Cameron's East Germany comparison was absurd and offensive

The Prime Minister's Tea Party-esque caricatures are a substitute for real debate.

In her 2003 book Stasiland, Anna Funder documents what life was like for millions of people in East Germany, the inaptly named German Democratic Republic, before the fall of the Berlin Wall. She describes the way the Stasi kept control by spying on people, recruiting half a million people to spy on their neighbours or members of their own families, tapping phones, generating files on their fellow citizens which, laid upright end to end, would have formed a line 180 kilometres long.

In East Germany, political prisoners were jailed. People who attempted to leave were arrested, or even shot as they crossed the border. East Germans voted by approving the only name on the ballot paper, or by putting a line through it. Those who chose not to support the approved candidate - the ballot was not secret - could lose their job or be expelled from university, and would come under close surveillance from the Stasi.

You might think that, whatever arguments and differences British politicians have with each other, we can all agree that nobody wants to change our open, democratic society into anything like East Germany. We have our arguments in public, we campaign for support, we win or we lose and we argue again.

Yet in describing Ed Miliband's superb speech to the Labour Party conference last week, David Cameron was quoted in the Sun as having said, “He might believe in One Nation, but I thought it sounded more like East Germany than Great Britain.”

He might think this is funny. It's unlikely he thinks it's clever. You can tell by the mess he's made of the economy - a double-dip recession and borrowing going up - that David Cameron isn't any good at economics, but surely he's better at history than this. He surely doesn't believe it. If he does, he needs to explain himself.

Here are some of the things Ed Miliband called for last week. Better vocational education and more apprenticeships. A proper split between high street and casino banking. Making it easier for businesses to plan for the long term. An end to rip-off pension charges. I don't know why those things sound like East Germany to David Cameron. They don't sound like East Germany to me. A divided Germany is not the most obvious model for a one nation politician.

The last thing we need in this country is to import the worst elements of US Tea Party politics into our own. It's dishonest, it's fatuous and it debases our politics. We don't need to start comparing our opponents to regimes which in reality epitomise worse evils than anything we see in Britain today, either on the mainstream left or the mainstream right. We don't want politics in which offensive caricatures take the place of arguments, or in which a genuine issue of conscience like abortion becomes a party political dividing line.

I'm sending David Cameron a copy of Stasiland. I genuinely hope he reads it. And then I hope he will realise that he made a bad mistake in stooping so low as to invoke one of the most despicable regimes of the 20th century in describing a contemporary mainstream British political party. I hope the Prime Minister will reflect on what he said, and take it back.

Tristram Hunt is MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central.

David Cameron listens to Foreign Secretary William Hague during the opening day of the Conservative Party conference. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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