The politics of lies will get found out, but the left has to be ready to profit.

Having worked on the failed Britain Stronger in Europe campaign and then reported on the US presidential election out of Columbia University, I’ve gotten pretty up close and personal with the transformative political shocks of 2016. It sometimes feels like a privilege to have had a ringside seat to history, although I write, in a context of spiraling hate crime, knowing that this history does not threaten me directly.

I won’t add too much to the legion, gloomy column inches already committed to damnatory remembrance of this tough year (the best of which, by the Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead, concluded that 2016 was delayed trauma from the financial crisis; what follows when too many people have too little money). Instead, I propose a message that is equal parts warning and hope.

I don’t think it stretches journalistic integrity too far to say that Brexit and Donald Trump have perpetrated political cons of unprecedented shamelessness. Both have complex causes, both particularistic and structural, that have been compellingly detailed elsewhere. Both were also, however, built on bedrocks of lies.

At the beginning of the year I saw Brexit coming. I feared the consequences of allowing a deeply disaffected British public to vote against every establishment in town, without having to vote for any defined candidate or policy with the same swish of the pencil. When I started campaigning I grew much more optimistic, but my initial instinct was right.

There’s righteous anger aplenty in Brexit, which was, in my experience, primarily a vote against uncontrolled immigration but also against a political establishment, on both sides of the aisle, that has for years promised much and delivered little. The In campaign which employed me failed because it greatly overestimated the extent to which people with nothing to lose would care about a weak currency, recession, and the hollowing out of the financial services sector. It was hard, however, to fight against the potent lies of the other team.

So many moments of my campaign illustrated this. The encounter I’ve recounted most often involved me explaining at great length why, no, Turkey was not about to join the European Union (a long list of reasons headed by an unresolved Cyprus question and attendant Greek veto that I never heard pass the lips of any Remain spokesperson). That voter told me my argument had made them change their mind, but it was a rare victory. Perhaps the most disheartening exchange of my campaign was a 45 minute discussion with a Brexit-leaning voter concerned that immigrants had dislodged his service veteran father from social housing. I teased his mind open a fair way, then watched him cross the road, talk for three minutes to a Leave campaigner, vigorously nod his head and walk off.

Many of the Leave campaigners I faced off against in Plymouth seemed ‘decent enough’ (many did not), but the arguments they used were often divorced from reality. At the top of the Leave campaigns, meanwhile, sat kitchen cabinets of rich white men, walking parodies of establishment interests, who managed to convince the ‘great British public’ that they were men of the people too.

Nigel Farage is the most memorable and preposterous example of these establishment Brexiteers, but their numbers are great. When they talked about ‘getting our money back’ they not only massaged the figures beyond the orgasm of plausibility, but were talking squarely about their own money. Those on the lowest incomes, who pay no tax at all, don’t put a penny into the EU, but often do get an awful lot back. The honest truth of the referendum is that rich white men don’t like their millions being spent on roads in Cornwall or Wales, cutting edge environmental research, or the enforcement of workers’ rights. It’s that ‘the economy stupid’ simple.

The Brexiteer class, at the elite level, spanned everyone from ideological obsessives, to tedious blowhards, to panto villains like the vile Arron Banks, the diamond mine owning UKIP financier who surely ranks as the foulest new entry into 2016’s political power list. All of them realised that where the remain campaign would necessarily be hamstrung by fact, Brexit could be built on costless lies. They assumed the worst and stupidest in people and they won. And it’s been very very hard to take.

I’d write at similar length about the Trump campaign but the same general analysis applied. A group of exceedingly rich people simply made things up to tap legitimate anger in defence of their elite interests, because they knew they could get away with it.

People aren’t as stupid as the Brexiteers and Trumpians assumed, and I sincerely believe that when their pyramid schemes come crashing down they’ll find themselves in very great trouble indeed. When the NHS isn’t flush with new investment, when Brexit stings hard-working pockets, when a wall doesn’t stretch the Mexican border and Muslims still worship openly under the ironic protections of the US constitution, when America isn’t great again but significantly less ‘great’ than the sages of neo-liberal hegemony have seen it to be for quite some time, and when people in varying degrees of poverty on both sides of the Atlantic realise they’ve been had then the house of cards will fall. The politics of lying was too perfect. It won ahead of its time.

That’s the hopeful part. Suffering will mar the path to justice, but these lies will be found out. The warning comes in what happens next.

While I find Nazi comparisons around Trump and Brexit somewhat over the top, we should not underestimate the spectre of fascism, or something that looks very much like it, that glides over the politics of the developed world in 2016. I see Trump as an outgrowth of the Tea Party movement, the man who had the instinctual self-promotional capabilities to mop up anger at right-wing ‘radicals’ who turned out to be walking vessels for big oil, quickly hoovered by the ‘Washington establishment’ they were elected to destroy. Trump’s reaction was to veer even further from the land of fact and political correctness. He is an opportunist, a pound shop tyrant, and there is room for his outlandish politics to move further right still. When Trump is found out, there is a real danger that the next ‘anti-establishment’, anti-politics, xenophobic, anti-government guy who comes along will be capable of genuine, terrifying demagoguery.

When the Trumpians and the Brexiteers get knifed, an even more hateful politics will fill the breach unless the left can stop it. In both America and the U.K., it can. But in both countries it needs a radical overhaul that mixes populism with pragmatism, and learns how effective it can be to tear incessantly at rigged establishment interests.

In America the Democrats did not heed this, picking a candidate who I believed would win, but whose lengthy insider experience, both impressive and genuinely dishonest, was used as a stick with which to beat her back (her gender also played a pivotal role).

And, yet, the solution is not to lurch so far the other way as to voluntarily consign yourself to the electoral wilderness, as Jeremy Corbyn has done so shamelessly as leader of the Labour Party in the UK. Corbyn sputtered into life only briefly this year, after his insipid leadership was challenged following his disgraceful dithering during the referendum campaign. His tenure as leader has been little more than the revenge howl of a dying 1980s militancy, executed with the charisma of a milk bottle and none of the transparency.

Bernie Sanders is better than Corbyn, but some of the same critiques apply. Given the energy and inventiveness of young leftists on both sides of the Atlantic, it is sad to see it straddled by old white men who haven’t had an original thought since 1979. Sanders’s claim that Clinton beat him to the Democratic nomination as “poor people don’t vote” masked a deep, earned respect for Hillary in Southern black communities far beyond Bernie’s cotton wool New England hinterland.

The left in 2017 needs to renew itself and move past the unimaginative broken promises of the past, but do so in a way that retains credibility and mass appeal, that is outward-looking not introspective (Democrats whingeing about Russian election interference, take note), and that gets streetwise in fighting the dirty tactics of 2016’s lying right. I believe its opportunity will come sooner rather than later. If it’s not in a position to take it then the politics of lies will march forward still; inexorable and forever unpunished.

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The Chelsea Explosion: our response to terror is individual, so why does it feel collective?

Having written before, in varying states of coherence, about the attacks in Paris and Brussels I feel it’s worth saying something about my response to the explosion in Chelsea, downtown Manhattan on Saturday.

For this one, I was actually here. I was 60 blocks north of the blast itself, granted, but I was here in the sense of being able to wire into the reaction of a newly breached city.

In exploring my responses from Paris to Brussels I found rationalisation; a softening of violent kneejerk response. Where Paris inspired blind panic and clinging anxiety, Brussels made me sad but stoic.

New York has excited next to nothing in me. It’s taken a conscious effort to even bother to ask myself why. Theories of desensitisation flashed through my head, but are too depressing and too simplistic to account for my indifference.

The obvious novelty here is the remarkable fact that no one was killed, or even badly injured, in this attack. And, yet, they should have been. Whether by unprecedentedly bungled execution or blind providence ‘we’ escaped this one. That shouldn’t, however, dim the fear that terrorism seeks to inspire, even if it does naturally neuter the sense of bereavement I talked about after Paris.

My reactions have wound down over time, but also as a function of geographical distance. Paris chilled me so utterly because I was thousands of miles away in Brazil; stuck in the Southern Hemisphere whilst my friends in the North were swept together, in my mind at least, under some shared umbrella of immediate, undefined peril.

This time I was here. I always knew the odds of individual involvement in an attack like this were slim, but this time I was the one caught in the ineluctable dragnet of statistical chance. I hardly ever go to Chelsea, and sure enough I wasn’t there on Saturday night. I was safely cocooned on a friend’s rooftop, supremely confident that nothing and no one could get me there.

I was also directly exposed to the collective ‘so what’ of a city that is unimaginably vaster than one trashcan and 26 people. In the hours after the bomb, its ecosystem didn’t buckle or contort. I went to get pizza, and then I got the train, and all the people I saw remained diffidently sanguine. It’s a cliché, but to be even half a borough away from Chelsea on Saturday was to not know that anything had even happened.

If three attacks on major hubs can be deemed an adequate sample size for this sort of emotional regression analysis then I can only conclude what was obvious all along. Our response to terror is individual and contextual. It takes root in all of our psyches in totally different ways.

In summing up my thoughts after Paris, however, I wrote that:

“In sharing this post, I cling to the belief that reading can be cathartic. This feeling, after all, is both intensely personal and yet somehow collectively owned.”

I still think there is truth in this. Terror of this type, in this age, inevitably nests in the collective consciousness, and that defines both what it is and how as individuals we are conditioned to respond to it.

Yesterday we were treated to the bizarre spectacle of New York’s Mayor, Bill de Blasio, and Governor, Andrew Cuomo, differing on whether the Chelsea explosion was an act of terror or not. De Blasio refused repeatedly to cite it is an act of ‘terror’, whilst Cuomo said it obviously was.

Whilst tempted to see this as a new, semantic expression of these bitter rivals continued unsavoury manhood-swinging, they did agree that there was likely no ‘international connection’. This morning, however, we have a suspect called ‘Ahmad Khan Rahami’, the word ‘terrorism’ is back on de Blasio’s lips, and an international connection isn’t being ruled out.

‘Terrorism’ has come to be defined not by what it actually is, but by the identity of the perpetrator, the organisational network behind them, and where they are based. The organisational component has become particularly inseparable from the fabric of the term, when etymologically it needn’t have anything to do with it.

Words matter because they are the shared frame of reference through which our individual responses to events can be explored and interrogated. They matter much more when they have the power to shape those individual responses themselves. Sadly, those who suggest that we should stick to a more judicious usage of the term ‘terrorism’ will likely not succeed. Nor can we just throw the word in the garbage.

So where do we go from here? I can think only of advising extreme care when analysing individual reactions to ‘terror’, because individuality of response is both inevitable and a crucial bulwark against those who would wield the yoke of fear to impose a collective adversarial logic on whole populations.

Words, however, are almost always collectively owned, even if feelings should not always be. Ironically, understanding how we feel and talk about being targeted as individuals is something we’re going to have to work out together.

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Cameron at 10: a deft coalition PM who couldn’t hold his own party together

The decision to call a referendum on Britain’s European Union membership was always going to define David Cameron’s legacy as prime minister. Had he won he would have gone down as the consummate Tory moderniser: the man who held together modern Britain’s first peacetime coalition government, pursued an ambitious programme of economic and social reform, and eked the thorn of Europe out of his divided party’s paw. Defeat on an issue with which he became so personally intertwined means he is likely to be remembered principally as a loser, blundering into a referendum campaign he did not want and could not win.

The referendum issue certainly highlights what is, for me, the most interesting lesson of the Cameron premiership. In a political paradigm of alternating periods of strong single party government, Cameron bucked the trend by proving himself highly able at the head of a two-party coalition. He was fatally weak, however, at holding his own party together.

I fundamentally disagree with most of what the Cameron coalition achieved in office, but there is no questioning the efficiency of their track record. For all the difficulties the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats faced in working together, their joint administration was zealous in its reformist appetite, affecting huge changes in how our hospitals, schools and universities are administered. This was a programme spawned jointly by unprecedented economic and political crisis; a cataclysmic financial crash requiring the urgent recalibration of the public finances, and a need to prove that an alien coalition government could rise to tackle it.

Our image of Cameron the statesman was rendered during this period. Gone was the callow, huskie-hugging youngster, filled out into a man of stature. Despite the public slips into high-handed or dismissive behaviour – the involuntary spasms of the public schoolboy hacking down the weakest in the class that we so often saw in his PMQs performances – Cameron spun the image of himself as the conciliatory negotiator who, nonetheless, left no doubt that the buck stopped with him.

As Cameron grew into the unique role of coalition PM, he led the devastating public relations coup that would ensure that he would not have to head up another one. Aided and abetted by George Osborne and, later, Lynton Crosby, he stole the Lib Dems’ clothes mercilessly and repeatedly. Nick Clegg and his associates were desperately naïve, guilty of getting only unmarketable policy concessions from the Tories, and ignorant of the iron political law that junior coalition partners always get plenty of blame and precious little credit.

Cameron was nonetheless efficient in his ruthless deconstruction of an established political brand. Blame for signature Tory policies like the loathed threefold increase in tuition fees was shunted onto the Lib Dems, stamped in the mind’s eye of the electorate with the image of Clegg, Cable et al brandishing anti-fee-hike pledge cards before the 2010 election. Key Liberal commitments like taking lower earners out of income tax were deftly painted blue, a key plank in a new compassionate anti-tax agenda. Lib Dem constitutional priorities on voting reform and the House of Lords were cynically burned, going up in a fireball of government-sponsored lies and vacillation.

In the end, Cameron performed the heist with too deft a sleight of hand. So thoroughly did he get away with it, and so abjectly were Clegg and co punished, that he found himself as chief of an entirely unexpected majority government. Cameron, who had hoped not to be sharing power in 2010, clearly wanted to after 2015, finding in the Lib Dems an indispensable shield against the awkward squad in his own party. He didn’t just publicly blame the Lib Dems for the government’s mistakes; he privately blamed them for stymieing the right wing pet projects of his backbench dinosaurs.

The most faithful of these pet projects was, of course, Brexit; that steadfast companion of the Tory rump through both government and wilderness years. With ardent Europhiles for partners, Cameron handily pocketed any talk of a referendum for most of his first term. When the shield was ripped away he was left naked. Having cynically promised a vote to stave off the threat of UKIP in the most blue-blooded of the Tory heartlands, he was corralled into holding it.

In the end, the Conservative party proved to be a more disparate coalition than even the Con-Lib one. In Nick Clegg in particular, Cameron found a fellow, if more radical, spirit on the path to social reform; a perfect alibi for his detoxification of the Conservative party in power. With Clegg gone, Cameron’s trousers fell down. He hadn’t ended talk of fox hunting, and tougher prisons, and Europe. He had merely muted it through circumstance and appeal to the need for unity in crisis. With the Tories alone in power, the right wing voraciously sought their reward.

It’s tempting to call Cameron a victim of his own success, and what I have considered thus far leads me to believe that this is true to a degree. I also see Cameron, however, as a bellwether of a jarring political realignment in this country. Parties have always been broad churches, but it has taken the massive decline of trust in our governing institutions and the broader polarisation of the electorate to make this obvious.

Coalition government was a touchstone experience in this realignment; both a symptom of voters’ disillusionment and the end of the unifying one party ideal. Cameron ran his coalition as a single party administration but could not run a genuinely one party affair on the same disciplined basis.

Cameron is a very apt emblem of this seismic political age: an unassuming figure whose significance for our political history was always likely to transcend expectations of his own competence. The realignment he has overseen is not what he imagined it might be. This could hardly be expected, however, when the rules of the game he was playing changed so violently and so quickly, both around him and, unmistakably, in his wake.

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Between sneering and indulging, we need a hard-headed internationalist immigration rhetoric

Let’s be clear that Brexit was built on bullshit. Obviously the lies about £350 million, and Turkish membership, and the NHS have been analysed to death already, but we must not forget that they are only the poisoned tip of the lance. We were fighting this campaign against decades of foul right wing bile, whipped up by demagogues and screamed from the front pages of our papers. I am not surprised we couldn’t drain it, even if I could not see the full extent of its spread or how it would lead to this startling amputation.

The most insidious of these lies have been about immigration. I spoke to thousands of people over the course of this referendum campaign, and there is zero doubt in my mind that it is why we lost. People believed that immigrants were to blame for all the deep-seated problems in their lives. Many of these problems were fictional; baseless nonsense lifted unquestioningly from the dingiest vaults of the Daily Express. Many, however, reflected an incredibly legitimate, yet tragically misdirected, anger about underinvestment in school places, houses and hospitals. There are lots of reasons why people voted for Brexit, but immigration was the big ticket item. In my experience it’s what this enormously complicated referendum question inevitably boiled down to, and it is not lazy analysis to say so.

At some point I’ll write at greater length about all the other issues that this vote has thrown up for me, but immigration is the most urgent and needs treating immediately. It is been said over and over again that politicians, and particularly those in the Labour party, need to learn how to talk to voters about it. Almost always, however, the superficial admission of guilt is where the conversation stops. We have to go deeper, and given that Rupert Murdoch et al have a thirty year headstart on us we have to start now.

When Labour lost last year I sat by and watched, absorbed in university exams and a high-handed assessment of what the party had come to stand for. On immigration I despaired at a narrative that lurched between equally sad extremes: mealy-mouthed indulgence of stereotyped ‘send ‘em home’ loutishness on the one hand, snobbish refusal to engage on the other. I thought at the time that balancing the two was almost certainly an impossible act. I know now that that is not the case. When you actually talk to people on the street – on their terms but also without patronising them – you can divide the ‘genuine racists’ from the ‘not racists but’ within about ten seconds of your opening gambit.

To give politicians a scintilla of credit it is very hard for them to have these conversations. In this hyperactive media landscape, where ears prick up at the faintest misuse of language, it is hardly surprising that our elected officials are so awkward when discussing such a thorny and sensitive issue. At the same time, however, they must try a lot harder to move past hackneyed cliches. We need fewer Emily Thornberrys, but also fewer Gillian Duffys. We need a hard-headed left wing narrative that blames the real culprits and calls out unfairness wherever we see it, and whatever the nationality of the people it crushes down.

So what would this new immigration discourse look like? I think it should have three components, all of which are mostly missing at the moment.

Firstly, we must call out racism more strongly and consistently than we do now. I met a lot of decent Brexiters during this campaign, but I also met far too many (and by no means a small minority) who talked along the lines of ‘sending the Muslims home’. Since Thursday I have heard alarming reports of hate crimes from friends all over the country, including Eastern Europeans being spat at in the street, and an English girl of Bangladeshi origin being told ‘your lot next’. We cannot and must not even slightly normalise or excuse this behaviour. It is sick, and we must shame those who perpetrate it publicly and tirelessly.

Secondly, we must tell people over and over again that the reason our public services are rubbish is that successive governments have been rubbish at investing in them. We need to be unashamed in hammering this home, and it was good to see Jeremy Corbyn making a start on that today (although where that passion and insight was during the campaign should be the stuff of inquests). This isn’t just about saying that foreign workers keep services like the NHS on their feet; this is true but does too little to apportion blame and check people’s frustrations with the blatant inadequacy they can see. It’s about relentlessly calling out the entirely political choices our governments make. I lost count of how many times I did it on the campaign trail. Shorn of tediously wonkish soundbites and infused with a dollop of righteous anger, this line of attack resonates with even the most furious voters.

Thirdly, we cannot abandon the case for open borders. We need, however, to combine it with a clear and unashamed progressive internationalism. This means arguing that, for free movement to reach a satisfactory equilibrium, we need to invest in poorer countries so that they make more things and create more and better paid jobs for their own nationals. This, for me, was the entirely justifiable rationale of our net contribution to the EU. It is a left wing objective and we should not be squeamish about saying so.

Exploitative economic incentives are not fair and are not a good excuse for displacement. I reminded tens of voters that there is nothing desirable about having to leave behind your family and travel to a distant land to work crap hours for crap wages, often paid in cash at under the national minimum level.

The coffee shop left has to stop romanticising this culture of rank exploitation. It has to stop saying things like ‘Eastern Europeans get jobs because they work hard and Brits are feckless and picky’. It needs instead to talk about better funding for skills training and apprenticeships for young Brits, and to aggressively shame rogue employers.

The voters who let me get this far understood my argument and went away with food for thought. It is the only sustainable way to tackle immigration in the long term and it appeals to people’s common humanity as well as their economic insecurity.

The referendum might be lost but, as I posted in the grim small hours of Friday morning, it was only a battle in a wider war. To take ground back we need to counter the easy lies that people were peddled by the nastiest, crankiest, most racist gremlins of our establishment. People will be angry when they find out that public services, science, agriculture and fishing are no flusher with funding in five years time than they are now, and will blame the false prophets who misled them. When they find out they have been lied to on immigration, however, they will blame the immigrants themselves unless we interject now.

The leaders of the Brexit charge will not cut immigration. I suspect this is partly because they can’t, but it’s mainly because I know that they don’t want to. Some are libertarians who don’t believe in border controls, but they are few in number and rare in integrity. Most are businesspeople, like Tim Martin of Wetherspoons, who have said openly that they don’t want to cut immigration because they don’t want to stem the supply of cheap labour for their chains. My fear is that Gove and co will bring down immigration from Eastern Europe because wages there are increasing, instead using tub-thumping Commonwealth nostalgia to legitimise the influx of workers from poorer countries with even paltrier pay demands.

To complete my reading of the Brexit immigration spectrum a few, spearheaded by Nigel Farage and his pestilent ilk, want more immigration so they can continue to sow the division and fear that has made them rich and famous. We cannot let them. We need a narrative on immigration that apportions anger and blame correctly, that is never racist, but that also focuses on righting wrongs of exploitation and underinvestment rather than saying that economic migration is a blanket ‘good thing’.

This is my version of what this could look like. I might be wrong. But the sooner we try and flesh out the bones the better. In this cold and vulnerable new country, simply stating that we have lost touch is a pathetic and self-indulgent truism.

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The least worst outcome: why a Cruz candidacy makes the most sense for beleaguered GOP moderates

Going into the Iowa caucuses in January I wrote that if Donald Trump avoided disaster he would certainly be the Republican party’s nominee for the US presidency. Much of what I said then has proven prescient. Although Ted Cruz won Iowa by just over three percentage points he only accumulated one more of the state’s pledged delegates than Trump. I argued that as Cruz had pitched himself as the archetypal Iowa candidate, a credible Trump showing would prove him to be startlingly resilient. In the months since then he has won states as diverse as New Hampshire, Florida and Arizona; his maverick anti-establishment appeal reinforced by a protectionism and xenophobia seductive to disenfranchised white workers and the under-educated. He has comfortably seen off the damp squib campaigns of Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. Despite a string of recent blunders, there is still very little doubt that Trump will have the most delegates going into the Republican convention in Cleveland in July.

It is perhaps surprising, then, that I now think that there is a very strong chance indeed that Trump will not be the Republican nominee in the Fall. This is not a kneejerk reflection based on Cruz’s massive win in Wisconsin yesterday. This is a Midwestern state whose voting profile largely matches that of Iowa and as such was always likely to mark a big tick in the Cruz column. Wisconsin has really only confirmed an impression that I first formed a couple of weeks back. It now seems that it would be squarely in the interests of Republican moderates to broker a Cruz candidacy in the event of a contested convention. His strong showing in Wisconsin confirms that if he can keep up his momentum in the states to follow then it is mathematically possible that he can deny Trump an overall majority of pledged delegates, taking the identity of the Republican nominee out of the hands of voters and putting it in the gift of party politicians.

The Republican ‘establishment’ of senior Washington politicians and Wall Street financiers loathes Mr Cruz. This is not just because he is a loathsome individual but because they see him as a precocious upstart. Since his election to the Senate as a right-wing Tea Party Republican in 2012, Cruz has shown precious little respect for the party’s legislative agenda. His behaviour during the 2013 budget, which ultimately shut down the US government, rankled with many of his colleagues as self-satisfied grandstanding. Politico and other insider sources overflow with tales of Cruz’s conceited private behaviour towards his copartisans. His decision to run for the presidency just three years into his Senate career was furthermore seen as presumptuous in a party that operates an unspoken principle of seniority in the pursuit of elected office.

It is clear, then, that Republican moderates are not flocking to Cruz’s standard willingly. The influential South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, both a former candidate and supporter of Jeb Bush, has been lukewarm in his recent endorsement of Cruz having previously said that the difference between him and Trump was like the difference between “being poisoned and being shot”. That party grandees are gradually trickling to his side reflects that more favourable candidates have been totally rejected by this year’s Republican electorate. Mr Bush and Mr Christie ran terribly insipid campaigns but were facing a losing battle the minute they were tagged as old-school establishment politicians.

The moderate wing of the party couldn’t even bring itself to try and save Mr Rubio. Whilst the press insisted in late February that he was the Republicans’ most moderate remaining hope I remained deeply sceptical, correctly surmising that too many in the party’s ranks hated Rubio for the same reasons that they hate Cruz. Rubio, too, is a youngster whose star has risen firmly on the right of American politics and who has been criticised for flip-flopping on touchstone issues like immigration. Ultimately, his once promising candidacy fizzled out with barely a murmur, another victim of his own ‘moderate’ branding.

Why, then, would Republican politicians go for Cruz at a contested convention? If the rules of political gravity could be suspended in such an event, why wouldn’t they try and parachute it a more trusted candidate like 2012 nominee Mitt Romney or the Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan? Ultimately, the Cruz strategy relies on one fundamental premise: that Republican heavyweights are able to recognise that they will lose in November. The stats show that neither Cruz nor Trump have the votes to win in a country that is, by and large, becoming more liberal and more ethnically diverse and in which the female vote is assuming increasing importance. If the centrist Romney was soundly beaten in 2012 (albeit by an incumbent) then Cruz and Trump’s brand of extremist social views, misogyny and racism is surely doomed to fail. This narrative is only reinforced if you consider that a drafted candidate would be seen as totally illegitimate by the Republican electorate and would probably have to confront a vote-splitting third party challenge from a righteously indignant Mr Trump.

If Republican strategists accept that they will lose then they must focus on assuring the defeat that is best for the party. This simply cannot involve Trump, whose behaviour and politics are an embarrassment for the Republican brand. It is likely that Trump would not only crash and burn in November but would do so in a maniacally divisive way, dragging more established Republican legislators down with him and starting a civil war over whether or not party officials should be bound to support his candidacy. Perversely, a Trump victory would be even more disastrous for Republicans as it would contort the very fabric of the laissez-faire traditionalism that is at the party’s core.

A Cruz candidacy could, on the other hand, be advantageous for the party elite. Cruz is at least a partisan Republican with establishment-friendly positions on taxes, guns and God. Furthermore, his inevitable ringing defeat would not only ruin the career of a man they hate, but send a message loud and clear that Tea Party-ers cannot win national level elections. Republican bosses were complicit in the foundation of the Tea Party at the beginning of Obama’s first term in office, seeing an electrifying potential in its appeal among grassroots conservatives. They helped create a Hydra that they now cannot destroy, an ill-disciplined beast drunk on its own anger and vitriol that has, in its turn, spawned the cancerous political climate that provides Trump with his oxygen. A Cruz defeat would allow establishment Republicans to claim once and for all that lurching to the right will not solve their electability deficit.

It is quite possible that this almost mythological ‘establishment’ still thinks the party can win. It is quite possible that it can no longer control the convention in anything other than a procedural sense and will thus have little impact on which candidate it chooses. It is certain that the contradictions in today’s Republican brand cannot be healed by a defeat of any nature. Under the crude logic of the least worst outcome, however, the potential of a Cruz candidacy cannot be ruled out. Mr Graham said that being poisoned and being shot are the same in that you wind up dead either way. In choosing to be shot he is now favouring a clean, painful break over the root and branch subversion of the party he represents.

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Bereavement and Brussels: on the positive potential of a softer emotional response

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks on November 13th I wrote an article pouring out my initial response to the crisis. It was an unapologetically shambolic piece, infused with raw anger and bitter sadness. When I woke up to the news of the disaster in Brussels this morning many of my reactions were the same. I felt the same sickness in the pit of my stomach. I was gravely worried, both for friends in the city and in the more abstract sense of this being alarmingly close to home. And, as I laid out in that article, I felt bereaved. I felt a swelling of empathy and grief, and I felt the ‘small pinpricks’ of that ‘ineluctable consciousness’ that is planted in your head by a major bereavement and that changes forever the way you see and relate to the deaths of strangers.

My feelings today, however, are of a different texture. They are calmer and more rational. They are more organised. I would never dream of imputing a similar emotional reaction to others but I have nonetheless noticed that my Facebook feed today has been markedly less full of changed profile pictures, flags and messages of condolence that it was on that equally dreadful November night. There are many circumstantial reasons for this. On a personal level I found it almost unbearably difficult to be so far away from the Paris attacks, stuck writing on my iPhone in a Brazilian airport whilst my continent bled. I know far fewer people in Brussels far less well, and I have never lived in Belgium as I have done in France. More general reasons have suggested themselves to me too. Brussels is less iconic than Paris. People here were killed by bombs not by masked gunmen. There were fewer casualties.

These, of course, are not even remotely good or rational reasons to react differently but that doesn’t make them unworthy of interrogation and analysis. I wrote after the Paris attacks that:

‘My grief for the dead of Paris is rawer than my grief for the dead of Beirut. Some would decry this as shameful and they’re almost certainly right.’

Over the coming days I saw many posts on social media, some burningly just, some smugly self-righteous, to the effect that Paris should not elicit any more or less public grief than any other terrorist attack in any other part of the world. I stand by the idea that it is totally reasonable to be more worried when something happens to a city you know and where your friends live: if anything the news from Istanbul on Saturday hit me harder than that from Brussels today because I have spent more time there, felt a real affinity with it, and know several people currently studying and working there.

Otherwise, it is morally unquestionable that these objections are right and important. In some ways at least I was wrong to feel sadder about Paris than about Beirut, just as in the same ways I’m wrong now to feel more shocked by what happened in Brussels than what happened in Grand Bassam, Ivory Coast ten days ago. I think it is futile to chide people for feeling deeply moved about things like the Paris and Brussels attacks. It is callous to dismiss people’s authentic emotional responses as unreasonable when they exist and when they hurt and when they are completely ineluctable. This does not mean that we should not criticise ourselves for the continuing disparities in feeling that attacks in the West and elsewhere in the world generate. It is to say that we should undertake that criticism sensitively and carefully.

These disparities still exist; indeed they are still depressingly rampant. At the time of writing #StopIslam is trending heavily on Twitter. I saw next to no Facebook response to the awful Ivory Coast massacre whereas Brussels has excited considerably more attention. I think, however, that these disparities are being reduced. My own mind is no guide to anyone else’s and my Facebook friends list does not represent an unbiased pool of opinion. But I can’t get away from the fact that the reaction today has been softer than that of last November 13th and 14th, and that this is instructive.

For all the specific reasons I listed above, I think we can look at this through a broader framework of conditioning. Paris represented, for many young people, the first, sickening explosion of terrorist violence into the heart of Europe that they have observed as independent adults. Since then our media have been full of lurid stories of threat. They undoubtedly don’t excite the same outrage, but I do believe that the attacks that happen in more distant parts of the world have at least started registering with European publics as part of this broader narrative. Another Paris-style attack has been expected because the citadel of Western security has already been breached. You can never prepare yourself for when it actually happens. But this conditioning does still inform our reactions.

This sort of thing must never, ever, ever be normalised. We can never stop being shocked and appalled and horrified. But for all the danger this presents I think we have an opportunity here to use our calmer reactions for good. This isn’t to say these reactions themselves are good or bad. As I wrote earlier, they are people’s authentic emotional responses and should be respected and understood as such. They are a fact of life, and like all facts of life we should look at the positive potential they have and harness it before it drains away.

There was a certain elegiac beauty in much of what I saw after the Paris attacks, and I have seen some of this beauty today. After Paris, however, this beauty descended into a spiral of hysteria, driving a massive rise in Islamophobia and legitimising government policies on surveillance and migration and foreign military intervention that were variously kneejerkingly short-sighted and morally abhorrent. If people respond with calm defiance then our responses can be proportionate and can prevent the strongest, best parts of our collective identity from slipping away from us. We must defend our open borders, not allow divisive pedlars of fear and hate to shut them down.

It is a cliché but terrorists do try and divide us. We are stronger when we can say with one voice that we are not afraid. We are stronger when we can show solidarity with the refugees that are fleeing exactly this sort of violence in the Middle East and Africa and actually do something to help them. We are stronger when we can support the vast majority of European Muslims to overcome the stigma that so unfairly tracks these patently un-Muslim acts of butchery.

Maybe I’m being too hopeful. Or maybe I’m just wrong about what people think. But less hysterical reactions give oxygen to our more liberal instincts and start to starve our baser, more divisive ones. A united, tolerant, generous Europe is not just the best solution to terrorist attacks like the one that just hit Brussels, but is indeed the only solution. Fragmentation and panic breeds racism and further violence. This will of course do no good to the people who died today or their families. You should make no mistake that I burn with anger for them. But by controlling this anger better we can move forward.

We, in the West, right now, are probably the luckiest and safest people in history. We are not fighting a devastating ground war against a conventional army, as is happening right now in Syria and has happened and will continue to happen so many times in so many parts of the world far from these shores. We are fighting the rogue, rabid excrement of the nation state system. They can be beaten. The only way to do it is by staying calm, staying defiant, and staying together. I hope today proves that this attitude’s time is coming. It cannot come soon enough.

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Divided capital, divided nation: is Cyprus’ barbed wire ready to be torn down?

Sound does not respect barbed wire fences. As I sat outside a cafe on the Greek Cypriot side of Nicosia’s old town, the warbling melody of the muezzin’s call cascaded towards me between the low rooftops. There are plenty of mosques on the Greek side, or as Greek Cypriots calls it ‘the Cypriot side’, of the island, but naturally they are more abundant on the 37 per cent of Cyprus that has been occupied by Turkey since 1974. On this balmy afternoon in early March the call to prayer I heard was unmistakably coming from the Turkish part of this divided capital city. Its fluid cadences might have been tendrils, reaching out across the slender buffer zone that splits old Nicosia, inviting recollection of its storied multicultural past. They might equally have been a clarion call, demarcating physical and cultural territory, a permanent reminder of the Other at the door.

The green line that jigsaws arbitrarily through Nicosia is like the scene of a cultural car crash. You can be zig-zagging between prim picture postcard streets adorned with angular Greek lettering and suddenly smack headfirst into twisted metal fencing and oil drums, packed tightly in between dusty stone walls. If you don’t see a uniformed soldier standing atop a corrugated iron guard post you will notice his cartoonish likeness staring back at you from a tin plaque, urging you not to take photographs. If you glimpse behind into no-man’s land you will see decaying houses tumbling down onto unkempt mossy streets. It is jarringly skeletal; a wasteland abandoned to fossilised atrophy.

You can cross the ceasefire line at the head of busy, commercial Lidras Street. A sign proclaims, almost proudly and in several non-Cypriot languages, that this is ‘the last divided capital’. As you shuffle around a rope line to pass immigration you get the feeling that you’re queuing to see a trademarked curiosity. The Greek Cypriot official scanned my passport and narrowed his eyes. “This can’t be right” he said, looking at me sternly. I gulped. “There is no ‘h’ in your name, why is this?” He grinned impishly. If this was novelty customs I was wondering where my goody bag was. I muttered something about my parents not knowing how to spell, crossed a street, showed my passport again and suddenly found myself somewhere totally different.

Turkish Nicosia is like Istanbul on sedatives. Bars advertise Efes beer and ‘pide’ pizza, a bazaar curves steeply off to the right and the inimitable smells of frying meat, spices and fresh tea wriggle into your nose. There’s even a hamam, its venerable old domed roofs and tessellated symmetrical antechambers clogged up with steam. Wander ten minutes from the tourist centre and you come across dilapidated residential streets. Old churches with tacked-on minarets rise splendidly in marked contradistinction to the empty shells of abandoned properties; paint flaking, windows bricked up, roofs collapsing. If the inhabitants who are left don’t seem trapped in desperate poverty their living conditions are certainly far less auspicious and far less modern than those of their immediate neighbours.

These jagged half-moons of old town feel like two separate countries, sawn off and grafted onto each other. The ghostly buffer zone that runs through Nicosia is the heart of the scar, the indelible proof that this was a botched job. And yet prior to the Greek-sponsored coup d’état and subsequent Turkish-sponsored invasion of 1974 that divided the island and drove scores of Greek and Turkish Cypriots into their respective ethnic zones, these two communities lived side-by-side relatively harmoniously. The green line that haunts the capital was, within living memory, the town’s main artery: its thriving shared heart. Most Cypriots I met, on both sides, want to return to something approaching this cohabitation. The political intricacies of reunification, however, remain deeply complicated. Where the muezzin’s cry can vault effortlessly over the barbed wire, tearing it down will mean hard graft and the risk of cut hands.


On the Turkish side of Nicosia a UNDP-sponsored exhibition has been opened called ‘Topographies of Memory’. Curated by Anita Bakshi, it highlights the economic degradation of Nicosia’s buffer zone by virtually reconstructing its busy mercantile past. Its goal is to interrogate the selectivity of memory and to challenge one-sided historical narratives. In seeking to educate about ‘the nature of coexistence and conflict between diverse communities on Cyprus’, it joins the ranks of other recent initiatives which aim to facilitate dialogue and understanding between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

The Home for Cooperation is hard to find despite the myriad signposts on the Turkish side bearing its name, nestled in the buffer zone by the less frequented checkpoint at the old city’s Western edge. It serves primarily as a cultural centre, hosting events designed to unite citizens from both sides of Cyprus based on common interests. As I walked into its trendy cafe a film screening had just started as part of its women in cinema week. I asked a young Turkish Cypriot woman who worked there if they did more than just cultural events. She smiled ruefully and told me she’d just come from a meeting where she had discussed the need for the Home to do more outreach work.

Since it opened in 2011, the Home for Cooperation has proven popular and demonstrated a real symbolic importance. “Both presidents have been here” the Turkish Cypriot told me, referring to the recognised President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades and his counterpart Mustafa Akinci, elected last year to lead the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). She regretted, however, that it could be hard to get normal Nicosians to turn up. “We’re not in the city centre here, and many Greek Cypriots think that they have to cross onto the Turkish side to come here (they don’t). Many Greek Cypriots refuse to show their passport at a checkpoint whose legitimacy they do not recognise.”

The green line was opened up in 2003 but many young Cypriots have never crossed it. A tourist map given to me by my Greek Cypriot host, written by and for young people, only proffers recommendations of things to do on the Greek side of Nicosia. An inlaid box explains simply that this is because “this is the side we grew up with” and because the two sides are “not that integrated”. It finishes by encouraging you to visit the Turkish side and “see for yourself”. If regular traffic has been permitted for 13 years and doesn’t carry any insurmountable stigma, it is clear that it has not yet been become routinised.

My host recommended that I check out ‘Hoi Polloi’, her and her friends’ favourite bar on the Turkish side of Nicosia. The bar is owned by a Greek and by an Englishman and has only been open for two months. “The green line doesn’t really affect us” the Greek told me, apologising that he would have to give me change in euros for a payment that I made in Turkish lire. He was underselling his own significance as he generously rounded up my change. “This is the first place like it on the Turkish side” he continued. “We used to be on the Greek side, so we still get a lot of people coming over from there.” So the bar’s patronage is mixed then? “I’d say it’s about 50-50. It’s a bit of an experiment, but it’s going great so far.”

According to polling conducted by Dr Charis Psaltis in 2015, most Greek Cypriots do now have either neutral or warm feelings towards Turkish Cypriots. Whereas nearly 50 per cent of Greek Cypriots had a negative perception of their counterparts in 2010, now only 17 per cent do. Conversely, the percentage of those harbouring positive feelings has shot up to 51 per cent from just 28 per cent in 2010. Dr Psaltis also finds a marked correlation between the frequency with which a Greek Cypriot crosses the ceasefire line and the strength of their belief in their ability to live side-by-side with Turkish Cypriots. He concludes that intercommunal contact is proven to reduce “prejudice, sectarianism and secession claims in Cyprus” by “reducing the perceptions of threat”. Given that it was Greek Cypriots who overwhelmingly rejected the Annan Plan for reunification (named after its broker, the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan) in a 2004 referendum, these figures should provide encouragement. Initiatives like Topographies of Memory, the Home for Cooperation and Hoi Polloi are thrusting people together, even if they are still some way off reaching the limits of their potential.


What is less encouraging is another statistic to have come out of Dr Psaltis’ research: namely that older Greek Cypriots would be much more likely than younger ones to vote yes if a new reunification referendum were held today. Those in the 55-64 age bracket are most certain that they would vote yes, whilst 60 per cent of those aged 65-74 also tend towards a yes vote. By contrast only 38 per cent of 18-24 year olds are yes-inclined, slightly fewer than the 41 per cent who think they would vote no. The Turkish Cypriot at the Home for Cooperation told me that younger generations were more tolerant and hopeful of reconciliation. She was also, however, keen to stress the importance of direct memory. These figures make it easy to see why.

MAM is a specialist bookshop which only stocks works about Cyprus. It was shut when I arrived so I followed the instructions on the door and rang up the elderly owner, Mr Mikis, who told me to come back at 4pm. When I eventually got inside I found a musty treasure trove, its shelves stocked with politics and international relations textbooks, dense reports, the newsletters of interested parties like the UN Peacekeeping Force or the British-based Friends of Cyprus group and great tomes cataloguing the flora and fauna of the island.

Mr Mikis, like many of his books, remembers the days of cohabitation very clearly. “You wouldn’t go into a Turkish Cypriot café and notice that it was a Turkish Cypriot café” he told me. “I used to bring Turkish Cypriots into my club and no one would think anything of it.” Like his shop, Mr Mikis opened up only after some gentle probing. As he warmed to his theme he could not meet my eye, seeming genuinely pained by the division of the country in which he repeatedly stressed his pride. “Why Cyprus?” he demanded. “Do they think we are stupid?” He insisted that many Turkish Cypriots do not support the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which refuses to relinquish its claims on the island.

Memory and the age gap are critical themes, too, for the Mayor of Kythrea, a town in what is now Turkish Cyprus whose Greek inhabitants were forced out of their homes and back behind the green line by the occupation. “The young people are more tolerant, yes, but they do not remember coexistence. I have many Turkish Cypriot friends and I go back and visit them on occasion” Dr Petros Kareklas told me as I stepped into the municipal building that he runs from exile in Nicosia. “We are just like any other municipal government, except that we don’t have to spend money on sewage” he enthuses, ushering me into his plush office. Mayor Kareklas was elected in 2011 by the former inhabitants of Kythrea and their descendants, and is given a fixed budget by the Cypriot government.

Mr Mikis has devoted his life to passing an understanding of Cyprus down through the generations, his book collection deliberately scanning a multiplicity of perspectives so that readers might discover the “truth” for themselves. Mayor Kareklas is similarly committed to the upkeep of understanding, although his approach is less discursive, more proselytising. His mayoralty spends its grants on “keeping the flame of return alive”; be it through producing educational materials, organising occasional trips back to Kythrea, or campaigning for the restoration of historic churches and buildings that have fallen into disrepair under the Turkish occupation. The question remains whether synthetic, paper memory can ever faithfully reproduce the vivid recollection of living tissue. Psaltis’ polling suggests that it might not be a totally satisfactory substitute.


Popular sentiment is far from the only obstacle that needs to be surmounted if reunification is going to happen. Both Mr Mikis and Mayor Kareklas, as well as the Turkish Cypriot woman from Home for Cooperation, unequivocally blame outside forces for playing politics with the island. Turkey of course comes in for a great deal of criticism, as do the USA, NATO and the UK, the island’s former colonial power. Mikis is scathing about the British and the Americans treating Cyprus as their plaything and the woman from the Home agrees with him, adding “I don’t like NATO very much”.

She does see the EU as being more attuned now to the potential economic benefits of reunification than it was prior to the Eurozone crisis, which triggered a credit rating downgrade and bailout in 2012-13 as Cypriot banks found themselves exposed to Greece’s debt haircut. Both her and Mayor Kareklas, meanwhile, mentioned the impetus that could be provided by a mooted pipeline project that would route Eastern Mediterranean gas through Cyprus and Turkey to mainland Europe. The Washington Post reported in January 2015, however, that negotiations on energy sharing had hit repeated snags, with Turkish Cypriot officials accusing the Cypriot government of trying to unilaterally sell off supplies to private companies. With global energy prices now low due to reduced American imports and the prospective flooding of markets with Iranian oil (among other things), this type of incentive surely cannot promise the sort of guaranteed benefit that Turkey might need in order to bet the house on reunification.

Unsurprisingly, Mayor Kareklas does not trust Turkey’s President Erdogan, accusing him of having a “bazaar negotiating mentality”. “Greek Cypriots have made many concessions on bizonality” he insisted, referring to the idea that reunification would most likely entail a federal structure whereby Greek and Turkish Cypriot states would sit side by side under the mutual aegis of power-sharing institutions. Kareklas personally seems unwilling to compromise on his insistence that Turkish Cyprus must abide by the acquis communautaire, or the accumulated laws and principles that a state must accept before they can be admitted to the European Union. On the day I visited the municipality of Kythrea, Angela Merkel and other EU leaders promised to reopen the chapter on Turkish membership of the bloc in exchange for a deal which will see Turkey take back refugees who illegally crossed into Europe via their soil. I asked Kareklas whether he thought that the putative reopening of the Turkish accession process could spur a definitive solution to the Cyprus question, given that it has proven a chief sticking point in previous negotiations. He shrugged. “Only when Turkey goes against the West will the situation here be bought up again” he said.

If bizonality, meanwhile, is a relatively widely accepted principle, the institutional design of a unified Cypriot federation is still contested. The 2004 Annan Plan, rejected by 76 per cent of Greek Cypriots despite being accepted by 65 per cent of Turkish Cypriots, suggested a proportional presidential council chosen by parliament, a rotating presidency and vice-presidency chosen by the council, and equal representation on the Supreme Court. Greek and Turkish forces were to be allowed to remain on the island, subject to phased reductions, and a limited right of return was to be guaranteed. This loosely Swiss-style formulation might seem intuitively fair. Writing in the Cyprus Sunday Mail recently, political analyst Aaron Coatsworth suggested that a rotating presidency could work as long as it represented both ethnicities and was subject to a veto power. In the Friends of Cyprus newsletter I picked up from Mr Mikis, however, political scientists Costa Carras and Neophytos Loizides argue that Cypriots will not accept an executive branch that can be controlled at any one time by a member of either community. Their alternative suggestion for a dual presidency is meticulously detailed, its proposed checks and balances fiendishly complicated.

Exit polls in 2004 suggested most Greek Cypriots who rejected the Annan plan did so because of security concerns, feeling uncomfortable with the idea of a continued Turkish military presence on their doorstep. Even though Coatsworth is right to suggest that these fears have subsided to a degree, it is highly likely that they would resurface if a referendum deal were to be negotiated tomorrow. The fear that a unilateral, even if temporary, presidency could declare secession informs a continued aversion to any sort of unilateral presidential powers, which 70 per cent of Greek Cypriots continue to find unacceptable according to the Score Cyprus 2015 Index. A majority of Greek Cypriots, meanwhile, see Greece, Turkey, Britain and NATO as ‘unacceptable’ guarantors of a unified island’s security and, whilst slender majorities still see the EU and UN as ‘desirable’ guarantors, the popularity of both options has fallen by more than 20 percentage points since 2011.

The right of return, too, seems certain to be a bone of contention given that the Turkish occupation bought with it many settlers from the Turkish mainland who remain in situ today. Also writing for Friends of Cyprus, the academic Mustafa Cirakli suggests that settlers do not pose a threat to reunification given that many of them show a strong desire to integrate, rejecting Erdogan’s redoubled recent efforts at the ‘Turkicisation’ and Islamisation of Northern Cyprus. The fact remains, however, that many settlers are living on land that Greek Cypriots see as theirs. It is hard to envisage leaders like Mayor Kareklas willingly compromising on the idea of taking it all back when it is ‘the flame of return’ that guides their political path.


“Don’t worry it’s not a bomb going off.” I asked the man from Huddersfield sat at the table next to me whether the bang I’d just heard might instead have been TNT. “Oh no, it’s only a landmine” he replied. “They find them around here all the time because this was the front line of the war. If you see a red flag don’t go near it, it’ll be a land mine.”

In Pyla, a small village some 20km North-East of Larnaca, Greek and Turkish Cypriots never stopped living together. Pyla is entirely within the UN buffer zone. Its street names are marked in both languages. It has a church and a mosque, and a Greek bar sits opposite a Turkish bar on its main plaza. From the terrace of the Turkish bar you can look over at the whitewashed UN headquarters. Every so often a peacekeeper wanders onto the balcony and stares up through a binocular telescope at the Turkish soldier on the cliff overlooking the village. As I sipped an Efes two more peacekeepers sat languidly in their jeep, eyes transfixed on their iPhones. A second jeepload of men clad in pristine white football kit roared up off the road, a rare breach in the lazy, hot calm of the afternoon.

The man from Huddersfield and his wife have lived in Pyla for about six years. The man reassured me that “it’s not pistols at dawn, they (the Greek and Turkish Cypriot populations) talk to each other”. The couple certainly did not wear the air of people who had spent half a decade living on a political tectonic plate boundary, more concerned about the recent influx of casinos and the difficulties of buying cigarettes in Pyla and taking them out to the Greek side. “It’s like the Wild West here: lawless” the man jokes. “They can’t do you for anything, these UN policemen. They’re real policemen but all they can do is arrest you and invite the Cypriot police to come and charge you. The Cypriot police have to be invited here otherwise they can’t come.”

The expatriate couple reckon that the Greek and Turkish Cypriots mostly keep to themselves and they seemed to have a point. The denizens of the Turkish bar, for example, were clearly not Greek Cypriot. On the whole, however, I found people in Pyla to be friendlier than elsewhere in Cyprus, smiling without a trace of diffidence as I walked past their houses. It is tempting to believe that this village represents both the past and the future of this country, its lingering differences so respectful and amicable as to be almost unnoticeable. Pyla, however, has a nondescript, acultural quality that cities away from the buffer zone lack.  At opposite geographic extremes, I visited Paphos and Kyrenia during my stay on the island. Both are pretty coastal towns overrun with tourists. If Paphos feels distinctively like a Greek resort, however, Kyrenia feels like a small Turkish town: more rustic, more Middle Eastern.

I did consider that maybe I was guilty of post-rationalisation, of internalising the physical separation and superimposing my preconceptions of national difference on either side of it. Foreigners who have been in Cyprus much longer than myself, however, have clearly absorbed it too. Back in Nicosia, I had been discussing politics with a waiter for five minutes before he told me that he was not Greek Cypriot but a Romanian immigrant. “I have become accustomed to Cypriot ways” he said to me. He certainly did seem to have developed a binary perspective. Describing the years he spent working in England he talked in terms of having visited ‘the Northern side’ (Barnsley) but not ‘the Southern side’ (Plymouth). I thought this use of language was telling even if he had lived in Watford, England’s equivalent of the UN buffer zone.

“When I lived in the UK the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities got on with no problems” he remembered. Did this make him hopeful about future reconciliation on the island itself? “Too many people have lived with this for too long” he replied. He shook his head but then checked himself. “More and more people are crossing the green line and now tourists are going to both sides. I would be interested to see what people over there are saying.” He jerked his head back towards the green line behind us. “It’s like moving into someone’s house and asking them ‘how do you feel about that’?” This Romanian waiter had in just a few sentences captured the essence of what I had heard at much greater length from Mr Mikis and from Mayor Kareklas and from the Turkish Cypriot at the Home for Cooperation and from my host. Sometimes, I thought, it actually takes an outsider to see things with the greatest clarity.


The idea of moving into someone’s house, of course, evokes the discourse around the conflict taking place immediately South-East of Cyprus. The Turkish Cypriot at the Home for Cooperation said to me, without any prompting, that “Cyprus is not like Israel-Palestine”. Israel-Palestine, of course, is grossly more complicated and intractable; an ongoing violent conflict nestled in an extremely volatile region, tangled up in fluid borders, deep-seated historical grievances and displacement and global superpower contestation.  There are, however, very similar issues at stake. What is the status of ‘occupied’ land? What rights can settlers have? What would a right of return look like? How can two communities be expected to live together and trust each other when there is a clear imbalance of security considerations and when interaction has, for many years, been conditioned by checkpoints and barbed wire fences? How can young people born into such a tragic separation be expected to be able to look past it? How can their cultural differences be ignored and put aside?

And yet the woman was right that Cyprus is not like Israel-Palestine. I realised that this is not because it doesn’t face deeply difficult challenges but because, unlike that troubled part of the Levant, Cyprus has never seemed so close to a solution. Despite the differences in perception between young and old and the demands of Mayor Kareklas and the scepticism of the Romanian waiter, I do think that we can afford to be hopeful. I observed during my trip that Greek and Turkish Cypriots do not hate each other. They are not fighting each other and have not been for a long time. They are starting to come into contact more and more frequently and the barriers that separate them are being opened up rather than tightened. Unlike in 2004, there exists a real will among both communities to make concrete progress towards reconciliation and reunification.

The political situation on the island, too, looks more promising now than it has done for quite some time. The Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci was elected by a landslide in 2015 despite having publicly frosty relations with President Erdogan and his government in Ankara. Greek Cypriots celebrated his election in their droves, their President Nicos Anastasiades calling it “a hopeful development for our common homeland”. This tentative welcome has translated into tens of meetings in 2015, both in an official negotiating environment and in the more jocular settings of walkabouts, cultural events and even a shared New Year goodwill message. The UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and the US Secretary of State John Kerry have expressed cautious optimism that a solution to the Cyprus problem might be in sight. The Friends of Cyprus newsletter’s front cover asks ‘If not now, when? If not us, who?’ under a photograph of Anastasiades and Akinci seated, smiling, across from each other. These questions may no longer be entirely rhetorical.

During my downtime on the island I read ‘From Beirut to Jerusalem’, the New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman’s personal account of Middle Eastern conflicts in the 1980s. In a postscript written to mark the early 1990s Oslo accords that sought a historic deal between Yitzhak Rabin’s Israel and Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) he expounded upon his theory of ‘the Lexus and the olive tree’, arguing that the people of the region were keen to abandon the tribal conflicts of the past and participate more fully in globalised economic opportunity and supranational political institutions. That moment of optimism passed, dissolved not just in Israel and Palestine but all over the world by micro and macro forces of violence, economic failure and displacement. Despite this the Cypriots I talked to and read about do want a more open economy and a less isolated place in the world. If they haven’t quite stopped glancing suspiciously at the olive tree to make sure that it is still there, they long ago stopped fighting over it.

Friedman says that “peace begins with barbed wire”, but whilst this may be true it cannot end with it. As we have seen there are still many roadblocks standing in the way of a functional unified polity. Cyprus does, however, already have peace and so the barbed wire that binds together these impediments no longer seems necessary. Unravelling it will be difficult and painful. It will take time. Unlike in other divided areas of the world, however, the will to do it genuinely seems to be present. It is a process that must start in earnest now, before the political winds of change stop blowing in the right direction and before the precious memory of past coexistence exists only in the sepia clippings of Mr Mikis’ bookshop.

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