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Britain and America in 2016 – a time for losing friends

Hillary Bumper Cropped

Summer 2016 is, it seems, a time for losing friends. As I write this, Britain is going through a traditional heatwave. A few days of intense heat, followed by thunder, lightning, hailstorms and floods. Tempers fray, neighbours fall out with each other. People adopt uncompromising positions about situations that could be resolved with a deep breath and a willingness to discuss rather than lash out. Rigid self-interest trumps compromise and willingness to listen to the other person’s point of view. Relationships that have pottered on for decades can be broken for ever.

The political issues in my country and in the US, from which I’ve just returned after a short visit, have lit forest fires of resentment and anger. I haven’t escaped the madness, as my post shortly after the EU Referendum result was announced shows. Parents are estranged from their children. Old friends shun each other because beliefs and values that remained off limits for the sake of their friendship have suddenly taken centre stage.

A Facebook friend posted a telling quotation to illustrate the point:

Jefferson Friendship

Followed by this conversation:


Does it have to be this way? Can we not accept differences any more? Is it impossible for a Remain voter to continue to like and respect a Leave voter? For a Trump supporter to have a beer and a barbecue with a Hillary fan?

I suppose much depends on the nature of the friendship. If it’s based on shared self-interest, and one party is revealed as having very different interests from another, the bond is relatively loose and can fracture easily. If it’s based on deep ties of love and family relationships, provided that the nature of the disagreement doesn’t threaten the interests of either party, it should surely be possible to move on.

My wife and I have just come back from a few days in New York, punctuated by a visit to a quiet seaside town in Rhode Island, where we had been invited by a friend to join a fishing trip. When you visit America in this high summer of political polarity, it’s almost impossible to avoid talking about the upcoming presidential elections, and in particular the candidates on offer. So the subject came up several times. We met supporters of both the candidates, as well as one or two who – like the writer of the Facebook post – couldn’t abide either of them.

Bumper stickers – succinct, trenchant and often extreme – are a pervasive symbol of the great American tradition of free speech. They predate Twitter by many decades. The stickers in the photo above aren’t on the back of some redneck’s car. They belong to the friend who invited us to Rhode Island. He’s a driven, multi-talented urban high achiever. He’s generous with his friendship, and devoted to his wife and two young kids. And he’s proud of his stickers.

Confronted by the uncompromising certainty of the messages, I wasn’t about to take up cudgels on behalf of the presumptive Democrat nominee, even though I believe that she’s a far better option than the guy the Republicans nominated yesterday. After all, how would the average Brit react to an American’s considered opinion on Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn?

I didn’t ask my friend if he is a Trump supporter. He spoke with such certainty about Clinton that I thought better of probing further. It’s his country after all. I did try to explain that we foreigners care about US politics because we have a stake in it. It isn’t just an American affair. We are all affected. Yet still, I felt I could only ask bland questions, not make statements. If I were to try a spot of Socratic dialogue, I worried that he might be offended. End of friendship – pass the hemlock.

In conversations with other people, I did ask about political allegiance.

I met a fisherman who blames all of America’s problems on immigrants and ethnic minorities. He claims that they get preferential treatment from the Federal government. He can’t get a loan to start a small business because he has a property with no mortgage. The banks tell him to take out a mortgage. Yet immigrants with nothing can get loans. How is this fair, he asked?

Will he vote for Trump? “You’re damned right I will”. Yet this was no swivel-eyed white supremacist. He was a charming guy. He sees himself as a decent, public-spirited person. He’s proud of the fact that he has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for a child cancer charity. He will vote for Trump because Trump is different. He is deeply concerned about Mexican migrants infiltrating of America, taking American jobs. Yet I’d he found a Mexican in trouble, I suspect he would go out of his way to save him.

Clearly, he’s not alone. In Rhode Island, it was interesting to see so many houses with Trump placards in their yards. There were no Hillary placards on view, and a solitary poster supporting Bernie Sanders. This in a state where the governor and the two senators are Democrats. Observations from a small seaside town are hardly a reliable indicator of how the state will vote in the general election. But if you look at the fisherman’s views in the context of a five-minute snippet from a radio interview I heard with a Trump spokesman commenting on his leader’s vice-presidential selection, in which he repeated the phrase “jobs for Americans” five times, you can see that the message is getting home.

Back in New York, I met someone who is the polar opposite of the Rhode Island fisherman. He’s a liberal city dweller who deplores Trump and all his works. As well he might, because he’s a direct beneficiary of Obamacare. As someone who has derived his income from a number of sources over the years, he’s never been able to afford health insurance. Now he can, and thanks to his insurance he’s undergoing a series of tests to monitor a heart condition that he’s been aware of for years. No surprise that he will vote for the candidate who will preserve his new entitlement.

Those two conversations seemed to confirm the stereotypes propagated by political analysts: that Trump speaks for the angry, dispossessed white voters, and Hillary for the ethnic minorities and the liberal urban intelligentsia that voted for Obama.

Yet, as always, there are shades of grey. I heard opinions from a black guy who is in real estate. He was a supporter of Bill Clinton, but says that Hillary has lost the youth vote. He bemoaned his fifteen-year-old son’s lack of focus and ambition, and blamed the entitlement culture that provides support to fractured families and, in his view, doesn’t incentivise those that stick together. A Trump supporter? I didn’t go there, but it was pretty clear that he wasn’t enchanted by Hillary.

What to make of all this?

Perhaps a clue lies in a statement made the other day by a retired CIA agent that President Obama has “lost control of the Middle East”. The implication is that as a default, America should control a region consisting of sovereign nations. The statement very much chimes with Trump’s message: control our borders, build a wall, ban Muslims from entering the country. And it also chimes with the concerns of many of the UK’s Leave voters, as David Aaronovich wrote in yesterday’s London Times:

I was in Wakefield recently and spoke to some Leave voters. They were not closet racists, and immigration was not the main reason they voted to quit the EU. One thing they all said, unprompted, was that they wanted “to take back control”. I asked each of them what they meant by it. All but one said straightaway they didn’t know. “But why,” asked a couple of people, “should we do as the French and Spanish say?” There was not even the slightest perception that having it our way would mean the French and the Spanish having to do what we said. They weren’t British; they had no legitimate desires.

Take control. That phrase was far more powerful than I’d realised, but that doesn’t make it any less utopian. Consider, for example, what has been said this week about our immigration target. Back in 2010 David Cameron’s government said it would bring net migration down to “tens of thousands”. Instead, it brought it up to 330,000. Slightly more than half of this is non-EU migration and we have always theoretically had control over that. We could just have said “no” to any non-EU migrant. Instead we said “yes” to hundreds of thousands.

Uncertainty breeds fear. And fear produces a feeling of not being in control. And lack of control breeds uncertainty. A vicious circle.

In such times, when politicians admit that life is complicated, that there are no easy answers, they are accused of being indecisive. When they change their minds, they are accused of making U-turns – a mortal sin in modern politics.

This, it seems to me, is America today. Fearful. Longing to be told that there are solutions to intractable problems. Not necessarily believing what they are told, but willing to give the guy who comes up with the answers the opportunity to turn his message into reality.

How apt that the man who sells in the American way, with direct promises that provide simple answers, should be the person they turn to in the moment of their perceived crisis. No more Reds under the Bed, but terrorists down Main Street. Immigrants at your porch, taking your job. Donald Trump realises the fundamental truth of US politics. That people buy dreams. And nobody wants to hear about blood, sweat and tears. When the dreamers wake up, they have to deal with real life, just as they have always done. But it’s too late by then. The salesman has closed the deal.

Don’t tell a typical Trump supporter about statistics that show comparisons between deaths from terrorism in America since 9/11, and deaths from domestic gun crime. He won’t listen to you. And in a way he’d be right. Because it’s the impact of the relatively small number of deaths by terrorism that matters. Fear of terrorism has generated a massive cost in terms of increased security, surveillance, gun purchases and insurance premiums, to say nothing of time wasted sitting in four-hour queues at airports. Can ISIS be destroyed militarily, as Trump promises? Unlikely, because ISIS is an idea, not a state. And guns can’t kill ideas.

For those at the political poles, it’s not cool to embrace or even recognise ambiguity any more. To think grey. That’s why so many people hate Barack Obama. He’s the epitome of pragmatism. He, like every president before him, has learned that there are limits to his power. There are some things that he can’t control – such as Congress. His watchword is that “it’s complicated”. But people don’t want to hear that. Not in the US, in Britain, in France or in any other place riven by fear.

Back in the UK, there are many people who will not listen to arguments about immigration. There’s no point in suggesting that it enriches the country, that new blood invigorates and renews, that immigrants pay for themselves. They won’t believe you, because they see evidence to the contrary. They want their country back. No matter that the country they want is long gone, and can’t be revived except in a theme park or an Olympic opening ceremony.

This is an age of “I am right and you are wrong”. Of barricades. Of marines guarding New York train stations. Of solutions to every problem but answers to none of the questions. Of left-wing certainty. Of right-wing certainty. The stronger the opinions, the more they define the person who holds them, and the more likely that their views will influence their choice of friends, and cause them to reject the friendship of those who don’t see things their way.

We know there aren’t easy answers, yet we prefer to pretend there are. And when we vote, we vote for number one. Whatever altruism we show in our private lives, we fail to demonstrate in our support for politicians. What can Trump do for me? What can Brexit do for me? It’s only in extremis that we pull together, and discover that for all our differences, we are British, or American. Think of Britain in World War 2, and America after Pearl Harbour and 9/11. Yet as soon as the crisis passes, that unanimity and sense of common purpose unravels, and the blame game begins. We revert to self-interest. Thus it ever will be.

The crisis in America that is causing such conflict and polarity is not existential. Nor are is Britain’s woes. Compared with many nations, we are the lucky ones. Rather, our problems are the result of a slow erosion of national self-confidence, partly as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, partly because of globalisation, and partly because of the disruptive effect of technology. Jobs are changing and disappearing. In both countries there are sections of society that feel excluded and dispossessed. And those who are in the economic mainstream fear that they will be next. For many, life has become a game of musical chairs.

What’s to be done? Plenty – enough to fill a thousand posts. But for now, here are a few general observations:

First, we should stop expecting too much of our politicians. They are human. They make mistakes. They should be able to change their minds without being subjected to a barrage of abuse.

Second, we should appreciate and praise them when they get things right, even if we disagree with their political orientation. It’s telling that people only eulogise politicians when they leave office, as has been the case with David Cameron.

Third, we should accept that there is a limit to what a single nation can control, both within and beyond its borders – even one as large and powerful as the United States. Any politician who suggests otherwise is being disingenuous.

Fourth, we should learn to accept what we cannot change. I deplore Brexit, but it will happen, and I’m prepared to live with the consequences. To do otherwise would be counterproductive. “Yes we can” is fine as a rallying cry. But we need to recognise that there are limits to what we can achieve, and live with them. Or otherwise, we need to make different things happen that might achieve the same result.

Fifth, we should remember that idealists rarely make the most effective politicians. The most significant changes in both countries over the past fifty years – Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights programme and Margaret Thatcher’s reforms – were pushed through not by saints, but by cunning, ruthless and often nasty people who knew how to bully, manipulate and cajole.

And finally, we should understand that the problems facing both countries cannot be solved with quick fixes. They are fundamental, and in some cases will take a generation or more to solve. Perhaps they are insoluble.

As for friendship, I can’t see an end to the current phenomenon until we enter more settled times. I don’t see that happening any time soon. In fact I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in the near future we have to live through another catastrophe that causes unity through adversity before we return to laissez-faire. Ultimately though, the answer is in our hearts. And perhaps that’s where Thomas Jefferson comes in.

I lost a friend this week – or at least it looks that way. Not because of politics, religion or philosophy. Not because either of us is a bad person, but because my friend showed a side of himself that I’d never seen before, and which I didn’t like. This led me to conclude that he’s not the person I thought he was. Perhaps he would say the same of me. I’m very sad about the situation, but that’s how it can often be with friendships. Like reputations, you enjoy them for many years, and in a second they’re gone. Can former friends be reconciled? Of course, but it’s always different.

Something the Leavers, the Brexiteers, the Trump supporters and the Hillary fans need to think about before their animosity causes them to step over the brink into personal hostility.





UK turmoil: will the “decent people” bring our nightmare to an end?

So all the men have slunk away or been kicked into touch, and we are left with two women who would be Prime Minister of the UK. And the responsibility for selecting the person who will be tasked with for pulling us out of our worst crisis since the Second World War falls upon 160,000 members of the Conservative Party. In other words, a quarter of one percent of the population.

If I was going to characterise this tiny elite, I would describe them as latte-sipping, wine-imbibing, gin-and-tonic-swilling, dinner-party-hosting, middle-class, prosperous folk mostly concentrated in the South of England. Nigel Farage’s “decent people”, in other words. Many of them are relatively elderly. Some are deeply reactionary – those who haven’t defected to Farage’s party, that is.

Actually I haven’t really got a clue who these people are. A few hints are to be found in the attendees of the annual party conference, and in the interviews of ladies drinking coffee in country town high streets. Then there are the young ones who seem to grab most media attention – braying, bullying Tory Boys. Yes, I know I’m being unfair. There are good, sensible and sincere people in every party. But one thing’s for sure: the voters in this election are not my tribe. I have never voted Conservative.

As if the horror of Brexit was not enough, we now have to endure two months of non-stop coverage of an election in which I, and fifty-nine million other people with a stake in Britain’s future, have no say. In addition, we face the prospect of a Labour leadership contest in which Jeremy Corbyn – assuming he resigns and stands again – uses his supporters to kick sand in the faces of those beastly, Blair-loving MPs who dared who dared to defy the will of the proletariat. Enemies of the people. Well, enemies of the hundred and fifty thousand people who support Corbyn anyway.

Corbyn doesn’t speak for me, any more than do Theresa May or Andrea Leadsom. And in case you think that makes me a supporter of UKIP, who are also having a leadership contest, I would rather eat a cyanide sandwich than associate myself with that rabble.

I did consider paying my three pounds to become a member of the Labour party with the express intention of voting against Corbyn, or any other member of his benighted shadow cabinet. I’m sure he’s a decent and principled person, but he reminds me of the goat that was supposed to be dinner for a tiger in a Russian zoo, and ended up making friends with him – for a while. The epitome of someone not in control of his own destiny.

Anyway, I couldn’t sign up to such a ridiculous piece of political manipulation. I don’t want to be anybody’s fifth columnist. Since I can’t bring myself to support the Greens, the Liberal Democrats or the Monster Raving Loony Party, I guess that makes me truly non-aligned for the first time in my life.

So who would I vote for, should the political establishment be graceful enough to give me the opportunity? The Dalai Lama, perhaps. The Archbishop of Canterbury. Sir David Attenborough. Mary Beard. Brian Cox. David Beckham even. Yes, I know – this is getting ridiculous. But are they not “decent people”?

If you think I’m raving, you may be right. I do feel as though I’m in the middle of some awful nightmare. I just want to wake up and for all the nonsense that has transpired since June 24th to be revealed as a dream.

But it isn’t just a nightmare, is it? This country, my country, has suddenly turned into a cauldron of witch-hunters, liars, political ideologues and racist xenophobes. It’s as if something has polluted the water supply and driven us insane.

Yet away from the front pages of the newspapers, we’re soothed by the prozac of summer. The Welsh football team sweeps away our memories of the brain-frozen England team. Andy Murray is in a Wimbledon final again. And we’re all thinking about our holidays, even though just about anywhere we go beyond our borders will cost us at least 20% more than we thought it would two weeks ago. The dawn chorus still rings out at sunrise, and my friendly robin still comes to visit me in the morning.

Best perhaps, to focus on the eternals of life – love, hope and friendship. Our capacity for doing good. Tolerance, generosity and kindness. They may be in short supply at the moment. But sooner or later we’ll leave the asylum and settle down to a new normal.

I welcome the prospect of another woman prime minister. But to be honest, I don’t care if our next leader is man, woman or Klingon. Whoever gets the job needs to bring with them a large capacity for common sense. Right now we’ve landed on a ledge halfway down a cliff. Will she throw us down a rope or kick us, screaming, onto the rocks below?


The Chilcot Report – bigger than Tony Blair, bigger than the chorus of disapproval

Chilcot disturbs me. Not because of the rationale for the report, or even because of the conclusions.

What unsettles me is the reaction to it. It seems that the attention of the print and broadcast media, the politicians, the social media Greek chorus and the families of the armed forces personnel killed and injured are focused almost exclusively on one person: Tony Blair.

Basically, the dominant voices are of those who want him hung, drawn and quartered. Nothing else and no one else seems to matter as much. Not the planning (or lack of it). Not the inadequate Snatch Land Rovers. Not the disastrous decisions by the Coalition Provisional Authority that arguably created the conditions for the chaos that ensued. Not the fact that war would have taken place with or without Britain’s participation. Not the fact that if there was an arch perpetrator of the war of aggression against the saintly Saddam Hussain, it was one George W Bush.

Do we see calls for Bush to be taken to The Hague and tried for war crimes? Is he required to check with his lawyers when travelling abroad to make sure that a prosecutor in his host country is not liable to arrest him, as opinion suggests Blair will have to do?

Tony Blair, according to Chilcot and by his own assertion, did not lie to Parliament when making the case for the war. He claims that he – and his colleagues, it should be remembered – acted in the best interest of his country. Unfashionable as this opinion is, I accept that he didn’t lie, and I believe – unless the details of Chilcot can subsequently convince me otherwise – that he acted in good faith.

My belief in Blair’s motives doesn’t imply a lack of compassion for the bereaved relatives, as well as for the millions of Iraqis whose lives were destroyed by the conflict and its grievous consequences. I, and surely everyone else in Britain who has followed events in the Middle East before and after the 2003 war, feel deeply for them.

Perhaps now is not the time to make a few supplementary observations that might upset a few people. But here goes anyway.

First, the political motives of Jeremy Corbyn in condemning Blair seem pretty transparent to me. Tony Blair is at fault. The Labour MPs who voted with him in 2003 are at fault. I, Jeremy Corbyn, didn’t vote with him. Many of the current MPs who want to get rid of me as leader did vote with him. Ergo their views on the current leadership should be discounted. Ergo I should remain in place because I have been given a mandate by the party, not the MPs. And, by the way, the “Blairite faction” should be rooted out of the Labour Party by any means necessary, including intimidation by the membership and ultimately deselection. They bear the mark of Cain.

I’m sure Corbyn would not publicly condone intimidation, but I feel confident that he would privately acquiesce in it if achieves the end result he desires. Am I being overly cynical in suggesting that he – or at least his praetorian guard – sees Chilcot as his means to hang on to his office? Subsequent events will surely prove me right or wrong.

Second, there may be reasons for incompetence on the part of the politicians, generals and civil servants, but no excuses. Each owe a duty of care for our armed forces. But the fact is that those who serve as soldiers, sailors and airmen know when they sign up that their profession is riskier than others. To put it bluntly, they know that they can be killed or wounded in action. If we were to examine each and every conflict involving British troops from the Napoleonic Wars onwards, we would find equally reprehensible failures of political and military leadership, of logistics and of tactical command. There were no inquiries into the Somme, Arnhem, Suez and Helmand. Perhaps there should have been.

Today’s wars – at least those involving Western powers – are carried out in the full glare of media coverage that didn’t exist at the time, say, of the Somme. The seeming destruction of Blair’s reputation will surely make any Prime Minister extremely leery about proposing any kind of military action at least in the near future. They will be fearful of the consequences – not just of the war itself, but for their personal reputations.

All well and good, you might argue. That’s central plank of Chilcot – that these decisions should be rigorously justified and expertly planned. But the trouble about some wars fought in the face of aggression – be it real or implied – is that they are fought in reaction to events. Some events can be foreseen to the extent that the military can make contingency plans, which basically what NATO has been trying to do since 1949. But others come out of the blue. Stuff happens.

So my concern is that we don’t put measures in place to prevent another Iraq so stringent that they prevent us from reacting with military force to ANY situation. If our future is to become a nation of conscientious objectors, then that should be a matter of debate even more profound than the one that is currently taking place over EU membership. It raises the question of why we need to be a member of NATO, and why we need to maintain a military capable of doing anything beyond protecting our borders from small-scale, non-state incursions. It would also call into question the viability of our domestic defence industry, on which thousands of jobs depend. If we don’t buy the weapons we build, why should anyone else? And if we are no longer to be part of the European Union, will we be content to see ourselves not sheltered by any alliances than those motivated by trade?

If that’s the future we see for ourselves, fine. But we should walk towards it, not stumble upon it as an accidental consequence of Chilcot. I don’t see such an extreme outcome taking place. But then again I didn’t see the Leave decision coming either.

Finally, we should consider our faith – or otherwise – in our politicians. I find it ironic that our nation is consumed with the question of Tony Blair’s good faith at a time when lies and bad faith seem to have become common currency. I’m not just talking about my country, and the shameless embroidery that has been traded on both sides of the EU argument. In the United States, Donald Trump has made a career out of exaggeration and outright lies. Hillary Clinton’s reputation has taken a blow over her attempts to sex down the email furore.

In both countries there is a level of cynicism about politicians and mistrust of their motives that has not been seen since the end of the Second World War. The current crisis in confidence exceeds even Vietnam and Watergate on the US side. In Britain – at least in my memory – the only comparable event has been the miner’s strike and the three-day-week in 1973.

We should welcome the findings of the Chilcot Report, and the fact that it was commissioned in the first place. But the timing of its publication, by accident rather than design, means that there is yet another reason for us to be repelled by our political establishment. In the United States – perhaps because of an ethos of “my country right or wrong”, and perhaps because of the shock of 9/11 – the debate over Iraq has never been as damaging to George W Bush and his administration as it has been to Tony Blair and his colleagues.

Yet on both sides of the Atlantic, the cumulative effect of 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan and the 2008 financial crisis has been to replace prostitution with politics in the public’s perception as the world’s oldest profession. And distrust of politicians goes hand-in-hand with lack of faith in our political institutions. Faith in the integrity and sovereignty of Parliament in the UK, and in the effectiveness of the checks and balances enshrined in the US constitution.

The ability of the British government to trigger Article 50 of the EU treaty by royal prerogative rather than by Act of Parliament threatens to create dangerous paralysis in the months to come. In the US, many argue that partisan Republicans in Congress have repeatedly blocked legislation and executive actions put forward by the president, not on the merits of the proposals, but out of a visceral hatred of the president himself.

What makes the current situation extremely dangerous is that if reforms to political systems are needed, how can they gain popular acceptance if the politicians who propose them are not to be trusted?

Chilcot adds yet another brick to the wall of scepticism that currently surrounds public life in my country. Commendable though the headline findings of the report seem to be, will it ultimately help to make Britain less governable? That would be an irony, considering the sorry state of Iraq following the war it was commissioned to examine.

Yesterday’s publication was not about the destruction of one man’s reputation. That happened long ago. It’s far bigger than Tony Blair. It’s also about what kind of a country we want to live in, and how we wish to be governed.

And those questions are what we, and our cousins in America, should be thinking very carefully about over the next few months. We live in interesting times.

Thinking of Turkey – Tragedy in Istanbul, Rattigan’s Ross and The Fall of the Ottomans

Fall of the Ottomans

OK, enough about Brexit for the time being. There are things happening in other parts of the world that are worth writing about. In Turkey, for example.

The trickle of reports about an attack on Istanbul’s airport turned into a torrent. The grainy videos showed a sudden flash, people running for safety. Lives ruined, fear redoubled, and the inevitable reaction. All so familiar to cities – Beirut, Baghdad, Dammam, Sana’a, London, Paris, Brussels, New York, Dhaka, Jakarta, Kabul – that have experienced such traumas, some many times over. Wait a few days to comment on an attack in one city, and attention has shifted to another. Last week Istanbul, this week, Baghdad and Madinah.

Istanbul – sitting on the edge of Asia, suffered its latest attack in a week when we on the Western extreme of Europe remembered the Somme, where more than twenty thousand British soldiers died on the first day of the offensive a hundred years ago.

At that time, Britain was at war with the predecessor of the Turkish state. The Ottoman Empire, even after a century of decline, still presided over a land mass comparable to that of the present-day European Union. In addition to the current territory of Turkey, most of the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq answered to the Sultan and his government in Istanbul. Its population included Turks, Arabs, Circassians, Kurds and Armenians. Although the ruling class was Muslim, its people also embraced Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.

We British, along with our cousins in Australia and New Zealand, think mainly of Gallipoli when we remember the war against the Ottoman Empire. We might also recall Lawrence of Arabia, and his part in the Arab revolt against the Ottomans in the Hejaz, now the western half of Saudi Arabia.

Before the First World War, for most British people the Ottoman territories were “faraway countries of which we knew little.” Wealthy travellers might visit Istanbul and Anatolia. Merchants would travel to the Levant for business. Pilgrims and priests would go to Jerusalem. And the occasional explorer would venture forth to the interior of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Ottoman Empire, to the extent that it impinged on our conscious at all, was the “Sick Man of Europe”. Its Balkan dominions had fractured into a set of belligerent nation states – Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Serbian nationalist was the catalyst for the outbreak of the First World War. The Ottomans entered the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The consequences were fatal for the 400-year old empire.

My interest in Turkey and its Ottoman heritage comes from two directions. I spent nearly a decade in Jeddah, the commercial capital of the Hejaz. For many Jeddawis, Lawrence was not just a remote historical figure. The parents and grandparents of people with whom I rubbed shoulders knew him. Some fought with him. Remnants of the Hejaz Railway that the Bedouin tribesmen attacked are still there to be visited in the desert. Many in the region think of themselves as Hejazi first, and Saudi second.

I’m also deeply interested in the Byzantine Empire. The last remnant of the eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, fell to the Ottomans in 1453. The city we now know as Istanbul entrances me. Not so much because of the Byzantine traces – the land walls, Aya Sofia and other buildings from the period – but because of what came after – Topkapi, The Blue Mosque, the cafes, the markets, the bridges, the wooden palaces along the Bosporus.

I love the food, the music and the coffee of Turkey. I love the works of Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak. That doesn’t make me an apologist for fratricidal sultans, the Armenian massacres and the penchant of the present government for locking up writers. But it does mean that I look on the tribulations of today’s Turks with sympathy, not with contempt and condescension. And I don’t believe that people always get the governments they deserve. How could I, living in Brexit Britain?

Aside from the tragedy in Istanbul, I have two other reasons for thinking about Turkey at the moment.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a production of Terence Rattigan’s Ross at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Joseph Fiennes was superb in the role of the tortured T.E. Lawrence as he sought anonymity by enlisting in the lower ranks of the Royal Air Force under the alias of Aircraftman Ross. The play looked back at his career in the Hejaz with the Arab revolt against the Ottomans in the First World War. Whether Rattigan accurately captured the complex character of the hero with any accuracy is debatable. There was a post-show chat between audience and cast to which one or two people contributed who clearly knew a lot about Lawrence. One of them, for example, quoted a relative who served with him in the RAF, and who was convinced that he was not, as some biographers contend, gay. The discussion was almost as interesting as the play itself.

Overall, it was a compelling production, well-acted and directed. If I had a reservation, it was the portrayal of the Turkish protagonists. In the way that they were acted, they came over almost as cartoon baddies – sadistic and supercilious. Lines that could have been delivered otherwise were played for laughs. The effect made the production somewhat lopsided. The British – Lawrence, Allenby and Storrs – and Auda abu Tayi, the Bedouin tribal leader (played by Anthony Quinn in the movie Lawrence of Arabia) were believable. The Turkish governor wasn’t.

I suppose that was understandable. Rattigan wrote the play in 1960. It was a time when Britain’s other arch-enemy, the Germans, rarely had a sympathetic portrayal in the numerous war films that celebrated the defeat of Nazism. Good Germans, in the estimation of the dramatists, and so perhaps good Turks, were in short supply.

An antidote to Rattigan’s caricature portrayal of the Ottomans comes from The Fall of the Ottomans, Eugene Rogan’s history of the First World War in the Middle East. Historians tend to take a more balanced view of protagonists in major conflicts – or at least they do these days.

The Great War was as much a tragedy for the people of the Ottoman Empire as it was for the Western combatants. Famine in Lebanon, slaughter at Gallipoli and the death of between 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenians (depending on who you listen to) were major events. But throughout the period, there were other smaller but no less vicious encounters as the Ottomans sought to defend their territory on several fronts simultaneously.

Rogan is excellent on the doomed Gallipoli campaign, and on the woes of the Anglo-Indian expeditionary force in Mesopotamia that culminated in the British defeat at Kut. Both campaigns resulted from a perception that the Ottomans were the weak link in the Central Alliance, and that to take them out of the war would bring the overall conflict to an early close. Those who advocated the operations, Winston Churchill among them, were gravely disappointed. The Ottomans with commanders and logistic support from Germany, fought with great courage and inflicted damaging defeats on the British-led expeditionary forces.

On the Armenian massacres, he writes at some length not only about the event but also about the motivation. Armenian Christians had long agitated for a level of autonomy in the east of the Empire. When the fighting with Russia broke out, some Armenians joined their fellow-Christians and took up arms against the Sultan. The city of Van briefly rose in rebellion. It was fought over by the Russians, the Ottomans and the rebels, and changed hands several times. When the Ottomans finally regained the city, the triumvirate of Young Turks who ruled the Empire decided that the Armenians were unreliable subjects and needed to be dealt with.

Across the Empire, Armenians were sent on forced marches out of their main centres of population. Many died of thirst and starvation. Many, according to reports at the time, were killed by their captors. What was interesting to me was that despite the trenchant denial by the modern Turkish state that the Armenians were the victims of genocide, there were many accounts of what took place. Genocide and holocausts are emotive words. Successive Turkish governments have insisted that they were victims of war rather than of a deliberate act of extermination. Be that as it may, hundreds of thousands perished, and not at the hands of the Empire’s enemies.

Yet after the war, as Rogan points out, the victorious allies encouraged the new Ottoman government to put those responsible for the fate of the Armenians on trial before military tribunals. As a result, the three primary Young Turk instigators, who escaped to Germany, were sentenced to death in absentia. A small number of lesser perpetrators were hanged. The 1946 Nuremberg trials were not the first war crimes prosecutions of the 20th Century.

Another aspect that is little known by those who, like me, are not deeply familiar with the war in the Middle East is that the Ottoman leaders prevailed upon the Sultan, in his role as caliph, to declare jihad against the enemy powers. Throughout the war, the British were nervous at the effect the pronouncement might have on the loyalty of their Muslim Indian troops. Likewise, the French were concerned about their colonial forces from North Africa. In the event, there were desertions to the Ottoman side, but not in numbers that made a material difference to the outcome of the war. A reminder though, that the use of jihad in modern times didn’t start with Afghanistan in the 1980s.

As for the Arab revolt in the Hejaz, and Allenby’s campaign in Palestine and Syria, T.E. Lawrence takes his place in the narrative as an influential figure, but not as the principal instigator around which the legend of Lawrence of Arabia was built. Although the British encouraged and funded the revolt, it didn’t gain universal acceptance in the Arab world, let alone among the wider Muslim constituency. We look on the Middle East today primarily through the lens of faith – as a Muslim region with embattled pockets of Christians, and with a Judaic state sitting defiantly in the centre. Christian communities at the beginning of the 20th century were far larger, and many leading nationalists were driven more by ethnic than by religious considerations. It took Allenby’s army to tip the balance. His capture of Jerusalem marked the beginning of the end for the Ottomans in the region.

As part of the post-war settlement, the Empire was partitioned. The British and the French acted according to the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement and established their spheres of influence over the Levant, Palestine and Iraq. The British occupied Palestine and the Jewish immigration – sanctioned by the Balfour Declaration of 1917 – began. Thus the seeds of all the subsequent conflict in the Middle East were sown.

In 1923, Mustafa Kemal, the victor of Gallipoli, overthrew the Sultan, and Turkey became a republic. Kemal, now given the title Ataturk (father of the Turks), became its first president. Ataturk abolished the symbols of the Ottoman Empire – among them the fez and the veil. He disbanded the religious orders, banned Arabic script in the education system and established a secular state. He is so revered in Turkey that anyone insulting his memory is still liable to prosecution.

Rogan’s narrative ends with the abdication of the last Ottoman sultan. His account of the war in the Middle East is a heart-breaking story of political duplicity, civilian suffering, remorseless fighting, courage on all sides of the conflict. Hopes of a unified Arab Kingdom that fuelled the revolt in the Hejaz were dashed. Another kingdom, Saudi Arabia, emerged in the Arabian Peninsula. The sons of Sharif Hussein, the figurehead of the revolt, took their places as Kings of Jordan and Iraq. When finally free of Anglo-French domination, Egypt, Iraq and Syria led the surge of Arab nationalist sentiment, and the descendants of Ibn Saud, enriched by the mineral wealth that lay beneath the desert, consolidated their power.

The Fall of the Ottomans doesn’t explain everything that has happened in the region since the Great War. And the Ottoman Empire has a rich history that is well worth exploring if you want to understand why the Middle East has come to be as it is today.  But he’s produced a clear narrative of a conflict overshadowed in Western European memory by the horror of the trenches.

Few people in Iraq are likely to remember the Somme. But they will remember Kut, the fall of Baghdad, their Hashemite king and the Gallipoli campaign in which their conscripts died alongside Turkish comrades. And, thanks in part to ISIS, they especially remember the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Which takes us back to those who died, it appears, at the hand of ISIS in Ataturk International Airport, the gateway named after the hero of Gallipoli. As an admirer of Turkey and its rich heritage, I grieve for their people, just as I grieve for the dead of Baghdad, of Palestine, of Lebanon and Syria. The people of the former Ottoman Empire have paid dearly in blood over the past century for the accident of their geography – for their civilisation, their beliefs, their culture and their rich and diverse heritage.

The successors of the Ottomans are a proud and sometimes prickly people. The people of Istanbul are, Orhan Pamuk contends, suffused with melancholy – perhaps for good reason. But they are also kind, warm and creative. Turks don’t deserve to be demonised. Especially they don’t deserve to be used as a political football by the xenophobes in my country who have stoked up fears of a flood of Turkish immigration. In short, they deserve a break.

Brexit – do we really know what swung the vote?

Leave Campaigners

Over the past few of days, there have been so many references to the Wars of the Roses, Game of Thrones and House of Cards that you could be forgiven for thinking that the plotting politicians engineered Brexit on their own. They didn’t. It was the voters. And even if the vote had gone the other way by a similar margin, we would still be talking about a divided Britain. So if we can somehow look beyond the flashing of knives, perhaps we should be focused on why these divisions built up in the first place. Or, to be more specific, why the electorate delivered such a slap in the face of our political elite. We think we know. But do we?

On Brexit day, a friend posted his reaction on Facebook:

Today’s events represent significant change. But from the excellent foundations of the original treaties rebuilding post war Europe, the current EU structures have become an unaccountable, bloated and very expensive bureaucratic machine, paying decreasing attention to the individual wishes of each sovereign nation population. The U.K. Population on our tiny islands has never shirked in the past from taking on the seemingly impossible and I personally think, that in time when current histrionics calm down and a revised EU structure is built, that once again Great Britain will have led the way.

Elegantly put, and certainly not the words of a disadvantaged Northerner, a neo-Nazi or a disgruntled pensioner pining for the days when the only foreigners settling in their country were bus drivers from Barbados, factory workers from Nigeria and Punjabis who opened corner shops and operated post offices.

I do, however, find it interesting that he referred to the EU as paying decreasing attention to the individual wishes of its member states. His statement reflects a common perception of the EU as a society of unelected bureaucrats busy interfering in citizens’ lives with unnecessary red tape on stuff like the shape of bananas.

The accusation about ignoring the individual wishes of individual populations is inevitable in a project that sees “one size fits all” as a virtue. I agree with him that there should be limits to integration and commonality. After all, “Europe” is a land mass, not a collection of entities with identical cultures, languages and heritage. Any fool can tell you that that a Romanian is unlikely to think and act like a German, nor a Finn like an Italian. What’s more, that diversity should be cherished, not suppressed.

The same applies to the United Kingdom, even if we British do speak the same language. As a nation, we are highly diverse, yet we have a common system of democracy that includes local and national elected bodies. We have media that reflect virtually all shades of political opinion. We have opinion pollsters coming out of our ears.

But despite the myriad ways for the thoughts of individual voters to percolate up to the political decision makers, the Leave vote came as a surprise, even to leading campaigners such as Michael Gove and Nigel Farage. How could our political classes have been so blind to the strength of popular concern over immigration and national identity? Was it the arrogance of those who had been in power too long, was it impotence in the face of events and conditions beyond their control, or did our leaders find themselves in a doctrinaire bubble in which they believed that their rhetoric about short-term pain and long-term gain was self-evident? Did they lose touch, or were they never in touch?

Whatever the answer – and it was almost certainly a combination of all three – going forward we must listen and act if the United Kingdom is not to be permanently divided in the near future.

I’m not sure even now that we truly know the mind of our population. Was immigration really the key issue? Or was it economic deprivation? Or disempowerment? A sense of alienation between North and South? Was it “I want my country back”?

If the primary reason was a sense of abandonment among communities devastated by the loss of their traditional sources of employment – mining, manufacturing, fishing, ship building – then why did Scotland vote Remain and the North of England vote Leave? Both regions have communities badly affected by globalisation. Did a higher level of immigration into the North of England tip the balance?

Either we don’t know, or we don’t trust the interpretation of the data we have by those whose who we believe are politically motivated. Not just by politicians, but by media outlets, their editors and owners.

Our national issues are generally known. Otherwise they wouldn’t be exploited by unscrupulous rabble-rousers like Nigel Farage. But what we clearly didn’t understand was the strength of feeling about them. And I suggest that no opinion polls using relatively tiny samples are likely to be able to tell us what people in one town think as opposed to voters in another.

Perhaps it’s time that we created an independent and impartial National Opinion Bureau that seeks to poll the entire population at regular intervals. We already have an Office for National Statistics. We carry out national censuses every decade or so. If the private opinion pollsters, the national politicians and the local authorities can’t provide a reliable guide to concerns of the electorate, is it such a daft idea to set up a mechanism that is capable of accurately reflecting our thinking as a nation on, say, an annual basis?

You might think that a National Opinion Bureau sounds rather Stalinist, open to manipulation and yet another expensive layer of bureaucracy. It needn’t be so. The data would be valuable not only to government but to business. It should be independently audited and publicly available. It could use existing delivery methods – local authorities, the electoral register and online polling.

If the government were to baulk at the cost of setting it up, it could subcontract the job to one or more of the opinion poll companies working to a common specification. The important feature would be that the data collected would be far more granular than is currently collected privately. It could reach out to towns and communities. It could provide a regular dashboard on quality of life and significant issues affecting local communities. It could register strength of feeling about a number of key indicators – crime, immigration, employment, public services and economic well-being. And the results would be available for everybody to see, unvarnished by political spin.

I’m not suggesting that we should govern by league tables and punish low-performing authorities and government departments. But I do think we could use a barometer of national opinion. It would not necessarily be a guide to action, but would certainly identify perception in an objective manner. It would not replace opinion polls, because it would not ask political questions. And besides, it would be impractical to carry out surveys that reach the majority of the population more often than once a year.

If Peterborough was highly concerned about immigration, and Derby less so, it would give local and national government the opportunity to find out why. And if satisfaction with local services was high in rural Wales, but less so in Cardiff and Swansea, then that could be the catalyst for creative solutions.

It’s possible that readers who work in government, as local councillors or in social services might say “we don’t need this. We know what the issues are. The problem is that national government isn’t listening.” In which case I would reply that perhaps such a system would force government to listen, because the data would attract plenty of media attention.

The key to the success of a National Opinion Bureau would be buy-in. To achieve that you would need follow-up based on results, action if needed, and at the very least improved communications. We may not be able to convince the elderly that they can have their country back, communities concerned about immigration that there is an instant fix, or areas of high unemployment that massive inward investment is just around the corner. But if we can convince them that they are at least being listened to, and that their feedback is reflected in national and local policy, then that would go a long way towards healing our current divisions.

The concept of Gross National Happiness has been bandied about in various countries and in the United Nations ever since the King of Bhutan first coined the phrase in 1972. Measurement models involving seven-hour interviews clearly wouldn’t work. But surely we in the still-United Kingdom have the imagination and expertise to come up with a simple method of taking the national temperature in a manner that would produce meaningful and useful results. And if we succeeded, we would become the first major nation to do so.

It could be a vehicle for short-term political opportunism, but if used properly it could also be a valuable aid to long-term social and economic planning.

Either way, you could argue that the Brexit surprise results from a failure to communicate. And communications means listening as well as broadcasting. We need to start listening now, even if we don’t like what we hear.

Brexit – when is advisory compulsory?


The referendum result, as we are told by those elements in the media that favoured Remain, is advisory. Meaning that it is not binding and has no force in law. Which means that Parliament can refuse to play along. Would it? Should it? There’s an interesting discussion on the constitutional issues in The Independent here.

Even though, as Michael Heseltine said shortly after the result, a majority of around 350 MPs opposed Brexit, it would take a great deal of courage on the part of individual members to put their jobs at risk by defying the “will of the people”.

Personally, I would like to have seen a different process.

Across the Atlantic, the founding fathers of the USA imposed a requirement that a change in the constitution requires a vote of at least two thirds of both houses of Congress to carry. I find it hard to accept that the change delivered by Brexit is of less importance than the 23 amendments, which include the abolition of slavery.

There is an interesting additional requirement in the US process. If Congress passes a constitutional amendment, at least three quarters of the member states must then approve it. If we had taken a leaf out of America’s book, we might additionally have prescribed that Brexit would not take place if more than one of the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – voted against it. The last two voted Remain. Therefore Brexit would have been scuppered.

It’s all very well to say that David Cameron should never have allowed the referendum to be determined by a simple majority. The fact is that he didn’t. But would it now be against the spirit of our democracy for Parliament to say “yes, we know a majority voted in favour of Brexit. But you, the electorate, entrusted us with the power to pass laws that are in the country’s best interest. We happen to believe, all things considered and in the light of subsequent developments, that Brexit is contrary to the nation’s interest”?

There is an interesting parallel in the Labour leadership crisis. 172 out of 229 Labour MPs have publicly expressed no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. They must know that he might well win a new leadership race, and that their own jobs might therefore be at risk at the hands of his vengeful supporters. Yet they are prepared to defy those supporters who overwhelmingly elected him last year.

So the question is, should we let our politicians act in what they think is the best interest of their party, as in the case of Labour, and their nation, in the case of Brexit? Or should they slavishly follow the wishes of the electorate even if they know that the consequences will be disastrous?

There will most likely be a new Labour leadership contest. If the new leaders of the two main parties are sufficiently far-sighted, they will debate the Brexit question at their autumn party conferences, or if necessary, at emergency conferences called as soon as they are in place. They should then call for a Leave/Remain resolution on a free vote in the House of Commons.

If Parliament rejects Brexit, the Prime Minister should call an immediate general election. Party positions should have been established at the conferences, but candidates should be free to state their own views on Brexit in the election.

The newly-elected parliament should then vote definitively on the issue.

Impractical? Complicated? Unacceptable because of the lengthy period of uncertainty involved? Maybe. But such a process would restore the primacy of Parliament and defuse objections that MPs voting against Brexit were ignoring the will of the voters.

And if the new leaders are in place by mid-September, an election could be held by mid-October, at which point Article 50 of the EU treaty could be invoked, or otherwise Brexit put to bed. Is a delay of twelve to fourteen weeks too much to ask before we take the final step? I think not.

Sharper minds than mine are working on ways to force a re-think. I hope they succeed.

Whichever way it goes, and especially if Brexit falls over, it’s equally important is that we address the concerns of the 37% of the electorate who voted Leave.

More on this later.

The Brexit bloodbath – cometh the hour, cometh the mediocre?


Laurence Olivier as Richard III – “My Kingdom for a horse!”

The referendum is over. Brexit has yet to begin. Yet Britain feels like an entirely different country this week. It’s as if a good proportion of us have taken a large swig of Trump kool-aid. The Labour Party is eating itself. Nigel Farage is hurling bar-room insults at fellow members of the European Parliament. And racists are placing poisonous literature in the hands of innocents.

How many of those who voted for Leave would happily turn back the clock to Wednesday so that they could place their mark elsewhere? A good few, I suspect. How many of the EU politicians and functionaries who so contemptuously brushed David Cameron aside in February are now regretting not being more accommodating? More than a few, even if they might not care to admit it.

As to the future, very few questions posed before the vote have so far been answered. The uneasy coalitions on both sides have disbanded, and it’s back to politics as usual, but with a nasty, vindictive edge.

Sitting in my comfortable suburban perch – my area voted 60-40 in favour of Remain, by the way – I feel like a vulture, waiting to pick at the broken dreams of the brave new Brexit world. But that would hardly be a satisfying meal. What matters now is where we go from here.

In the couple of days since I got home from France (see my previous post), I’ve talked to quite a few people, read plenty in the online and print media and thought of little else. For me, the near-term future boils down to the resolution of a few six key issues that I intend to discuss over the next few posts.

The first issue is the leadership gap.

David Cameron is on his way. Jeremy Corbyn, whether he stays or goes, is an electoral liability. Where are the big beasts waiting to step into the breach? I don’t see any beasts out there. A few dogs maybe. Boris Johnson – lovable, sly, unprincipled. Theresa May – icy, Margaret Thatcher’s mini-me. George Osborne, he of the killer smirk – damaged goods, even if history proves him right in his dire predictions. As for the rest of the senior Tories, none of them have the stature or the credibility of the Clarkes, Heseltines and Macleods of yesteryear.

On the Labour side, there’s no Gordon Brown, brooding in the shadows. The other big boys have gone – Blunkett, Milburn, Miliband the First. Of the current crop, Hilary Benn and the current front-runner, Angela Eagle, are probably the most electorally viable. Then there’s John MacDonnell, Labour’s very own Francis Urquhart, waiting in the wings, knife in hand. The rest of the potential candidates resemble the England football team’s forward line – good looking but as yet unproven when the chips are down. The reliable midfielder, Alan Johnson, has unfortunately retired from the team.

Not necessary a dearth of talent on either side, but do they have the experience to lead us through what is likely to be a bumpy ride over the next couple of years? Equally importantly, do they have the ability slap down Nigel Farage, who, back in the day when Britain’s public schools were famed for their robust put-downs, would have been referred to as a bumptious little squit. And do they have the qualities needed to hold the country together in the face of secessionist pressure from Nicola Sturgeon and renewed polarisation in Northern Ireland?

It’s no surprise that David Cameron didn’t fancy the job of dealing with the self-inflicted mess arising out a contest that never should have been imposed on us. But one thought does occur. Is he planning to hang around for a while in the hope that his party calls him back to “save the nation”?

And as for Labour, will we see David Miliband returning from exile at some stage to try and take the crown he must have felt should have been his when his little brother outmanoeuvred him? That might depend on whether the crown turns out to be worth wearing.

If I was a Conservative, I would probably go for Theresa May, who has managed to get through the ghastly referendum process without making too many more enemies than she had before. She also has a reputation for being tough yet pragmatic, which would serve her well in negotiations with the EU. On the Labour side, the parliamentary party seems to have settled on Angela Eagle as the alternative to Corbyn, at least for the time being. Longer term, I would say that Hilary Benn or David Miliband would have the best chance of restoring the party’s fortunes. Assuming, of course, that Labour as we know it still exists as a coherent whole by the time the Brexit negotiations have been concluded.

Whatever happens, given the mud that is bound to be slung in all directions for the foreseeable future, politics doesn’t look like a very attractive career choice right now for the ambitious young hopefuls working their way through a system that seems pretty much shattered. How many of them will change direction and seek refuge with Goldman Sachs? That would perhaps be the most significant fallout from the current debacle.

We need decent, honest and principled politicians. People like poor Jo Cox. And no doubt there are still some around on all sides of the House of Commons. But if you were faced with abuse on your doorstep, violence every time you made yourself available to your constituents, and death threats when you expressed concern about your leader, would you want to be a British MP in 2016?


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