Jonathan Fryer

Making the Case for Palestine

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 26th November, 2015

LDFPEarlier this week I was honoured to be elected the new Chair of the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine, which aims to increase awareness and understanding among Liberal Democrats about issues relating to Palestine and to champion the recognition of Palestinian statehood. I follow in the distinguished footsteps of my former Oxford Oriental Institute fellow student John McHugo, who was recently appointed one of Party leader Tim Farron’s two advisors on the Middle East. Like John, I have spent a great deal of time in the region, in my case mainly as a writer and broadcaster, including commentating on Middle Eastern issues on TV channels from the area.

Israel PalestineBritish public attitudes towards Palestine and Israel have shifted quite dramatically over the past few decades. When I was a schoolboy, Israel was seen as a heroic little infant state battling for its own survival, experimenting with new forms of collective society and spearheading new technology in an otherwise under-developed part of the world. But almost half of century of illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem since the Six Day War of 1967, coupled with the ongoing Israeli blockade of Gaza and disproportionate military action against the Gaza Strip have soured the perception of Israel. I deplore Gazan rocket attacks on Israel and the recent spate of knife and other attacks on Israeli citizens but these should not obscure the fact that Israel is in breach of international law in its occupation, the related settlement activity (which continues unabated) and the daily instances of human rights abuses and humiliations committed against Palestinians. There has also been an unpleasant recent rise in attacks on Palestinians by extremist Israeli settlers in the occupied territories which the Israeli authorities have failed to address adequately.

Palestine flagOn the international stage, Palestine has been gaining increased recognition, with the notable exception of Israel’s great ally the United States and most of the EU member states, including Britain. It is high time that Britain also extended recognition to Palestine and brought greater pressure on the state of Israel to abide by international law. Israeli settlement activity is in danger of making any two-state solution, to which in principle the West is committed, impossible. Israel in principle has so much to offer the Middle East, as does a viable Palestinian state. But there is going to have to be a fundamental shift in attitudes and policies on the ground to make any sort of bright future happen. Otherwise the violence and the hatred will continue and everyone will be the loser.

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Norman Lamb Climbs Every Mountain

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 25th November, 2015

imageMost of the Liberal Democrats’ big beasts in the House of Commons were swept away in May’s nightmare general election, but one exception was Norman Lamb, MP for North Norfolk and former Minister of State for Care and Support. It was largely through his determination as a Minister in the 2010-2015 Coalition government that mental health moved into more of a position of parity with physical health in the British government’s priorities and perceptions. So that was inevitably one of the major topics for discussion when he came to speak to Lewisham Liberal Democrats at a dinner in Blackheath last night. However, the thrust of most of his remarks was forward-looking, not backward-looking, in particular highlighting the size of the mountain that the LibDems have to climb in order to become a political force with clout once again. There is a fine cohort of more than 100 LibDem peers in the House of Lords which are doing sterling work in trying to hold the Conservatives to account. But in the House of Commons, there are only eight LibDem MPs left, making them not even the third largest party and therefore depriving them of some automatic rights to speak in debates. The media are mainly ignoring the Party and therefore an arresting new narrative, based on Liberal principles, is needed to grab people’s attention. Norman spoke fondly of the legacy of the passionate radical Jo Grimond, who in the 1960s helped the then Liberal Party punch above its weight thanks to his principles and rhetoric — an observation that resonated with me as I was rallied to the Liberal cause by Jo Grimond personally when he came to speak to my school in the run-up to the March 1966 general election. We have to find both the issues and the passion, to hone a distinctive message, Norman said, suggesting that one topic that might attract younger voters would be reform of Britain’s antiquated drug laws. I also believe that the LibDem MPs should be prepared to take a stand against David Cameron’s call for more direct military engagement in Syria unless United Nations involvement and diplomatic activity aimed at a political settlement are to the fore.

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A Time for Diplomacy to Triumph

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 24th November, 2015

Turkey Russia SyriaThe downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey earlier today is potentially a dangerous escalation of the febrile situation in the Middle East, though it need not be, if handled correctly. I agreed with the former Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, when he tweeted that normally one might fire a warning shot at a plane allegedly violating one’s airspace, not shoot it down. The situation has been made worse by the fact that the Russian pilot and co-pilot have, according to some reports, been either killed or captured by anti-government rebels in Syria, who are vehemently opposed to Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Anyway, one cannot undo the shooting down, now that it has happened, and NATO will be having an emergency meeting in Brussels tonight — at the request of Turkey — to discuss the situation.

Russian jetThe Turkish government meanwhile is being rather macho about it all, saying that it reserves the right to take any measures necessary to preserve its national sovereignty, but this rather obscures the fact that the last thing the Middle East needs is a head-on conflict between NATO and Russia, which could conceivably happen if Turkey were to press ahead with its invocation of Articles 4 & 5 of the North Atlantic treaty, according to which all NATO members are obliged to come to the assistance of a member state that has come under attack. Instead, what is needed is some rapid but determined international diplomacy, to take some of the tension out of the situation. It was Churchill who famously said that jaw-jaw is better than war-war, and that is certainly the case in this instance. It is to be hoped that Britain and other senior members of NATO will work with the Turks to find some face-saving measures that could take off some of the heat. Otherwise what some observers are already seeing as a proxy war in Syria by outside powers could all too easily disintegrate into the real thing.

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Standing up to Saudi Arabia

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd November, 2015

imageDavid Cameron and other British government Ministers have been busy demonstrating the warmth of their relationship with Saudi Arabia in recent months which begs the question: why? Of course, the Desert Kingdom uses a significant part of its oil wealth to purchase arms and other products and services from Britain, but in which ways do the two countries’ values coincide? Certainly both are sworn enemies of self-styled Islamic State (ISIS), yet individual Saudis have been funding that nefarious group. Moreover it is not difficult to see how the twisted ideology of ISIS has roots in the Wahhabi version of fundamentalist Islam, which Saudi Arabia has been aggressively exporting throughout the Islamic world, as well as among Muslim communities elsewhere. This creed is the very antithesis of the sort of tolerant multiculturalism that is needed in an increasingly globalised world, condemning as false believers not only non-Muslims but also Shia and other Muslims who do not adhere to Wahhabism’s narrow sectarianism. Yemen is an overwhelmingly Muslim country but it is being battered by Saudi Arabia with huge cost to both people and the country’s rich cultural heritage in an ongoing war that has received little criticism in the West.

Raif BadawiHowever, the thing that really alarms me is the way that the UK’s Conservative government seems blind to the appalling human rights abuses that continue in the Kingdom. Executions this year are running at an obscenely high level, one of the latest to be condemned to death being the Palestinian poet and artist Asraf Fayadh, on the medieval charge of apostasy. Crucifixion is still practised in extreme cases as well as barbaric punishments that should have no place in the 21st century. The blogger Raif Badawi is still liable to be lashed every Friday just for writing about liberalism. The great victory at the end of World War II was the acknowledgment in 1948 that human rights are universal. All UN member states have signed up to that, including Saudi Arabia. It is time for Britain and other countries around the world to put pressure on the Saudis to live up to that commitment.

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Tim Farron and the HIGNFY Challenge

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 21st November, 2015

Tim FarronThe much missed late, great leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, was routinely mocked by political opponents as “Chatshow Charlie”, because of his readiness to go on popular TV programmes, including and especially the BBC’s Have I Got News for You (HIGNFY). But as with schoolboys, this mocking often masked jealousy on the others’ part, as Charles was such a warm and witty person who remained so utterly himself on camera that he endeared audiences, even those who normally have no time for politicians. And although Charles’s principled stance over the Iraq War (for which he was viciously heckled by MPs on both sides of the House of Commons) was certainly the major reason the LibDems did so well in 2005, winning 62 seats, another explanation was Charles Kennedy’s humanity. The excuse for bringing this up now is that next Friday, 27 November, the current LibDem leader, Tim Farron, will be occupying one of those HIGNFY hot-seats. Sir Humphrey Appleby would doubtless have dubbed this a “bold” move and it is indeed quite brave. Some politicians have ended up looking right plonkers on HIGNFY, particularly if they try to be “clever”. My advice to Tim is this: be prepared for some rigorous ribbing (de rigueur for any politician on the show), including and especially for your religious beliefs and the smallness of the LibDems’ cohort in the House of Commons. Do your homework on what are the sort of subjects likely to come up in the questions. But above all, be yourself usual relaxed, even cheeky self. Don’t try to be anything else but but Tim Farron, the lad from Preston who made good, and maybe, one day, when viewers see you on TV they’ll say, “Oh, there’s that Tim from Have I Got News for You”, in the way that they hailed Charles and learned to love him.

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The Syria Dilemma

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th November, 2015

ISIS 5In the wake of last weekend’s appalling terrorist attacks in Paris the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, last night stated his determination to get tougher with ISIS, including the possibility of getting parliamentary support for air strikes against ISIS positions in Syria. The UK already takes part in anti-ISIS military action in Iraq, at the request of the government in Baghdad, but so far has not joined the Americans, French and most recently the Russians in taking the fight to Syria. Indeed, when the prospect of air strikes in Syria was raised in August 2013, the House of Commons voted against. Would the result be any different this time, given the heightened outrage over the Paris attacks? Quite possibly. However, I believe that Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, was right last night to express reservations following Mr Cameron’s statement to the House on ISIS. Bombs are rarely the answer to conflict situations, usually just making matter worse.

Syria destructionMoreover, Britain has not been invited into Syria by the (ghastly) government in Damascus; indeed, Mr Cameron has made quite clear that he wants the Assad regime removed from power. But there are at least two other important considerations to be thought through carefully before rushing into military action. The first is that Britain is meant to be a champion of the rule of law as well as being a pillar of the United Nations system. So the first uncomfortable question is: where is the UN authority for all this? There have been talks in Vienna involving a wide range of countries that in principle are aiming at a political settlement to the Syria crisis and although they have not as yet progressed very these talks should, I believe, be the top priority. The second consideration is more controversial, namely that if Britain joins the bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria then it will almost certainly become a higher priority target for ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks. Doubtless Mr Cameron would say that that is a risk one takes in a war situation, but that it should not deflect us from the goal of wiping out the ISIS threat. That of course assumes that ISIS can be bombed out of existence, which I find difficult to believe, not least because each attack on the self-styled Islamic State acts a rallying call to radicalised young Islamist extremists.

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Chinese Liberal Democrats’ AGM

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 16th November, 2015

Chinese LibDems AGMWhen I studied Chinese at Oxford 40-odd years ago I was considered mad by most of my contemporaries, but this year there will be an estimated 7,000 British students in China and the Chancellor, George Osborne, wants that to rise to 80,000 over the next few years. That will still be far fewer than the 135,000 Chinese currently studying in the UK, of course, despite the difficulties some experience in getting visas. But it all goes to show how increasingly important the Anglo-Chinese relationship is these days — a far cry from the mutual misunderstandings of Lord Macartney’s mission to Beijing in 1793. President Xi Jinping was in Britain recently sealing a number of bilateral economic deals. But the cultural side to the relationship between the former Opium War enemies is just as important, and Chinese Liberal Democrats were privileged at their AGM in a restaurant in London’s Chinatown yesterday to hear from the British Council’s China advisor and education specialist, Dewi Knight, about the Council’s operations in China and future prospects. Dewi is no stranger to the Liberal Democrats, having been very active in the Welsh Party. This summer he also wrote a warm tribute to Charles Kennedy that was widely circulated. And although he is quite new to his China brief at the British Council he was bubbling with enthusiasm for the task ahead. Education will be the core concern, but he was adamant that the Council will promote what some might call British values as well, such as the rule of law and freedom of expression. Although the four British Council offices in China are more closely linked to the British Embassy and consulates than is the case in many countries, the Council does enjoy a degree of greater independence when it comes to such things. albeit expressing critical observations sotto voce. Chinese Liberal Democrats meanwhile will be doing their bit, both in promoting understanding of China in the UK and in helping recruit new LibDem members from Britain’s Chinese communities.

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London Liberal Democrats’ Autumn Conference

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 14th November, 2015

Caroline PidgeonGiven the drubbing that the party received at the General Election in May — losing all but one MP, Tom Brake, in London — London Liberal Democrats were in amazingly high spirits at their AGM at the University of West London today. But then LibDems are the perennial Minions of British politics; knock one over and (s)he immediately bounces back up. One reason for the good spirit was undoubtedly the large number of new members that have joined the party over the past six months, of whom there were a goodly number present at the one-day conference. But the main reason was the relished challenge of the London Mayoral and Greater London Assembly elections in six months’ time. Current Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon, who is number 1 on the LibDem top-up list for the Assembly is the party’s mayoral candidate and has had good media coverage for her work on the Assembly, not least in the field of transport. She gave a short but rousing rallying speech, and the Number 2 on the list, Emily Davey, spoke on housing, which is her speciality and is rightly being promoted as the top issue for concern in the capital. Number 3 is Merlene Emerson and it would be wonderful if she were elected too; the LibDems have had as many as 5 Assembly members in the past, and as an ethnic Chinese, Merlene would add some much needed diversity to the ranks of LibDem elected politicians.

JF at London LibDem conferenceI spoke about the EU Referendum, which David Cameron has said will happen some time before the end of 2017, but which the Westminster village believes could come as early as June or July next year. I had stayed up until the early hours of this morning following the news of the horrific terrorist attack in Paris. In my speech I mentioned how pleased I was that Donald Tusk, President of the European Council (and former Polish Prime Minister) had in his message to French President Francois Hollande not only expressed solidarity with the French people but also declared that the attack was an assault on Europe and European values. How often does David Cameron talk of European values, I asked rhetorically. While obviously working closely with the Stronger in Europe campaign, the LibDems must be leaders in campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU — as Tim Farron showed he was willing to be, in a skype link from the Welsh Liberal Democrat conference in Swansea. We need to be talking about Europe on the doorstep and putting it in our literature during the GLA campaign. More than anywhere in this country, London benefits from our EU membership, whatever the oafish Boris Johnson may say to the country, and it is essential that we do not allow a Brexit by default.

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Working in Conflict Zones

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 12th November, 2015

Working in Conflict ZonesThe EBRD has run a stimulating cultural programme over the last few days, but this evening there was a real novelty, in cooperation with One World Media: a panel discussion on the reality for journalists and NGO workers operating in conflict zones. Things have changed dramatically since I was a cub reporter in the Vietnam War; it never crossed my mind to wear a flak jacket then, but journalists were not a target then in the way that they have been really since the break-up of Yugoslavia. My former BBC colleague, and now Head of Communications at EBRD, Jonathan Charles, who chaired this evening’s event, had some hairy stories of his own, but the focus was rightly on the four panelists. ITV camerman Toby Nash gave moving testimony of evacuating Yazidi refugees from Mount Sinjar in Iraq, while Natalie Roberts, a doctor with MĂ©decins sans Frontieres, drew on her experience in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere to show how both governments and foreign military forces deliberately target hospitals and other humanitarian centres. Harper McConnell is senior Director of the Eastern Congo Initiative and spoke of how to engage with people in conflict situations, while Soraya Narfeldt from RA International made the valuable point that in conflict situations good people sometimes do bad things and evil people can show extraordinary humanity. She also felt that politicians are far removed from the reality on the ground. Altogether a very stimulating panel and evening.

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Women in Politics

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 11th November, 2015

Lynne FeatherstoneThere were many tragic aspects to the Liberal Democrat rout in May’s UK general election, but perhaps the most tragic of all was that not a single female MP was returned. Although there are many fine, strong women on the LibDem benches in the House of Lords, our House of Commons contingent is uniformly male (and pale). Something obviously has to be done about this, which means that not only do we need to have good women candidates in place soon in winnable seats but also that they are aided, as necessary, to fulfill the role. The challenges facing women in politics (including child care) formed the core of a presentation this evening to Islington Liberal Democrats (and some friends, including myself) from Lynne Featherstone, who was successively a local councillor in Haringey, then a GLA member, then a backbench MP and finally a Minister in the last Coalition government, before being swept away in the electoral tsunami. Unlike most of her former female LibDem MP colleagues, however, she will be returning to Parliament soon when she is inducted into the House of Lords.

key_freedom_and_equalitiesI am one of those who believe that an unelected House of Lords is a grotesque anachronism, but so long as it exists, it is good that there are people of Lynne’s calibre to sit in it. In her speech tonight, Lynne chided Nick Clegg fairly for not appointing a single woman LibDem MP to the Cabinet during the whole five years of government, though Lynne herself was fortunate in being given a ministerial post (at DFID) which she really loved. But the main thrust of her remarks was really a checklist of things that women in politics need to do in order to succeed. That includes not being shy about putting themselves forward and similarly not being afraid to stand up first to speak. Team-building is crucial she argued (as it is indeed for male candidates as well), as is serious fundraising. But in the House of Commmons, as in industry and so many other spheres of British public life, women are grossly under-represented. It was good to see some in the audience tonight who have been councillors or stood for Parliament. But the Party has to do far more to support women like them, and to make damned sure we actually get some elected in 2020. In the meantime, I am delighted that we have a first class woman candidate, Jane Brophy, in the Oldham West and Royton by-election. And if a more promising opportunity arises over the next four-and-a-half years we should try to ensure that it is a woman who fights that seat as well.

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