This is a coalition without courage

Forget the double dip: ministers say we can now go faster on the M25 and don't have to recycle as mu

So here it is, then, the legacy of the Coalition taking shape. 80mph motorways, weekly bin collections, 5p plastic bags and making it easier to sack people.

Here is a Government acting like a giant mimsying parish council tinkering at the edges while everything else falls apart. Forget the double dip, our whole nation descending like a spittle-soaked nacho being plunged into an over-ripe bowl of taramasalata; we can go a bit faster on the M25! We can throw away as much as we like! We can pretend to care about the environment! We can get rid of more staff without worrying about their pesky so-called rights!

Neeyow! Stick two fingers up to the so-called speed cameras brigade daring to stop 'otherwise-law-abiding' motorists and put your foot down hard on the gas pedal. Here comes freedom! You might not have a job, but if you did have a job, you'd be able to drive a bit faster, if you could afford a car, which you can't, because there aren't any jobs. But suppose you did have a car: you could go more quickly in it. Doesn't that make you feel better about things?

As well as that, you can throw away as much as you like, because Eric Pickles has found £250million down the back of the settee to reward councils who reinstate weekly bin collections. Hurrah! Of course, you might find that cold comfort if you're not earning enough money to be able to afford anything - let alone to be able to afford to just chuck stuff away without recycling or composting - but suppose you did have money: you could waste more of it. Doesn't that make you feel better about things, either?

Forget your local library closing down. Forget the fact there are no jobs, there is no future, there is a whole generation scratching around for work that isn't there. Forget those hundreds of Navy folk heading for the Jobcentreplus; they'll have the consolation of knowing they can retrain as dustmen and women to fill the literally fives of vacancies that will spring up across the land when we enter the wonderful world of weekly collections. Let's have trained Navy personnel manning the dustcarts and launching wheelie bins as torpedoes as they roar around at 80mph twice a week; it's a perfect solution.

Of course, these are just amuse-bouches to whet our appetites as we await the big decisions at the Conservative Party conference, but they give an indication of what we can expect over the next three and a bit years as the Tories head towards glorious re-election. What we can expect is a mess. On the one hand: mess we inherited, tough decisions, privatise everything, sack everyone. On the other: weekly bin collections, driving a bit faster, possibly having to pay 5p for plastic bags.

A Government that wanted to make really tough decisions and leave a real legacy - as opposed to sacking loads of public sector workers they were going to sack anyway, but having the bonus of blaming the previous Government for the deficit in order to do so - would decrease the speed limit, and get even tougher on recycling targets for councils, in order to reduce emissions and stop waste. But we all know why that won't happen. It won't happen because the Coalition doesn't have any courage. All it has is an agenda to obliterate the state, while chucking a bone to its selfish heartland to ensure it gets served up a second term in office. The question is whether they're going to get away with it.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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