Why Turkey matters

How does parliamentary business relate to Cumbria? Take the last 24 hours.  There were some direct connections: I attended a ministerial meeting on second homes in Cumbria; a Lake District National Park planning discussion; and a community hospital conference with representatives from Brampton, Wigton, Penrith and Cockermouth. But in the same 24 hours I was in a debate on the banking crisis, and the House of Lords, and on Turkey. And what was the relevance of those?

Turkey, for example: there were only ten members in the Chamber for the three-hour Turkey debate, perhaps because it seemed irrelevant to constituencies. Perhaps people felt a little like one of the residents in Woodlands, Penrith, who said last month: “We’re not an Empire any more: we should stop thinking about other countries, and focus on what happens at home.” But, in truth, we’re not thinking very much about foreign countries at all. We now spend only one sixth of one percent of our budget on the Foreign Office; we spend twice as much on the Winter Fuel Allowance as on our complete embassy and diplomatic network worldwide; and less and less time understanding foreign languages and politics.

Nowhere are the signs of our disengagement clearer than in Turkey. In 2001, for example, the desk officer in the Foreign Office concluded that there was little point engaging with Islam in Turkey, because it was ‘a secular society’. At which point a conservative Muslim government won the elections, taking power for a decade. In 2010, although the British government had 25 advanced Turkish speakers, they had only sent one of them to Turkey. The World Service had closed its Turkish service – losing 400,000 listeners. The British Council was located at the top of a shopping centre, with very little sign, even in the office, of links to Britain, and an almost entirely locally engaged Turkish staff who, although keen and energetic, were hardly able to communicate effectively about British culture, since many of them had never visited Britain. And our neglect extends beyond Turkey. The UK is 12 % of the population of the EU, but fill just 4 % of the jobs in Brussels – the 2/3 shortfall is because we can’t pass the language exams.

Neglecting ‘abroad’ is a big mistake – for Britain and for Cumbria. Our constituency’s economy has one of the highest proportions of small and medium-sized business in Britain. And we are exporters: Innovia exports more than ninety percent of its production from Wigton; Steadman’s in Caldbeck are building roofs in Bahrain and China; Clark Doors in Carlisle made the doors of the Sydney Opera House; Bell’s of Lazonby are exporting bakery products to the Balkans; Stephen Armistead in Penrith is exporting more than half of his products (of which half go to China). And there is export potential for our farmers: a huge demand in Asia and the Middle East for our livestock, and for parts of animals which the British don’t eat; and dairy, which is having a tough time, could benefit too. Lake District Cheese, made in Aspatria, now supplies the cheese for Emirates Airlines.

Turkey is exactly the sort of place on which Cumbria and Britain should focus: a place from which we can benefit, and where we can also have influence. China is too big for Britain to have much say there. We are late into Brazil (even the Dutch are out-performing us there, and the Germans and the French are far more established). We are in danger of falling behind in Indonesia. But Turkey’s affection for Britain has deepened. It is firmly integrated into the European economic system, and has strong influence over countries which we care about. It is a great economic and political opportunity. Turkish GDP per capita is now higher than Bulgaria’s or Romania’s, and Istanbul’s 20 million residents are doing better economically than Poland.

The Turkish government has proved that a conservative Muslim government doesn’t mean radical Islam: it has led an extraordinary transition from military rule to democracy (it’s almost inconceivable now that the military could mount a coup). Its economic performance shows its neighbours how prosperity can come from more, not less, open-ness.  We can encourage Turks to make progress on all of this: to reform (their terror laws, which lock up journalists and academics are cruel and unnecessary); and to further open their economy (opening the energy sector will be particularly important for British companies). We should encourage them to be the positive model for the Middle East: an example for Egypt, Libya – and even, in the long run, Syria.

Times are tough, Empire has gone, and it is often tempting to feel we should do ever less. But in reality we are already doing too little: we spend half what the French do on our Foreign Service. The Italians are out-trading us two-fold into Turkey – not just large infrastructure companies but small and medium-sized businesses as well. There are sixteen flights a day between Northern Italy and Turkey. Abroad has never been more relevant. Which is why rather than concluding Foreign Affairs doesn’t matter to us in Cumbria, I’d like to turn it around. I’d like more MPs focused on Foreign Affairs. And I would like to promote a Cumbrian trade mission to Turkey.

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