Poles need to unite as a nation, in the way that they united under martial law. They must resume the task, under a strong but scrupulous government, of building the institutions that they need – not borrowing them from an ever more dogmatic and ever more feeble European Union, but building them for themselves. That, for me, is the true conservative agenda, and one that Lech Kaczynski would surely have endorsed with all his patriotic heart.