Flickr/Akli Denge. Some rights reserved.
‘Conservative Friends of Turkey’ will be holding a meeting on September 30th, at the Tory party conference in Manchester. The group’s aim is to foster business links between the two countries and in view of recent events in Turkey there is likely to be a lively protest outside. Understandably so: since May 31st, 7 people have died, 11 have lost an eye, 8000 have been injured, all in unprovoked police attacks involving gas, water cannon and rubber bullets. Thousands – including doctors and lawyers - have been detained or arrested, with prosecutors now advocating sentences of 20 years or even life. One might have expected senior members of her majesty’s government to comment critically on these events, if only in the manner of a friend offering helpful advice. So far they have remained silent. One would be tempted to see in this the usual cynicism of politicians being ready to hide their moral scruples to boost exports (including ‘goods’ such as riot control equipment) were it not for the fact that whenever they meet David Cameron can only think of positive things to say about prime minister Erdoğan. Could it be that there is more to their relationship? Could it be that, in the words of Kim Howells justifying arms sales to Saudi Arabia during the Blair years, they ‘share the same values’?
This thought came back to me a few days ago with two pieces of policy news: Cameron’s campaign to make illegal immigrants ‘go home’ and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plan, announced recently, to provide ‘confidential police notice’ boxes into which people may put complaints about neighbours, in particular those who, as he said on July 19th, have been disturbing them by banging pots and pans each day at 9pm. The pots and pans are of course, part of the protests. On the face of it these measures are different: Cameron’s is a targeted measure, directed at genuine illegal immigrants in specific locations and offering them help in their efforts to return home, while Erdoğan is a beleaguered and desperate politician seeking to take revenge on anyone who has opposed him.
Yet it doesn’t take long to see the similarities. Cameron may not be asking anyone who is not an illegal immigrant to do anything, but it amounts to a snooper’s charter, a quaintly English phrase for what in practice may mean curtain-twitching busybodies reporting their neighbours to the police merely for looking foreign, or looking foreign and having a lot of foreign-looking children (it may mean – why not? – people informing on illegal immigrant relatives, as in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge). As for Turkey, a country in which plots, suspicions, malicious gossip and conspiracy theories are already a fairly routine feature of both high politics and of high density urban living, it is hard not to see the Prime Minister’s measures as a recipe for civil strife.
Both, too, are an open invitation to report others against whom one has nothing more than a personal grievance, something that has been the bane of this sort of measure over the centuries. Even top Nazi officials repeatedly complained about this. Denouncers, employed by both secular and religious authorities to obtain information and cement loyalty, have a long and undistinguished history: they have been paid (Judas), rewarded with the belief that they were a virtuous citizen (France after the revolution), punished for a failure to denounce (France between 1810 and 1832, the Soviet Union under Stalin), or simply offered a convenient place in which to leave the confidential information that will lead to someone else getting it in the neck (the Lion’s Mouth at the Doge’s Palace in Venice).
So far both measures have been met with a mixture of contempt and humour: in Britain people have been phoning in for help getting home from work, and one can only hope that the Turkish people – who since the protests began have been reworking Erdoğan’s more nonsensical statements and throwing them back in his face – will clog up his boxes with imaginatively implausible accusations. For this, the signs are good. Erdoğan foolishly made his announcement during Ramadan, during which, each day, an hour before sunrise, a drum is banged to wake people up so they may have time to eat before fasting during the day. It is a safe bet that the first accusations will be directed at the drummer for disturbing the peaceful slumbers of good citizens.
Cameron is an old Etonian, while Erdoğan is an old street trader, but both seem to agree with the provincial lawyer Maximilian Robespierre, who once said that “suspicion is the guardian of the rights of the people; it is to the profound feeling for liberty what jealousy is to love”. Indeed, in the early part of the French revolution informers – who had been hated under the old regime – were seen by many as a good thing. They weren’t. They never are and never will be. A better Frenchman, a better man than Robespierre, Alexis de Tocqueville, once wrote: “a despot easily forgives his subjects for not loving him, provided they do not love each other”. It is one thing to place the good of the city above the salvation of one’s soul; it is quite another to build transient links between oneself and the state while severing those delicate, long-nurtured and often tangled threads that bind people to one another, as relatives, as neighbours, as friends.