Westminster Liberal Democrats may not have any local councillors, yet — though watch Bayswater ward closely next May! But they do have some dedicated and moreover interesting members, which means that their annual dinners are always particularly enjoyable. That is also due to the fact that these dinners have been hosted in recent years by Huseyin Ozer, proprietor of the Sofra restaurants, at his home base establishment in Covent Garden. When someone said that one of the items on the menu was Hittite rice I thought they must have misheard/misread, as my mind wandered back to T.E. Lawrence’s work on Hittite remains at Carchemish before the First World War. But they were quite correct, and the Ottoman (sic) delicacies that accompanied that rice were indeed fit for a Sultan. No Sultan being available, we were treated to the next best thing: Tim Farron, President of the Party. Before the meal Tim apologised to me that I had probably heard his speech before (well, we do both get around on the circuit), but amazingly I hadn’t (well, most of it, anyway). He has an engaging breezy style with a slightly cocky Cumbrian edge, which I can appreciate having spent (wet) holidays in the Lake District as a child. He doesn’t do bad language, but has a habit of using the word “flipping” where others might resort to something a little spicier. But the core of his message was that the party must go into next May’s European elections (for which he is the national supremo) confidently as the party of IN. Tim was not entirely complimentary about our Conservative Coalition colleagues, including the Prime Minister, but then such differentiation is now inevitable as we enter the final 18 months of the Westminster parliament, let alone the six months to next May’s European elections (combined with all-out borough elections in London). I have never met David Cameron, though I am sure he would be socially charming, but as a Lancashire lad myself originally I can understand those who look at him and feel he has no core beliefs other than that he believes people like himself should be in charge. Actually, to me that is still far less objectionable than the dreadful Tony Blair, with his Messianic certainties, or indeed the angst of poor Gordon Brown (whom I did meet), who lumbered into the premiership far later than he would have liked with all the finesse of a bear chasing bees from a honeycomb. Anyway, despite mediocre opinion poll ratings averaging around 10 per cent (we have been in places much worse than that in our history), membership of the Liberal Demorcats is on the up and if we say the messages loud and clear enough, we should get across the fact that thanks to Liberal Democrats the tax threshold has gone up, the pupil premium has helped thousands of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds (including in my own borough, Tower Hamlets), and the 3,000 children of asylum seekers whom Labour had locked up are for the great majority now at liberty.
Posts Tagged ‘Tony Blair’
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 17th April, 2013
The tenth anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq has provided an occasion for reflection on the pluses and minuses of that operation and its aftermath. Having been in Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG) last month I know that many Kurds there think of the War as a Liberation, and I can understand why, given the dreadful persecution they suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen; it did indeed constitute genocide. But I am also aware, from my last visit to Baghdad, in December 2012, just how shattered Iraq remains as a state. Sunni have been pitted against Shia (who are now dominant) and fatal bombings in the capital are commonplace. As I said in a speech to the Cordoba Foundation and Al Sharq Forum’s Conference at London’s Commonwealth Club, “Iraq 10 Years On”, the Americans made a terrible mistake in pushing de-Ba’athification so far that they sacked the army and police force, as well as many officials — a mistake they notably did not make in Germany in 1945 after the defeat of the Nazis. Saddam was a monster, of that I have no doubt; his torture centres bore all the hallmarks of a true sadist. But the Bush-Blair invasion did not usher in a period of faultless democracy and peace. I never believed it would. Moreover, as Wadah Khanfar — former head of Al Jazeera — pointed out at the same conference, the Iraq War, together with the new Arab Awakening, and all the baggage of Western interference in the Middle East and the unresolved Palestinian situation, has left a region in turmoil. It is not just Iraq that is dysfunctional but the entire MENA region, and I suspect it will take decades before things settle down. Whether that will be within the same b0undaries as the current countries is by no means sure. After all, most of the countries in the Middle East are artificial constructs, the result of the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Balfour declaration and the British betrayal of Arab nationalists led by the Hashemites. Moreover, given the Syrian civil war and renewed political activity regarding the Kurdish question in Turkey, it is not impossible that some time in the future there will be an independent Kurdish state. The KRG are currently sticking to their line that they will be happy with devo-max in Iraq, but if Iraq effectively ceases to be a coherent country then there will be a big temptation to go it alone, which could have far-reaching regional implications.
Photos by Richard Chambury (richfoto). 1: Daud Abdullah, Rosemary Hollis, JF, Matthew G Banks; 2: JF.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: al-Jazeera, Baghdad, Daud Abdullah, George W Bush, Iraq, KRG, Kurds, Matthew G Banks, Richard Chambury, Rosemary Hollis, Saddam Hussein, The Cordoba Foundation, The Sharq Forum, Tony Blair, Wadah Khanfar | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 17th November, 2012
When the Welfare Association* conceived the idea of a fundraising gala dinner in aid of disadvantaged children in Palestine, to be held at the Bloomsbury Big Top in central London, they can have had no idea that that event this evening would coincide with renewed fighting between Gaza’s Hamas and Israel, in which several Palestinian children have already been victims. The Middle East, which I have been following for well over 40 years, is an unending tragedy, complex and multi-dimensional. But any objective observer must come to the conclusion that in all of this chaos the Palestinians have been the big losers. And as so often in conflict situations the humanitarian burden falls most heavily on those least able to bear it. So this evening, around 600 people gathered under the big top to be entertained by trapeze artists and acrobats, the Palestinian-Jordanian singer Zeina Barhoum and other musicians, but most important, to demonstrate solidarity with the children of Palestine — tens of thousands of them disabled or else traumatised by conflict — whose lives can be eased thanks to projects for which a healthy six-figure sum was raised. Clare Short, the former Labour MP who nobly resigned from the party in protest at Tony Blair’s illegal war in Iraq, made a short speech, but those of us who were there needed little reminding of the necessity and urgency of the cause. It was good that many young people who have high-earning jobs in the City were there, to bid at auction for works of art by Andrew Martin, Alexander Mcqueen and others. Barclays Bank was also a ‘platinum sponsor’. Coincidentally, the Arab League held an emergency meeting in Cairo today to discuss how to react to the current crisis. The Qatari Foreign Minister warned about the potential emptiness of yet another declaration. At least tonight those at the Welfare Association dinner made a real contribution that will get to those who most need assistance.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Alexander Mcqueen, Andrew Martin, Arab League, Bloomsbury Big Top, Cairo, Clare Short, Gaza, Hamas, Israel, Palestine, Qatar, Tony Blair, Welfare Association, Zeina Barhoum | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 20th September, 2012
The writer and broadcaster Gavin Esler — perhaps best known as one of BBC Newsnight’s presenters — has met a great many leaders but not many great leaders, as he told a literary lunch at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in Pall Mall today. His musing was linked to his latest book, Lessons from the Top (Profile Books, £12.99), which looks at how successful leaders tell stories to get ahead — and stay there. His thesis is that the best political leaders (as well as top entrepreneurs) are strong story-tellers, with the basic elements of ‘who am I, who are we, and where am I going to take us?’ Margaret Thatcher had a brilliantly pithy line which had a whole back-story to itself: ‘I am a grocer’s daughter from Grantham’, for example. But Gavin lamented the fact that over the past 25 to 30 years, basically since the end of the Cold War, the name of the game has changed, as we have become a confessional culture. The public has been taught to expect personal details about even the loftiest figures, and scandals are daily laid bare — what one might call the globalisation of gossip. Of course, journalists, and through them the public, don’t always get the right first impressions. When Gavin went to interview Angelina Jolie, for example, he expected to meet an airhead, whereas actually she proved to be a highly intelligent woman who has adapted well to her role as a UN goodwill ambassador. Some politicians, alas, tell false stories; Tony Blair didn’t earn the sobriquet ‘Bliar’ for nothing. But the message of today’s talk was clear: if you want to succeed in life, tell a good story, and keep it simple.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 12th September, 2012
Professor Avi Shlaim is one of the most learned and liberal Jewish commentators on the history and reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict so it was a pleasure to share a platform with him yesterday at a seminar put on by the Forum for International Relations Development (FIRD) in North Cheam to mark the anniversary of 9/11. Dr Shlaim’s central argument was that George W Bush’s response to the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, launching a “War on Terror”, was disastrously misguided. Terror is a tactic not an entity, and one cannot have a war against a tactic. Moreover, demonising Osama bin Laden — whom the Americans had funded when he was fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — fuelled the new global divide that Samuel P Huntington had simplisticly described as the Clash of Civilizations. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with Al Qaeda, indeed the Iraqi Ba’ath Party was hostile to Al Qaeda’s ideology, yet that did not stop Bush invading Iraq. That war was clearly illegal, Prof Shlaim declared, and he endorsed Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s call for Tony Blair to be brought before the International Criminal Court for war crimes. But the major part of Dr Shlaim’s talk focused on the way that the failure to resolve the Palestinian question — a situation made even worse by ongoing Israeli settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — prevents a normalisation of relations between the West and the Arab world, as well as contributing to the sort of extreme radicalism against which FIRD campaigns. Not surprisingly, the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu came in for some withering criticism, as did Israel’s threats to bomb Iran. My own brief remarks at the seminar were in a sense a warm-up act for Dr Shlaim, but I recalled flying to Beirut the morning after 9/11 on a Middle East Airways plane, most of whose passengers had decided not to turn up for the flight. Those of us who did were welcomed warmly on arrival in Lebanon, but the Lebanese were nervous that they might be attacked because of 9/11. So often in the Middle East it is people who have nothing to do with violent acts who find themselves at the receiving end of retaliation.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 22nd June, 2012
Baron Carlile of Berriew — the former Liberal MP for Montgomery, Alex Carlile — is one of the LibDems’ most distinguished but also controversial Members of the House of Lords, which is one reason why he attracted a particularly large attendance at the Kettner Lunch at the National Liberal Club today. Another reason is that Kettner Lunch regulars have enjoyed his performances three times in the past and were therefore keen to experience another one. The reason for Alex’s ‘controversy’ — as well as a major element of his distinction — is that after 9/11 and up until early last year, he was the Government’s Independent Reviewer of the UK’s anti-terrorism laws, thereby effectively advising Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron in turn on the sensitive issue of national security. This sometimes put him at odds with LibDem Leader Nick Clegg and other parliamentary colleagues who have taken what they consider to be a more ‘liberal’ line in relation to matters such as the rights of terror suspects, privacy and data retention. To an extent those disagreements are ongoing, given the legislation now before Parliament relating to communication data and so-called Closed Material Procedures, included within the Justice and Security Bill. Alex believes, on the basis of his experience at the Bar, as well as his inside knowledge of issues relating to counter-terrorism, that it is important for the defence of a liberal society that the intelligence services and the Police, where appropriate, can have access to certain information — for example, relating to a suspect’s location at a particular moment, which these days can be discovered from retrieved mobile phone ‘cell site’ records. Similarly, he argues that there are instances when the prosecution of alleged terrorists or other people trying to undermine society can be jeopardised if all information is made available to the people concerned. I trust I am not bowdlerising what is quite a complex position, eloquently expressed at the lunch by Alex himself. Anyway, this is a story that is going to run and run, not least as, so Alex believes, networks such as Al Qaeda are gowing in some areas of the world, including Yemen and northern Nigeria, posing a real thraat to the UK’s security. ‘Debate about terrorism has been characterised by ignorance,’ he declared at one point. Clearly, he will continue to take his stand, even when other elements in the party raise what for them are valid concerns about the infringement of civil liberties.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Al Qaeda, Alex Carlile, Baron Carlile of Berriew, civil liberties, counter-terrorism, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Kettner Lunch, Liberal Democrats, National Liberal Club, Nick Clegg, terrorism, Tony Blair | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 27th March, 2012
For half a century and more the Liberal Party and its successor, the Liberal Democrats, languished as the high-minded, principled oppositional alternative to both Conseratives and Labour, and I have to say that most of us found that situation pretty comfortable, although we spoke wistfully of one day having the chance of getting into power. But I think we realised that the only way that would happen in the post-modern age was as a junior partner in coalition with one of the two ‘major’ parties, which could well result in a shrinkage in our level of public support (as indeed Chris Rennard long ago warned). We looked at examples such as Germany’s FDP and saw that even on a small share of the vote one could nonetheless wield quite a lot of influence (admittedly under a system of proportional representation in Germany’s case), and even aspire to having a few Cabinet Ministers. I suppose most of us imagined that if that opportunity arose, it would almost certainly be in a Coalition with Labour; indeed, Paddy Ashdown and some of his closest colleagues imagined that could happen with a Blair-led government, before Britain’s warped electoral system gave Tony Blair a humungous majority and he veered away from social democracy to become seriously illiberal and a George W Bush groupie. So it was with some surprise that after the May 2010 election the arithmetic meant that only a Tory-led Coalition in Britain was possible. But did that inevitably mean that the LibDems as the junior partner would be screwed? This was the subject of a fascinating seminar put on at Westminster’s Portcullis House yesterday by the Centre for Reform, moderated by former LibDem Chief Executive Lord (Chris) Rennard. Ben Page, Chief Executive of Ipsos-MORI was somewhat disheartening in his analysis of the way that sacrificing full independence had inevitably led to the LibDems’ sharp decline in the opinion polls. But his pessimism was counter-balanced by the Deputy Leader of the party, Simon Hughes MP, who — despite getting into a bit of a muddle with his statistics — managed to reassure the audience that the LibDems, far from crashing to oblivion are still alive and kicking and actually doing better than at many times in their recent history, as well as winning real victories on policy within the Coalition government. Martin Kettle, the acceptable face of the Guardian’s political columns, was also fairly upbeat; unlike Polly Toynbee he does not feel we have sold our soul to the devil, and moreover he believes that even in the North — from which, like me, he hails — there is a future for the party. In the ensuing discussion I pointed out that being the junior partner in a Coalition government is rather like travelling down a road full of hidden sleeping poliemen. The tuition fees débacle was probably predictable; the NHS Bill less so. But I warned that the Tory rethink on the Heathrow third runway could be a third bump that could shake the Coalition and cause a fall in support for the LibDems unless the party came out firmly against once again. I didn’t get quite the ringing endorsement of this line that I’d hoped for from Simon Hughes (or indeed Lord Rennard), but I think the point was taken.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Ben Page, Centre Forum, Chris Rennard, coalition government, FDP, George W Bush, Ipsos-MORI, Liberal Democrats, Liberal Party, Martin Kettle, Paddy Ashdown, Polly Toynbee, Simon Hughes, Tony Blair | 2 Comments »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 17th February, 2012
The Corinthia Hotel off Whitehall this lunchtime hosted a reception in honour of the 4th anniversary of independence of the Republic of Kosovo, the state that seceded from Serbia after a bitter conflict in which NATO convinced Belgrade by military means to release its iron grip. Many Serbs are still bitter about this, but the predominantly ethnic Albanian Kosovans are jubiliant, and as far as the latter are concerned, the ‘war of liberation’ and the NATO action against Serbia was one of the high points of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s tenure in office. In case anyone had forgotten the human misery of the conflict – and the related issues of ethnic cleansing — there were powerful images on show at the Kosovan National Day celebrations. I had forgotten just how prominent the Independent newspaper had been in highlighting what was going on then, not least through its correspondent Robert Fisk — better know for his coverage of the Middle East. Anyway, there was a large and distinguished turnout today at the reception, at which both the Ambassador, Muhamet Hamiti, and the British academic and writer Noel Malcolm, spoke, and it was pointed out that now just over half of the member countries of the United Nations now recognise Kosovo as an independent state, despite Serbia’s virulent object. It was interesting talking to some of the ethnic Albanian Kosovans present to hear that they (representative or not) would like Kosovo eventually to merge with Albania, but as I pointed out, if the European Union expands further to take in the Western Balkans, perhaps such a union would not be necessary? Anyway, it is not for a Brit to determine the future of the people of the region. But it would be useful if they could all agree on what the path ahead should be.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 13th November, 2011
The location inevitably influences the content and atmosphere of any international professional or political gathering and such was certainly true over this long weekend at the 2011 Congress of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) in Bucharest. The affiliated local organisation is the Romanian Association of Independent Journalists (who hosted us delightfully) and the significance of that word ‘independent’ is obvious a mere 22 yeas since the downfall of the Ceaucescu Communist dictatorship. Just how awful that was — not least in human rights terms — was brought home to us participants in the final working session yesterday, when we were shown a film about the memorial established in the former political prison where pre-Communist political leaders, bishops, priests and other ‘undesirables’ were kept in inhumane conditions, tortured and in many cases assassinated, their bodies being disposed of in unmarked graves in the middle of the night. The Securitate, Communist Romania’s equivalent of the Stasi and KGB, monitored and harassed and intimidated journalists, writers and artists, becoming particularly paranoid about anti-regime sentiments in that regime’s final year of 1989. But the new Romania has its challennges for journalists, too — not so much pressure from the government (though that can occur, as elsewhere) but in particular from various oligarchs who own huge slices of the TV market, which is especially important in a country where most people still get their news from evening TV bulletins. We were reminded that a similar situation exists in Ukraine, from which we heard some thought-provoking testimony, as well as from Moldova, Belarus (probably the worst) and Turkey (where 66 journalists are currently in prison, and many others are the subject of legal proceedings). In Britain and so much of the EU people take a free Press for granted, but we don’t know how lucky we are. And of course, Britain doesn’t exactly have an unblemished record itself, given the recent phone hacking scandals, the (now threatened) influence of Rupert Murdoch & Co and the corrosive legacy of Downing Street spin, crafted so devilishly under Tony Blair’s watch. A Congress such as this weekend’s Bucharest event underlines how important it is to have such an interchange of experiences and analyses, not just as an act of solidarity (important though that is) but also to show how responsible journalism can contribute positively to the European project and Europe-wide high standards of human rights and freedom of expression, which was after all the main reason for the AEJ’s foundation.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 30th August, 2011
One topic I get my students at SOAS to discuss each year is the familiar proposition that Religion and Politics should never mix. Of course, historically in Britain they often did. Until the emergence of the SDP in the early 1980s, the Church of England was often referred to as the Conservative Party at prayer. And both Methodists and Quakers had a big influence on the old Liberal Party. But secularism has swept Britain over the past 50 years and the fall in church attendance has been mirrored by a distancing of most politicans from overtly religious standpoints. As Alastair Campbell famously said when he was the master of dark arts at 10 Downing Street, “We don’t do God.” — though in the case of Tony Blair himself, that proved to be completely untrue. One cheeky journalist is said to have asked Blair if he prayed with George W Bush. And of course, in the United States, religion and politics most certainly do mix, whether it is in the form of the liberal Christianity of Barack Obama or the disturbing beliefs of the Christian Right and the Christian Zionists, with their hatred of homosexuals, Muslims and many others who aren’t like themselves. Liberals in Britain have comforted themselves with the assumption that we don’t have that sort of Religious Right here in the UK, but recent trends have suggested that may not be the case. Maybe the Religious Right didn’t dare show its head above the parapet before, or simply didn’t get organised. That doesn’t mean it won’t. And if it does, both the secularists and those believers of moderate or even radical political views need to be prepared to rebut any suggestion that the Religious Right has God and morality firmly on their side.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Alastair Campbell, Barack Obama, Christian right, Christian Zionists, Church of England, Conservative Party, George W Bush, Liberal Party, Methodists, Quakers, Religious Right, SDP, SOAS, Tony Blair | 1 Comment »