Can we trust Dave?

Cameron is breaking his "personal" pledges.

So how much is the Prime Minister's word worth? The well-informed James Forsyth wrote in the Mail on Sunday on 13 December 2010:

Breaking one of Cameron's personal promises is one of the great no-nos of this government. All the way through the Spending Review, great care -- and cost -- was taken to protect any commitment that Cameron himself had made.

Downing Street is desperate to protect the Cameron brand. They know that a leader's word has to mean something . . .

Forsyth is right: in an age in which trust in politicians is plummeting by the day, a party leader's word does have to mean something. He's wrong, however, to say: "Breaking one of Cameron's personal promises is one of the great no-nos of this government." The Prime Minister himself has broken a fair few (child benefit? VAT?) and, as this morning's newspapers make clear, he is in the midst of violating a few more.

Take the NHS. Cameron, in opposition, made a great fanfare about protecting the NHS budget from cuts; in fact, in December, Cameron told MPs at Prime Minister's Questions:

We are not breaking that promise. We want to see NHS spending increase by more than inflation every year.

Yet, as the Mirror reports:

An analysis by the highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies showed yesterday rising inflation means NHS funding will fall 0.9 per cent over the next four years, equivalent to a cut of £900m.

The Chancellor, George Osborne, has helped to cook the books by reducing the baseline from which the Government measures health spending.

But the IFS said that even with the new baseline Mr Osborne will struggle to maintain NHS spending above "zero" and was "sailing very close to the wind".

Then, there is the issue of pensioners and the Winter Fuel Allowance. From the Guardian:

Older people will receive up to £100 less from the government in payments to help with their winter energy bills -- a cut George Osborne failed to mention in his Budget speech, or include in the Budget document.

The winter fuel payment is currently worth £250 for the over-60s and £400 for the over-80s, following a temporary uplift of £50 and £100 respectively -- introduced by the previous government in 2008. It is this top-up that the current government is allowing to expire from winter 2011.

Yet in a speech delivered 48 hours before last year's general election, Cameron proclaimed:

And I want to say to British people clearly and frankly this; if you are elderly, if you are frail, if you are poor, if you are needy a Conservative government will always look after you. On the journey we need to take this country on, no one will be left behind. And let me say very clearly to pensioners if you have a Conservative government your Winter Fuel Allowance, your bus pass, your Pension Credit, your free TV licence, all these things are safe. You can read my lips, that is a promise from my heart.

Hmm. Dave had better be careful. There was another centre-right leader who made grandiose promises -- before breaking them -- while uttering the fateful words, "read my lips". Whatever happened to him?

 

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.

GETTY
Show Hide image

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