Jonathan Fryer

Michael Bloch’s Jeremy Thorpe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th March, 2015

Jeremy Thorpe 1Thorpe biographyJeremy Thorpe was the Liberal Party’s most charismatic leader since David Lloyd George, whom in many ways he tried to emulate. I first met him when he came to speak at the Oxford Union while I was Secretary of the university’s Liberal Club and I was dazzled by his wit, his talent for mimicry and his genuine interest in everyone he spoke to. All those charms, and more, are evident in Michael Bloch’s magisterial biography (Jeremy Thorpe Little, Brown £25), which means that the reader gets a good idea of the substance of the man before his catastrophic downfall in 1979, when he was a co-defendant in a trial on a charge of conspiracy to murder. The supposed target of this plot was the sometime model and horseman Norman Scott (né Josiffe), with whom Thorpe developed a most unfortunate relationship, which he then spent many frustrating years trying to shake off. His constituency association in North Devon adored him, as did much of the electorate until his disgrace — and even after that, many friends and political acquaintances stood by him. Very soon after the trial — at which he was acquitted — it became obvious that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, but it is tribute to his fortitude (one might even say his cussedness) that he lived for another 25 years, mostly confined to the beautiful house in Orme Square which his second wife Marion received as part of her divorce settlement from Lord Harewood with trips to their other two homes in North Devon and Suffolk. Marion’s loyalty to Jeremy was quite extraordinary and is rightly acknowledged as such in Michael Bloch’s book. Neither Jeremy nor Marion were particularly happy about the book’s being written, and having read it in draft nearly two decades ago, Jeremy insisted that it not be published while he was alive. That was a pity in many ways, as he could not have wished for a fairer and more scrupulous biographer, who over 500 impeccably researched pages gives a brilliant picture of the man, warts and all, critically but ultimately affectionately.

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Liberalism versus Islamism

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 15th March, 2015

imageimageWhen the International Office of the Liberal Democrats first mooted the idea of a fringe meeting at this weekend’s Spring conference in Liverpool on issues surrounding radical Islam some voices urged caution, fearful this could inflame tensions. But what is a Liberal party for, if not to stand up for the freedom of expression in a tolerant, diverse society? The recent bloody excesses of ISIS in Syria and Iraq — one of whose victims was the noble aid volunteer from my home town of Eccles, Alan Henning — have highlighted the need to tackle the scourge of Islamism head-on. This is absolutely not the same as criticising the religion Islam, whatever some critics might say. Islamism, the radical ideology that seeks to impose its own extreme interpretation if Islam on society is as far from the core values of Islam as the Spanish Inquisition was from the core values of Christianity. Indeed, as (Baroness) Kishwer Falkner — a secular Muslim LibDem peer of Pakistani origin — declared at the controversial fringe meeting last night, ISIS are essentially fascists, far more extreme than just extreme. Maajid Nawaz, the LibDem candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn at the forthcoming general election also spoke passionately of the need to defend the right of people to have any religion or none, or even to change religion if they wish — though apostasy is a capital offence in some conservative Islamic states. Such issues were reprised in a plenary debate at the conference this morning, when a very detailed motion on protecting freedom of expression was overwhelmingly passed. I spoke in that debate, highlighting the fact that journalism has become a much more dangerous occupation than when I first started as a teenage cub reporter for the Manchester Evening News in Vietnam. These days, journalists are often deliberately targetted, not just in the Middle East but in countries such as Brazil, Mexico and Russia. It is essential that we champion the principles of free expression enshrined in both the European Convention on Human Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including in relation to the media. As the late US statesman Adlai Stevenson once said, a free press is the mother of our liberties — something we should bear in mind this Mothering Sunday.

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LibDems’ Liverpool Rally

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 14th March, 2015

imageWith just eight weeks to go until polling day, the opening rally at the Liberal Democrats’ spring conference in Liverpool had one clear aim: to enthuse the troops in a campaign that is all about survival. Not that I believe the LibDems face annihilation, much as the more strident sections of the Labour party might wish. But the feedback from those who have been out on the doorsteps up and down the country suggests that providing enough work is put in the party should hold far more parliamentary seats than the headline opinion poll figures imply, and could even pick up a couple. Former leader Paddy Ashdown is the campaign supremo and he gave one of his trademark performances in setting out why it is so important that there should be Liberal Democrats in government again after 7 May, to curb the cutting of the Tories or the accelerated borrowing of Labour. Unusually, he and other keynote speakers, including party president Sal Brinton and Welsh LibDem leader Kirsty William, were introduced by some tongue-in-cheek song and dance acts that certainly created a warm feeling in the hall. There were also some video links to some of the party’s key target candidates — all women — including Lisa Smart in Hazel Grove and Jane Dodds in Montgomeryshire. Any worries some people might have had that number of conference-goers this time might be down were visibly confounded. And for any who might have felt guilty about not being out on the streets campaigning, there is a phone bank operating in the main conference exhibition hall, with everyone being urged to make at least 10 canvassing calls.

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David Steel’s Golden Orpington Dinner

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 11th March, 2015

Each year the National Liberal Club in Westminster hosts a fundraising dinner for Liberal Democrat by-elections, named after one of the most famous of all: Orpington, seized from the Conservatives by the then Eric Lubbock in 1962. But last night’s over-subscribed David SteelOrpington dinner had a special slant as it marked the 50th anniversary of David Steel’s victory at a by-election in Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles. Steel went on to become Leader of the Liberal Party, a presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament and an active member of the House of Lords. But in the tributes to him in speeches from such luminaries as (Baroness) Shirley Williams and (Lord) Jim Wallace, it was David’s internationalism that was highlighted, including his role in the anti-apartheid struggle. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg used the opportunity to make the most political speech of all, rallying support for the current general election campaign, while stressing the need for Liberalism in a worryingly illiberal world. When David Steel first told the then Liberal Party to “prepare for government” he was much mocked, but Nick was able to say realistically last night “prepare for government — again!”. But for many at the dinner, the most stirring quotation was from the late Alan Paton’s classic South African novel Cry, the Beloved Country: “By Liberalism, I don;t mean the creed of any country. I mean a generosity of spirit, a tolerance of others, an attempt to comprehend otherness, a commitment to the rule of law, a high ideal of the dignity and worth of man, a repugnance of authoritarianism and a love of freedom.”

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London Liberal Democrats’ Spring Conference

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 7th March, 2015

Nick Clegg 4London LibDems rallyWith just two months to go to the UK’s parliamentary elections Liberal Democrats in the capital gathered at Southbank University this morning for a campaign lift-off featuring Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Justice Minister Simon Hughes. Nick’s capacity to remain bright-eyed and bushy-tailed despite all the vitriol poured over him by political opponents, on top of having a very demanding job, never ceases to amaze me, and (Baroness) Floella Benjamin paid just tribute to him in introducing him. He reminded us all — as we in turn will have to do on the doorstep between now and 7 May — of the real achievements Liberal Democrats have clocked up during five years in government, including raising the tax threshold, introducing the pupil premium for disadvantaged schoolchildren and the implementing the “triple lock” pension reforms. Nick and Simon Hughes also cited some of the things that LibDems have managed to stop the Conservatives doing, including sacking people at will and bringing in the Snoopers’ Charter. The British economy is performing better than any of its European competitors and at least some of the legacy of Labour’s financial mismanagement has been rectified. But huge challenges remain, including the need for accelerated building of affordable homes, not least in Great London. Simon pledged that housing will be at the heart of his own campaign to hold the Old Southwark and Bermondsey seat that he has represented for over 30 years. And after just one-and-a-half hours of speeches and Q&As, everyone piled out of the conference for a quick sandwich lunch at the nearby Ministry of Sound before hitting the streets, canvassing and delivering to hekp get Simon returned, blessed by some premature warm spring sun.

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Timmermans’ Convincing Case

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 6th March, 2015

Frans TimmermansIt is frustrating that so much of the discussion about Britain’s relationship with the European Union is about the question “should we be in, or should we be out?” The Prime Minister, David Cameron, must shoulder some of the blame for this, for constantly trying to dance to UKIP’s tune, instead of standing up firmly on the side of most of British business (a natural constituency for him, one would have thought) to stress how important EU membership is for the UK’s economy and how risky leaving to “go it alone” would be. I wish Mr Cameron, and indeed other Tory government Ministers, could have been present yesterday at Thomson Reuters in Canary Wharf to listen to the First Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, give a masterly exposition of how the EU can steer itself through the next four or five years, by doing less better. The event was organised by the social democratic think tank Policy Network, focussing especially on EU reform as well as UK membership, but Mr Timmermans also highlighted the need for a more concerted European response to challenges such as Russia’s adventurism, Mediterranean migration and ISIS and related matters. I asked him if that meant that a recalaibration of the EU’s priorities might therefore be towards a stronger Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), at the expense of internal market regulation, but he responded by quoting Harold Macmillan’s classic remark about “events, dear boy” — in other words, the EU must be able to respond pro-actively as necessary. Meanwhile, Britain marginalises itself from EU action to the detriment of both London and Brussels; I have already blogged about my dismay that Mr Cameron stood aloof from the Merkel-Hollande mission re Ukraine. On that specific issue, Mr Timmermans said that even if the Minsk Agreement has not yet reached a satisfactory conclusion, Minsk must be the basis for taking things forward.

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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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