What is united about our kingdom? Is it the economy, governance or identity?
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What is United about our Kingdom?

A professor, a pollster and a journalist hashed out the question at Chatham House last week.

As the debate on Scottish independence centres on the alleged differences between the Scots and the English, the New Statesman headed to Chatham House last Thursday, where the question at hand was what is united about our fair kingdom.

Journalist and author Sir Simon Jenkins kicked off with a history lesson, pinpointing the end of the British Empire as the beginning of profound changes to our “confederacy, which is the proper way of describing the British Isles.”

A stickler for precision, he pointed out that when discussing the Union at all, we must acknowledge that the “United Kingdom”, in its original formation, ceased to exist following the Partition of Ireland in 1921; since then we have been but the isle of “Great Britain plus Northern Ireland”.

Turning his attention to the referendum on 18 September, he slammed the Better Together campaign for its “ham-fisted” strategy, which centres on promoting the economic argument for Scotland remaining in the Union.

“Secession is not about money,” he barked. “It’s about emotion, tribalism... It's about the way people feel about identity in a changing world.”

Localism is the dominating trend in identity politics, he argued: “In a globalised world, people want a local identity.” The smaller the unit of locality, the stronger the affinity people feel with it (though it was pointed out that London remains the exception, where the city resonates more with residents than their specific borough).

Another complication of British identity is its variation throughout the Union. Most damagingly: “To the English, it means England and little bits on the outside."

If that were not galling enough for the Scots, Jenkins argued that their nation should be as rich as Denmark now, but alas, “it has been ruled badly from London for 50 years if not 200 years”.

No wonder some Scots hate the English, you would be forgiven for thinking. Indeed, they do, said Ipsos MORI chief executive Ben Page.

The pollster pointed out that among football Scottish fans, 15 per cent would always support a national team playing against England than plump for their southern cousins.

Channel 4 news broadcaster Jon Snow described those hard-line nationalists as “angry, entitled, resentful, alienated”, who have come to the conclusion on independence: “Let's just do it ourselves because nobody's done it very well for us yet.”

Still, “devo max” will “cure” the antipathy of these Scots towards Westminster, he maintained.

Page argued that there is more that unites the Scots, the English and the Welsh than divides them, pointing out that the greatest gulf in culture and identity is between London and the rest of the UK.

He said: “London is becoming something other than the countries of which it is in charge; it's almost becoming a separate city-state in its own right.” He added: “That’s a problem”.

Jenkins stood up for the city: “I’m a London nationalist”, he declared.

Princeton-based Professor Linda Colley argued that Westminster and the physical set up of Parliament turned many voters off, but particularly the Scots living hundreds of miles away.

Westminster should emulate the Welsh Assembly, she said. Unlike the rectangular House of Commons, with facing benches designed for rhetorical combat, the Welsh Assembly, she eulogised, is a "light, airy, circular building, where people can do their emails while listening to talks. And you get translations of debates into Welsh, not just English. People can gather outside and look at what their representatives are doing.”

Jenkins snorted. "It’s a citadel of total incompetence", he said.

The growing need for a written constitution to codify the nature of the Union was also discussed. Colley said that the complexity of Parliament today meant a constitution was required for the aid of MPs, a viewpoint shared by a parliamentary clerk – not usually the type to eschew tradition and embrace change – with whom she had spoken.

She issued a warning, however. “It can’t just be a car manual, it can’t be like the cabinet guide recently created. There has to be an inspiration element to it, that’s the trick.” she said. 

So a written code would spark further questions about who we are as a nation and what kind of people we want to be. 

 

As to the central question of what unites our kingdom, the panel was passionately divided.

Page surmised: “Ultimately, it’s still the economy stupid. Essentially people are pragmatic - most polls show that people want to vote to stay in for pragmatic reasons”. Colley agreed, but only in part. She added: “It’s governance stupid”. With a grin and delighting in his own contrarianism, Jenkins had the last word: “I’m going to say: it’s identity stupid.”

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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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