Jonathan Fryer

Archive for January, 2011

Who Is Mohamed ElBaradei?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 30th January, 2011

Though this week’s street protests in Egypt have conveyed a clear message, namely that the Egyptian people want President Hosni Mubarak to stand down, the movement has lacked a clear leader around whom it can coalesce. The name that has nonetheless been in the frame for some time has been Mohamed ElBaradei, the 68-year-old former head of the International Atomic Agency (IAEA), who has spent much of his professional life abroad, including a stint as part of Egypt’s mission to the United Nations in New York. He attracted some criticism earlier in the week for not stepping up forcefully as a potential replacement for Mubarak, and in fact only returning to Egypt very late in the process of what one can now call a Revolution, but it woud seem that he has been busy behind the scenes, building a wide coalition of opposition forces. That coalition includes more than a dozen political parties (though obviously not the ruling NDP) and, significantly, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic force that is in principle outlawed but in practice plays a significant role in society. The Muslim Brotherhood has endorsed ElBaradei as a spokesman for this new coalition, which could pave the way to his becoming interim President — though for that to happen, Mubarak must stand down. If he wants to escape a worse fate, Mubarak would be well advised to do that as soon as possible, leaving the way open for ElBaradei and a transition to a more open and democratic society which is responsive to the Egyptian people’s real needs.

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When Will the West Stop Backing Dictators?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 29th January, 2011

The message from Cairo and other Egyptian cities could not be clearer: the people want octogenarian President Hosni Mubarak to leave. Already more than 100 have died in the biggest uprising since Mubarak came to power 30 years ago. They are fed up with the denial of true democracy and the reality of a police state in which the torture of detainees is endemic. The police have disappeared over the past 72 hours, which has encouraged an outbreak of looting and violent crime; some people accuse those involved of being security forces with their uniform off, deliberately creating chaos. Whatever the truth of that, it is the army which is now trying to maintain order — and many soldiers are bonding well with the protestors. Everyone in the street seems to believe the only course open now is for Mubarak to stand down, but he has dug his heels in. Shamefully, his Western allies seem to be backing him on this, merely urging him to allow peaceful demonstrations. Mubarak has spoken to both Barack Obama and David Cameron in recent hours, but no indication has been given that they have told him to recognise the truth: that his people hate him. They are discrediting themselves by standing by him. Of course, both the United States and Britain have a long history of supporting dictators, or at least of not pulling the carpet from underneath their feet. Pulling the carpet from under the feet of Mubarak is exactly what the United States — and to a lesser extent, the EU — can do. It is time to do it.

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International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 27th January, 2011

Cities round much of the world will be marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day today, as several years ago the United Nations designated 27 January, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. Last night, the Slovak Embassy in London held a memorial event that mixed glorious music (courtesy of members of the Slovak National Opera) with moving testimony by Holocaust survivors and other reatives of those who perished in the worst case of genocide in human history. The Jews were the largest group who were condemned by Hitler’s Final Solution, but as a Polish rabbi who spoke at the event pointed out, political prisoners, gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled, amongst others, all were declared undesirable and destined for extermination. It is hard to credit that there are still Holocaust deniers in this world, given all the physical and documentary evidence, which is why it is important that new generations are made aware of what happened. And even those, like myself, who often find the policies of the present Israeli government towards the Palestinians despicable — as well as illegal — and so campaign for justice and respect for International Law in the Middle East, must not forget what happened to the Jews in the last century.

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Michael Crockart’s Love Story

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 26th January, 2011

Edinburgh West’s MP Michael Crockart gave an unusual spin to his Toast to the Immortal Memory at the 20th annual Burns Night Supper hosted by Merton Liberal Democrats in South West London last night when he drew on images from love poems of Robert Burns to illustrate what had happened last May following the General Election. It was not so much My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose but rather My Love is Like a Green, Green Tree, Mike declared, as the slightly reduced band of LibDem MPs were ‘love-bombed’ by the Tories. It was whirlwind romance, but the proposition was one that could not be turned down. However, as within all relationships, there has to be give and take — but also there are limits to one’s tolerance. The line that could not be crossed came as early as last month for Mike Crickart, when he felt he had to vote against the raising of university tuition fees, and therefore to resign from his government position as PPS to the Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore. He was, of course, not alone; amongst his fellow rebels was Jenny Willott, MP for Cardiff Central, whose mother, Alison — who had come up from Cardiff specially for last night’s occasion — gave the reply from the Lassies (to Councillor Iain Dysart’s Toast) at the Merton dinner, reprising a script she used at the very first dinner 20 years ago — still as fresh and witty now as then.

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Self-Immolation

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 23rd January, 2011

Hardly a day goes by in these febrile times than somebody sets fire to themselves in an act of protest or desperation, sometimes fatally, sometimes not. Either way, it’s a drastic step to take. In the case of Mohammed Bouazizi, the youth from Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, who set himself alight after police stopped him selling fruit from his cart, the action helped precipitate the public protests that led to the exile of dictatorial President Ben Ali. Copy-cat self-immolation has occurred across North Africa and beyond sine then, though so far without such a dramatic outcome. Of course, the tactic is not new. When I was a journalist in Saigon, several Vietnamese monks torched themselves in the street in protest at the oppressive South Vietnamese regime and the civil war. Whatever the political consequences of such protest action, it comes at a terrible price. Even if the person who has set fire to themselves does not die, he or she is nearly always horribly disfigured and condemned to excruciating pain. It is a testimony to the anguish within that they can put themselves through such torment.

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Andrew Stunell’s Hot Potato

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 19th January, 2011

Andrew Stunell, Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (and LibDem MP for Hazel Grove), returned to his South-West London roots this evening when he spoke to a Richmond Liberal Democrats Potato and Politics in the Vestry Hall in Paradise Road. He laid out the achievements that the Liberal Democrat partners in the Coaliti0n Government had scored, but this did not stop the audience of local party members putting some pretty tough questions to him, particularly relating to social housing, planning, benefits and health. Andrew stressed repeatedly that the government had to tackle the appalling financial situation it inherited from Labour. We are still having to borrow £400 million a day to close the gap between spending and revenue, he said, which helps put the cuts into perspective. He felt bitter about the way the Guardian in particular has really gone for the jugular in its reporting of the Coalition, and especially the LibDems, which I felt was fair comment, even though I sometimes write for that august organ! He pointed out that 200-odd points out of 300-odd points in the last Liberal Democrat manifesto had made it into the Coalition Agreement. Almost evey week there is a ‘win’, even if some of the Labour-leaning Press concentrates on the negatives. I cheekily asked him how he got on with his Minister, Eric Pickles, but apparently another Guardian journalist had asked him the same question over lunch and his answer to me was distinctly coy. All in all a robust performance, nonetheless, even if no everyone in the room left totally mollified.

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Caroline Pidgeon Goes Thai in Brockley

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 18th January, 2011

Tonight was the not the first time LibDem London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon has spoken to a Lewisham party dinner, though in the old days these extremely convivial evnings were known as the Blackheath Supper Club and did indeed migrate around the many good and exotic restaurants of the northern part of the borough. But this evening we were down in Brockley, for a Thai meal at which Caroline put a discreet stiletto into Mayor Boris Johnson in absentia. She is the lead person on transport, which is perhaps the most important single brief within the GLA and ceratainly the subject that gets most people agitated. The shock-horror news of this evening’s presentation was that many millions of pounds have been wasted — notably at Shepherd’s Bush tube station — introducing accessibility (i.e. lifts), to no effect, as the shafts are non-functional. Similarly, Boris made a great hoo-ha about replacing bendy buses with his new style Routemasters, but the latter will be few in number and horrendously costly. Moreover, their back open platform will only function off-peak. Boo-hiss. Caroline will be leading the LibDem team in next year’s GLA elections and a good thing too. She has proved a bit hit in London and continues to provide a service which ought to be apreciated by far more than those who actually vote for her and the party.

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Bojo at the Mansion House

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 14th January, 2011

The London Government Dinner really kicks off the calendar year in London politics. At least this year it was held in the second, not the first, week of January, so many people — including myself — were able to attend. There were fewer LibDems around than last time I was there (about four years ago), which was a sad reflection of the fact that the Labour Party did so well in Council elections in London last May (even though it lost the General Election). But it is good that each year a wide variety of new people do get to see a stunning building, brilliantly maintained and with a collection of pictures that takes the breath away. The main speaker, as is traditional, was not the Lord Mayor of London (whose fiefdom is the City), but his confusing namesake for the whole of this great city, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Boris’s hair was shorter than usual — though still looking as if it had been cut by one of his children with sewing scissors — and his speech was the usual charming ramble; I feel asleep at one point but woke up when he was highlighting the export of chocolate hobnobs to India. Bizarre, certainly, but classic Boris.

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Challenges for the EU in 2011

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 13th January, 2011

When former Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy was chosen as President of the European Council, there was much derision in the puerile British Press: crude jokes about ‘Rumpy-Pumpy’ and fatuous remarks about how he wouldn’t even make the list of 10 Famous Belgians. But in fact, he was in many ways the ideal choice, having dealt with the Belgian budget when it was drowning in debt and having been used to managing a government of five difficult Coalition partners. It’s not his fault that he looks like a compassionate undertaker, as I can confirm, having attended the presentation he gave at a splendid event at Europe House in Smith Square this lunchtime. But what a cool cookie he is. It would have been a disaster if a ‘star’ such as the ghastly Tony Blair had got the job, as he would inevitably have taken initiatives, which is not the Council President’s role. He chairs the (seemingly ever frequent) meetings of Heads of State and Heads of Government of the 27 member states and soothes them into reaching a compromise which can then be put into practuce. Herman van Rompuy clearly gets on well with most of the top men and women he has to deal with, and indeed told us that he had had a very fruitful encounter with David Cameron at 10 Downing Street before coming on to Europe House. The year ahead holds many challenges on the economic front, though the eurozone goes relatively confidently forward, whatever its critics say, while on the external front, strengthening the partnership with (and I hope eventual membership of) Turkey remains a rop priority.

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Norway and the EU

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 12th January, 2011

The people of Norway have twice voted — by a narrow margin — to stay out of the European Union, even though many of the so-called opinion formers in Oslo favour membership. So it was interesting to get the (relatively new) Norwegian Ambassador Kim Traavik’s take on the matter when he spoke at an Association of European Journalists UK Section lunch at Europe House today. The Ambassador was speaking off the record, but that does not stop me making some background comments and personal observations. The bizarre situation Norway is now in is that it has to comply with EU law (being part of the European internal mrket, as well as the Schengen area), yet has no say in how such laws are formulated. Of course, Norwegians hardly look on their EU neighbours with envy. The country posts regular large surpluses thanks mainly to its oil and gas and has built up a massive sovereign wealth fund — investing some of that in Britain. But if Iceland is successul in its bid to join the EU, then Norway is going to find itself alone with tiny Leichtenstein in the rump European Economic Area. I don’t think that prospect bothers the Norwegians much, however. So whatever the EU’s fortunes over the next few years, I don’t think we will be seeing a third Norwegian approach re membership in the forseeable future.

(photo: EU-delgasjonen)

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