Jonathan Fryer

Archive for September, 2011

Romania, the EU and the Euro

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 30th September, 2011

Despite all the woes the Eurozone has been going through, Romania is still keen on changing to the single currency and anticipates it will be ready by 2015. That point was made clear by Ambassador Ion Jinga at a Federal Trust seminar on the EU Economy: Lessons Learned by a Newcomer, held at the Romanian Cultural Institute in London’s Belgrave Square. The newest (along with Bulgaria) of the EU’s 27 member states, Romania has made giant strides since joining in 2007, as Radu Serban, one of the key speakers at the seminar, underlined. Wages are still low compared with the rest of the Union, but the country has rich resources, not least agriculture, which could become increasingly important if the world experiences a food crisis in a few years time, as some experts predict. A new EU member state has to be proactive, Mr Serban argued, explaining his country’s assertiveness. But he was advised by another speaker, the financial pundit David Marsh, that it might be prudent for Romania to wait a little longer before pressing its case to join the euro. ‘The euro is a type of seduction machine,’ David warned — though the Romanians present still seemed ready to be seduced.

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Why Britain Should Recognise a Palestine State

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 22nd September, 2011

Tomorrow, the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is expected to ask the United Nations Security Council for the world body to recognise Palestinian statehood. At least 130 of the 193 members of the General Assembly have already indicated that they will be voting ‘Yes’ if the issue goes there, which it could, if the US vetoes the move in the Security Council.. Britain is at present among the undecided, but the Coalition Government should prove its commitment to justice and back the Palestinians’ aspirations.

There are at least two compelling reasons for this.  First, there is the historical
responsibility. In persuading the Arabs to join the Allied effort in the First
World War in the fight against the Ottoman Turks and their German Allies, the
British gave a clear signal to Sherif Hussein of Mecca that an independent Arab state would emerge from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, a vast Arab land to be ruled by his Hashemite dynasty. This was, as it turned out, a pipe-dream – worse than that, a con-trick.

Two obstacles stood in the way of that Arab Awakening, as it was so properly described by the great Arab historical writer George Antonius, in his 1938 book bearing that title. First, there was the so-called Balfour Declaration, based on a letter sent in November 1917 by the then British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, to a leading member of the UK’s Jewish community, Lord Rothschild, declaring that the British government looked favourably on the idea of the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, providing the rights of the resident non-Jewish population were safeguarded.

The second obstacle was the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, which proposed – with no reference to the populations concerned – how the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire should be divided up after the War. This is more or less what happened after 1918. France got hold of what is now Syria and Lebanon, while Britain had a mandate over Transjordan (now Jordan) and Palestine. The UK was still nominally in charge of Palestine when the foundations of the modern state of Israel were laid, leading to the
unilateral declaration of independence by the Jewish State in 1948.

Though Britain was not the first country to recognise Israel, it did so relatively quickly, believing that the Jews who had suffered the unparalleled horrors of the Holocaust deserved a state of their own. Unfortunately, the process of creating Israel led to the expulsion – by force or through fear — of a large proportion of the resident Arab population, many of whom still live as refugees scattered around the Middle East and beyond.

Fast-forward six decades to the current situation, and what do we find? Israel has turned itself into a prosperous little state, through a mixture of hard work and massive public and private assistance from the United States. But for the past 44 years it has been occupying the West Bank – formerly part of Jordan – as well as the Golan Heights of Syria. Put aside the Golan for the moment, as it is the West Bank and its smaller ‘brother’, the Gaza Strip, which are meant to form the basis of a putative independent Palestinian state. Even the US President Barack Obama has recognised that the pre-1967 borders should be the basis for territorial agreement, though there will need to be some land swaps.

East Jerusalem is a critical issue, as it contains not only the third most holy sites for Muslims (after Mecca and Medina) but also it is seen by the Palestinians as the logical capital for a Palestinian state. Alas, the government of Binyamin Netanyahu – urged on by his hawkish Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman – is overseeing the judification of East Jerusalem, as more and more Muslims and Christians are squeezed out and new settlements for Jews are built. This is little short of ethnic cleansing.

Which brings me to the second reason why Britain should recognise Palestine when it comes to a vote in New York. This
question is not just a matter of historical legacy but also of the current imperative for Britain to put itself clearly on the side of justice – to give the Palestinians not only the statehood but also the dignity that they have been denied, not just since 1967 or even 1948, but ever since the British government conned them into believing an end to Ottoman rule would mean freedom and
self-government.

The UK’s Coalition government rightly threw its weight behind intervention in Libya, on the grounds that there was an
international Responsibility to Protect the Libyan people. The time has now come to recognise the Responsibility to Protect the Palestinian people as well, not by military intervention but by backing the statehood claim and getting Israel to cease its heavy-handed and illegal occupation. Of course, not all Britain’s EU partners will agree. The EU High Representative, Catherine Ashton,
who has been visiting Israel and Palestine on several occasions in recent months, knows she has an impossible task to put together a united EU front on the issue. Israel’s traditional supporters , including guilt-ridden Germany, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, to name but three, are likely to vote ‘No’ or at best abstain. The United States is very likely to use its veto (not for the first time), but that is no reason for Britain to take other than the moral high-ground. If Israel justly claims the right to exist, so can Palestine.

 

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Mark Allen’s Arabs

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 11th September, 2011

Mark Allen and I were contemporaries at Oxford University’s Oriental Institute, though he was studying Arabic (under the inimitable Freddie Beeston) while I was doing my first degree in Chinese and Japanese (under the aetherial David Hawkes). We were both refugees from our originally chosen subject; Classics in his case, Geography in mine. An interest in falconry and a career in the Foreign Office led Mark to spend a great deal of time in Arab lands, not least in the Arabian Peninsula (‘The Gulf’). Out of that was born his short book, Arabs (Continuum, 2006), which I suspect might be enjoying something of a comeback these days — at least from public libraries loans and sales via Amazon. In a bare 144 pages (including a useful short bibliography, though no index), he sets out various core concepts that are central to the Arab world and therefore essential for any outsider’s understanding of it: blood, religion, community, women, power, politics, modernity and language. I found the last main section particularly interesting and illuminating, as someone who gets by with Egyptian colloquial but blanches in the face of literary Arabic (especially when the soft vowels are omitted in written text). Freddie Beeston truthfully, but maybe unhelpfully, told Mark Allen that when learning Arabic, the first 25 years are the worst. Well, not many Westerners will even make the effort. But a short book like this, elegantly written, could be of use — though I suspect it will be enjoyed more by those who already have a certain degree of famliarity wih the Arab reality rather than those who are coming at it cold.

 

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Thanking Flick Rea

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 8th September, 2011

The National Liberal Club was awash with LibDems this evening, some for the Haringey local party’s annual dinner (at whose pre-dinner drinks Nick Clegg appeared and answered questions), others for the Thank You party for London Region’s longstanding Administrator, Flick Rea, who retired at the end of June — and a few, like myself, who were there for both. I hosted Flick’s ‘do’, at which former London Chair Brian Orrell (who hired her) and current regional President, (Baroness) Sally Hamwee, spoke and of course Flick herself contributed in her own inimitable way. We weren’t treated to a fair dose of her legendary Mrs Thatcher impression, but she did give us a nice taste of her irreverent but dedicated, even loving, attitude to the regional party. As I said in my own brief remarks, we are not saying farewell to her, for although she may no longer be working for the party, she is still a Councillor in Camden and will doubtless continue supporting its development, fortified with liberal helpings of her justly infamous port wine jelly.

 

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Liberal Democrat Friends of Brazil

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 7th September, 2011

As today is Brazilian Independence Day it’s a fitting moment to promote the new Liberal Democrat Friends of Brazil, whose steering group met at my house last night. There are several Brazilian nationals who are members of the party as well as people like me who either have Brazilian partners or else longstanding relations with the country. The idea of the group is to further knowledge in this country about the Brazilian economy, culture and politics, as well as encouraging greater UK-Brazil trade. Britain used to be a major ecnomic force in South America in the 19th centuy and early 20th century, but has been overtaken by others in most countries in the region, which is  a shame, to put it mildly. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, did go to Brazil earlier this year, accompanied by other government figures, and Taunton LibDem MP Jeremy Browne is the Minister at the Foreign and Commonwelath Office with responsibility for Latin America. So there is solid ground on which to build. LibDem Friends of Brazil will have a modest presence at the Party conference in Birmingham later this month and members who would be interested in getting involved are invited to contact david.nsimmons@btopenworld.com

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Launching Brian Paddick

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 5th September, 2011

Brian Paddick’s campaign as the Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of London had its press launch at the Party’s new national HQ in Westminster this morning, with most of the GLA List candidates — headed by Caroline Pidgeon — also present. Media included the BBC, ITN and the Press Association, as well as Spectrum Radio. Simon Hughes MP, deputy leader of the LibDems, introduced Brian, making the point that recent events in London have underlined why having a candidate with hands-on experience of policing is singularly relevant. The current Mayor, Boris Johnson, has proved his inability to oversee London’s policing personally, whereas Brian would relish the task. Inevitably, law and order figured prominently in the Q&A at the launch, but Brian was keen to emphasize the fact that he is not a one-trick pony. He has the expertise of the current GLA members — Dee Doocey, Caroline Pidgeon and Mike Tuffrey — to draw on, and he will now embark on a listening exercise during which he will go round every borough in the city, finding out what is on people’s minds so the public can have an input into the final London LibDem manifesto that will be unveiled in the New Year.

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Dr Pack’s Instant Remedy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 4th September, 2011

Hackney Liberal Democrats must be unique in London in having organised four garden parties this summer. The latest, this afternoon, was a bit unusual, in that both the host, Dave Raval, and the booked speaker, Andy May, were unable to attend because of pressing family concerns. But the show must go on and organiser Geoff Payne had quickly found a replacement attraction in the new media guru Dr Mark Pack, who gave an interesting, discursive presentation taking as its starting point the Guardian correspondent Nick Davies’s book Flat Earth News, about media distortion and malpractice. There was a lot of discussion about where ultimate responsibility lies: the journalist, the editor, senior management or the owner? Media ownership has shrunk in this country, in the sense that independent newspaper companies (often run by families) have almost all been bought out by great enterprises, like Archant vis-a-vis local newspapers. But Mark raised the interesting point that many ordinary people, including LibDem voters, without realising it often have a stake in newspapers or broadcasting outfits through direct or indirect shareholding. A third of us, he estimated, probably have a stake in the Daily Mail, if only through the holdings of pension funds etc. One area in which I dd disagree somewhat with him was over the effect of modern media diversity and new media on the variety of people’s sources of information. I tend to think that as more and more specialised TV channels and websites get created, people narrow down their range of input, for example relating to political bias, whereas Mark believes that through Twitter, Facebook etc one gets to interact with a cross-section of viewpoints. While this may be true of people like him and me, who deliberately find out about what others think, and have ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ from all political parties, I’m not persuaded that this is the case for most people, who tend to keep linked in with people with views like their own. Anyway, this afternoon’s event was a provocative introduction to a massive subject that is currently going through a state of flux.

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Paul Burstow’s Mental Health and Social Care

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 3rd September, 2011

Since the tuition fees debacle, the one policy area that has been giving Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government most grief has been the whole area of Health Service reforms. Andrew Lansley, the Conservative Secretary of State, unveiled a set of radical proposals which were not in the Coalition agreement and which sent alarm bells ringing among LibDems, not least members of the Social Liberal Forum, who led a successful revolt at the Party’s 2011 spring conference. That then strengthened the hand of LibDem MPs and even Ministers to force a significant rethink, especially of those concepts which seemed to imply a degree of competitive tendering in the free market which  opponents were able to portray as privatisation by the back door. Anyway, the Bill in its revised form is much less scary, according to the man who ought to know: the LibDem junior Health Minister, Paul Burstow, who was guest speaker at a lasagne and poilitics event at Orpington Liberal Club this evening. Paul stressed that the new policies the Government wishes to bring in will help integrate health and social services, will end the Cinderella status of mental health (which is a cause Nick Clegg has been promoting personally) and addresses the elephant in the room, i.e. how to fund future long-term care for an increasingly geriatric population. Paul accepted the point made by one party member this evening that the British Medical Association has opposed many of the proposed reforms, but he rightly countered that the BMA has a record of opposing change, including the original establishment of the NHS. LibDems have reason to be proud of what the Party has achieved in government, he said — a refrain that is increasingly being heard from LibDem Ministers, but it is worth repeating, especially when it is backed up by the evidence shown by comparing what was in the LibDem 2010 Manifesto and how much of that is now government policy.

 

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London Mayoral Replay

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 2nd September, 2011

With the selection this evening of Brian Paddick as Liberal Democrat candidate for next year’s London Mayoral elections the capital will be seeing a first: a replay of the 2008 match with the same three main party candidates, but under very different circumstances. Back then, Boris Johnson was the new Tory kid on the block, full of zany charm and quixotic ideas, whereas this time he has to try to defend what he has done — or not done — during his term of office. As LibDem members of the London Assembly –Dee Doocey, Caroline Pidgeon and Mike Tuffrey — have pointed out, as they have called the Mayor to account, he has not actually achieved all that much. Even the Barclays-branded bikes which he managed to have dubbed ‘Boris Bikes’ were actually a proposal put forward by former LibDem Assembly member (and now Coalition government Minister) Lynne Featherstone. As for Ken Livingstone, he is not so much yesterday’s man as the day-before-yesterday’s man. He looks tired and has said some pretty wacky things lately, apart from pissing off some of his own party members by supporting a controversial independent candidate for Mayor of Tower Hamlets last year against his own party. But the interesting transformation that will make 2012 a much more fascinating contest than 2008 is in Brian Paddick. Back then, as he himself says, he was an ex-policeman with very little experience in frontline politics and he had a steep learning curve to climb during the campaign. Three years on, he is a tranformed character, more relaxed, broader in his policy interests but also more effective in his media performances. He has come out as a voice of both experience and sanity on a number of issues, most recently the London riots and the News International phone-hacking scandal. Same faces as in 2008, yes. But absolutely not the same contest this time.

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