Jonathan Fryer

The New Cold War

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th February, 2015

Vladimir PutinBoris NemtsovThe murder in Moscow yesterday of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was a cruel reminder of just how far the values of Vladimir Putin’s Russia differ from the European mainstream. Many other critics of the Kremlin — not least journalists — have been killed, beaten up or imprisoned since Vlad the Bad came to power. I suppose it was natural for the West to imagine when Communism collapsed a quarter of a century ago that Russia would modernise politically as well as economically, in short to become more like us, but this assumption failed to take into account the fact that Russia is unlike Europe in many ways — including the high regard many Russians have for strong leaders and their rejection of contemporary European liberal views on everything from the right to peaceful protest to same sex marriage. Moreover, even if Putin is out-of-step with European and North American values, he has many admirers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. So as a new Cold War seems to be shaping up in the wake of the Russian intervention in Ukraine Moscow is unlikely to find itself alone out in the cold. In the meantime, it is natural for us to feel compassion for the small band of brave liberal voices inside Russia itself who dare to speak out. They deserve our support, as well as sanctuary in Europe if they feel their only means of survival is to get out.

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MPs for Hire

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 24th February, 2015

Rifkind StrawChannel 4’s sting operation that entrapped Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind has yet again highlighted the dangers posed to Britain’s parliamentary democracy by the temptations of cash for questions or of lucrative consultancies. Both men involved his time had been Foreign Secretaries, one Labour, one Tory, and already have opportunities to make a good living from paid speeches and other side activities to their work as an MP, and in Sir Malcolm’s case, the chairmanship of an important committee. But human greed is sometimes difficult to resist, rather like sexual desire. This sad affair is yet another nail in the coffin of the public’s respect for politicians, five years after the raft of scandals relating to MPs’ claiming of expenses. So what can be done about it, to improve the integrity of the system? Labour’s leader, Ed Miliband, has suggested that MPs should be barred from having outside jobs or consultancies, which is a drastic but plausible solution, yet a difficult one to impose unless MPs salaries rise (as the independent body dealing with such matters has recommended). I suspect that few people will have much sympathy with Sir Malcolm’s lament that it is impossible to live on £60,000 a year, but it is true that MPs’ remuneration does not compare favourably with business salaries and bonuses, which acts as a disincentive for entering politics for those with the capacity to be high-flyers. I believe that being an MP should be a full time job — and indeed most of them do work extremely hard — and there needs to be some curb on those who frankly abuse the system, even if they are not breaking any rules. According to one report, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, for example, earned a million pounds last year; he certainly was not seen much in the House of Commons, so his electors might a reason to feel aggrieved. It is maybe not feasible to ban all outside paid work — including media fees — for MPs, but the temptation to be moonlighting or taking up consultancies that might create a conflict of interest with the duties of an objective legislator representing his or her constituents is so great that maybe it will only be solved if MPs are paid a market rate and the rules about outside income are tightened.

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Tangerines or the Children of Death

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th February, 2015

TangerinesTangerines 1Abkhazia is, I suspect, a name most Europeans half remember half forget: a breakaway region of Georgia that has been effectively annexed by Russia (despite an internationally spurious declaration of independence) with the consent of a significant proportion of the local populations; it has for years been a favourite holiday destination for Russians from Moscow and St Petersburg who want to enjoy seaside and sun. There was a vicious civil war in the early 1990s, and it is that that provides the context of an extraordinary film which I saw at a screening at the EBRD* this evening — and which is shortlisted for Best Foreign Film in this year’s Oscars. An elderly Estonian, who has stayed behind in his village in Abkhazia when most others have left because of the fighting, is helping a rather timid fellow Estonian bring in his harvest of tangerines (clementines). Suddenly there is an wartime incident, and out of the survivors the old man (beautifully played by one of Estonai’s leading actors, Lembit Ulfsa), finds himself playing host to two wounded fighters: a Georgian, who cannot bear the thought of losing Abkhazia to others, and a Chechen mercenary who is fighting on the side of the Abkhazian separatists. They hate each other, and would happily kill each other, yet as events unfold they recognise their common humanity. I shan’t spoil it by revealing more of the story, but suffice it to say that this is a truly great film, an Estonian-Georgian co-production, with dialogue in (very earthy) Estonian and Russian, with somewhat milder English sub-titles, directed by the Georgian director, Zaza Urushadze, on location in Georgia, with a total budget of just £500,000. I can’t predict whether it will win the Oscar award, though it richly deserves to do so. It is impeccably directed and acted. More importantly, it deserves to go out on general release, all round the world. This is one of those films you will not forget, and there was hardly a dry eye in the EBRD screening room tonight.

*EBRD: European Bank for Reconstruction and Development

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Is the UKIP Balloon Deflating?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 17th February, 2015

UKIPAccording to an ICM national opinion poll in today’s Guardian, UKIP (on 9%) has fallen behind the Liberal Democrats (on 10%) for the first time in a long while, Of course one must not make too much of one individual poll, especially as this may just be an outlier — a rogue poll that is out of step with all the others. But ICM has a rather good record at gauging public opinion and there are signs that the UKIP balloon — buoyant since they came out top in the European elections last May — is starting to deflate. The endless stream of UKIP representatives making idiotic or unpleasant statements does seem to be harming their chances of getting elected, no matter how hard Nigel Farage tries to keep the party on message. And Mr Farage himself has let his convivial mask slip on occasion, showing a much less jovial face. But I think the main reason UKIP is sagging is because their policies are coming under increased scrutiny and some of them just don’t stand up. As the general election gets closer we can expect more trenchant interviewing of UKIP candidates and more exposure of the way that even elected UKIP representatives often contradict each other. It is also highly likely that UKIP will fare badly under Britain’s first-past-the-post political system, which will mean they get very few MPs even on a decent national vote share. Whether or not the Liberal Democrats are indeed polling higher nationally, as the Guardian/ICM poll suggests, the LibDems are likely to get far more MPs. Unfair, undoubtedly, but also, I suspect, a great relief of a sizeable swath of the British public, whose dislike of the UKIP brand is, according to another poll, even stronger than their dislike of Ryanair.

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An Historic Moment for the Kurds?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 14th February, 2015

Thousands of Kurds from across Europe gathered in Strasbourg this afternoon for a rally by the city’s stadium. As one of their foreign guests I gave the following short speech in English, simultaneously translated into Kurdish:

image We are gathered here under the Strasbourg sun at what I believe may be an historic moment in the long struggle for Kurdish cultural and political rights in Turkey. Yesterday, a petition with more than 10 million signatures, calling for the release from prison of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, was delivered to the Council of Europe in this city. It was a remarkable tribute to the determination of the Kurds and to the growing solidarity from people across Europe.
Tomorrow, 15 February, in Ankara, the HDP and AKP are due to publish the framework of an agreement for a settlement of the Kurdish question and to declare their intention to move towards making Turkey a genuinely democratic republic, with a new constitution. If this does indeed happen it will mark a giant stride forward.
Of course, we cannot take success for granted. There have been so many disappointments as well as hopes regarding Kurdish rights. At times it has seemed that the government in Ankara was taking one step forward and then one step back. But an agreement is possible, with sufficient good faith on all sides.
I know that from the experience of my own country, Britain, where decades of
political strife and violence in Northern Ireland were largely laid to rest by the courageous Good Friday Agreement, which integrated the IRA and its political arm Sinn Fein into the mainstream, with an agreed ceasefire, power-sharing and the release from prison of militants. So it can be done.
Finally, I would like to send two messages to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Firstly, Mr President, please carry forward measures to ensure that Turkey’s Kurds enjoy full cultural and political rights in the future. And secondly, Mr President, please release Abdullah Ocalan so that he can sit at the negotiating table with all the dignity of a free man.

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Kurds Petition for Abdullah Ocalan’s Release

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 13th February, 2015

imageKurds from all over Europe — including many who had matched long distances — converged in Strasbourg today to mark the handover to the Council of Europe of a petition signed by more than 10 million people calling for the release of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the banned PKK, who has been in prison on an island in Turkey since his capture and rendition by the CIA in Kenya. The PKK figures on the list of terrorist organisations in several European countries, but many Kurds believe that is unjust. Though there was a bloody war between Kurdish militants and the Turkish security forces for decades, the AK Party government that has been in power in Ankara for over a decade has conducted a stop-start peace process with the Kurds, granting certain cultural rights after long years of oppression. But some of the international speakers who were present at a press conference this morning to highlight the petition handover argue that just as the release of Nelson Mandela was an essential element in the move towards reconciliation and more racial justice in South Africa so the release of Abdullah Ocalan is a prerequisite to a permanent settlement of Turkey’s question. It was pointed out that PKK fighters fought alongside Peshmerga forces in liberating the town of Kobane in the Kurdish area of Syria recently, scoring an important victory over Islamic State, which maybe might help a review of how the PKK is viewed. As someone who lived through the years in Britain when IRA bombs were a feature I know how important it was for the British and Irish governments to talk to former terrorists in order to make the Good Friday Agreement a reality. As has often been said, one does not make peace with one’s friends. And if there is going to be a Kurdish settlement in Turkey it seems crucial to me that Abdullah Ocalan should be a full party to the negotiations, however difficult some Turks might find that to stomach.

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Sargent’s Portraits of Artists and Friends

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 12th February, 2015

Saregent 2Sargent 1The American artist John Singer Sargent was often dismissed in the latter half of the 20th century as a darling of high society who was commissioned to produce sumptuous portraits of the rich and famous. In recent years, the critical appraisal has tended to be kinder and the exhibition of his portraits of artists and friends that opened today at the National Portrait Gallery in London should see it sky-rocket. Sargent was prolific, but his work is by no means much of a muchness. Moreover, as this wonderful exhibition shows, his artistic sensibility, as well as his technique, evolved in fascinating ways throughout his life, the early part of which was spent wandering round Europe with his family;,later he had bases in America and London. As well as the formal representations of the great and the good there are sensitive pictures of struggling artists and other friends or characters who interested him, as well as evocative renditions of place. At one stage Sargent was clearly experimenting with Impressionism. His mural work — most spectacularly visible in Boston — is represented in the NPG show by photographs, which along with the concise but illuminating texts posted round the gallery help one to get a deeper understanding of the man and his diverse visions. In short, the exhibition is a triumph and is well worth a special expedition.

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The Theory of Everything

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 8th February, 2015

The Theory of EverythingWhen a film is tipped for the Oscars I often go to see it with a sense of dread that it won’t be as good as the critics say. And I confess that theoretical physics is about as far away from my comfort zone of interests as anything could be. So I was braced for disappointment, even boredom, when a friend persuaded me to accompany him to The Theory of Everything yesterday. But how wrong could I be! The true-life story of Stephen Hawking, his ground-breaking academic work, the physical effects of his motor neurone disease and the complex relationship that he had with his wife, make a compelling cocktail that is likely to lift any viewer through the whole gamut of emotions from tearful empathy to belly laughs. The setting of Cambridge University (even if a few liberties are taken by mixing views of different colleges) adds to the romanticism of the film, against which the physical deterioration of Dr Hawking is shockingly stark. James Marsh’s direction is masterful; I can think of few contemporary films that are so carefully measured and executed. The actors are remarkable, and none more so than Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking. His performance is a tour de force. The film should sweep the BAFTAs and the Oscars, but even if it doesn’t, all those in involved in it can pride themselves on knowing they have produced an amazing movie that will linger in people’#s minds for a long time.

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Two Feisty LibDem Women for Tower Hamlets!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 5th February, 2015

Elaine BagshawTeena LashmoreThis evening Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrat members gathered at Oxford House in Bethnal Green to choose our two candidates for the general election in May, for the constituencies of Poplar & Limehouse (which I fought in 2010) and Bethnal Green & Bow (where Ajmal Masroor lifted the LibDems to second place last time). I’m pleased to say that both constituencies have chosen feisty women for May 2015, who will be able to strike a different note above the noise of the macho slug-fest in the borough between Labour and Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s “Tower Hamlets First”: Elaine Bahsaw (Poplar & Limehouse) and Teena Lashmore (Bethnal Green & Bow). Elaine both lives and works in Poplar & Limehouse and is well known within the Liberal Democrat party as a former Chair of Liberal Youth. Teena Lashmore works in Tower Hamlets and lives in the neighbouring inner London borough of Hackney, where she has been very active in the anti-racist group Hackney United. That has been a role model for community interaction in Britain, not least for the cooperation between the Jewish and Muslim communities (Hackney’s Cazenove ward notably has two Jewish councillors and one Muslim, all LibDems) and so her experience will be very useful in multicultural Tower Hamlets. Choosing two women candidates, including one from an ethnic minority, also means that London Liberal Democrats are starting to look more like the city where the party operates, which was an ambition I tried to promote when I was Chair of the region from 2010-2012.

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UK Misses the EU Boat — Again!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 5th February, 2015

Angela MerkelFrancois HollandeAngela Merkel and Francois Hollande are in Kiev today and tomorrow will move on to Moscow — all in aid of trying to mediate a peace deal between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed rebels on Eastern Ukraine. They are to be congratulated for confronting head-on the most serious threat to security in the European Union’s neighbourhood since the Cold War. They are right to believe that the European Union should be pro-active in its commitment to peace and stability, not only within and between EU member states but in the neighbourhood as well. But where is Britain in all this, or more precisely David Cameron? The UK is a major player in NATO operations, but under Mr Cameron it has increasingly side-lined itself from EU activity. The Ukraine peace initiative would have been stronger with the involvement of the three most powerful member states: Britain, France and Germany. But once again, as so often over the past half century and more, the British government has left it up to a Franco-German alliance. David Cameron might claim to be too busy to drop everything to go to Ukraine and Russia, though Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande cleared their diaries for the trip. Besides, Mr Cameron had no problem dropping everything recently to go cap in hand to Riyadh, to pay his respects to the Saudi Royal family. No, what I fear is all to obvious is that the Prime Minister didn’t want to be seen as doing anything too ‘European’ out of fear of UKIP and his own Tory backbench MPs. So once again The UK has missed the boat at a crucial moment in the EU’s evolution. And Mr Cameron should hang his head in shame.

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