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How I nearly joined a cult of men in yellow jumpers - but got out in time to dodge Nick Clegg

It's great being a Lib Dem - you don't have to believe in anything. For a brief moment in 1996, I thought I'd found my people.

Oddly I do know how someone can become a Lib Dem. It happened to me in 1996. For an entire day I thought I was one. It was quite freeing. You could, I felt, be a Liberal Democrat and just think whatever you liked. You didn’t have to believe anything. Amazing.

Obviously this didn’t happen out of the blue. Someone had sent me to a Lib Dem conference, where I wandered around, lonely as a Lembit.

Up until then I’d never actually met a self-confessed Lib Dem in my life, and I think the fact that these people could just blast out policies with no coherence whatsoever must have been what I found most appealing.

Earlier that year had been the horrible massacre at Dunblane, but there I was, listening to loons saying we should all have greater access to handguns. Wow, I thought, these people are kinda out there. All of these excitable blokes and Shirley Williams induced in me some kind of trance. I went to bed thinking I’d found my people.

When I came to, I realised that my people were not middle-class men in jumpers and I felt bloody awful.

That morning, at a fringe meeting about why there were so few women in the party, only blokes spoke.

A woman put her hand up to say something and the chairman said, “Let’s take a question from the little lady in canary.”

Christ, what had happened to me? Some sort of alien abduction? I left and, like most people, never thought about them again for a decade.

Then suddenly, just before the last election, they started banging on about civil liberties and I found myself sitting next to Vince Cable at a discussion. Cable, who had prophesied the recession, said it could bring about all the preconditions for fascism.

“Blimey,” I thought. “Am I a Lib Dem?” It was happening again. Even unlikely people got taken over. At the same conference, Brian Eno was milling about in the green room. He had become one! When I suggested to the organisers that they get him on stage to do a speech, they had no idea who he was. Politicos have the collective cultural hinterland of a whelk.

“Roxy Music,” I found myself yelling at puzzled Liberal Democrats.

“Never heard of them.”

So when Cleggmania happened, I thought: I won’t get fooled again. I went to another Lib Dem gathering for which my notes for an entire week read, “Went up a tower for dinner with Norman Baker. (Transport?) He had an altercation in a taxi and is a conspiracy theorist. I just want to go home.” No one else appears to have made any impression on me whatsoever.

But that’s how they do it. This blankness is like political Rohypnol. How else can you explain their power? Trust me, you really don’t want to stand too close to them.

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 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

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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