William Hague unveiling his waxwork at Madame Tussauds in 1997. Photo: Dave Gaywood/AFP/Getty
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You find out who your friends are when you’re following William Hague and Ffion round the States

“Can you tell us who he is? So we know which one to photograph?”

There are many good reasons not to like someone. But sometimes it’s personal.

Once, you see, I was asked to follow William Hague around America. It was back in the mists of time when he was leader of the Tory party and he and his team were to go to the States to learn about this great newfangled idea, “compassionate conservatism”.

His press people cleared my presence on the trip.

I never understand why the Tories don’t just embrace “callous conservatism”. You cannot combine empathy with cold-bloodedness, any more than Hague could make himself lovable with a baseball cap and a blonde wife.

All were very keen that I get to see Ffion up close. Newspapers, even the high-minded ones, have an unhealthy interest in the wives of politicians, whereas I couldn’t care less if they’ve married a waste-paper basket.

So there I was in New York, embarrassed, really. No one in the States had a clue who Hague was. I stood outside a plush hotel as he went to breakfast with Henry Kissinger (Compassion Central) and all the American journalists were interviewing me.

“Can you tell us who he is? So we know which one to photograph?”

It was the same at a school in what used to be called Spanish Harlem. There I saw what compassionate conservatism meant: rows of kids doing science under banners “Sponsored by Estée Lauder”, or English literature “Helped by McDonald’s”. The Puerto Rican girls were excited by the arrival of English people.

“Do you know the Spice Girls?” they asked me.

“No.”

Hague’s advisers attempted that dreadful fake interest in the schoolkids’ work.

The girls did their nails.

Two other journalists arrived. One had missed his flight and had an overstuffed suitcase: Boris Johnson. The other was Michael Gove, who was nothing but charming and helpful to me.

We had to go to Austin, to meet the then governor of Texas, George Dubbya Bush. All these guys were travelling together on some Tory transport. They could have easily let me on, but no, they would not.

One callow boy of 27 would not look at me, or let me near Hague. His disdain was apparent. He and the Tory journalists all got on the prearranged plane but he wouldn’t let me board. As a result, I had to trail around on my own, booking tickets and arriving at places alone in the middle of the night.

The young man who would not speak to me wrote speeches for Hague. They say you’re either on the bus or off the bus: he certainly did not want the likes of me near any bus he was on. I was not one of them. He didn’t even bother with the rudimentary courtesies of the well-born. For the few days he had any kind of power over me, he chose to make my life way more difficult than it needed to be. Making people’s lives more difficult turned out to be his life’s work. His name was Gideon Osborne. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

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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