Five of the Best: on the BNP

The top five comment pieces on the BNP and Question Time

In the Guardian, Gary Younge argues that New Labour enabled the rise of the BNP by failing to tackle racism head-on:

New Labour extinguished all hope of class solidarity and singularly failed to provide principled anti-racist alternatives, leaving a significant section of the white working class to seek cheap refuge in racism and xenophobia. In their identity they see not the potential for resistance against corruption and injustice, but only a grievance. They don't trust government and don't see any alternatives. The coming election simply provides the choice between two parties that share the intent to slash public spending, after the gift of billions to bankers.

Over at Spiked, Tim Black says the belief that Nick Griffin's appearance will trigger a rise in racism is condescending to the public:

It implies that we the public are not capable of dealing with freedom of speech and open debate. We need to be protected from certain arguments and points of view, the merest hints of which will send us racist. The public here is viewed as a childlike mass, incapable of resisting the sinister adult advances of people like Griffin. Could we be more condescended to? The idea that the two million people watching Question Time will suddenly go Nazi because some whites-only crank is on the panel is as absurd as Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg hoping two million people will suddenly go Lib Dem because Chris Huhne is sat there too. Monkey see, monkey do, goes the thinking.

The Independent's Steve Richards warns that the BNP has an unexpected chance to benefit from record political discontent:

These are unusually febrile times. I speak to a lot of MPs who worry about the impact of the BNP in their constituencies more than virtually any other issue. A cabinet minister also said to me recently that the simultaneous political and economic crises are bound to have tumultuous consequences, so far ill-defined. There is still a dangerous gap in the market. The BNP shows few signs of filling it, but now an opportunity has arisen from nowhere for its leader to perform.

In the Daily Telegraph, Mary Riddell says the government must stand up for immigration in the face of the BNP:

Government should champion the transformation wrought by incomers and uphold the British tradition of welcoming, from the Huguenots onwards, those fleeing persecution. It should applaud Europe's open borders while stressing that EU migrants, many of whom do not stay long, have boosted the economy. In 2008-9, new arrivals paid 37 per cent more in taxes than they cost in welfare payments and public services.

The Times's David Aaronovitch offers a ten-point plan for the panellists to defeat Griffin. Here's number four:

Ditch the indignation -- you have to earn the right to be angry in front of viewers. Don't describe his views as abhorrent, hateful or evil or declare yourself shocked, appalled, sickened or disgusted until he's said something to justfy such a reaction. Abstract fury just looks incontinent.

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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