Jonathan Fryer

Archive for July, 2008

In Memoriam Russell Johnston

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 28th July, 2008

Today should have been Lord Russell-Johnston’s 76th birthday, but sadly he died yesterday, thereby depriving the Liberal Democrats of one of their great characters (and ardent Europeans). Russell incorporated his Christian name into his title when he was made a life peer in 1997. Previously he had been an MP in Inverness for over 30 years, at one time holding the seat on the smallest share of the vote of any winning candidate in British politics, thanks to an almost balanced four-party split.

I last saw Russell three weeks ago, when he was one of the guest speakers at the Liberal International British Group’s annual garden party. It was clear he was far from well, yet he treated us to his usual incisive analyses of the current political situation, as well as his sardonic wit. During the 30-odd years that I knew him, it was his humour that I most savoured. I first encountered him when he was an appointed member of the European Parliament, but we saw each other more often when he joined the Council of Europe Assembly, becoming its President for several years, a role he fulfilled with great panache (which was also reflected in his large, bold and flowing signature). He loved a good gossip over a glass of whisky, but he was also quite an intellectual heavyweight and a convinced internationalist who produced half a dozen books, including two volumes of speeches.

I’ll be writing his obituary elsewhere.

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Sarah un-Teathered

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 27th July, 2008

Sarah Teather was the guest of honour at the Holborn and St Pancras LibDem summer lunch today, in the home and garden of Camden councillor David Simmons and his wife, but she didn’t have to speak, which was probably a relief for both her and the guests who were lapping up the sun and the generous hospitality. It’s important that politicians have ‘time off’, even when they are at a political event, just to chat to people and enjoy themselves. Sarah Teather works her socks off as MP for Brent East — which is why she not only held her seat after the sensational 2003 by-election but actually increased her majority in 2005.

The neighbouring boroughs of Camden and Brent — alas not coupled as a GLA constiuency, otherwise the LibDems would be in a good position to win it — have seen a great swing to the Bird of Liberty in recent years. As has been well trumpeted, that makes the new seat of Hampstead and Kilburn very interesting for LibDem candidate Ed Fordham. The Tories see it as  three-way marginal, but after boundary changes, the figures make it a close fight between Labour and the LibDems. Moreover, given Labour’s unpopularity, Frank ‘Father Christmas’ Dobson’s Holborn and St Pancras is also highly winnable — which is why the young barrister candidate Jo Shaw is working her socks off, a la Teather, too.

Link: www.holbornandstpancras.org.uk

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I’m Starting to Feel Sorry for Gordon

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 26th July, 2008

Since becoming Prime Minister, Gordon Brown has had a hangdog expression that is painful to behold. And as P.G. Wodehouse memorably remarked, it is never difficult to tell the difference between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine. Gordon has taken quite a kicking from the bumptious Alex Salmond at Glasgow East and now looks positively terminal. Wouldn’t it be kinder to put him out of his misery? No wonder David Cameron is leaping around like an eager young puppy, snapping at his heels, calling for an election. Labour MPs are for the main being desperately loyal in public, of course, though privately even some Cabinet members are gnashing their teeth and wishing the Prime Minister would fall on his sword. The trouble is, Labour has never really developed a tradition of regicide, unlike the Tories, who swiftly shoved both Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher aside, once they’d decided they were past their sell-by date. Does Labour have the courage?

In the meantime, the Liberal Democrats need be pouring effort into Labour-held seats, especially those in which the LibDem candidate moved into second place last time. While there may be slippage to the Tories in some parts of southern England, there should be rich pickings to be had in the North and parts of London, especially.

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Remembering Mrs Thatcher

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 25th July, 2008

For those of us who lived politically through the Thatcher years, it’s hard to realise that younger souls see the Iron Lady as history. This afternoon, the news editor of Gaydar Radio, Joanne Oatts, came round to interview me for a programme she is making about Britain’s only female Prime Minister. My début as a political candidate was in the first direct elections to the European Parliament in June 1979, just a month after Mrs Thatcher and the Conservatives had swept to power, and she dominated the scene for the next decade. She was deeply unpopular by early 1982, when the political pendulum seemed to swinging in the direction of the new Liberal/SDP Alliance. But the Falklands War was her making, at least in the short term, and a body-blow to the Alliance’s prospects.

With hindsight, I recognise that Mrs T did some necessary things in the early part of her period in office, though like most people of the centre-left, I disliked her at the time. And for LGBT people — the main focus of this afternoon’s interview — Clause 28 and the stance taken by some Conservative traditionalists, for whom ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone’s GLC and its special interest groups were anathema, were very negative. Nonetheless, behind the scenes, British social attitudes were changing in a more tolerant direction, even among many Conservatives.

I remember organising a Writers Day in Bromley Civic Centre — I was a local councillor at the time — in 1989, at the very end of Mrs Thatcher’s rule. Alan Hollinghurst came to talk about the idiosyncratic 1920s gay novelist Ronald Firbank (who was raised in Chislehurst) and Hanif Kureishi (who grew up in Bromley) read an extract from his novel in progress ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’. There was a stunned silence amongst the many Conservative councillors in the audience when the latter finished, as if in disbelief that such things could emerge from this most respectable of Tory-controlled London boroughs. But then the wife of the Mayor broke the ice by declaring loudly, ‘Well! That was different!’

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Telling in Westminster

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 24th July, 2008

While the voters of Glasgow East — or a least some of them — were going to the polls this afternoon, in what will be widely interepreted as a verdict on Gordon Brown, I did a stint of telling at a polling station for a Westminister Council by-election, in which Martin Thompson was the LibDem candidate. It’s a singularly British tradition to have volunteers sitting at the entrance of the polling station (some unkind presiding officers make one stand!), wearing coloured rosettes representing their party and asking voters for their registration numbers. There are always a few electors who refuse or who want to know why, though over the years the message has got across to most that it saves them the hassle of being ‘knocked up’ (such an unfortunate expression) later on. Though the recently-deceased councillor for Church Ward was Labour, the Conservatives were throwing everything they had at the campaign and large numbers of South Asian Conservative activists were chasing out the sizeable Muslim vote, so I wouldn’t be surprised if their (Muslim) candidate does very well.

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Bulgaria under the EU Spotlight

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 23rd July, 2008

The European Commission has suspended €500 million in funds destined for Bulgaria because of concerns over persistent corruption and organised crime. Both issues were highlighted in the the lead up to Bulgaria’s joining the EU in January last year, during which Sofia promised to tackle the twin problems, but as the Bulgarian Prime Minister, Sergei Stanishev, admits, ‘there is a discrepancy between the political will, which is a fact, and the achievement of concrete results.’ The Commission is also withdrawing the right of two Bulgarian agencies to administer EU funds.

Brussels hopes these measures will serve as a wake-up call to the Bulgarian government to get its house in order. An earlier draft of the Commission report was even tougher, threatening the suspension of Bulgaria’s progression to join both the Schengen area and the eurozone, but this was toned down at Sofia’s request. The pressure is really on Bulgaria now to show it can clean up its act, otherwise future enlargement, to take in countries such as Croatia, could be put at risk. I’ll be in Bulgaria next week, so I will be asking some tough questions.

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Swinson Makes Surbiton Happy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 22nd July, 2008

 Jo Swinson, MP for East Dunbartonshire, took an unusual tack at the Poppadom and Politics organised by Kingston Liberal Democrats in Surbiton this evening, when she talked about happiness. All too often, she argued, politicians concentrate on GDP rather than people’s sense of well-being. Britain’s GDP has risen three-fold since 1973, but does that mean the British people are happier? All the evidence suggests they are not. The Buddhist mountain kingdom of Bhutan does talk about happiness as a cornerstone of government policy (though Bhutan’s Nepalese minority, many of whom live in refugee camps, might query some aspects of that). Jo asked, ‘How can we measure happiness?’ And ‘What can we do to be happier?’ Wealth or material goods are certainly not the whole answer. The quality of personal relationships is important, but so too our work/life balance. As she said, more and more people spend longer in the office and longer commuting to work than they used to, adding to stress. Depression and other stress-related conditions are increasingly problems of affluent societies. But even if we have learnt better to deal with preventive medicine and healthier living so far as physical health is concerned, mental health only comes onto the agenda when people already have a problem. Jo realises that there is a danger that a politician — particularly a young woman politician — talking about happiness might be considered ‘fluffy’. But from the reaction of the people present this evening, it was clear most of us grasped the point that happiness is more important than most of the things that get debated on the floor of the House of Commons.

Links: www.joswinson.org.uk and www.kingstonlibdems.org

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Nick Clegg and Muslim Professionals

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 21st July, 2008

Nick Clegg was the guest speaker at a meeting held at Abrar House in central London tonight, organised by the City Circle, a group of predominantly young Muslim professionals, delightfully described by former London Mayoral aspirant candidate Fiyaz Mughal as ‘an open circle for open minds’ — a label Nick threatened to co-opt for the Liberal Democrats, if it is not copyright-protected. Nick gave a short presentation (without notes) about some of his fundamental beliefs and current concerns, with the sort of off-the-cuff sincerity that is fast becoming his trademark. Some of the themes were familiar, such as his justifiable claim that ‘politics is broken and needs to be fixed’. More people didn’t vote than voted Labour in the last two elections. He also articulated well the twin anxieties he has sensed while touring the country over the past six months, doing Town Hall meetings: first, the economic anxiety which is leaving many families worried about their short-term future; and second, an anxiety rooted in a feeling of powerlessness, which is dangerous, because it can lead to anger and apathy — a toxic combination.

More than half the meeting was devoted to a question and answer session, which encouraged Nick to speak up for restorative justice (as practised by community justice councils in LibDem-controlled areas, such as Chard in Somerset), more democratic accountability within a decentralised health service, and his newly enunciated policy of tax cuts for the poor, thereby giving them hope that they can change their lives. I particularly liked the robust answer he gave to an interviewer from Islam Channel TV, who asked on camera whether the LibDems are the party that can appeal to all Muslims. Nick replied, correctly and bravely: no; the party does not seek to co-opt various communities in some sort of sectarian struggle, but rather to appeal to individuals who share common values of fairness, tolerance and mutual respect, which can be religious or secular-based.

Link: www.thecitycircle.com

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Dark Deeds in Watford

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 20th July, 2008

Today’s ‘Observer’ has the story already highlighted by Mark Pack on Liberal Democrat Voice that the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Watford, Ian Oakley (who is a councillor for Northwood in the London Borough of Hilingdon), has resigned his candidature, following his arrest on Friday in connection with a prolonged campaign of harassment against Liberal Democrats in Watford, including criminal damage. The first-rate LibDem PPC for Watford Sal Brinton has been amongst those who have received poison pen letters and worse, in this marginal seat. In this country, of course, someone is innocent until proved guilty, so I shall say no more about the particular case of Cllr Oakley, who has been released on bail, and I will wait for the outcome of the police enquiries. However, as LibDem activists in various parts of the country are well aware, there are indeed certain individuals and groups within the Conservative Party that haven’t yet embraced David Cameron’s campaign to rid the Tories of their reputation of being the ‘nasty party’ (an astute epithet, for which we have to thank the Conservative MP for Maidenhead, Theresa May). In recent years, there have been useful groups calling themselves things like ‘Militant Watch’ and ‘Fascist Watch’, monitoring and exposing extremist political activists. Perhaps we should establish a ‘Nasty Tory Watch’ group doing the same sort of thing. I am sure David Cameron would be most grateful.

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Ming with Zing

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 19th July, 2008

Former party leader Menzies Campbell was in fine fettle at the Sutton Liberal Democrats’ annual garden party at Jayanta Chaterjee’s home this afternoon. Ming spilled few beans about the Henley away-day Nick Clegg convened yesterday, but instead urged us all to give loving support for the wives, partners and families of MPs — a point doubtless appreciated by his two local colleagues, Tom Brake and Paul Burstow, who were standing at his side. It is true that politics is a demanding business that puts terrible strains on relationships. Few voters have any idea how much domestic tranquility politicians often sacrifice for their benefit.

Former mayoral candidate Brian Paddick, also in the full flush of health, told a story whose point I didn’t quite grasp, about Puff the Magic Dragon. Something to do with Ken Livingstone, I think. Anyway, as Brian pulled my ticket out from the raffle, netting me a fine bottle of Rioja, who am I to complain?

Link: http://sutton-libdems.org.uk

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