Jonathan Fryer

Archive for July, 2012

International Olympic Truce

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 31st July, 2012

London’s 2012′s House of Hellenes (in normal life that bastion of the Conservative Party, the Carlton Club) this lunchtime hosted a panel on the state of the Olympic Truce. For those whose ancient history is a bit rusty or non-existent, this was the truce ordained in Ancient Greece at the time of the original Games at Olympia during which the various city states pledged not to fight each other. There were (probably not deliberate) echos of this in 1914 when fighting in the Great War halted for a brief while and the German and Allied troops facing off against each other in bloody trench warfare in Flanders played a game of football on Christmas Day instead. The run-up to the London2012 Olympics was unusual, in that all 193 member states of the United Nations not only signed but co-sponsored a UN resolution endorsing the Olympic truce. Alas this has not stopped the carnage and brutality in Syria (not to mention Afghanistan and elsewhere). The Syrian Olympic committee was barred from coming to London but there are 10 Syrian athletes here. I asked the distinguished panel how those athletes are interacting with their colleagues in the Olympic Village and how the Olympic Truce movement (if one can call it such) has reacted or should react. The more official members of the panel were unsurprisingly unwilling to say much on that, but Lord (Michael) Bates — who walked from Olympia to London over 10 months to highlight the message of the truce — was more forthcoming. He pointed out that the Syrian athletes, in common with all the others, had signed the Olympic truce and that they should convey that message back to their countrymen. It is interesting that the wall in the Olympic Village, on which people can sign up to express their support, is already completely full. So it probably needs extending! In the meantime, I, along with many others at today’s event, signed my support. Sport is a way of bringing peace between nations and communities and that message should not be lost when the Games themselves are over.

Link: www.olympictruce.org/

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Iftar at Bayt Qatar

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 30th July, 2012

Many of the competing nations at the London Olympics have hired prestigious venues as their ‘House’ for the length of the competition, as a base for nationals, supporters and guests, with all sorts of events taking place, as well as screenings of the sporting events themselves. This evening I was at Bayt Qatar, the House of the Gulf State of Qatar, which in normal life is the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) in Savoy Place, overlooking the River Thames. Part of the ground floor has been converted into a mock-up of Doha’s Souq Waqif and there’s a Sports Bar, offering what you would expect there. As a member of the executive Board of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) I was  not only invited to the iftar (fast-breaking) dinner — Lebanese food courtesy of Harrod’s, now in Qatari ownership — but was also given membership of Bayt Qatar for the duration, which is something I am likely to make use of when I’m in that part of town. After dinner in the 3rd-floor restaurant and a refeshing breather on the terrace, with its fantastic sweeping view of the Thames, I attended a concert in the on-site theatre, starring Qatari singer Fahd Al Kubaisi, Italian tenor Tino Favazza and the zany Spanish gypsy guitarist and singer José Galvez, who wowed the children in the audience by throwing himself around the room like no adult they have ever seen. The finale for me (though not the concert) was a fusion medley of Arabic, Greek, Russian and Cuban influences by the Chehade Brothers. There was a great backing band all the way through, really getting into the spirit of things. Other events at Bayt Qatar over the next fortnight include fashion shows and film screenings.

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Olympics on the Kingston Big Screen

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th July, 2012

It was perhaps perverse for someone like myself who lives so near to the London Olympics stadium to go right across town to the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames to watch last night’s opening ceremony, but I’m glad I did. Kingston Liberal Democrats had decided to combine a celebration of their recent win in a local council by-election in Grove ward with the launch of the Rose Theatre’s Big Screen coverage of the Games — and it was a triumph. Local activists gathered in the Circle Bar for drinks and snacks while the theatre filled to capacity with Kingstonians there to enjoy the first of what will be daily screenings of the Olympics events, free of charge. The screen itself was huge and the BBC’s coverage of the opening ceremony was several notches above its relaying of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee earlier this summer. Moreover, a theatre was the ideal setting in which to watch Danny Boyle’s remarkable show, which was (as I said in a tweet at the end) referential rather than reverential, with lots of splendid jokes. The James Bond sequence with the monarch and two corgis was a classic spoof and Rowan Atkinson as Mr Bean in the symphony orchestra under the guidance of Simon Rattle was an act of comic genius. Moreover, the atmosphere in the theatre mirrored that in the Olympic Stadium itself. People roared approval of the highlights, stood up for the National Anthem, and few were left dry-eyed. As an overture to the London 2012 Olympics the show was brilliant. And as a way of bringing people into the Rose Theatre, which was conceived and brought to fruition by Kingston’s Liberal Democrat Council, last night’s event was a master-stroke.

Links: www.rosetheatrekingston.org and www.kingstonlibdems.org

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The Arab Awakening

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 19th July, 2012

It’s a brave man (or woman) who risks publishing a book about an ongoing situation, as it can all too easily be overtaken by events. But Tariq Ramadan’s The Arab Awakening (Allen Lane, £20) gives more than temporary relevance to his text by relating the events of the past 18 months to a reappraisal of Islam and Islamic values in the 21st century. He is one who believes that Islam and democracy are compatible and although he does not see Turkey as a perfect role model he does feel it teaches valuable lesssons. As a radical academic he not surprisingly sometimes harks back to the narrative of the MENA region being a victim of the machinations of the West (and Israel) to what many readers may find an irritating degree. Though criticism of American and to a lesser extent European attitudes and their relation to resources such as oil has some validity, the evolving relatinship between the US, EU and the MENA region is far more complex than that. Arab countries must find their own way forward — and Libya’s electoral outcome shows that need not necessarily be a victory for Islamic parties. Professor Ramadan rightly rails against the simplistic Western media and politicians’ distinction between ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ Muslims. But much of his book is a sombre reflection on how the MENA region can move forward towards greater participatory democracy and human rights. His main text, with case studies from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, is supplemented by appendices made up of articles he has written for a variety of outlets, including his own website. It was interesting to see him predicting the overthrow of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as early as June 2011.

Link: www.tariqramadan.com

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Stanley Johnson Amongst the Wild Things

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th July, 2012

The Johnson clan was out in force this evening at Daunt’s Books in Marylebone High Street, for the launch of Stanley Johnson’s latest book: Where the Wild Things Were (Stacey International, £8.99) — a paperback collection of his travel and environmental journalism. Stanley has form in the environmental field; I first met him when we were both in Brussels in the 1970s, he at the European Commission working on pollution et al and me as a journalist covering the European instiutions; both of us moonlighted for the Capital of Europe’s English weekly magazine, The Bulletin. He went on to become a Conservative MEP, but later failed to get elected for the Lib Dem/Tory marginal of Teignmouth in the British parliament. Two of his sons — Boris and Jo — did succeed in getting in to the Commons; Boris in Henley, before changing gear and becoming Mayor of London, and Jo in Orpington (my old political stomping ground). Both were at the book launch tonight, along with younger brother Max and other Johnsons and in-laws and  various Tory grandees, including Norman Lamont, Leon Brittan and Michael Howard, and le beau monde. Boris’s arrival, dishevilled and bearing a large backpack, excited the paparazzi present. But the important thing is the underlying message of the book: the need to protect endangered species, from tigers to gorillas. In fact, Stanley is currently Chairman of the Gorilla Organisation and an Ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme’s Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). As always with the Johnsons, there are lashings of humour and posturing, but behind it all there is serious intent.

Link: www.stacey-international.co.uk

 

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Richard Allan Woos Notting Hill

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 17th July, 2012

Richard Allan, Nick Clegg’s predecessor as MP for Sheffield Hallam and since 2010 a member of the House of Lords, was the guest speaker at Kensington and Chelsea Liberal Democrats’ summer garden party in Notting Hill this evening and delivered an astute analysis of the present state of the Party after two years in government. One would not expect anything less from someone who is now Director for Europe for Facebook and who introduced a whole new style of parliamentary campaigning in Sheffield. Most normal people are turned off by conventional politics, he suggested, but could be attracted into joining activities by stressing the social side, not just through expert use of social media but also through innovative techniques. In Sheffield Hallam, for example, he and his team reached out to students by leaving yellow helium balloons outside nightclubs at two-o’clock in the morning, with Liberal Democrat messages attached. Sure enough, students took them with them as they staggered home. Richard shared with us the saying of Dutch D66 colleagues who had referred to going into coalition government as “halving”, i.e. a minority party in a coalition government loses half its seats at the following general election. The good news, according to the Dutch formula, is that during the subsequent period of opposition, the party bounces back into people’s favour. We shall see. Richard was unusual in that he decided after two terms in the House of Commons that he had had enough and wanted to get on with other things, and he has been extremely successful with that. He moved into Kensington from Lambeth last year and could give a useful fillip to the local party, which has itself suprised evrybody — not least the Royal Borough’s Conservatives — in recent years by winning three council seats, in two separate wards.

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Farewell to Bush House

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 15th July, 2012

This week, the BBC World Service completed its move out of Bush House in the Aldwych to the state-of-the-art new news and current affairs HQ attached to Broadcasting House in Portland Place. As I drove past Bush House yesterday afternoon, a lump stuck in my throat. This was not just nostalgia for an iconic building, whose name and role as the voice of Britain were known throughout the world but also because of fears that I — and many others who worked there — have for the future of the World Service. During the 20-odd years I was based there, the whittling away of European language services began and staff cuts became ever more severe. There was a certain logic to the argument that previously Communist states of central and eastern Europe no longer needed Auntie to tell them what was going on in the world (including inside their own country) once they had their own free media, but the arguments for cutting some of the more exotic services were far less evident. Moreover, from the time John Birt took over as Director General of the BBC it became clear that the Corporation’s top brass did not value the World Service as much as its listeners or those who worked there did. That trend has alas continued, whatever Mark Thompson said in his valedicory broadcast. Moreover, as the World Service is now no longer funded by the Foreign Office, but instead by the general BBC licence fee, its “value” to those paying for it is bound to be further questioned. Worst of all, instead of having World Service radio, with all its different language services and regional departments, all under one roof in a building that was almost like an Oxbridge college in atmosphere and range of expertise, instead now World Service employees will hot-desk with other BBC staff, I understand, and technical resources will be pooled. This doubtlkess makes a lot of sense to accountants, but very little to those of us who treasured what had become during and after the Second World War, one of Britain’s greatest assets.

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Social Liberal Forum Conference

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 14th July, 2012

The Social Liberal Forum obviously fulfils a need within the Liberal Democrats, as the healthy turnout for its conference at King’s College Waterloo campus in London today testified. Since the party went into government it has been important to have a social liberal network thinking about what the Party’s distinctive narrative should be. Nick Clegg, who gave the opening address, took us back to William Beveridge’s Five Giant Evils (want, idleness, disease, ignorance and squalor), while adding a sixth: pollution and other environmental problems. That is fair enough; indeed, I have often used exactly that formula in some of my lectures at SOAS. However, it was clear that there were divisions between some in the audience and the Deputy Prime Minister when it came to how to address those evils in the current economic and financial context. Ed Davey followed next, focussing particularly on climate cange, and I was pleased that he highlighted the EU’s positive role in green matters. So I asked him in the Q&A if he could try to ensure that the Liberal Democrats take ownership of the combatting climate change agenda, and urged that we make it our flagship policy in a pro-European campaign for the 2014 Euro-elections. I was a little surprised when he said he thought that actually Law and Order ought to be the flagship issue (Europol, European Arrest Warrant, etc), as that would play more to Tory voters. I don’t think that is a particularly easy message to sell, but I wish him well on developing it with others. The important thing is that the Party must fight the European elections (which are less than 2 years away now) strongly and positively. And that we champion the real, relevant LibDem “wins” in government, including some of the things ushered in by Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone, who was one of the speakers at a break-out session I attended, looking at body confidence and related issues.

Link: http://socialliberal.net

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EU Action on Human Rights

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 12th July, 2012

When Cathy Ashton was appointed High Representative in charge of the EU’s external action service, she declared that she wanted human rights to run like a ‘silver thread’ through the service’s policies. But as Edward McMillan-Scott — Liberal Democrat MEP and a Vice President of the European Parliament — said at  a roundtable at Europe House in Westminster this lunchtime, human rights have sometimes played second fiddle to trade matters and other practical concerns. He, the Labour MP Michael Connarty (the senior Labour figure on the House of Commons EU Scrutiny Committee) and Nicholas Beger (from Amnesty International’s Brussels office dealing with the European institutions) were therefore not surprisingly all in favour of the proposed appointment of an EU Special Representative for Human Rights, whose specific job it would be to focus on human rights concerns, wherever they occur in the world, irrespective of other considerations. As Nicholas Beger pointed out, there is currently often a lack of balance in the EU’s stance regarding the transgressions of other states; Belarus rightly comes under criticism for its many shortcomings, but why not Azerbaijan? Oil is a sad but obvious answer, but the putative Special Representative must be above such considerations and look at the world’s nations objectively. I said that I thought the litmus test for the new human rights action plan — of which the Special Representative would be the most high profile part — will come with regard to Israel/Palestine. Michael Connarty rightly touched on Israeli violations in his introductory remarks, but I believe the EU’s credibillity on human rights will only be proven when it does take an objective stand and condemns various elements of the occupation, house demolitions, administrative detention and so forth — though the wide divergence of views among member states relating to Israel could prove to be a problem. By coincidence, while our roundtable was discussing these matters, the House of Commons was getting ready to debate to desirability of appointing the EU Special Representative. Michael Connarty was worried some eurosceptic Tories might use this as an opportunity to further their prejudices, but it is to be hoped that the British parliament will indeed give the initiative its blessing. It would be shameful otherwise.

 

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Is the Eurozone Doomed to Fail?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 10th July, 2012

This lunchtime I was at Dr Challoner’s High School for Girls in Chalfont, opposing the motion that This House Believes the Eurozone Is Doomed to Fail. Proposing it was David Moller, a former Reader’s Digest journalist, on behalf of Civitas. The audience were a group of 30-odd Year 12s who have been studying economics. A vote on the motion was taken before either of us spoke, with the Aye side winning 18:4. I set out the benefits that the European Union had brought, not just for the eurozone members, and pointed out that the crisis we are going through is a global one that originated not in Europe but in the United States. It is probably true that Greece should not have been allowed to join the euro until it gots its economy and taxation revenues in order; new countries wishing to join have to pass more stringent criteria. But my main point was that the eurozone countries do not want the single currency to fail. Indeed, even countries outside the eurozone – including Britain, with its ‘moderately eurosceptic’ Prime Minister — do not want the eurozone to fail, and therefore they will do everything possible to make sure it survives. Moreover, despite the eurozone’s current woes, the euro has been a remarkable success, establishing itself in just ten years as the world’s second global currency. So what needs to be done is to assist economic readjustment in some of the weaker periphery countries and, as Angela Merkel has said, have ‘more Europe’, not ‘less Europe’, in the sense of greater coherence in economic and fiscal policy. When a fresh vote was taken at the end of the debate the Ayes only won by a single vote, 12:11 — a significant and pleasing shift!

(photo: Fiona Glen)

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