Police watch as demonstrators protest the killing of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo: Getty
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Britain should not look at the militarised police in Ferguson and congratulate itself

The UK may not have a police force that is equipped like an army, but through our arms trade we export death to some of the most volatile regions of the world. It has to stop.

As the fires rage in Ferguson, Missouri, it can be tempting for a British person to feel proud that guns are so much less a part of our culture. Night after night the world has watched as demonstrators have protested against the shooting of a black teenager by an officer in their local police force. Violence perpetuated by these citizens of America has been met with the force and harshness of a military occupier because the United States has armed its civilian police forces like it were an army complete with tanks, rockets and battle gear for its police personal. In an attempt not to be outgunned by a freely armed populace, the St Louis police force has seemingly lost all sight of the fact that these are citizens to serve and protect not enemies to be defeated.

Though we should be mindful that we have started to militarise our police – see the recent purchase by London’s Mayor Boris Johnson of water cannon to be used in the event of municipal unrest by the citizenry – Britain should be justifiably proud of our stringent gun control laws that keep our citizen safe from gun violence. But we should be equally ashamed at how we export death to volatile regions. We sell more weapons of war abroad then Russian or China and the British arms industry accounts for 15 per cent of total armaments purchased by foreign governments. When it comes to precision guided missiles or ordinary rifles, Britain is like a sweet shop to countries that feel threatened by political or military unrest. We sell death to our allies and to fair weather friends with abandon. We sell everything, from fighter planes that can strafe both armies and civilians with impunity, to machine guns that can dispatch both the good and bad into unmarked graves, to missiles that can obliterate city blocks, city streets and city apartments where ordinary people like you and me live and work.

I learned a long time ago that war is carnage, chaos, fear and that it kills, maims or hurts both combatants and innocent civilians. I was a young man of 22 when I saw first-hand the torrent of shattered, starved and brutalised civilians pour from the carnage of battle along the roads of Belgium, Holland and Germany at the end of the Second World War. The look on their faces is something that will never leave me. I felt sure that it was something the world would never again see on that scale.

I was, however, sadly mistaken because this year the UN reported that across the globe there were more than 50 million refugees who had been dispersed from their countries because of war, totalitarianism, religious or sexual persecution. Moreover, as Europe, Britain and America are on vacation and summer wends its way with sluggish ease through August it becomes more difficult to rest because the guns of war, some of which are nation provided to belligerents have breached Europe’s threshold in the Ukraine and turned the Middle East into a charnel house. We cannot escape it because the blood of young war victims drips from our TV screens and pools in our subconscious as we try to escape it with holiday chatter at the seaside or down at the pub.

It is all the more disturbing to know that the bloodshed or the forced migrations of entire communities are always caused by the barrel of a gun and we in Britain share some responsibility for that turmoil. Since 2010 our government has approved 27 countries with 3,000 arms export licences which has grossed £12bn in sales. Each one of those 27 countries according to Germany’s Deutche Welle News agency was cited by our Foreign Office for human rights abuses.

Our war on terror, our war in Iraq has not yielded peace. Instead it has sown death and fear across that region along with giant swaths of Africa. The Middle East from Gaza to Tikrit is awash in cluster bombs, homemade rockets and spent gun casings.

In too many countries, the innocent crouch in the rubble of their neighbourhoods fearful of death, of rape or enslavement. Today, everywhere the concept of justice or dignity lies eviscerated and rotting on the roadside with the rest of the dead from these wars whose justification might have been once been sound but lost the plot when civilians, when children when mothers and fathers were extinguished in the pornography that is modern warfare.

The crying mothers in Ferguson, or Gaza, or Baghdad are only drowned out by the ringing tills of the world’s arms industry.

This government and former governments have always said that it is impossible and economically punitive for Britain to stop being a country that manufactures weapons of war for export, despite the fact that our British Armed forces purchase 75 per cent of the weapons manufactured in our country. By precluding sales abroad we won’t destroy the industry merely put a leash on it.

It is sometimes difficult for modern political parties or governments to see past the election cycle and daily polling results that shape policy more than vision or common sense but to be a nation of depth and valour our politicians must. Over 200 years ago Britain led the way among enlightened nations when it outlawed the slave trade despite the fact that it was a highly profitable enterprise for many companies and high born families. Yet our ancestors enacted legislation to end that abomination because it was our moral duty to cease trading in the misery of others. We can follow history’s example and put an immediate moratorium on sales to all foreign governments. Naturally the industry will complain and have their lobbyist knead the notion into our MPs that the arms trade is essential to the British economy, where upon they should be reminded that not so long ago, so was the slave trade.

Harry Leslie Smith is a survivor of the Great Depression, a Second World War RAF veteran and an activist for the poor and for the preservation of social democracy. He has authored numerous books about Britain during the Great Depression, the Second World War, and post-war austerity. Join Harry on Twitter @Harryslaststand.

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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