Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

The Liberal International’s 70th Anniversary Congress

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 19th May, 2017

IMG_2400The Liberal International was founded in Oxford 70 years ago, as Europe and the wider world emerged from the physical and psychological trauma of the Second World War. The idea was to bring together political parties, originally predominantly in Europe, who had enough of a shared ideology to collaborate in the interests of promoting liberal values of individual freedom, human rights and a (regulated) free market economy. I went to Wadham College, Oxford, a few weeks ago to celebrate the 70th anniversary and to help put the finishing touches to a new Liberal Manifesto which aims to update what was put together in 1947, without losing the central principles. Tomorrow, in Andorra, at the Liberal International Congress, we will adopt the new document and I will have the honour of signing it on behalf of the UK Liberal Democrats.

IMG_2411I am sure the founding fathers (and, yes, in keeping with the times they were almost all men) would have been thrilled to see how LI has grown and how these days European parties are outnumbered by counterparts from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Indeed, Liberals are now in government in so many countries in the world, from Taiwan to Côte d’Ivoire, Canada to the Netherlands. Will the new French President, Emmanuel Macron, be the next new recruit? The reason the current congress is in Andorra is because the LI President at the moment is Juli Minoves, former Foreign Minister of Andorra, who has done us proud reminding us just how ancient the principality’s parliamentary system is. But on Sunday I shall return to London and throw myself back into the general election campaign, in Dagenham & Rainham and beyond.

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The Liberal Democrats’ Manifesto Launch

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 17th May, 2017

Tim Farron manifesto launchDespite the dismal rain outside, the atmosphere in the Oval Space in Bethnal Green was electric this evening for the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto launch — reminiscent of the very best LibDem autumn conference events, packed with activists and complete with a well-stocked bar. After a warm-up act (and fundraising pitch) by St. Albans candidate Daisy Cooper, Tim Farron hit the stage to give a barnstorming speech which can have left no-one –including those watching via the numerous TV channels filming — where the party’s heart lies. Right at the fore of the manifesto and in Tim’s speech was the restated belief that Britain is better off inside the EU. No ifs, no buts. And, not surprisingly, Theresa May got a roasting for adopting not only UKIP’s language but their policies too. Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn was criticised for instructing his MPs and peers to embrace Brexit and vote for Article50 to be invoked.

Tim Farron’s line could not have been clearer: although the party that accepts that a (narrow) majority voted to leave the European Union in last June’s EU referendum, the vote indicated a departure but not a direction. Did all those who voted Leave really endorse leaving the European single market with all the likely economic shock that that will deliver? Palpably not. So, say the LibDems, when Mrs May has a deal hammered out with our current 27 EU partners that ought to be put to the people in a referendum, not just to politicians in Parliament. And, yes, one option in that fresh vote would be to stay in the EU is voters thought that was preferable. Many people are a bit punch-drunk from votes at the moment, but will that be the case in 12 or 18 months time, when the effects of looming Brexit really bite? Already inflation has increased ninefold, largely as a result in the sharp fall in the value of the pound sterling, and the economy has stopped growing. Let;s see. But certainly among the hundreds of LibDem candidates and supporters at the manifesto launch this evening, Tim Farron’s clear message could not have been sweeter.

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So What Will Happen after Brexit?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 16th May, 2017

Theresa May 9Theresa May’s UKIPTory government is ploughing on with Brexit, giving every impression that she expects to walk away after two years of talks with our current 27 EU partners without a deal. The one realistic part of her scenario is that Britain won’t get a worthwhile deal if the Prime Minister and her unsavoury trio of Brexit Ministers insist that they want to have their cake and eat it, i.e. leave the European single market and end freedom of movement and yet somehow still enjoy all the benefits of EU membership. Impossible, as any rational human being must realise. You are either a member of a Club or not, paying your subs and obeying the rules, or the best you can hope for otherwise is some sort of reciprocal arrangement that won’t be anything like as good as the real thing. During the EU referendum, the Brexiteers attacked the Remainers for what they called “Project Fear”, in other words the projections that experts (much derided by those on the Leave side who prefer emotions to facts) that the British economy would take a massive hit if we do have a hard Brexit. We are still in the EU at the moment and are therefore still benefiting from our open trading relationship within the biggest trading bloc in the world. Yet already the shocks are being felt just because the government is pressing ahead with Brexit, shamefully cheered on by the supposed Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, who has declared that “Brexit is settled”. No it isn’t! And because there are still more than 18 months left before Britain goes over the cliff edge there is still time to soften the blows or, if the British electorate wants it, even to stop Brexit in its tracks.

UK inflationIn the meantime, inflation has shot up from 0.3% to 2.7%, almost entirely because of the fall in the value of the pound sterling and the associated increase in import costs. That is hitting people on low incomes, even those in employment whose modest wages are not now keeping up with inflation. Moreover, leading financial services firms and other companies have started expanding their premises in cities such as Dublin, Paris and Frankfurt as they prepare to move thousands of their employees out of London once their ability to operate freely in the EU from London is curtailed. And it’s not just people on generous City salaries who will leave or lose their positions. Jobs will soon go in various sectors of manufacturing industry as well as the hospitality industry and services. I accept that a slim majority of those who voted in last June’s EU Referendum indicated that they would prefer Britain to leave the EU. But did all of them really realise what the sort of hard Brexit Mrs May and her colleagues are pursuing would mean? I don’t believe so. And I can’t help feeling that the reason the Prime Minister called this snap election is not so much because she think Labour is on the ropes, but rather because she wants to get the election out of the way before the Brexit shit really hits the fan.

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Eurovision: A Return to Authenticity?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 14th May, 2017

NB&D Eurovision nightMost years I watch the Eurovision song contest in the company of fellow Liberal Democrats, and this year was no exception, with a jolly event last night at the home of the Chair of the Newham and Barking & Dagenham local party and his wife. Even during an election campaign it’s good to let one’s hair down once in a while. Besides, the idea of European nations coming together to celebrate — along with the odd outlier like Australia — chimes in well with the LibDems’ pro-European character. Among the membership of the local party there are nationals of a range of other EU member states, as well as Asian and Afro-Caribbean activists, making it one of the most multicultural in the country.

Salvador SobralAs for last night’s Eurovision show, even though I still lament the passing of Terry Wogan, it struck me as a distinct improvement on some recent years, for a couple of main reasons. The first, naturally, was Portugal’s victory with Salvador Sobral and his ballad Amar Pelos Dois. Quite apart from the poignancy of the singer’s health problems, he showed that you don’t need over-the-top light shows and pyrotechnics to win. The simple act of singing a good song well is rightly what it takes. The second thing that cheered me about last night was that far more entries than usual sang in their own language, rather than in English, as had become the fashion. In my view, that is how it should be, as Europe is a stunningly diverse continent when it comes to languages and culture. We should champion that diversity, and celebrate it (as indeed the European Union does). And what better way than the annual songfest that is Eurovision?

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All White in Barking

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 13th May, 2017

InteGreat_BritainLast night I was at the Stratford Picturehouse for a special screening of Marc Isaac’s 2007 documentary, All White in Barking, organised by the City Circle, with which I have been marginally involved for a few years now. The Circle, originally based at Toynbee Hall in Tower Hamlets, provides a safe space for communities to self-critically discuss and debate issues that concern them. According to its founding principles it aims:

i) to empower the Muslim community network to regain the moral and ethical voice of Islam in Britain and to promote this actively in the mainstream British media

ii) To provide a genuine opportunity for strategic alliance building between Muslim and non-Muslim groups

iii) To challenge the belief that there is a conflict between a Muslim and British identity

iv) To channel talent into strategic projects which practically help to put back into wider British society.

All White in Barking 1The City Circle runs a range of outreach programmes, such as feeding the homeless in central London, Saturday schools and regular talks at their new base off the Edgware Road. Currently it is showing a series of films looking at related issues of immigration, integration, race and identity in Britain, “InteGREAT BRITAIN,hence All White in Barking. Though now a decade old, the film still has relevance (by no means only to the borough of Barking & Dagenham) in its exploration of people’s often irrational fears and prejudices regarding other races and religions. Most of it is fly-on-the-wall style reportage, following a small number of central characters, such as the late middle-aged white couple who suddenly find Albanian and African neighbours living on either side and have to be coaxed into having anything to do with them, or the elderly Jewish Holocaust survivor living with his much younger Nigerian “carer”. The dialogue is at times shocking, at others hilarious. At least one of the people featured never faces up to the new multicultural reality and moves to Canvey Island.

When the film was made, there were 12 BNP councillors in Barking & Dagenham. All of them subsequently lost their seats, though I was saddened to see that there is a BNP candidate standing in Dagenham & Rainham constituency in next month’s general election. The BNP wins were a wake-up call not only to the Labour Party that has dominated the area for decades but also to local community organisations, and I believe the situation has improved a lot since then. Barking & Dagenham is, if anything, even more diverse than it was a decade ago, but there does seem to be more interaction between communities, not least among the young. But that does not mean everything is hunky-dory. The central message of All White in Barking is as relevant today as it was back in 2007: confront your inner fears and prejudices, engage with those who are different and open your minds.

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Yes, Animals Have a Place in Elections

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th May, 2017

cowsTheresa May’s snap general election is already being described by the political pundits as unlike any other. That’s partly because she has called it for one (official) reason: to get a mandate to be tough in Britain’s Brexit negotiations with our 27 EU partners. Unofficially, it’s clear the Conservatives believe that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is in such disarray that they are can be easily vanquished at the polls. But even if some aspects of this election campaign are unusual in other ways it is very familiar. Already, for example, candidates are being bombarded with emails (in the old days, they used to be letters) from constituents lobbying them on issues from A to Z. It’s all part of the democratic process and I always make the effort to respond to them all. That was quite a task when I stood for the European Parliament and the whole of London was my electorate. Anyway, one of the first organised lobbying groups off the mark in Dagenham & Rainham in this election are people concerned with the treatment of animals, whether relating to farming techniques, so-called blood sports, vivisection or cruelty to domestic animals. Some commentators may feel that elections should be 100% about people, but I share the view that it is right that animal welfare is on the agenda. If we can’t treat other creatures properly then it is a poor reflection on our humanity. The major concern of the voters who have been in touch is that animal welfare in this country is covered by over 40 EU laws and they fear that once Britain leaves the European Union some of those laws may be watered down or abolished. They’re right to raise that anxiety, and the next Parliament should ensure such weakening of animal protection does not happen. In the meantime, however, Mrs May’s Conservative government has floated the idea — not for the first time — of lifting the ban on fox hunting. That pitch may be popular among traditionalists in the Tory shires, but it would go down in the cities like the proverbial lead balloon.

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Protect Our EU Citizenship Rights

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 11th May, 2017

Retaining European CitizenshipThis morning I was contacted by a lady living in France who is registered to vote in the UK constituency of Dagenham & Rainham where I am standing as the Liberal Democrat candidate in next month’s general election. I suspect she will be the first of many, as hundreds of thousands of British expats on the Continent are concerned about what the future holds for them once Brexit happens. One of my sisters and her husband are among that number, having retired to Spain some years ago but now left wondering if their rights (including access to health care) that have been guaranteed under our common EU citizenship will continue. Similarly, a significant proportion of the teachers I work with at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) are nationals of other EU member states and they are understandably worried about their future status. It is unforgivable of Theresa May’s Conservative government to present these people on both sides of the Channel as bargaining chips in the Brexit negotiations. Key negotiators on the EU27 side, such as Guy Verhofstadt on behalf of the European Parliament, have indicated their willingness to find a formula that would allow those Brits who wished to to preserve elements of EU citizenship and certainly they are keen that the position of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens on the Continent is clarified quickly. The constituent in France who contacted me asked for a pledge of support for two specific things, which I was delighted to be able to give, namely:

  1. the lifetime continuation of UK and EU citizens’ rights, as proposed in the EU negotiating directive*; and
  2. the ring-fencing of the agreement on these rights from the rest of the negotiations

These demands strike me as not only reasonable but essentially humane. The result of last year’s EU Referendum has been unsettling in many ways, from the fall in the value of the pound sterling to the recent slowing of UK industrial growth. But the most critical thing to get settled first is to put the minds at rest of those people who are British citizens living in other EU member states and of EU citizens based here. Mrs May and your three Brexit Minsters: can you demonstrate that you actually care?

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On the Theme of Islands

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 9th May, 2017

Europe Day concert 2017The annual Europe Day concert in St. John’s Smith Square is always an emotional occasion for me. Although I abandoned any ambition for a musical career in my early teens, music still has the ability to move me more than any other art form. So strong is its influence that I cannot write with music on in the background, as it distracts my mind from the task at hand. But it’s not just the music that stirs my emotions on Europe Day; my belief in the European project is unshaken, while arguing that the EU should certainly reform — as many political leaders on the continent, such as the European Commission’s Foreign Affairs supremo, Federica Mogherini, now concede. And yes, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy does sometimes bring tears to my eyes. How brave Emmanuel Macron was to use that European anthem for his victory celebration in the Louvre on Sunday, rather than the Marseillaise! Would even Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron dare to do that in the UK? I have attended several Europe Day concerts and for me tonight’s programme beat all previous offerings. The Maltese presidency chose a subject thread for the evening: Music on the Theme of Islands — underlining not only Malta’s maritime history but also the situation of the British Isles, too. There was a brilliant selection of both orchestral and choral music, from Sibelius’s The Tempest to Martinú’s Ariane. Of course, there was an added edge to this evening’s concert as everyone was aware that it might be the penultimate occasion of its kind, assuming Britain leaves the EU by the end of March 2019. In common with many people in the church this evening, I find that a matter of immense sadness. But while I would prefer to stop Brexit in its tracks it is absolutely vital that a Hard Brexit is avoided and that the UK maintains as close a connection with the EU27 as possible.

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Singing for One’s Supper

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 8th May, 2017

JF speaking at Newham HustingsThis afternoon I spoke to Kingston U3A about my Life as a Foreign Correspondent — undoubtedly the most popular of all the talks that I have been giving since I joined the lecture circuit a decade or so ago. Most writers and many broadcasters sing for their supper in that way, whether for women’s clubs, Rotary Clubs and other professional bodies and U3A — the University of the Third Age, which has hundreds of thousands of members in Britain (the Kingston branch has well over a thousand). So whereas many people, not least the young, get their information and entertainment online or through their mobile phones or other post-modern platforms, others still want to hear stories from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. And it is all about stories. Whether I’m giving a talk directly related to one of my books (such as on Oscar Wilde) or instead recounting my journalistic exploits round the world from the Vietnam War onward, or aspects of modern history and current affairs, such as the so-called Arab Spring, I paint a picture in words, exactly as I do when I am writing a script for Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent. Well-delivered, the spoken word can convey so much, without the need for visual illustration.

Sometimes people ask me, “Why do you do it?”, in other words, give talks, which I do mainly in London and the Home Counties, though for several years I lectured on cruise ships as well. “Surely it takes away valuable time from your writing?” Well, yes, up to a point that is true, though writing is a very solitary occupation and it’s good to have a speaking engagement lined up that means I actually do have to shave, get fully dressed and go out into the world and converse with real live people. Besides, these days writers of books, in particular, are urged by their publishers to go out and promote the product, not just at literary festivals, but in other fora, as well as keeping up a visible presence online and on social media. Finally, yes, the money does help. Unless one is fortunate enough to pen a blockbuster, writers’ income from their craft has fallen sharply in recent years. A recent survey by the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), on whose Board I sit, discovered through a survey that the average income of writers in the UK is £11,000 a year. That means many are having to survive on much less. So speaking fees (usually calculated on a per capita basis on the size of the expected audience, can make all the difference, even when the group (and therefore the fee) is modest. But I mustn’t grumble. I am one of those writers and broadcasters who actually enjoys giving talks, unlike some of my colleagues who loathe it. So my advice to fellow scribes is: don’t knock it. Be brave! Go with it!

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Weak and Unstable: Britain’s Brexit Government

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 7th May, 2017

Theresa May 8Theresa May and her camp followers have adopted with gusto the rather tiresome mantra “Strong and Stable”. I wonder if they realise that it was Adolf Hitler who brought that phrase to prominence, in Mein Kampf. Now, I am not suggesting Mrs May is a neo-Nazi, like Marine Le Pen. But apart from the fact that she scores nuls points for originality in political slogans, the Prime Minister’s “strong and stable” catchphrase repeated ad nauseam is an egregious example of alternative facts, an Orwellian distortion of words that chimes with the era of Donald Trump and Brexit. And, of course, in this case it is all about Brexit. What the Conservative government is doing, having co-opted UKIP’s agenda, is trying to hoodwink the British public into agreeing that it is providing decisive leadership in Britain’s best interests — whereas the reality is that it is doing precisely the opposite. The cack-handedness of their whole approach since the EU Referendum last June has illustrated their incompetence. They hadn’t planned for a Leave vote, and once it happened they floundered around, with chief ditherer and fantasist Boris Johnson despatched to the Foreign Office to try to explain things to the rest of the world. The rest of the world, with the possible exception of Putin’s Russia and other enemies of liberal democracy plus Donald Trump, is aghast. And instead of dealing sensibly with our 27 EU partners in the prolonged negotiations that are about to start, Mrs May has indicated that she intends to try to brow-beat them, cheered on by rabid Brexit media such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. No-wonder several of her key Downing Street advisors have resigned, as even true blue apparatchiks know that you do not succeed in negotiations if you insult the other side to their face. The sad truth is that the whole Brexit thing is going to go horribly wrong, with serious damage to the British economy and not least to the poorer parts of the British population — and Mrs May is going to blame it all on Brussels, as she wraps herself Boudica-like in the Union Jack. But she should remember that Boudica lost, as she will lose. “Strong and stable” May is a myth. She is weak and unstable, but the only way to stop her is to vote her out of office.

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