The bizarre sound of Tories crying "Trot"

Conservative ministers' habit of denouncing critics as lunatic ideologues says more about their own

If anything encapsulates just how out of touch those at the top of the Conservative Party are it is their bizarre use of language, in particular the bandying about of "Trotskyite", which this week was once again used indiscriminately in connection with the Workfare scheme. Defaming political enemies is as old as the disreputable business of politics itself, but over the past year or so it has been possible to detect a concerted and probably co-ordinated attempt by the Conservatives to label non-conformists as extremists and ideologues. But it is a tactic built on sand and it has already begun to fail.

Michael Gove was one of the first big hitters to test it out when last month he attacked the opponents of his academy schools programme in Haringey as "Trots". These Trots, i.e. parents, had the temerity to want to stay under the control of the local authority and were branded "bigoted" and "enemies of promise" for their trouble. George Osborne uses the emotive phrase "deficit deniers" to damn opponents of his austerity measures and Baroness Warsi talks of "militant secularism" as if Richard Dawkins has been desecrating cemeteries and setting fire to mosques.

Then Andrew Lansley described his critics as "politicised". The health secretary had the nerve to accuse the vast majority of doctors and nurses in Britain of being against his proposed changes to the NHS solely for political reasons - as if what he wants to do is in no way political. This was the first sign that this idea was about to unravel. Portraying militants as "loony" in the 1980s was relatively easy, because that's exactly how they seemed to the majority of voters. To try something similar now is illogical because when you accuse doctors who earn over £100,000 a year of being "politicised" - and therefore left-wing wreckers - it just sounds ridiculous.

The Conservatives have a fine record of portraying themselves as the party of common sense, as if they are not even involved in "politics" at all. They have also, traditionally, been skilled at defaming their rivals in order to scare floating voters. But that was when the enemies were identifiable as something, or someone, different from the middle-income conservatively minded masses. Now they are using those same labels to discredit pillars of the establishment - the very people those conservative-minded masses respect - and even the previously untouchable nurses are in the firing line. Readers of the Daily Mail are used to believing what the paper reports, but eventually even they will find descriptions of the Royal College of Nursing as a training camp for radical extremists a little odd.

There is no need to be as disingenuous as the right about ideology. Of course many opponents of Conservative policy object as a matter of principle. But there are just as many who point out pitfalls and inconsistencies through practical arguments. The government's case is always that the market - even in the NHS - will drive down costs. Critics can point out the rising price of dentistry, the railways, utility bills . the list goes on and on. They also might suggest that under the private companies set to take over NHS services money will fly out of the country - mainly to the US or through off-shore tax-avoidance schemes - money that in a public organisation would only ever have been redistributed internally. They may be arguments tinged with ideology, but they are also evidence-based. Under the Conservatives we seem to be entering a period where arguments are proffered without recourse to facts, a characteristic already found among the majority of the Republican Party in America (who, of course, have been using the word "liberal" in much the same way as "Trotskyite" for years).

Now we are witnessing the humiliating dismemberment of Workfare. Chris Grayling began by accusing its critics of being "job snobs". This hard-line approach has, predictably, turned out to be folly, because even those who don't think the scheme is a terrible idea for the people who have to endure it can see that it is providing free labour at taxpayers' expense for huge companies that already make billions of pounds in profit. The public know Workfare would drive down wages and undermine employees on just above the minimum wage. The Conservatives would be unwise to alienate these voters - but yet they can't help themselves.

During Prime Ministers' Questions a week ago Priti Patel, the MP for Witham, described those against Workfare as "the militant hard left". The prime minister was suitably encouraging in his response. But again the lesson was not learned. Even as the Workfare ship was foundering Cameron and Grayling again used the "T" word to describe the opponents of a scheme that has managed to embarrass the previously unembarrassable Tesco.

As far as I was aware Marxists have been around for over one hundred years and in that time have never once blocked a Conservative bill - and yet suddenly they have been identified as a credible threat to the government's entire legislative programme and fabric of our society. If the people the Conservatives accused of being Trotskyites - about half the population - actually were, then Gove and his friends would have been put up against a wall and shot long ago and the royal family would be awaiting their fate in "the house of special purpose". Happily that is mere fantasy, but so are the dreams of the Conservative PR men who came up with this silly and counterproductive political tic.

If you are going to insult your critics at least come up with a label people can recognise. Most voters under 40 would not have a clue who Trotsky was or what he stood for, even less understand why the Tories are dredging him out of the A Level history syllabus and using him to stigmatise the BMA and head teachers, those well-known trouble makers and advocates if permanent revolution.

This appropriation of "Trotskyite" can only have come from spin doctors whose sheltered view of society reflects the leadership of the party as a whole. There would almost be something quaint about this tactical balls-up were it not for the insight it gives us to the cynical and disingenuous attitude of the Conservatives towards the public sector and of their barely concealed contempt for anyone who tries to resist the atomisation of society. This lazy use of language has not discredited their critics, but has instead exposed themselves as the real ideologues - the precise opposite of what they hoped to achieve.

You can follow George on Twitter as @geochesterton.

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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