Could this be the birth of a British Tea Party?

Taxpayers’ Alliance seizes on uncertainty in the coalition to press for a grass-roots right-wing mov

The scenes from Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honour" rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC were astonishing. An estimated 87,500 conservative activists gathered in the US capital for a "non-partisan" rally that Beck said was intended to "reclaim the civil rights movement", falling on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech", made from the same spot.

The Tea Party movement is a phenomenal example of grass-roots activism of a kind that just doesn't exist in the UK. But this could be about to change, as it is revealed that the UK low-tax pressure group the Taxpayers' Alliance (TPA) has been taking advice from FreedomWorks, a Washington-based organisation which says it "recruits, educates, trains and mobilises millions of volunteer activists to fight for less government, lower taxes, and more freedom".

Members of both groups attended a conference in London yesterday to transmit the strategy required to build an "insurgent campaign" of UK low-tax lobbyists. Precisely how the Tea Party model might translate to the British political system has not been made clear, but the link forged between the two organisations has received some limited coverage in the national papers.

According to the Telegraph, the TPA has experienced a near-70 per cent rise in its membership over the past year. Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the TPA, told the Guardian that the anger at the recent HMRC errors that led to more than a million UK taxpayers being sent demands for backdated tax payments presents a unique opportunity for his organisation. He declared:

You could say our time has come. Take the strikes on the London Underground this week and how much they annoyed and inconvenienced people. Couldn't we get 1,000 people to protest [against] that?

A protest by 1,000 does not make a movement. But the Tea Party has grown from such demonstrations to fielding its own anti-incumbent candidates in the US midterm primaries, at least proving that such a rapid rise is possible, even if the environment in which it happened bears little similarity to that of the UK.

The TPA, however, is not a comparable organisation. In existence since 2004, it lacks the novelty and sheer momentum that have characterised the rise of the Tea Party in the US. A "British Tea Party" was launched by the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan in February, but little seems to have come of it.

For the TPA, being seen to be seeking advice from the media phenomenon that is the Tea Party is very possibly more valuable than the advice itself. However, a significant increase in grass-roots activism in the UK over the coming months is not at all out of the question. With the "big society" near the top of the government's agenda, the political discourse is very much leaning towards a return to localism and community-focused policy.

This is true of Labour, too -- the party's leadership campaign has been conducted in similar terms, the candidates repeatedly referring to their ability to "build a movement" and return control to the grass roots of the party. The clear front-runners, David and Ed Miliband, are no exception; both have referred to themselves as the preferred candidate of the party's grass roots.

With Britain facing an unfamiliar and unpredictable style of government, this could indeed be the high-water mark for groups such as the TPA. As well as left-leaning Liberal Democrats beginning to rebel, we have already begun to see more vocal dissent from the right of the Tory party, especially as issues such as the referendum on AV move up the agenda.

And as the TPA chief executive, Matthew Elliott, is also leading the "No to AV" campaign, his organisation is certainly going to be well placed to exploit growing unease on the right.

It seems more plausible than ever that if the TPA can add a swell of right-leaning popular support, the AV referendum and the local elections, both scheduled for May, could be the crucial turning point for this government.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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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