THANKFULLY, the Scottish Government stepped back from the brink yesterday. The SNP administration wanted to suspend trial by jury during the coronavirus pandemic – however, at the last minute the plans were dropped from emergency legislation.

The proposals – which would have seen trials conducted without a jury and left in the hands of judges – were branded draconian by lawyers, denounced by opposition politicians, and questioned by some SNP members. Rightly so.

The suspension of jury trials would have been an unforgivable assault on democracy at a time of crisis, and fatally undermined the rule of law. No matter how hard things get, we cannot destroy one of the fundamental pillars of democracy. Attempts by some SNP politicians to defend the plans were astonishing – particularly given that England and Wales took the sensible, decent path and simply decided to put such trials on hold during the pandemic.

It was an ugly moment in Scottish politics – which many will long remember once the outbreak is under control – but the risk has now passed. However, it’s a timely warning that as a country we need to remain vigilant about the behaviour of our leaders as they try to cope with the pandemic. Bad laws can be well intentioned. And good intentions can have very bad consequences.

It’s most likely true that there was no sinister intent at all behind the proposals, and that an exhausted, over-stretched and frightened government simply believed it was acting in the best interests of the Scottish people. However, ministers were wrong, and dangerously so. At best, it was a failure of leadership and intellect.

In a way, the episode teaches us that we’re still quite lucky here in Scotland. We’re a vibrant democracy, and when the Government came up with a dangerous, ill-thought out proposal there was a furious backlash, and it was quickly shot down and withdrawn. Not so, in many other countries amid the pandemic.

Coronavirus has just claimed the life of its first democracy – Hungary. The country’s right-wing authoritarian populist leader Viktor Orban has made himself effective dictator, all under the cover of fighting coronavirus. Hungary has long had a wobbly grasp on democracy, now liberty has just slipped through the country’s fingers.

Orban has closed parliament, called off future elections and can rule by decree – in other words, there’s no limit to his power. Existing laws can also be suspended. Opposition politicians tried to set a time limit on the emergency powers but failed – Orban has a two-thirds majority in parliament.

The emergency powers also mean that anyone found guilty of spreading ‘false’ information can be jailed for five years. In such an environment, ‘fake news’ can be anything the government doesn’t like, or doesn’t want the public to know. It’s a law designed to silence the press, critics and opposition parties.

Orban, himself, has already linked coronavirus to migrants – and he’s close to many of the world’s populist leaders, such as President Trump. In 2015, Orban declared a state of emergency to stop refugees entering Hungary. Those emergency powers are still in force.

The West has turned a blind eye to Hungary for too long. Orban has waged war against the courts, the media and NGOs for a decade; his party, Fidesz, stinks of bigotry and nativism.

Hungary isn’t fit to be a member of the European Union or Nato any more. The EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights speaks of freedom, equality and the “principles of democracy and the rule of law”. Already, the EU’s Justice Commissioner, Didier Reynders, has said member states will judge whether Hungary has violated these fundamental values. If Europe is to mean anything, Hungary should be brought to heel when the pandemic is under control.

Orban is daring the EU to act. Former Italian premier Matteo Renzi believes Hungary’s trajectory is a threat to European values and could merit expulsion. Already, there is talk among academics and political insiders that Hungary could be a bridgehead to a post-democratic Europe.

In 1999, when Hungary joined Nato, a military alliance which maintains that an attack on one member is an attack on all, it did so on the promise that it would “conform to basic principles … such as democracy”. Hungary would also “be expected … to demonstrate commitment to the rule of law and human rights”.

Worrying developments are happening around the world. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has used an emergency decree to delay the start of his trial on corruption charges. Opposition groups and the press are being harassed in Azerbaijan with coronavirus used as a convenient excuse.

In Kenya, a child was shot dead by police enforcing a curfew. There have also been beatings and tear gas fired. In India, migrant workers were sprayed with chemicals, people were beaten, and some forced to do squats while chanting ‘we’re enemies of society’. In Paraguay, police have made people perform star jumps, or repeat ‘I won’t leave my house again, officer’ while lying face down on the ground. In the Philippines, people have been put in dog cages or forced to sit in the burning sun.

The singing has also stopped in Italy. People are now scared, not defiantly united against the virus as they once were when they stood on their balconies singing ‘Andrà tutto bene’ – everything will be alright. Many are broke and hungry, and there’s queues for foodbanks. There are genuine fears of social unrest. Online activists have been inciting people to loot supermarkets. Things are getting frightening out there.

The most frightening thing of all, though, is just how fragile democracy is at its heart. People like us – Westerners, Europeans – have lived in a democracy our entire lives. We take it for granted. But democracy can be snuffed out in a moment. The vast swathe of human history has been a story of oppression. Liberty is a recent invention.

There’s been much talk of the coming utopia that we’ll find ourselves in once the pandemic is contained. How we’ll reform politics, economics, and welfare – and throw inequality on the trash heap. I dream that dream myself. I pray it comes true. But there’s just as much a chance that when we reach the other side of coronavirus, the New World will be much darker than the Old World we’ve left behind.

Neil Mackay is Scotland’s Columnist of the Year