In defence of the Lib Dems

What's the point of the Lib Dems? Here's what.

Mehdi Hasan asks "what's the point of the Lib Dems?" Citing five issues on which, in his opinion, the party has "sacrificed their distinctive beliefs and principles and received little in return," Hasan claims we're irrelevant. So what is the point of the Lib Dems then? To find out, he should:

1) Ask the nearly 1 million low-paid workers who have been lifted out of paying income tax altogether thanks to a Lib Dem manifesto commitment delivered in government. With the prospect of further significant reforms to come to make our tax system fairer and more progressive, this policy makes people hundreds of pounds better off in difficult times. Consider the counterfactual too - a Tory-only government cutting inheritance tax and the 50p rate for its rich pals whilst doing nothing for the low-paid. Not with Lib Dems in government.

2) Ask the millions of children, parents and teachers who are benefiting from the pupil premium & expanded childcare provision as part of the government's investment in crucial early-years facilities. Another Lib Dem manifesto commitment, delivered in government, making a real difference to the worst off and those in need of support.

3) Ask patients and doctors who've seen NHS principles protected from worst of Andrew Lansley's reforms. Of course the Health and Social Care Bill isn't yet perfect, but it's a significant improvement on the purely market-oriented reforms originally set out - largely thanks to Lib Dem conference in securing vital safeguards for accountability, integration and public health. Consider the counterfactual too - a Tory-only government turning the NHS into nothing but an unaccountable purchaser in a for-profit market. Not with Lib Dems in government.

4) Ask those who want safer banks and tough action on high pay - would either happen without Vince Cable pressing for the implementation of the Vickers reforms and the recommendations of the High Pay Commission? Consider the counterfactual too - a Tory-only government caving in to the influence of its City donors, evading the measures needed to make banking safer and tackle income inequality through transparency, accountability and stakeholder empowerment. Not with Lib Dems in government.

5) Ask the nearly 600 Labour and Conservative - or should I say, Labservative - MPs who for decades have happily aligned against Lib Dems on all five of Hasan's core issues, even if it means acting against national interest like on Europe and Iraq. Consider the counterfactual too - a Tory-only government, or Labour-only for that matter, either of whom would have removed the cap on tuition fees instead of introducing what is effectively a capped graduate tax; no attempt to reform our electoral politics as they oppose changes to the voting system, to the Lords and to party funding; likely withdrawal from the EU as either party caved in to its atavistic Eurosceptic wing; and of course the disastrous war in Iraq which both Labour and Tories enthusiastically supported against the wishes of the Lib Dems and the country as a whole.

Yes of course we want to see Liberal Democrats deliver more of our values and policies in government and to stop more Tory madness like that seen over Europe recently - that's precisely what the party's mainstream has been calling for through the Social Liberal Forum.

Prateek Buch is a Lib Dem activist and blogger

Prateek Buch is director of the Social Liberal Forum and serves on the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee.

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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