Magazine article The Spectator

Privatization, Cuts in Child Benefit, Thatcherism-What Happens When the Left Wins

Magazine article The Spectator

Privatization, Cuts in Child Benefit, Thatcherism-What Happens When the Left Wins

Article excerpt

Hungary, where I have been visiting relatives, there are beggars on the Vaci Utca, Budapest's main shopping street. They sit under the Donna Karan and Dior signs that have replaced those of the drab vendors of communism. One is sometimes approached by one of them, extending a hand the colour of mottled paprika. `You are foreigner?' he ventures in English or German. There is a pause. `Would you like 6,000 forints [30]?' Hang on a minute, one thinks, isn't this supposed to be the other way around? Wasn't he meant to be asking for some money?

One of the beggars obligingly explained: `You pay me 3,000 forints and I will beg for you. At the end of the week I will bring you back 6,000 forints of what I have made.' He gestured to his leg. `If you like I get rid of it.' This was taking the customer-service ethic too far. 'Nem, no, I just hide it. Or I make my face terrible. What you prefer?' I am afraid that your correspondent preferred to be a prude: 'I beg your pardon. But that is cheating.' The beggar shook his head. `No. That is capitalism.'

The beggar, though he did not know it, was not only the poor man's Robert Maxwell, but a parable of modern Hungary. Let me tell you a different one, though it is part of the same book. A few months ago, Count Laszlo Karoly, head of one of the country's oldest families, returned to his ancestral castle, which had been confiscated by the communists. In front of a large crowd, including the socialist minister of the interior, the Karoly arms rose again above the door. The Count rose too: he rose to his feet and shouted, `The Red Star has been consigned to the gutter.' The Countess half expected to hear the rattle of machine-guns. But the minister of the interior smiled benignly.

The Count, who looks like Alcibiades reborn, told me this story over lunch. The Karolys are the first family to have been invited back by the government to live on their old estate. But the gesture was not quite as it seemed. Most of the castle is now a children's home. The Karolys are allowed to live in a few small rooms - for which they voluntarily pay rent. Moreover, the Countess is expected to restore the staterooms and organise cultural events that will raise money for the children's fund.

None of this is because the government bears any ill-will towards the former aristocracy. Generously, it offered to return the Karoly 'fortune'. This had been depleted by plunder and communism to one table, two clocks, two pairs of mirrors, three indifferent paintings and a selection of extraordinarily ugly stuffed birds.

Count Karoly had a sense of humour. `The minister of the interior wished to make a symbolic presentation to my mother as part of the public ceremony. So I suggested he present her with this.' He gestured not to a depiction of some ancient Karoly in battle but to one of the birds. Its beak had ended up around its neck, giving it a baleful expression. 'I told my mother that when she accepted this bird from the minister she must have tears in her eyes, but my mother refused. So the minister presented her with one of the paintings instead.' The family is daunted by what the government expects. `We have been told to restore the castle with no financial help from the state. We have no money but we have to raise all the funds ourselves. This would not happen in England.'

That is the problem with Hungary. No one bears ill-will, neither the government nor the Karolys nor the beggars. The same end result is desired by nearly all. But nobody has any money -- particularly not the government. …

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