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Dennis Skinner warns SNP MPs trying to take his seat: “This is one victory – it will be a battle”

Green with bench envy.

Other than shattering the very foundations of Scottish political life, the SNP is causing a stir elsewhere. Its new MPs are trying to take over the much-coveted corner seat on the "rebels' bench" in the House of Commons.

The seat itself is on the corner of the frontbench along the aisle from the opposition frontbench, furthest away from the Speaker. Here it is:


 

This seat has been occupied by Dennis Skinner, Labour backbench veteran and monarch-bothering socialist firebrand, since he wrested it from David Owen in the early Eighties. But he has been sitting on that row ever since Edward Heath became Prime Minister in 1970; Skinner has been an MP - the "Beast of Bolsover" - since that year.

Here he is in action from his favourite seat - an ideal vantage point for heckling the Prime Minister:
 


 

But the new SNP contingent of 56 MPs attempted today to steal Skinner's seat, in parliament's first vote since it dissolved for the general election. Hours ahead of parliamentary business, which began at 2.30pm today, SNP MPs took it in turns to sit in Skinner's seat in order to reserve it for their party.

Skinner managed to force them out of the seat, but he warns the SNP MPs he won't give up without a fight when parliament sits next week. He tells me: "Today is one victory, and it is significant, but it will be a running battle."

Every morning at 8am, Skinner reserves the seat with a prayer card. He won't give away how he'll beat the 56 MPs' rota system - "It's like a Premier League football match; you don't reveal your plans" - but says, "I'm not going to go quietly... I've never had any trouble in 30-odd years [reserving the seat] when Big Ben chimes. That's what they have to remember.

"I am here every day, and they are determined to try and get me out. It tells you a lot about them - the idea that you're going to throw out an 83-year-old after 45 years. It's a great political victory to be on the rebel bench. I don't think some of them understand how it works at all."

Skinner's main gripe isn't even the breaking of tradition. It's that he believes the SNP MPs are slavishly following instructions. "They don't understand what they're doing on behalf of the leadership," he says. "The rota system might work for a while, but they are just being lobby fodder for their leader. They might get fed up of that. I would. I've always been a backbencher; I've never been lobby fodder."

I ask Skinner what he said to the new MPs he clashed with this afternoon in the chamber. "You don't want to be in Westminster full-time, do you?" he replies. "You want to get away from Westminster with your Barnett Formula, so that my constituents have to pay money to Scotland, and with your North Sea Oil. Some of them didn't answer at all. They were ordered to do it [try and take my seat]."

Keep an eye out for what might be the bloodiest political battle of our times.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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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