Coleman at Wimbledon

The Navy at Gay Pride, why the people behind 2012 should be replaced and a few other musings arising

An eclectic mix of the Great and the Good assembled in the Royal Box as guests of the All England Lawn Tennis Club the other Friday. The Club's President, the archetypal Royal Duke of Kent (who no more would host a Pop Concert at Wembley Stadium than streak across Centre Court) was joined by amongst others Senator George Mitchell, Jimmy Tarbuck, Lesley Garrett and Vogue's Anna Wintour.

I sat in the third row, which had a distinctly pink tinge to it what with Lord Browne of Madingley being there. There were two empty seats allocated to the Editor of the "Evening Standard", Veronica Wadley, who presumably had read her own paper's ridiculous story from the previous week that, as the Centre Court was temporarily without a roof, we were all going to be shot by marksman from the top of a nearby block of Merton Council flats!

Wimbledon is the best organised and by far the most civilised sporting event in London, run as it is by a largely voluntary Committee who in my view should replace the highly paid hacks preparing for the London Olympics.

Indeed as the rain began to fall at about 3.30pm we retired for afternoon tea on the Royal Box balcony to see newly elected Committee Member, Bank of England Governor Mervyn King passing round the Bath Buns.

Whilst sipping my perfectly brewed tea I took a surreptitious look at my Blackberry and was therefore able to inform the Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Sir Jonathan Band that his predecessor had just been created a life Peer and joined the Government as a Junior Minister at the Home Office.

"Goodness me," remarked the charming Lady Band as the Admiral put down his scone and phoned his office at the MOD for confirmation.

Somewhat less surprised that his successor bar one, Lord Stevens, had taken a Government job was former Met Commissioner, now Lord Lieutenant of Greater London, Lord Imbert who maintains a traditional attitude to police officers (serving and retired) whose ego is boosted by seeing their names in the newspapers.

As the second cup of tea arrived I congratulated Sir Jonathan for allowing serving members of the Royal Navy to march in uniform at the following morning's Gay Pride March and wondered why his two fellow chiefs (Army and Air Force) had refused permission.

Well firstly, he admitted, the Royal Navy could do with some good publicity after the fiasco of the returning kidnapped sailors from Iran and, secondly, the Navy is much more relaxed about these matters than the "hard core" in the Infantry with the Army still not allowing gay couples to share MOD accommodation.

One MOD official has described to me the "born again" Chief of the General Staff Sir Richard Dannett as a "complete zealot". Apparently the Minister concerned allowed the Service Chiefs to take their own decisions on the matter of Gay Pride participation: talk about passing the buck!

One of the Army's objections to servicemen in uniform marching in Gay Pride is that there will be people in "fancy dress" taking part; well that does not stop a considerable Army presence in the Lord Mayor's Show each year! Sadly as the daily toll mounts of young men killed in Iraq and Afghanistan there are still Generals worried about what their troops get up to in the bedroom.

If Gordon Brown wants to bring experts into his government why doesn't he give Sir Jonathan Band a peerage and make him Secretary of State for Defence?

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
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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