Last week saw the strange spectacle of Britain’s general election. For me it was summed up by a voter on the TV saying that “we’ve had enough of austerity, enough of inequality”, while explaining why he had voted for the Conservatives for the first time in his life. He, and millions of others, have elected the same again while hoping for change. This would be the very definition of madness, if it weren’t for Brexit. It is the EU, apparently, who have been holding us back. The Conservatives will get Brexit done, and set us free from oppression.
This is of course a fantasy, one propagated by the Conservatives and the billionaire press. It will be revealed as a lie, but how much damage will be done in the meantime? We have already seen threats to judges and to critical voices in the press, and a purging of moderates from the Party. The Conservative manifesto includes plans to strengthen the power of government over Parliament, and ‘reforms’ that will make it harder to vote the Conservatives out in the next election.
All of which makes it a good time to read Ece Temelkuran’s book How to Lose a Country: The Seven Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship.
Ece Temulkuran is a Turkish novelist, commentator and thorn in the side of the Erdogan regime. She writes as someone who has already lost her country, to the point that she is in political exile and risks arrest if she returns home. The book is written as a specific response to the rise of populist leaders in Britain, the United States and elsewhere. “As our story ends,” she writes, “yours is only just beginning.”
And straight away you’re probably thinking, ‘yes, but that’s not going to happen here’. Isn’t it alarmist to imagine Britain is on a slippery slope towards dictatorship? How about we listen to someone who has seen their country make that slide, and who notes that “the striking similarities between what Turkey went through and what the Western world began to experience a short while later are too many to dismiss.”
The book describes some of the patterns that Temelkuran sees between Turkey and Britain and America today. The dominating of public discussion, the absence of shame over lies. She describes the dismantling of judicial protections, and how movements are created that systematically exclude anyone who disagrees.
Of course, the things that build the movement may or may not matter all that much to the authorities. Erdogan uses Islam for his own political aims. In Britain, Brexit provides the cover for a project that is all about radical free market capitalism.
Another reason we might dismiss the comparisons is that in Britain a slide into authoritarianism just seems very unlikely from here. But Temelkuran points out that these things don’t happen in all in one go, in a revolutionary conflagration. Instead, it is “an excruciating, years-long process of many scattered, seemingly insignificant little fires that smoulder without flames.”
The author addresses these topics from an unusual angle. Where others might have looked at political theory or a historical perspective, Temelkuran is a novelist. As an astute observer of people, she uses ordinary conversations as the jumping off points for discussion, little comments from friends, memes or jokes. ‘When did we become so cruel?’, ‘is this my country?’, ‘enemies of the people’ or ‘they won’t let him get away with that.’ This is a book about what it feels like to see democracy eroded, step by step. It describes how people deal with it, find themselves on the outside looking in, and finally, what it is like to know you can’t go home – and it really isn’t your country any more.
Obviously Britain is different from Turkey, and Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is no Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But we should be alert to the trends at work, and we cannot be naive about what could happen in the chaos of Brexit. As Temelkuran says, “our mistake wasn’t that we didn’t do what we could have done, rather that we didn’t know that we should have done it earlier.”