Some post-Question Time clarifications

I seem to be the Marmite man. People love me or hate me!

Thanks to all those people who posted messages of support, praise or congratulations either on this blog, the Question Time blog or on Twitter after I made my debut on that show last night. But as one tweeter pointed out, "@ns_mehdihasan is like Marmite." Indeed. I seem to have upset, annoyed and angered lots of people on the right, as well countless Lib Dem apologists. What can I say? That's life. Don't take it so personally. Let's agree to disagree.

QT is a great show and I had great fun appearing on it (even though Iain Dale thinks I didn't smile enough. Sorry, Iain!). But it's not a format that lends itself to forensic examination of policies or arguments, and despite the fact that I speak at ten words per second (thanks, David Prescott!), even I couldn't challenge or clarify some of Simon Hughes's claims.

For the record, I like and admire Simon Hughes and felt sorry that he had to defend the indefensible. Where is David Laws when you need him, eh? Oh, and while I'm at it, Michael Heseltine is my second-favourite Tory -- after Ken Clarke, who's my favourite (I know, I know, but I just can't help it!). It's a shame I've had to have a go at both of them in recent BBC panel debates. Where's Michael Gove when you need him?

So here are some post-QT clarifications:

1) Simon Hughes kept pointing to the Tory/Lib Dem proposal to raise the income-tax threshold to £10,000. He seems to believe this is a perfectly progressive policy. But he knows, as the IFS and others have pointed out, that such a policy will cost £17bn, of which only £1bn will go to the lowest earners. He also knows that the poorest people in Britain will not get a penny from this policy because they tend to be out of work and not paying any income tax to begin with. Oh, and as the Fabians' Tim Horton has pointed out, this policy is no longer funded by redistributive measures such as the mansion tax and the scrapping of higher-rate pension relief.

2) Hughes could not address the main issue: why did the Lib Dems agree to Tory cuts in spending this year, despite campaigning against such cuts? Aren't such cuts, to quote Vince Cable, a "smokescreen" for public-sector job losses? This is an unforgivable concession, in my view.

3) Talking of concessions, Hughes claimed that Labour had offered nothing and that the Tories had moved the most. I'm confused. In the end, the Tories adopted the Labour manifesto pledge to legislate for a referendum on AV (not PR!) but promised to campaign against AV in the actual referendum itself. How is that a better deal than a Labour referendum on AV which the Labour Party actually then backs? He also got lots of applause on the topic of civil liberties -- but omitted to mention that Labour negotiators had offered to drop ID cards in return for a deal with the Lib Dems.

4) I'm not an opponent of coalitions or coalition politics. I had hoped for a hung parliament because (i) I didn't believe Labour had earned the right to govern on its own, after 13 years of ups and downs in office, and (ii) I naively assumed that such a scenario might bring about a progressive realignment on the centre left and hasten electoral reform. I was wrong. And I'm angry that a coalition of Labour tribalists and Lib Dem power-seekers betrayed the progressive, anti-Tory majority in this country. But let me be clear: unlike Melanie Phillips, I have no problem with coalitions and think coalition government, in theory, can actually have a positive impact on the nation and on the economy. I just think this coalition is a coalition of convenience, unprincipled and unstable. But I hope, for the sake of the country, that I'm wrong and the optimists and apologists are right.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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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