It’s not the first time a Prime Minister and Sovereign have endured grim moral company in pursuit of the national interest, a thought that will surely occur to Theresa May and the Queen as they receive Turkey’s autocratic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on a three-day state visit.
In 1973 the Queen welcomed President Mobutu of Zaire (now Congo) as an anti-communist ally in the proxy Cold War being fought out in Africa. Five years later, the FCO took leave of its senses and pressed for Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator, to be granted a state visit to Britain in the vain hope that a dalliance with the Dacian kleptocrat might, in his befuddled alliances, somehow benefit the West if sufficiently flattered.
Entertaining despots requires a long spoon. May’s awkward standing with President Erdogan’s visit is clear to see. She needs to trade partners outside the EU, as well as tie down security cooperation over the terms on which would-be Jihadists come from Syria to Britain.
More broadly, the UK has taken a gamble on Turkey remaining strategically important to an embattled Nato and from listing fully into Vladimir Putin’s sphere of influence. Not coincidentally, BAE Systems wants to sell fighter jets to Turkey, to offset a major Russian push to sell air defence systems to Ankara.
These are age-old plays for strategic alliance and commercial gain. Now, though, it is garlanded by a near-desperation of the Government to find quick trade deals after exiting the EU.
Nick Clegg, who on Monday revisited an old enmity and accused Michael Gove of “a fawning silence” over Erdogan’s visit, posed the thorny question, if not the solution. Suckers for consistency might point out that in government Clegg, as the deputy PM in the coalition, helped to spearhead a similar trade-luring exercise with Turkey in 2012 saying, “It’s fantastic to be announcing new jobs for the UK and such an impressive set of deals for British businesses.”
By this point, Erdogan, who had been in power since 2003, was consolidating his grip on institutions and clearly out to meld presidential and parliamentary power. I was in Istanbul at the time, when one of his parliamentary opponents predicted it foreshadowed “dark dictatorship”, which has proved uncannily accurate. Erdogan was already stymying internal opposition and extending his clampdown to NGOs and universities.
The great knee-bend to the neo-Sultan of Ankara did not start in 2018, and to judge by the depth of President Macron’s red carpet earlier this year, we are not alone in the floor-scraping courtship. .
The orchestration of this trip is, however, unfortunate. “Gritted teeth on parade,” sighs one Foreign Office official. For one thing, the short-term outlook benefits Erdogan a lot more than it does Britain. Calling both presidential and parliamentary elections in June was a sly move by the Turkish leader and one which ensured that the UK visit acts as window-dressing for his bid to accrue yet more of a monopoly on power.
This is the sixth time Turks have gone to the polls in four years at the leader’s whim. It is being timed to beat a possible downturn in the economy — and gives the opposition no breathing space to mount a campaign — even if it could do so freely. It cannot because so many of his opponents are debarred from running or, in the case of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, making a virtue of necessity by nominating a jailed former leader as the candidate.
Since the failed coup of 2016, tens of thousands of people have been arrested over alleged links to the Gulenist movement, a historic rivalry with Erdogan. Another round of voting heralds an extension of the post-coup state of emergency (now extended seven times, so pretty much a permanent state) and another media clampdown, including the forced sale in March of Dogan, the last major independent media group.
In these circumstances it would have been sensible to postpone the visit, or at least stage it more coolly than the all-inclusive offer we are witnessing this week. There is one small but vital with-holding — tea but no dinner at the Palace. The monarch, it appears, knows where to draw the line.
A hallmark of authoritarian governments is that when they hit their stride, everyone knows someone affected in some small or large way. I worked on a magazine assignment in 2016 for The Economist with Mathias Depardon, a French photographer based in Turkey, who was imprisoned for a month after gathering material from Kurdish forces that did not suit Ankara’s propaganda whims. He was released after pressure from his publication and the French government — probably expedited by a week he spent on hunger strike.
Many thousands of journalists, NGOs civil rights campaigners, lawyers and teachers are caught up in the net of paranoia and petty repression in Turkey. We know that democratic countries have dubious allies. But there should be a bottom line to the diplomacy as well as the trade deal. The trouble is, we have little sense now of what that might be — and where May herself might say, “Enough.”
A thirst for new partners in commerce, we were assured, would go hand in hand with British values projected in the world. Yet these are hard to discern. We need not be remote idealists to think all this needs more scrutiny and frankness from our own government, when the world’s more difficult customers turn up for tea. National dignity is an odd thing. It can sustain all sorts of quid pro quos, sacrifices and trade-offs until one day we get the uneasy feeling that it has gone, without much to show for it.
- Anne McElvoy is senior editor at The Economist