Jonathan Fryer

Archive for October, 2009

Liberal International Congress in Cairo

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 31st October, 2009

Democratic Front PartyThe core theme of the 56th Liberal International Congress in Cairo is education and its relationship to democracy, which has enabled participants from around the world to cover a wide range of issues from communications technology to religion. This is the first time that the Congress has  been held in Egypt, which is a tribute to our hosts, the Democratic Front Party (DFP), which was only formally launched two years ago. When I first discussed the possibility of a new, genuinely liberal, modern party in Egypt with Dr Osama Al Ghazali Harb a few years ago, it was far from certain that it would be allowed to exist (new parties need permission from a commission which is effectively run by the ruling party of President Hosni Mubarak, the National Democratic Party or NDP). Moreover, at the time another small liberal party, El Ghad, had been seriously undermined by the fact that its leader and former presidential candidate, Ayman Nour, was in prison. Perhaps partly because of pressure from Washington, however, the Egyptian government has allowed a certain amount of democratic openness, though within definite strict limits. And the harrassment of some opposition groups continues.

Anyway, the DFP was set up and has managed to attract some high profile members and supporters. Despite an attempt by somebody with a hidden agenda wrongfully to smear the Democratic Front as anti-semitic on the eve of the Congress, the party was welcomed into full membership of Liberal International yesterday. El Ghad (already a member) is also represented here. Ayman Nour, who was released from prison earlier this year, put in an appearance yesterday, though he could not say anything, as he is forbidden by the terms of his release from participating in the political process. Of course, many of the concepts of political liberalism (especially social liberalism) are unknown to the mass of the Egyptian population. But as the country develops and the political landscape changes in the post-Mubarak era (not even he is immortal), it will be fascionating to monitor what evolves.

Link (in Arabic): www.democraticfront.org

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Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 30th October, 2009

Bibliotheca AlexandrinaI spent most of yesterday in the Library in Alexandria in the company of other members of the Liberal International Executive, as a prelude to the LI Congress now going on in Cairo. The Director, Dr Ismail Seralgeldin — who was Vice-President of the World Bank before taking up the post — gave an impressive presentation on how he sees the Bibliotheca Alexandrina both as a repository for knowledge and as a tool in helping build civil society from the bottom up. The Library stands almost exactly on the site of its famous predecessor of Classical times which, it is now believed, was burnt down by Christian zealots. The Library was reborn after what Dr Seralgeldin described wrily as a ‘short hiatus of 1,600 years’ and has already taken on a global signifiance, as well as serving the needs of local people, many hundreds of whom were milling round the library buildings, which house various museums (including one dedicated to the assassinated President Anwar Sadat), a planetarium and other facilities.

The building, which presents an enormous slanting wall of glass towards the sea, has won many architectural awards, though personally I find its external aspect hideous. Inside, however, is a different matter, with a huge but atmospheric reading room, a ‘super-computer’ and all sorts of things to gawp at. As an environment, it provided the perfect backdrop to a Congress which is looking particularly at the issue of Education in the 21st century, though as ever a significant part of the early Congress proceedings has involved the admission of various parties from around the world as either full or observer members, including our hosts, the Democratic Front Party (wrongly criticised in a Wall Street Journal article earlier this week), which only two years after its creation has managed to organise this landmark event.

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Setback for Democracy in Egypt

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 25th October, 2009

Ayman Nour 2Only days before the Liberal International is due to hold its Congress in Cairo, the prominent Egyptian Liberal Ayman Nour, leader of the El Ghad party, has reportedly been set upon by a dozen plainclothes thugs as he left a restaurant in the Red Sea resort of Hurghada with colleagues. According to a local news agency report, an official from the US State Department happened to be with Mr Nour’s party and managed to photograph the assault, despite attempts by the thugs to grab his camera. Members of the party phoned the police to come and help, but none showed up — which only deepens suspicions that someone high up wanted to intimidate the party. Ayman Nour is a human rights lawyer and a disqualified MP, who was only released from prison in February, on grounds of ill-health, after serving nearly five years on charges viewed by outside observers as spurious. In contrast, his release was seen as a gesture of goodwill to the United States and the European Union, which have been putting strong pressure on the Egyptian government to do more than just give lip service to democratisation. Obviously it is too soon to know exactly who was behind the Hurghada assault, but this bodes ill for the Liberal International Congress, at which Ayman Nour is scheduled to be one of the leading Egyptian participants.

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Speaking Truth to Power in Brussels

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th October, 2009

Berlaymont and flagsI spent most of the day at a seminar, just over the street for the European Commision’s Berlaymont Building, celebrating 30 years of existence of the Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA). In the early 1970s, soon after Britain joined the then European Community, a number of us Quakers living in Brussels — most working for the European institutions, but me as a journalist initially with  Reuters and then freelance — decided that there deserved to be a ‘still, small voice’ of reason in the self-styled Capital of Europe, raising humanitarian and social concerns with the European institutions and with NATO, whose headquarters is in the same city. This is what Quakers historically have called ‘speaking turth to power’. It took us four years to persuade the wider Quaker community that this was an appropriate thing to do. Though the Religious Society of Friends (as Quakers are more properly known) had long had offices essentially lobbying the United Nations in both New York and Geneva, some Friends (notably in Norway and Sweden) were worried that we would be getting too close to mammon by embarking on a similar operation in Brussels.

William PennAnyway, to cut a long story short, the ‘Scandinavian hesitations’ (as they became known) were overcome and we set up QCEA in 1979, initially on a very modest basis. Since then it has grown significantly (not always entirely smoothly) and has tackled such issues as conscientious objection, the treatment of women prisoners, sustainable living and peace witness. As we were reminded today, the origins of the project — and indeed of some of the European institutions — date back much further. Three hundred years ago, the Quaker William Penn — who went on to found what he hoped would be a peaceable kingdom in Pennsylvania — wrote a pamphlet while he was studying in France, at a time when the continent had been ravaged by decades of war, saying that what was needed was a sort of European Parliament, where people would discuss, not fight. Well, we now have one and for the past 30 years (coincidentally since the birth of QCEA), the citizens of the ever-expanding European Union have been able to vote directly for members of the European Parliament. I still hope to be among their number one day, then my own mission will be complete.

Link: http://www.quaker.org/qcea

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Hungary Celebrates 20 Years of Central European Freedom

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 22nd October, 2009

Hungarian coat of armsThe Hungarian Embassy in London’s Belgravia was heaving this lunchtime for the country’s National Day celebrations. Given the crush and the balmy autumn weather, the place soon became a Turkish bath. But this did not diminish the enthusiasm of the gathering, which was opened by a short speech of welcome from Ambassador Borbala Czako, who recalled the extraordinary events of 1989, when Hungary suddenly opened its border with Austria and a great crocodile line of East Germans in their phutting Trabants pootled through, joyous at being able to get away from the DDR. In the weeks and months that followed, the whole of Central Europe — including most amazingly the DDR itself — abandoned Communism and its alleigance to the Soviet Union. But who in 1989 would have predicted that Hungary would get into NATO just ten years later, and become a member of the European Union just five years after that? So as Ambassador Czako said, today we were celebrating what was effectkvely 20 years of Hungary’s true independence and freedom. Of course, things have not always been easy since then and Hungary is feeling the pinch of the economic and financial crisis more severely than most. But at least Hungarians can now look forward with hope.

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Brian Paddick Back on the Lewisham Beat

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 19th October, 2009

Brian Paddick 1Only one in a hundred reported crimes in London actually gets solved, which means that those criminals who do get caught feel very hard done by. That was the gruesome message delivered by former senior Metropolitan police officer (and LibDem London Mayoral candidate) Brian Paddick at the Blackheath Supper Club this evening. He was very much on home territory, having been Chief Inspector in Lewisham for a while (though his name is usually more intimately associated with Lambeth). The solution to this lamentable record in getting more convictions, he said, was in building a new kind of trust between police and community, so that people in areas where the criminals are well known would actually feel confident enough in the police to share the necessary information. Interestingly, when he toured a problem estate with some black youths not so long ago and asked them what they thought the police should be doing, they replied, ‘More stop-and-search!’ But what they meant, of course, was stopping and searching armed thugs whose identity is well known within local communities, rather than the current practice of blanket stop-and-search based largely on ethnic profiling. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour seem to have found the answer to London’s policing dilemma. The question now is whether the LibDems, benefiting from Brian’s advice, can offer a viable alternative.

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What Some Tories Would Rather We Didn’t Know

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 18th October, 2009

Michal Kaminski ToriesToday’s ‘Observer’ has details of an attempted cover-up by someone who would prefer that the world doesn’t know the far-right past of Michal Kaminski, leader of the European Conservative and Reformist group (ECR) in the European Parliament, to which the British Conservatives belong. Mr Kaminski was formerly a member of the neo-fascist National Revival of Poland Party, before leaving to join the more mainstream but nonetheless ultra-conservative (and some say anti-Semitic and homophobic)  Law and Justice party (PiS). But this fact was recently removed from his Wikipedia entry by persons unknown, whom The Observer has traced to the House of Commons. What makes the affair even more remarkable is that someone else (this time operating out of Strasbourg, the main seat of the European Parliament) has doctored the Wikipedia entry of Edward McMillan-Scott, MEP,as well. Mr McMillan-Scott, regular readers of this blog will recall, was expelled from the Tory Party after he stood against Michal Kaminski to become a Vice-President of the Parliament, and won. Mr Kaminski was given the chairmanship of th ECR as a sort of consolation prize for this rebuff.

Edward McMillan-ScottSo what does Mr McMillan-Scott think of what is going on? He told The Observer, ”My record was … changed to paint me as a Euro-fanatic. More seriously, there is a systematic cover-up by the Conservative Party of Kaminski’s unpleasant political past.’ That ‘unpleasant political past’ didn’t stop the Conservatives inviting Mr Kaminski as a guest of honour at their recent party conference in Manchester. By their friends shall they be known. Nick Clegg’s take on all this is, ‘The Conservative Party should come clean. If this is the Tory party trying to airbrush the embarrassing past of their new friend in Europe from the record, they should have the courage to say so.’ That is the crux of the matter. Was this tampering with Wikipedia sanctioned by the party hierarchy, or was it some young researcher acting on his or her own initiative? We need to be told. Either way, this childish attempt to conceal the truth has spectacularly backfired.

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LibDems Seize Bedford Mayoralty

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 16th October, 2009

Dave Hodgson campaigningGiven the lukewarm attitude of many Liberal Democrat councillors towards the still rather new system of directly-elected mayors, there’s a delightful irony in the fact that Dave Hodgson has just won the Bedford mayoralty for the party in a by-election caused by the death of the independent incumbent, the journalist and publisher Frank Branston. The Conservative candidate, Parvez Akhtar, came a strong second, while Labour trailed in fifth place behind two independents. Dave Hodgson is a familiar figure in party circles, having done sterling political work around the country, including organising membership recruitment training sessions. He really dug himself in in Bedford, in the best tradition of LibDem community politics, and now follows in the footsteps of Dorothy Thornhill, LibDem Mayor of Watford. It’s interesting how even when the LibDems are seemingly stuck around 20 per cent in the opinion polls and often get a pretty poor Press, where they work, they can win. Dave’s victory should be an encouragement  to those who believe that there is everything to play for in British politics over the next six months.

Link: http://bedfordlibdems.org

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Lord Lipsey on Electoral Reform

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 15th October, 2009

Lord LipseyThe Labour peer and former political editor of The Economist, David Lipsey, spoke on electoral reform at the Kettner lunch at the National Liberal Club today. As one might expect, he was largely preaching to the converted. As he was a member of the Jenkins Commission on electoral reform — whose findings have, alas, largely been  ignored by the Labour governments ever since — he was able to blend authority with anecdote. I loved his story about one  meeting of the Commission, at which Roy ordered a bottle of claret for the members, and then a second one just for himself. Despite this, he gave a lucid and brilliant summary of what had been said, ordred a gin and tonic when he got on the train back to London, then promptly fell fast asleep. It’s more than a pity that Lord Jenkins is not still around to weigh into the discussion now, at a time when most of the Brtish public seems to think that politics is broken and that bringing in electoral reform is maybe one part of the solution to mend it. Unfortunately, despite the good efforts of people such as Lord Lipsey, the Labour government has only agreed to put the offer of a referendum on electoral reform in its manifesto for the next general election, which it is most unlikely to win.

I have always been uncomfortable with the Jenkins Commission’s recommendation for the adoption of the AV+ system of voting in general elections for the House of Commons, rather than the more proportional STV (with which the electors of Ireland cope well). But David Lipsey is no fan of STV himself, mainly, he says, because it weakens the link between voter and parliamentarian. Anyway, it looks as if  any future change would be to AV+ (in which voters list candidates in a single-member constituency in order of preference, then the bottom ones successively drop out and have their first preferences redistributed, until one candidate achieves more than 50% and is declared elected. The ‘+’ bit would be a top-up list to ensure that parties come out of the whole elction with an overall share of representation more or less proportional to their total vote). But maybe this discussion still remains academic. As David Lipsey said, the likehood of it happening anytime soon is very slim.

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Charles Kennedy at the Zoo

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 14th October, 2009

Charles Kennedy 4Westminster Liberal Democrats may find it difficult to get anyone elected to public office — though they always put up a good fight, as in last week’s West End ward by-election — but they do know how to put on great social events. Tonight, thanks to Mark Blackburn, PPC for Westminster North, they organised a splendid dinner in the Blackburn tropical aviary at London Zoo in Regent’s Park, at which former party leader Charles Kennedy was the guest speaker. Charles was loudly heckled by toucans, coots and other variegated winged species, who seemed to think it was great fun to have all these people sitting around candle-lit tables in their full view. Charles believes that despite the rather mixed outcomes of the Bournemouth party conference last month (mansion tax and ‘savage cuts’ spring to mind), the party will go into next year’s general election with a challenge as exciting as that presented when the Alliance so nearly made the big breakthrough in 1983. Labour is seemingly on the mat, while the Tories don’t yet enthuse. The atmosphere is quite different from that at the end of the John Major government, when so many people invested hope in Tony Blair (how wrong we were!). In the question and answer session after Charles’s speech, I suggested that the LibDems basically have to get a very simple message over to the electorate over the next six months or so: ‘Yes, there IS an alternative!’, and woo those people who might otherwise vote Conservative, not out of conviction but out of despair.

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