Not Ben's Blog

What next after the Blairs and the Bee Gees? The Rooneys and the Camerons?

Actually Ben’s not here this week – his nerves are shot so he’s taking an extended Christmas holiday to recuperate. Instead you’ve got me, Simon Hooper. I’m a freelance journalist, a very infrequent and undistinguished New Statesman contributor, and can be found more regularly online working and writing for CNN.com and The First Post.

In the way of the media world, I got this gig after bumping into Ben at a mutual friend’s birthday soiree (Thanks Victoria). A couple of afternoons of cursory training later and here I am in Ben’s seat, flying the ship. Actually a more accurate analogy might be a caretaker, flicking the lights on and off occasionally and generally keeping an eye on things.

That's not to say it's not been a busy week for our bloggers. With Ban ki-moon taking charge this week at the United Nations, Oliver Postgate recalls the rise and fall of the League of Nations and urges serious reform to prevent its successor going the same way. Meanwhile Green Party co-leader Sian Berry reports on the confused and chaotic state of the Government's policy on renewable energy and James Medhurst considers how technology could be utilised to make democracy more accessible to disabled voters.

Jonathan Dawson reflects on a carnivorous Christmas at Findhorn. And if you've ever watched orange-clad Hare Krishna devotees singing and dancing their way down Oxford Street and wondered what it's all about then Kripamoya Das is here to explain all in our daily Faith Column. Striking a more flippant tone, Richard Herring wonders what's so funny about road rage and agony aunt Marina Pepper offers some cheeky advice for jilted weathergirls.

As for Ben, in keeping with his solid leftist credentials, he’s no doubt sunning himself as we speak on the pool terrace of some past-it pop star’s tropical pad. Perhaps it's just me but I was relieved to hear the Blairs would be spending New Year at the Miami holiday home of Bee Gee Robin Gibb. In an odd way it's a sign of New Labour's egalitarian streak. After all, for decades prime ministers and politicians would have been more likely to spend their social lives in the company of the aristocracy or super-rich industrialists or press magnates. Things have come a long way since then. It's only a matter of time before we read about the Camerons holidaying with the Rooneys.

And if the thought of the Blairs seeing in the New Year with a glass-shattering falsetto chorus of Auld Lang Syne gives you the shivers, just think what the alternatives could have been, given some of Tony's other friends. Silvio Berlusconi's villa again? George Bush's Texas ranch? Pebble Beach, California, where Blair was booked last year as the entertainment for various of Rupert Murdoch's senior executives? At least Robin Gibb's jive talking is unlikely to persuade him to start any new wars or shut down the BBC in his final months in office. In fact, on past form, it could be the least dangerous trip he's taken in a while.

Anyway, Ben's back next week, so normal service - whatever that involves - resumes then.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue