Britain hasn't been "diminished" by the Syria vote, it has been enhanced

We should feel proud of a Parliament that seeks to be cautious in matters of war and peace, rather than gung-ho.

You can tell things have changed on the global stage when Lord Ashdown, the granddaddy of modern British politics, uses Twitter to profess his latest thoughts: "We are a hugely diminished country this am. MPs cheered last night. Assad, Putin this morning. Farage too as we plunge towards isolationism."

Ashdown’s tweet is something of a weird contradiction: the man has embraced the modern form of communication but not embraced the modern role of Britain in international relations, namely, we just aren’t that big and important anymore.

Moreover, his idea that we are a "diminished" country is something which will be reiterated by hoards of pro-interventionists in the coming days, and yet all of them will proffer no description for why any of us should care. George Osborne followed Ashdown by stating that the House of Commons vote against action in Syria would prompt "national soul-searching" about Britain's role on the world stage.

The question is: why should we care? Why does our inability to enter a foreign country, be it with troops on the ground or bombers in the sky, affect our day-to-day lives? Should we all now have a national conversation about our diminished soul? Are millions of office workers hovering around office water coolers this Friday and not discussing their weekend plans but rather asking themselves, what does it mean to be British?

Just as Polly Toynbee argued in today’s Guardian, this imperialistic undertone to those angry at yesterday’s vote is anachronistic. She called it "a long-delayed acceptance that Britain is less powerful and poorer than it was, weary of wars and no longer proud to punch above its weight. No more pretending, no more posturing."

The individuals who bemoan our falling status ignore that our great status came with greed, bloodshed and racism. We may have ruled a third of the world’s population at one stage, but they really didn’t like having us in charge. An intervention in Syria isn’t going to renew our world status, for we all know China, India, Brazil and others are growing and will soon become the biggest economies, and with it, the greatest militarily.

The pro-interventionists still seem to feel patriotism comes from conflict; the individuals who think Gibraltar and the Falklands – lands they never visit, with people who hardly pay any taxes – are the last bastions of British might. If this Syrian episode diminishes our standing, will we lose these last vestiges of British imperialism? Who cares? We won’t have to spend so much money on defence for two islands that don’t pay for it.

Just as the Iraq war didn’t make us a renewed force on the international stage, a missile strike in Syria won’t show our military strength or rejuvenate our moral standing. This has to be accepted, but it doesn’t need to be met with shame, tears or tantrums. We can all go on with our day-to-day activities; we can even perhaps focus on our own economy, our welfare state, even the NHS. Things carry on when we’re not a superpower. We can rejoice in not punching above our weight, or, as rebel Tory MP Crispin Blunt said, we can "relieve ourselves of some of those imperial pretensions."

This does not mean that the events in Syria are not despicable, nor that intervention may be necessary at some point from the US or from other bodies. But the argument that we are diminished as a nation is absurd. If anything, we in Britain today feel prouder of a Parliament that seeks to be cautious in these matters, rather than gung-ho. Yesterday Parliament won, not Palmerston.

Britannia was mighty when she ruled the waves. But wars aren’t fought on the seas anymore, and I’m okay with that. 

The Houses of Parliament yesterday as MPs debated the possibility of military action against Syria. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kiran Moodley is a freelance journalist at CNBC who has written for GQ, the Atlantic, PBS NewsHour and The Daily Beast.

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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