Hung(a)ry for New Ideas: Population Policy

Scotland has some lessons to learn from Hungarian Family Policy, argues Eamonn Kennedy

The Hungarian Parliament in Budapest

Progressive Scottish politicos have a stylish tendency of looking to the Nordic nations for policy inspiration. There’s nothing wrong with that and, in fact, it is important that we do look to other nations to understand how they tackle difficult societal problems.

However, perhaps it is now time for Scotland to be bolder and expand our world view beyond the trendy Nordic horizons. One such destination worth considering is Hungary – which is perhaps appropriately linked to the Nordics through the rather unusual Finno-Ugric language group.

Situated in further east, Hungary is all too easily overlooked and dismissed by a western-centric snobbery around the politics of ‘EU accession states’. We forget that the Magyars are key players in the modern European project and that, historically, they were always a major European power, with an empire across Europe rivalled only by imperial Russia.

But in Scottish politics, progressive-types are far too quick to be dismissive of the politics of former Soviet states such as Hungary and Poland. Many in Scotland remain ignorant of the historic significance of eastern Europe in the European story; largely we fail to understand how those nations are shaped by their modern and ancient histories.

Memories of Soviet tanks on the streets of Budapest during the 1956 Revolution and the atrocities that followed are ingrained on Hungary’s national consciousness. Having suffered tyranny in the extreme, Hungary’s political scene has been shaped by the vicious ideological battles of the twentieth century.

But quiet figures of resistance like Cardinal Mindszenty represented the traditionalist values of the Hungarian people in the face of adversity. A dignified man, described as ‘personifying uncompromising opposition to fascism and communism in Hungary’, Mindszenty was tortured and spent fifteen years living in the US Embassy in Budapest, where he had sought refuge from the Communists who had ordered his execution.

Within living memory, Hungary witnessed the unthinkable horrors of uncompromising political ideologies. But when we take that to heart, we can better understand why so many Hungarians cherish traditionalist values – values for which men like Cardinal Mindszenty sacrificed everything.

One such value is the family. We in Scotland can gain from copying the respect accorded by the Hungarian state to the family.

Speaking about family values is, for some reason, utterly frowned upon in progressive Scotland. Such views are stupidly written off as ‘counter cultural’ or absurdly labelled as ‘alt-right’. But such an accusation is ill-considered.

The family, rather, is the most natural common good we could ever encounter. The family, whether political ideologues like it or not, is the building block of modern Scottish society, the first and vital cell of society. The family is also the primary place of ‘humanisation’ for the person and society. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us well enough that, society, neighbourhoods and communities are made of families, not just a series of inter-dependent individuals.

It follows that that promotion of the importance of the family, Hungarian style, should not be dismissed as some sort of outdated moralistic crusade. State protection of the family is a modern solution to so many modern problems. The Hungarian model demonstrates this perfectly.

Take Scotland’s demographic and population challenges. So severe is the demographic challenge to Scotland’s economy that there is a new Scottish Government Ministerial Taskforce to look for policy solutions. The pension age population is projected to grow by 24% over the next 25 years and the working age population will fall dramatically at the same time. This will badly impacts our tax base, public services and economy. The Scottish Government note:

No natural growth is expected, meaning that deaths are anticipated to outweigh births each consecutive year from now on, with the only population increase coming from inward migration. [emphasis added].

Views on migration policy aside, it seems obvious that migration cannot be the only solution to the demographic challenge. Given that immigration is a reserved power, there is little that the Scottish Government can actually do with immigration policy pre-independence. But they can tackle the challenge through other means – and Hungary serves as an excellent aid in this endeavour.

Hungary is one of the only countries in Europe to reverse the population decline that the rest of Europe faces. This is thanks to their determined focus on family policy.

There is currently a cross departmental Minister without Portfolio for Family Affairs. Their inter-departmental initiatives are aimed to encourage and support couples to ensure that economic and social policy does not act as a barrier for those who wish to grow their families.

Over the past five years, Hungary has invested 5% of it’s GDP into a holistic policy mix that supports families in a number of areas, by making tax breaks, providing better housing, offering financial support, improving labour market conditions, and helping families to strike a better work-life balance.

Among other things, policies include: a full lifetime income tax exemption for mothers with four or more children; a family home allowance; a pregnancy allowance; the establishment of new crèches and kindergartens; the waiving of mortgages; car purchase support for families; free baby care, and; two extra days paid holiday for parents of one child, four days extra days for parents of two kids and seven extra days for those with three or more kids. For the most part, these policies seem quite reasonable. But crucially, with these small but significant gestures, the state is successfully removing the economic barriers to having more children.

By focussing on family friendly policies, Hungary have created the conditions to allow families to grow without fear of economic restraint. By taking this radical approach, they are reversing demographic decline in Hungary.

Scotland faces the exact same challenge as Hungary. They are solving theirs and we are struggling to solve ours. We restrict our policy response to having more immigration. Why can we not be bolder? It is not an either or situation where one has to chose to tackle the crisis by either migration or by family policy. We can do both.

The fact that we can combine both makes one wonder why the Scottish Government’s new Ministerial Taskforce on Population has not looked at the Hungarian model. What is it that prevents us from embracing an obvious solution to a very grave problem? The Hungarian model is a success and continues to be. It can be a success here too.

To echo the words of Pope John Paul II, we must not allow our politics to relegate the family to a subordinate or secondary role, excluding it from its rightful position in society…to inflict grave harm on the authentic growth of society as a whole.

We made a good start with the baby boxes. But if we are truly hungry for new ideas on population policy, we should be looking to Hungary.

Eamonn Kennedy

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