I'm the Squeezed Middle and I know who's doing the squeezing

Political leaders look on sadly but what are they really doing to change things?

It's not fun in the Squeezed Middle, trying to cope with Alarm Clock Britain as part of a Hard Working Family. But it's nice to know that our politicians really care about us. Care about us enough to think up slogans to patronise us, anyway.

So, here I am, back in full-time employment, though I've begun to realise why the Big Society isn't going to work. It's the same reason why so many working people aren't politically active. It's not so much apathy or class; it's just that doing actual hard work makes you tired. So tired that you can't be bothered to do anything other than fall asleep into a warm plate of food every evening, brushing the mouldy crumbs into your mouth for breakfast some hours later.

Work seems blissful after a time of unemployment. You start to become satisfied with less: just work in itself is a reward, let alone the money.

Obviously, given that you don't get a P45 straight away, it's the joys of emergency tax, but that's a small price to pay. I say "small price" but it's an enormous price to pay, if you're not getting paid that much in the first place, but that's beside the point: you get to look forward to money back at some point in the distant future, tucked away for a rainy day at 0 per cent interest. Lucky old you. No complaining, now.

I'm not complaining. I like working. I like work. I like money. I like being paid for doing something other than sitting around the house all day, even if, as it turns out, my annual salary is somewhat less than what I was earning in my first ever full-time job, 13 years ago.

Is that failure? Well, no: it's success just to have a job at all, nowadays. There are so many people who don't, and who have no reasonable short-term prospects of getting one, it seems churlish to put your hand up and ask if you could take home some half-decent cash as well.

But this is where we are, those of us who are in the Squeezed Middle, or well below the middle. Ed Miliband would like to help us. Nick Clegg would like to help us. David Cameron would like to help us. At least, I think they would. They say they would. They look at us, sadly, like you'd stare at a mangy old mongrel faithfully limping behind its owner to the vets that last time.

But in terms of actually doing something about us? Well, things aren't quite so clear cut.

I like the idea of tax cuts for the low paid. I have no problem with tax cuts -- if the right taxes get cut. Increasing the personal allowance is a fine and progressive thing to do, and is to be welcomed. But it's like chucking a cork to someone who's drowning and expecting them to say thank you. It might be something, but it's not going to solve any big problems.

The other tactic, of course, is to get those of us who are in work to hate those who aren't in work -- to set us against each other. The benefit cap is part of that strategy, to make those of us who are struggling to pay bills despise those of us who have some of our bills paid for us -- and it has the completely accidental side effect of kicking poor people out of nice areas where affluent Tory-leaning voters are entitled to live.

Rather flimsy statistics released last week about immigrants were part of the same mission: make the less well off concentrate on the undeserving poor and foreigners, and they might forget who's really screwing them.

Does it work? It might, if we let it happen. As I've said, it's exhausting trying to keep up with politics when you're away from a PC all day, when you're too knackered when you get home to glue yourself to Newsnight and digest the issues of the day. Tempting, perhaps, to blame the family on benefits across the road, or the immigrants next door, for why life sucks so much. Tempting, but wrong.

I may be the Squeezed Middle, but I know who's doing the squeezing. And I know just how much all three of our political parties are really doing to change that situation: not a great deal at all.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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