Jonathan Fryer

Archive for June, 2007

Singing in the Rain

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 30th June, 2007

london-pride-2007.jpgBaroness Sarah Ludford, MEP, and I this afternoon joined Councillor Lucy Watt, fellow Islington party member Farhana Hoque, DELGA Chair Jen Yockney and many thousands of others on the London Pride march. Even if the army had decreed that LGBT soldiers could not march in uniform, the navy and airforce were there, as well as police, and a cavalcade of every age, ethnicity, profession and fantasy. At the same event last year, we roasted in the sun, whereas this time we got drenched, all the way from Portman Square to Trafalgar Square (where Sarah later spoke). Yet there was no dampening the spirit of those taking part, nor the tremendous welcome and expression of support for the march, from both Londoners and tourists alike, who lined the route in their tens of thousands, cheering, whistling and taking photos — including many of the LibDem banner. No-one was going to let either the appalling weather or Thursday night’s attempted car-bombing in Haymarket spoil the mood of what has become one of the most colourful and joyful celebrations of London’s diversity.

A small huddle of homophobic religious fundamentalists stood forlornly behind a police cordon at one corner of Pall Mall, proclaiming that the marchers were damned unless we all repented. We waved cheerily at them and smiled sweetly as we marched on. We can be truly proud in this country that in general, we don’t just tolerate but also respect different lifestyles — a situation that has been spreading across Europe and the Americas, partly thanks to legislation, even if in many countries round the world, equal rights for all still have to be attained.

Links: www.delga.org.uk

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Acceptable Cross-party Activity

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 29th June, 2007

ming-campbell.jpgdavid-cameron.jpggordon-brown.jpgThere’s been quite a lot of debate these last few days about the desirability or otherwise of cross-party activity in the British political context, outside of formal coalition arrangements. Here in Vilnius, Lithuania, I’ve been experiencing one positive kind, at a seminar on interested parties relating to reform in Belarus, organised by the British Conservatives, but attended by representatives of a wide range of parties, foundations, governments and institutes, from various conservative, liberal, socialist and social democratic traditions, notably from the United States, Lithuania, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Poland and the UK. It’s been a great opportunity to share experiences and see where cooperation is appropriate in furthering our common cause in assisting democratic development in Belarus, where moves have been afoot to try to get the fragmented opposition to unite.

Domestic party political divisions have been put on one side for 48 hours, but in the case of the Brits, the Labour, Conservative and LibDem representatives have now packed our bags and are heading home, braced for the two crucial by-elections, in Ealing Southall and Sedgefield, where we will be campaigning like mad to propel our own candidates to victory. We are lucky that we live in a country where that is not only possible, but is also understood as being perfectly normal behaviour!

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Bagless in Vilnius

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 28th June, 2007

vilnius.jpgI arrived safely late last night in Lithuania’s capital, but my case didn’t make the tight connection in Copenhagen. Being deprived of one’s luggage is always unsettling — and not only because one can’t clean one’s teeth. I’d planned to spend this morning working through a great pile of documents in preparation for a seminar on the political situation in Belarus, which opens this afternoon, organised by the British Conservative Party and funded through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

Bagless and paperless, I became a tourist instead, battling my way through the wind and the rain to some of Vilnius’s seemingly innumerable churches. The city used to be one of Europe’s great Jewish centres, but the swirling tides of history — including Nazi occupation — have almost obliterated all traces of that. Instead, profiting from the death of Marxism, Catholicism and other Christian denominations are triumphant. And many of the churches are magnificent. As the Lithuanian language is fairly inpenetrable to the unitiated, I’m glad I learnt Latin at school, so I could read the inscriptions and texts, though I hated the subject atd the time. In fact, I only passed Latin ‘O’ level — an essential requirement for going to Oxbridge in those days — at the second attempt, by virtually learning the set book off by heart. Interesting that it is now coming back into a certain vogue in England, thanks to the proseltysing efforts of Boris Johnson, MP, and others.

Link: www.vilnius.lt

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China, Northern Ireland and the World

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 26th June, 2007

anna-lo.jpgChinese Liberal Democrats and Liberal International British Group co-hosted a sell-out dinner at the School of Oriental and African Studies this evening, at which the star speaker was Anna Lo, an Alliance member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the highest elected ethnic Chinese politician in the United Kingdom. Media-savvy and endearingly charismatic, she had had a busy day, touring parliament and various Chinese community organisations in London, shuttled about in Simon Hughes’s yellow taxi. She revealed that until the recent influx of Polish migrant workers, the Chinese were the largest single ethnic minority in Northern Ireland. They had seized the opportunities offered by the relatively low prices of properties and businesses there, as well as the lack of competition in the catering industry from McDonald’s and  other multi-national fast food chains. Affiliated to neither side in the long-running sectarian conflict, the Chinese served everyone, so maybe it wasn’t all that surprising that Anna was able to count on support from across the whole population — which is what the Alliance Party (the LibDems’ sister party in Northern Ireland) is all about.

As the supporting speaker, I concentrated on China’s growing importance in the world, not just economically, but increasingly in geo-political terms too. With the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, we seemed to enter a unipolar world, with Washington and its ideology triumphant. But it has quickly become obvious that that is actually not the case, and that today’s reality is much more complex. New powers, including China and India, are asserting themselves, and rightly so. Of course, there are some serious problems in China, including issues relating to human rights and the environment, but I argued that the West has to work with Bejing through engagement and, in the case of the environment, a degree of co-financing. I am proud that the Liberal Democrats are the one party in this country that is truly wedded to the philosophy of multicultural, tolerant co-existence nationally. Now we have to work to ensure that old hierarchies by geography or ethnicity are swept away globally as well.

Links: www.chineselibdems.org.uk and www.libg.org.uk

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The River and a Fox

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 25th June, 2007

baroness-hayman.jpgliam-fox.jpgThe Lord Speaker of the Upper House, Baroness Hayman, hosted a reception in the River Room in the Lord Chancellor’s apartments last night, alongside the Baroness D’Souza, for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WDF), which is celebrating 15 years in operation. This worthwhile cross-party body has been promoting democracy and good governance around the world, largely through partnerships handled by the major UK political parties. Swirling clouds over the River Thames could not dampen the enthusiasm of those present. I’ve done a number of missions for the WDF over the years, notably to Angola, Macedonia and Moldova, and in fact I will be off to Lithuania on Wednesday, for a brainstorming on the state of democracy in Belarus, before heading next month to Minsk itself, God willing. In international funding terms, the resources at WFD’s disposal are modest, but they are hoping to double the money and at least double their efforts in the near future, working in environments as challenging as Egypt and Sierra Leone.

I had to slip away early to attend a dinner at the Carlton Club, where the Political Circle was holding a debate on the Middle East. Although in principle the remit was wider, the discussions were inevitably dominated by the Israel-Palestine question, with Dr Liam Fox, MP, propounding the pro-Israeli line, and the Greek ‘High Life’ columnist, Taki Theodoracopulos (who many moons ago used to string for UPI from Palestinian refugee camps) defending the Arab cause. No vote was taken, and Michael Binyon of the Times (incidentally, my predecessor as President of the Diplomatic and Commonwealth Writers Association) moderated expertly. One thing that people could agree on is that a clear outcome of recent events is the rising influence of Iran in the region — with whatever consequences that might hold. Watch this space!

Link: www.carltonclub.co.uk   

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Testing the Water in Hounslow

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 24th June, 2007

andrew-dakers-1.jpgChris Dakers hosted his annual summer lunch at the family’s beautiful 17th century house in Brentford today. With the LibDems down at 15% in the latest opinion poll, in The Observer, and Ming Campbell’s personal rating as putative Prime Minister well below that, one might have thought that the mood among local party members and supporters would be downcast (like the weather), but not a bit of it. This is largely because no-one really believes Gordon Brown is just going to swan into No 10 to a chorus of Hallelujahs. Talk of a ‘honeymoon’ is premature, to put it mildly. He was the man who underwrote the Blair years — including the Iraq War — with our tax money, and the idea of him being any less authoritarian on civil liberties issues fails to convince me.

But there were other reasons for the spring in the step of Hounslow LibDems, who recently adopted their prospective parliamentary candidates: Munira Hassam in Feltham and Heston, and Andrew Dakers (Chris’s son) in Brentford and Isleworth. Andrew has been making his mark as a Councillor and an environmental campaigner and is very active in the campaign to regenerate Brentford High Street. Hounslow has tended to be the Cinderella LibDem-wise in South West London, overshadowed by the golden glow of Richmond and Kingston. But as the local team braces itself to put out a constituency-wide tabloid in Brentford and Isleworth, the mood is distinctly up-beat.

Link: http://hounslowlibdems.org.uk

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Making Europe Sexy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd June, 2007

blair-baroso.jpgAs dawn broke over Brussels, Europe’s leaders staggered to a compromise deal on reforming the treaties that govern the Union — mercifully abandoning the dreaded word ‘constitution’, which I always thought was a serious mistake. One of the big pluses of the new agreement is that more powers will pass to the European Parliament, thus increasing democratic accountability. National vetoes will be reduced, which will facilitate decision-making (while preserving sovereign rights on really crucial national issues). There’ll be an EU High Representative on Foreign Affairs (not a ‘Minister’, again an unwise word in the original draft, implying that the EU is a government). But the new system of voting within the Council of Ministers, reflecting both the size of populations and the number of countries — which sent the Terible Twins from Poland into a hissy fit — will be postponed until 2014.

Overall, it’s pretty positive, though doubtless some of the Europhobic media here will characterize it as a sell-out by Blair. The continuing negative coverage of European affairs in most of the newspapers is deeply depressing. Summits are almost invariably presented as punch-ups, boxing matches in which politicians have to ‘fight their corner’. And working towards consensus — which is how an institution like the EU must operate — is portrayed as ‘horse-trading’. Negotiating compromises is something most of our continental colleagues are used to, living with proportional representation and coalition governments. But in the UK, both the media and much of the public is frozen in an adversarial political mindset.

The great challenge now is how to sell the realities and benefits of the EU and this latest Summit to the British public — in short, how to make Europe sexy. The other evening, I gave one of a series of talks I’m doing round London on ‘What Has Europe Done for Us?’, in Beckenham. And yesterday, I attended an excellent seminar on Bulgaria and the EU at the European Parliakent office in London. But the problem is that at such events, one is usually preaching to or discussing with the converted. There needs to be a massive effort at putting Europe across to the general public in an accessible, informative and attractive way. This won’t come from a Gordon Brown government, and certainly not from the Conservatives, so a great responsibility rests on the shoulders of the Liberal Democrats.

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Ed Davey and Midsummer Madness

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 22nd June, 2007

ed-davey-1.jpgEd Davey, MP for Kingston and Surbiton, was the guest speaker at a Richmond Park LibDems fundraising Midsummer dinner last night at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park. Pimms was quaffed, to the accompaniment of a wind quartet, out on the terrace before dinner by candlelight — the latter more a nod to the energy-saving Lights Out London than to romance. In his speech, Ed gave a broad tour d’horizon of the campaigning challenges for the party locally and London-wide, as well as highlighting some of the new tools at our disposal, including a more sophisticated use of data aggregation and online possibilities, such as targetted email shots and Facebook (at which Steve Webb is the undoubted master amongst LibDem MPs).

Inevitably, given the surprises of the last few days, there were questions and discussion about the trap that Gordon Brown had laid, by suggesting that some senior LibDem figures could be embraced into his forthcoming government. Ed stressed that there was never any quesion of this being considered, and being Chief of Staff of Ming Campbell’s office, he should know. The important thing was to continue to assert the party’s independence and to champion key messages and distinctive policies. He was confident that a good number of Labour parliamentary seats will fall at the next general election, and that the Tories can be kept at bay in places like Richmond Park.

In the meantime, we have a busy summer ahead of us, with important local by-elections in Camden, Ealing and Hounslow, to mention but three, a parliamentary by-election in Southall, and the run-up to next year’s London Mayoral and Greater London Assembly elections, in which London South West (Hounslow, Kingston and Richmond) is a target constituency seat, with Stephen Knight ably flying the flag. So quaff ye Pimms while ye may!

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Japan Faces up to Its Global Responsiblities

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 21st June, 2007

sadako-ogata.jpgSadako Ogata, President of the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) addressed a meeting put on by the Overseas Development Institute this lunchtime, in the Grimond Room at Portcullis House, Westminster, with Malcolm Bruce, MP, in the chair. Her theme was ‘Japan 2008′, as Japan will be presiding over the G8 next year and Tokyo will also host the fourth eponymous conference on development assistance. This provides a good opportunity for stock-taking. In 2000, Japan was the world’s number one donor to developing countries by volume, but subsequently has slipped to third place, behind the USA and Britain. Mrs Ogata — who was for many years the high-profile head of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR — now has to try to reverse that trend, as well as overseeing the merger of JICA with her country’s international loans agency.

She spoke of her determination to shift JICA’s focus more towards Africa and to favour community development, as opposed to some of the failed top-down models of the past. I asked her whether JICA had the Japanese public behind it on these matters, being well aware that the Japanese aid budget was cut largely because of public (and business sector) reluctance to be generous overseas while Japan was going through an economic recession. Her reply indicated that she will target young people in particular, through programmes in schools and through volunteering. Interestingly, she is especially keen to encourage Japanese school teachers to do work in developing countries for a couple of years, which would not only help raise education standards in the recipient countries, but also make them a formidable tool in development education when they return home.

Tony Blair, to his credit, used Britain’s chairmanship of the G8 to highlight the plight of Africa, even if some NGOs and critics such as Bob Geldof question how genuine the G8’s commitment has been. Now it up to Japan to pick up the baton, with Prime Minister Abe being chivied on by Mrs Ogata from the sidelines.

Link: www.jica.go.jp/english

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In Memoriam Vilma Espin

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 19th June, 2007

vilma-espin.jpgThe ‘First Lady of Cuba’, Vilma Espin Guillois, has died. The wife of acting leader Raul Castro (and thereby sister-in-law of El Comandante, Fidel), she was a great revolutionary figure in her own right. Like all the best Communists, she came from impeccable bourgeois stock. Her father was an executive with the Bacardi rum company. As a youngster she was based in Santiago de Cuba, in the east of the island, and she joined the revolutionary struggle against the dictator, Fulgencio Batista, as early as 1956 — a full three years before the successful overthrow of the ancien regime. She married Raul in the aftermath of the 1959 takeover and soon established herself as the foremost champion of women’s rights, in the profoundly macho milieu of the guerrilla movement: Fidel, Che and Co.

When the Cuban Federation of Women was founded in 1960, she became its first President, and remained in that post until her death. In that guise, she headed the Cuban delegations to the UN Women’s conferences in Mexico City, Copenhagen, Nairobi and Beijing. She had four children and seven grandchildren, belonging to that school of feminists who believe that espousing women’s rights does not mean eschewing family.

When Cuba celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Revolution in 1999, I made a radio documentary for the BBC World Service, and I was both pleased and surprised to be summoned to meet Vilma Espin (in Cuba, one doesn’t so much bid for interviews as get bidden by people who feel they have something to say). We met in a luxurious villa in the Miramar district of Havana. I barely had time to ask my first question before she set off on a discursive ramble about her life, the history of the Revolution and the state of the world and US imperialism. My producer and I recorded the first hour or so, but then mimed putting cassettes into the machine, as we had more than enough material, and it was clear she had no intention of stopping. For three hours she reminisced, without a break. Not as long as Fidel’s classic speeches, of course, but very much of a kind.

It was monologue, not dialogue, and gave no opportunity for probing, but it was of course fascinating. I still treasure the picture that was taken of the two of us afterwards, under a painting of Che Guevara. The rest of the gerontocracy is still in place in Havana, needless to say. Not for long, logic tells us. In 1999, it looked as if a new generation, headed by the dynamic Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina, might take over the baton, but that was not to be, as he was purged in 2002. So Cubans are left wondering what on earth will happen when the Grim Reaper pays his inevitable call.

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