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Friday, 7 June 2019

Britain as a model? Turkish politicians’ perceptions of the UK

Dr Yaprak Gürsoy (Aston University), formerly a visiting academic at SEESOX, presented her ongoing research on June 5 2019. Dr Gürsoy’s project is funded by the British Institute at Ankara, an affiliate of the British Academy.

Gürsoy’s research focuses on Turkish politicians’ perceptions of the UK. During the first phase of the project, she carried out extensive elite interviews and analysed the parliamentary minutes of the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA). While she presented her initial findings from the years 2011-2015, she noted that she was still continuing with the qualitative content analysis.

Gürsoy underlined that the period between 2011-2015 has been marked by important shifts in Turkish politics. Over this period, the AKP was in government with an overwhelming majority. However, the political climate had begun to change. The Gezi events in 2013 represented an unprecedented level of opposition against the AKP government, while the Syrian civil war and its side-effects on Turkey had affected Turkish politics.

Gürsoy then explained the rationale of the project, indicating that, especially after 2016, Anglo-Turkish relations have gained a new importance. Prime Minister Theresa May visited Ankara, President Erdoğan visited London, and the then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Boris Johnson visited Turkey immediately after the 2016 botched coup attempt. While in the post-2016 period Turkey’s relations with most Western countries had deteriorated, Britain had been the notable exception. Turkey is a country of interest for Britain, especially if Brexit materialises, but Britain is also very important for Turkey for various reasons. The Turkish economy is in a precarious state and the financial sector in London is particularly important for Turkish markets. It is in this context that it is important to examine how Turkish decision-makers perceive Britain. Do they hold a positive or negative view? Which issues dominate their views of Britain?
Gürsoy then moved on to set out her methodology. She explained that she had examined all parliamentary records between 2011-2015 that contained a reference to Britain; most such documents were the minutes of various speeches by the members of parliament. Each segment was coded twice: 1) What is/are the main issue(s)? 2) Perceptions that could be identified: positive, negative or neutral.

Gürsoy’s principal findings were as follows:

  1. The main issue was rarely only Britain; the bilateral relationship has never been high on the Turkish political agenda. 
  2. However, Britain has been mentioned frequently in parliamentary minutes. Parliamentary records that were analysed from 1973 onward were as many as 750 Word files and amounted to more than 200’000 words. Within this voluminous object of analysis, Gürsoy identified, for the period between 2011 and 2015, 430 segments that contain references to Britain. In such segments, Britain was mentioned 560 times. She collected all such segments and their cumulative length is more than 100 pages. She pointed out that for qualitative content analysis this is actually quite a voluminous text. 
  3. The main issues that formed the subject matter of Turkish politicians’ references to Britain were as follows: War & Conflict 14 %; British Imperialism 11%; Turkish-UK relations 11 %; life in the UK, 58%; other issues 6%; the latter included the EU, the NATO and the UN, etc. It is important to note that the UK was not predominantly mentioned within the EU context in the speeches of Turkish politicians.
  4. In terms of perceptions, 53% were positive, 26% negative and 12% neutral, while 9 % were unclear, i.e. the intention could not be identified.
  5. In these materials, Gürsoy determined two themes: firstly, Britain as a model. In most segments Britain was referred to as a model: of democracy, of education, of a judiciary, of the economy, etc. Sometimes it was cited as an example; but this was different from a reference to a role model.
    a) In this theme, ‘life in the UK’ was dominant. The British economy and politics were the main reference points, at 35% and 29% respectively. In this context, references to politics also include references to judiciary and bureaucracy (e.g. how many cars ministries have). There are also references to the health system and history. Gürsoy stated that she found a direct linkage between ‘life in the UK’ and positive perceptions. Surprisingly, Britain was not mentioned even once as an ally or a friend. In comparison, during the Cold War, she stated, there were actually references to Britain as an ally. There were also role-model references in the past. For instance, the former Turkish prime minister Bülent Ecevit used to refer to the UK as an example of a liberal democracy where communism was not a threat, because of established freedoms. In this context, Gürsoy made a specific reference to her interview with the former Turkish president Abdullah Gül (December 2016). As a former post-graduate student in the UK, Mr. Gül always referred to the UK with positive connotations such as references to pluralism in Britain, freedom of speech, Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, and so on. Mr.Gül does not hide that Britain has deeply influenced him.
  6. The second most common theme was, on the other hand, what Gürsoy called ‘enmity’. War and conflict, and British Imperialism were the main manifestations of this theme. There were many references to WW1 and the Turkish War of Independence. The centenary of the Gallipoli War in 2015 was one of the most prominent themes. 35% of references were to the First World War and the War of Independence, while 34% referred to so-called the ‘Activities of the British’, i.e. British meddling in internal affairs, and 11 % to Imperialism and Colonialism. Most such references – to imperialism and colonialism- were made by the MPs of the Kurdish party. In 20 % of these speeches there were references to other conflicts such as the Middle East. Cyprus was mentioned only 4 times. Under this theme, the perceptions were almost always negative, with 53 % of these quotes stating that Britain acted ‘against Turkish and/or Ottoman interests’.
  7. Sometimes, references were both positive and negative. Such mixed responses were more common in interviews. This discourse may be simplified as follows: “We were both empires. We appreciated the British power. However, we defeated them in Gallipoli. Thus, they respect us”. There were also positive references to the history of the UK and how it shapes its present. The UK was seen as respecting pluralism because of its imperial background.
  8. Dr Gürsoy emphasised that the role model theme was overall in both interviews and parliamentary minutes. She concluded by asking the question if this ‘respect’ that Britain commands over Turkish decision makers could be translated into British soft power.
During the Q&A session one of the participants underlined the importance of contextualization for the research outcomes. He suggested that there could, for instance, be a comparison between France and the UK, and how the perceptions of the two differ. He added that there was a need to explain why Britain was so special, if indeed it was. It was also stated that more could be said as to why perceptions per se are important.

Another participant commented that the scope of research could be better defined in the context of Brexit. She indicated that, in the post-Brexit world, Turkey and Britain will be at the two extremes of the Union. She also pointed out the importance of further research on the so-called Gallipoli effect, with its attendant attributes such as imperial past, memory and reproduction of memory.

Gürsoy answered that this would actually be the normal course for the next stage of her research. She indicated the strange connections being formed in the Brexit context between Turkey and Britain, giving the example that Erdogan had actually congratulated the UK on the Brexit vote and, as a response to the crisis with the EU, suggested that Turkey should hold a referendum too. In this context, she also made reference to her interview with former President Abdullah Gül where he said that the UK’s membership of the EU inspired Turkey.

Another participant pointed out that Britain’s support for Turkish membership of the EU was actually a US policy, indicating that the French opposed the idea as they saw the UK as a Trojan Horse. He wondered whether much should be attributed to the historical references made by the MPs, as they are mostly marked by a lack of proper understanding of history. Referring to the history of Ottoman Empire’s relations with the West, he underlined the politics of balance of power between Britain and France that the Ottoman Empire had pursued.

Mehmet Karli (SEESOX Associate)

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