Mervyn King gets his life peerage and a lollipop, the rest of us get more misery

The newly ennobled Mervyn King blames “a collective lack of imagination” for the financial crisis. We, all of us, failed to see the iceberg. The only problem is that most of us were in the engine room shovelling coal.

I have long been convinced that a life peerage is very much akin to a pacifier. If a significant figure is retiring from public life and has the potential to command media attention, give them a nice title on which to suck and stop kvetching, plus the ability to claim £300 a day for spending a couple of hours in the House of Lords. Giving them a formal public platform has the brilliantly counterintuitive effect of diminishing their future risk index by making them one of many within the Westminster bubble.

The success, or lack thereof, in their former post seems a secondary consideration. And so it is with Sir Mervyn King. This week George Osborne announced that the outgoing Governor of the Bank of England would be taking his place within our unelected pantheon of gown and wig after his retirement at the end of the month. Sporting metaphors blinked like newly born rabbits in the lights of the annual Bankers and Merchants dinner. “You had to play on a sticky wicket,” mused the Chancellor. It was “a game of two halves”, added King.

The only problem is that many would disagree with the post-match analysis – even to the basic level of whether team GB won or lost. We are still a long way off from recovering pre-crisis economic activity levels, unlike the US or Germany, for instance. Inflation has been consistently way above the BoE’s target for many months. Solutions like Funding for Lending appear to have had little impact – lending to SMEs has actually decreased under the scheme. Too little of the river of cash being pumped into the system via Quantitative Easing appears to have trickled through to the real economy – the allegation is that banks are using such schemes and cash to shore up their own balance sheets.

Mervyn King's involvement in the more political aspects of economic strategy has also, rightly, been contentious. Documents released in November 2010 showed an oddly keen involvement in the coalition’s personnel and policies. His blessing of the austerity programme, which has now been questioned even by the IMF, could be seen as almost co-authoring it.

There is also significant criticism of King’s running of the organisation in the “first half” – the one he would term the “nice half”. It is suggested, correctly in my view, that his obsessive focus on inflation targeting failed to take into account the downward pressure on prices created by cheap Chinese imports entering the UK market and so, in effect, allowed the economy “to run too hot during the boom years”. Coupled with very light touch banking regulation, this could be argued to have sown the seeds of the crisis which followed.

Arguably, however, the most distasteful and dishonourable part of his legacy is his attempt to absolve himself of all responsibility. His explanation last year on Radio 4 had a distinct whiff of “nothing to do with me, guv”.  This was a failure of “the system”, he claimed. Isn’t that the system which he oversaw from a key position? "With the benefit of hindsight, we should have shouted from the rooftops that a system had been built in which banks were too important to fail, that banks had grown too quickly and borrowed too much."

It was not hindsight that was lacking. It was plain old present sight. The growth of banks, the mergers, the risky ventures, the out-of-control borrowing – these were not things which happened in secret. They happened in plain sight and with state approval.

Mervyn King blames “a collective lack of imagination”. We, all of us, failed to see the iceberg. We are, apparently, collectively blameworthy. The only problem is that most of us were in the engine room shovelling coal. Mervyn King was one of the people on the bridge. More than that, since one of the BoE’s core purposes and strategic priorities is to “maintain stability and improve the resilience of the financial system”, he was specifically in charge of the looking-out-for-icebergs department.

In those circumstances, it is adding insult to injury for him to shout back from his peerage lifeboat to the rest of us, now drowning in a freezing sea of debt and austerity, “well, you didn’t see the iceberg either”. Why wouldn’t we want to keep this sort of expert, constructive and visionary input a part of our legislature for the rest of his natural life? Happy retirement, Sir Mervyn. We look forward to being blamed for future shipwrecks.

Sir Mervyn King gets a life peerage - the pacifier of public life. Photo: Getty

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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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