Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 1st July, 2015
Gunboat diplomacy was often the way that Britain asserted its presence on the global stage in the 19th Century, and even as late as 2003 in Iraq, thanks to Tony Blair. But the predominant school of thought in London these days is that “soft power” can be a more effective way of winning friends and influencing people. The term was the subject of a presentation this lunchtime for the Global Strategy Forum at the National Liberal Club by Sir Ciarán Devane, Chief Executive of the British Council (that organisation does not have a Director these days, which is an interesting reflection of a change of mentality). In fact, Ciarán Devane does not like the term “soft power”, preferring the much less assertive “cultural relations”, and in his speech he emphasized the aspect of mutuality: the work of the British Council (and by extension, the UK) should be as much about listening as it is about communicating.
Some people have criticised the fact that so much of the emphasis of the Council these days is on English-language teaching, but as Sir Ciarán said, teaching English is a way of enabling people to engage with the world, as English is currently the global language. As someone who has been covering the Middle East and North Africa for the past 25 years, since I was part of the BBC World Service’s 24-hour rolling news coverage of the first Gulf War, I was especially interested to learn of the Young Arab Voices programme that the Council is running, helping to engage younger people (who might be largely ignored by their elders in a society that is still age-hierarchical); they are the likely agents of change, as well as the leaders of tomorrow. In the discussion following Sir Ciarán’s speech, I pointed out that I was surprised to learn about this initiative for the first time today, and wondered whether it is deliberately “below the radar” or something that the Council should be “out and proud” about. The latter, he replied. So let’s shout about it! It sounds a fab idea!
[photo: Sir Ciarán Devane and Acting GSF Chair Lord Howell]
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: British Council, Ciarán Devane, Global Strategy Forum, National Liberal Club, Tony Blair, Young Arab Voices | 1 Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 30th June, 2015
Tim Farron and Norman Lamb had to face what was probably the most difficult hustings of their LibDem leadership contest so far tonight at an event put on by Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats (EMLD) at the Draper Hall in Southwark. The meeting was chaired by Simon Wooley of Operation Black Vote, who had some pretty penetrating questions of his own about how the Liberal Democrats have failed to resonate with so much of the BaME community over the past five years — in contrast to the groundswell of support from Muslims in particular when Charles Kennedy bravely opposed the Iraq War. Both candidates acknowledged that the Party is currently in an unfortunate pace, in which there are only eight MPs, all of whom are white men. That means there are gender issues to be confronted. too. But it is the striking way that the LibDems fail to reflect the ethnic diversity of modern Britain at all levels, including membership, that needs to be tackled most urgently. Prominent LibDem politicians such as Nick Clegg and Simon Hughes have often referred to the problem, yet it self-evidently has not been solved (though Simon did establish an excellent relationship with the large African community in his constituency over the 32 years that he represented it). Indeed, it has got worse.
The great irony is that actually Liberal core values of inclusiveness, equality and respect for the individual should all chime in with a multicultural reality. Moreover, the Party has often taken stances on issues such as immigration and the rights of asylum seekers that are more progressive than those of either the Conservatives or Labour. But the predominantly BaME audience at the EMLD hustings was not ready to give either Tim or Norman an easy ride. They were both chided for not doing enough while the Party was in government to prevent the slashing of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s budget (and therefore its staff). Several members expressed frustration that sometimes they feel they are token ethnic members, useful for photographs, but often handicapped when it came to achieving political office. Interestingly, both Tim and Norman, when pressed, came out in favour of positive discrimination as a temporary measure to ensure that some BaME LibDems do get elected, though not all the EMLD members present favoured that. Both men pledged to reach out to diverse communities if they do become Leader, and Norman was able to point to relevant work he had done with regard to mental health and discrimination against ethnic minorities when he was Minister for Health and Social Care. Tim strongest personal narrative is that he does not fit the standard Westminster white male MP’s profile in having been brought up in relative poverty in Lancashire by a determined single mother, which gives him a certain natural empathy for the marginalised of society. Despite the quite rough ride that the two candidates had tonight, both came across as sincere and passionate and determined that whichever one of them wins, racial equality issues, including police stop-and-search and discrimination in the provision of public services, will be one of their prime concerns. Simon Wooley, resolutely non-partisan, acknowledged that and reiterated what many people in this country think: that Britain needs a principled Liberal party and that the Liberal Democrats need to fit for purpose to meet that challenge.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Charles Kennedy, EMLD, Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, Norman Lamb, Operation Black Vote, Simon Hughes, Simon Wooley, Tim Farron | 2 Comments »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 27th June, 2015
I tend to be rather sceptical about the value of organisational away-days, not least when it’s a glorious summer’s day outside and the London Pride street party with a million people enjoying themselves is going on just a couple of miles away. But today’s LibDem Federal Executive gathering showed just how useful such events can be when properly run, as we were able to thrash out in detail reflections on such matters as delivering the Party’s last 5-Year Strategy Plan (or not), our ability to deliver in future and the political landscape post May 7th. Despite the dire general election results, the mood at the meeting was far from downcast, as there are so many lessons to be learned and plans for the future to be made. As there was an almost full house of FE members, we were able to split up into four working groups to consider ways the Party can be revitalised (having 16,000+ new members since the election has been a good start!), what our strategic priorities should be and how we can make the Party more accountable to members, among other things.
I was especially pleased with the recommendation that candidate selections should proceed promptly, not just for the upcoming Police and Crime Commissioner elections and the Scottish, Welsh and London polls in 2016 but also for the European elections. We need to have strong Euro-teams in place across the country to help win the IN/OUT Referendum that David Cameron has said he will deliver. Not for the first time, I was critical of the messaging in the 2014 Euro-election campaign, and many other FE members similarly gave the thumbs down to messaging in May’s general election — not least the sudden last minute change from “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” to “Look Left Look Right, Then Cross”. Neither slogan could be said to convey the true values and potential of Liberalism. An overhaul of the way the Party is governed is also now underway, though obviously most of that review can only take place after the new Leader has been installed. It was agreed that whoever that may be the Leader should attend Federal Executives (Nick Clegg, unlike most of his predecessors, rarely did). The workings of the Executive will also be made more widely available to members, not just through the Party’s website, but also via articles and blogs such as this. Pauline Pearce made the excellent simple suggestion that we also ought to have a Federal Executive Facebook page which will be another step in the right direction towards better two-way communication and a healthy debate.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Liberal Demorats, Nick Clegg, Pauline Pearce, Sal Brinton | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 24th June, 2015
There’s a poignant piece in tomorrow’s Guardian revealing that Nick Clegg seriously contemplated resigning as Leader of the Liberal Democrats following last year’s disastrous European and local election results as he feared he had become a liability. Reportedly he was told by senior colleagues that he had to hang on in there until this May’s equally disastrous General Election, when the number of LibDem MPs was slashed from 56 to just 8. I understand the angst he went through and can only applaud the vivacity with which he bounced back after May 2014. It was true that he had become toxic on the doorstep in many Labour-facing areas, thanks to the tuition fees shambles, but I think that history will be a lot kinder to him than the electorate has been. He was undoubtedly right to take the LibDems into Coalition in 2010 (despite what my dear, late friend Charles Kennedy thought), though a bit less of a bromance with David Cameron in the Rose Garden would have been a good idea. I wonder if Nick really realised just how brutal the Conservatives (including Cameron) can be, as witnessed by their tactics re the AV referendum and the 2015 General Election. Whoever wins the current LibDem leadership election (and as I have said I will be happy to serve under either, as I admire both, though I will give Norman Lamb my first preference) is going to have to rebrand the Party on the basis of its core values. Having known Nick Clegg for many years, I do not doubt his sincerely held belief in those values. But the European elections and the General Election were not really fought on those values, and had some very iffy messaging. I said at the time that I thought the slogan “We’re the Party of IN!” for the Euros was misguided; it should have been “We’re IN it to Fix It!”. Similarly, the bizarre late leitmotif of “neither left nor right” in the General Elections was unlikely to inspire anyone other than someone whose job it is to paint those white lines in the middle of the highway. There is currently a profound review of the General Election taking place, and I hope that as a (new) member of the Party’s Federal Executive I can have some useful input into that. But one thing I am certain is that Nick should not be the token fall-guy. Yes, he was party Leader and had to fall on his sword after 7 May. But he will be seen by historians as a man of decency and of courage.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Charles Kennedy, David Cameron, Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, Norman Lamb, The Guardian | 2 Comments »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 19th June, 2015
It’s three years since the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was detained and although so far he has only received 50 of the 1,000 lashes to which he was condemned, his health is of great concern. Raif’s “crime” was to suggest that it is possible to be Both Saudi and liberal — to have free thoughts and express them. To the duopoly of the conservative Saudi monarchy and the country’s antideluvian Wahabbi religious hierarchy, this was both heresy and political incitement. Many NGOs and human rights campaigners around the world have taken up Raif’s case, including English PEN, which has been holding weekly demonstrations outside the Saudi Embassy in London. Some Western political leaders have mentioned the case when in discussion with the Saudi royal family, who frankly ignore such approaches as they are not backed with even a hint if any sanction. I’m ashamed that Britain is one of the prime offenders when it comes to appeasing the Saudis, because of arms sales, oil and other strategic interests. How can the UK claim the moral high ground when it turns a blind eye to the ongoing human fights abuses in the desert kingdom, including regular public beheadings? I fear that one day in the not too distant future Saudi Arabia’s rulers will be overthrown in a bloody revolution, but imprisoning and mistreating liberal nationals like Raif Badawi makes that prospect more likely, not less. King Salman is ushering in a new generation of Saudi royals, but that should be the prelude to far more radical political reforms.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: English PEN, Raif Badawi, Saudi Arabia | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 17th June, 2015
Nearly 1,200 Liberal Democrat members (many of them newbies) gathered in the Institute of Education’s Logan Hall in Bloomsbury this evening for the London regional party’s hustings for the party leadership, compered by Party President (Baroness) Sal Brinton. Having had quite a lot of contact with both candidates over the years, and being aware of their very different characters and styles, I was curious to see how they would go down. It was all very gentlemanly, of course — not least because Tim Farron admitted right at the beginning that Norman Lamb had been his mentor when he first entered Parliament. Both have dug themselves in impressively in their respective constituencies of Westmoreland & Lonsdale and Norfolk North and thus did not get swept away by last month’s tsumani, which removed five of London’s six sitting MPs (only one of whom, Lynne Featherstone, appeared to be present this evening). Intriguingly, given that Tim is seen as being on the “left” of the Party, famously voting against tuition fees and not having any role in the Coalition Government, he was the one who paid the most fulsome tribute to Nick Clegg and the LibDem wins in government 2010-2015. But both men stressed the need for a reassertion of Liberal values. Tim has the advantage of being a born communicator and a bit of a cheeky chappie, whereas Norman has the gravitas not only of having had ministerial responsibility but also having thought through very deeply issues relating to significant subjects, not least mental health. If one asks the question, “Which one would make the more convincing Prime Minister?”, Norman would win hands down. But if the Party is currently basically looking for someone who can boost morale and rebuild the party from the bottom up, then Tim has the edge. Tim has also been doing the rubber chicken circuit for several years, as probably the most energetic Party President we have ever seen. This means that although I personally shall opt for gravitas, I will be extremely happy to work with whichever one of them wins the all-member vote and I can only be thankful that given that the Liberal Democrats have only eight MPs left — all men, alas — it’s tremendous that we have two such talented but different candidates to choose from. And I do believe the contest will help enthuse our recent intake of 16,000+ new members.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Liberal Demorats, London Liberal Democrats, Lynne Featherstone, Nick Clegg, Norman Lamb, Sal Brinton, Tim Farron | 4 Comments »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 15th June, 2015
As someone who is on TV often as interviewer or commentator (mainly for Middle Eastern channels these days) it was an odd experience to be the subject of a television documentary this morning, “Family Finders” on BBC1. I was impressed with the professionalism and sensitivity of the crew from Ricochet Productions who did the filming over two days in Manchester earlier this Spring and I was more than happy with the end product. It has been quite an emotional roller coaster these past nine months, since my elder sister Denise wrote to me, thereby re-establishing contact for the first time since our mother gave me up for adoption, which was completed when I was nearly 18 months old. It was a great surprise (to both of us!) to discover that I had a half-sister Jillian as well, and it was wonderful that she flew over from her home in Spain to meet meet last Autumn. Quite apart from the physical resemblance (especially with Denise), it was extraordinary how close we have felt despite six decades of separation. Blood is indeed thicker than water. Sadly, I had a very unsatisfactory adoption. somewhat alleviated by a lovely older adoptive sister, who unfortunately went off to boarding school when I was of an age to really understand what was going on in the house. That is the subject of a book I am currently trying to finish. In the meantime, if you missed the TV programme on BBC1 today, it is being rebroadcast on BBC2 tomorrow morning at 0730 BST, and is available on BBS iPlayer: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b05ztps6/family-finders-episode-6
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: BBC, Denise Morris, Family Finders, Jill Leonard, Ricochet Productions | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 13th June, 2015
In general I don’t really favour titles and honours, but I can’t help but feel pleased by the award of a knighthood to Simon Hughes. It’s a tribute to the way he served the people of Bermondsey and the surrounding area for 32 years. I well remember an evening meeting of the old Liberal Party’s Europe committee, held at the National Liberal Club, a few years before his first election, when Simon announced that he was leaving the committee to go south of the river, at the urging of our mutual friend and mentor David Rebak, to try to convert the corrupt Labour borough of Southwark to Liberalism. Indeed, off he went and in he dug, and when the controversial parliamentary by-election came up in 1983, he won it with a huge majority — and then held the seat (despite various boundary and name changes) for over three decades. He was the ultimate constituency MP, tireless in his handling of case-work. Canvassing for him in various elections was a pleasure because local people clearly loved him and were grateful for what he had done for them. Alas, he was swept away in last month’s electoral tsunami, helped partly by the rapid turnover of population in that gentrifying part of London. Simon previously stood unsuccessfully for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats and as London’s Mayor; I supported him strongly in both instances, and I hope he won’t take those failures (or his recent parliamentary defeat) as a sign that he should give up. He still has a great deal to offer the Party, London and the country. So when he has had time over the summer to recover and relax and start making decisions and his future, I hope we will find him bouncing back in the quest of some new role.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Bermondsey, David Rebak, Liberal Democrats, Liberal Party, National Liberal Club, Simon Hughes, Southwark | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th June, 2015
At 4.30 this morning, one of the most controversial periods in the chequered history of Tower Hamlets politics came to an end. The designated successor to ousted Mayor Lutfur Rahaman, Rabina Khan — standing as an Independent, as the Election Court that convicted Mr Rahman had also banned his party “Tower Hamlets First” — failed in her attempt to win the mayoralty, which instead went to the longstanding local Labour politician (and London East member of the Greater London Assembly) John Biggs. The Conservatives vote share stayed steady, both the Greens and UKIP were down and the Liberal Democrats slightly up, while a variety of other non-mainstream candidates also attracted some votes. Alongside the mayoral poll yesterday there was a by-election in Stepney Green ward, where a close associate of Mr Rahman’s had also been forced to stand down; in that by-election, Labour gained the seat. This gives them a single seat majority in the Council, which together with Mr Biggs’ win means the era of Tower Hamlets First has come to an end. I shan’t rehearse the arguments put forward by the election court to condemn what went on in the Borough since 2010, but would add the caveat that some of it was undoubtedly sensationalised by some of the Tory Press and certain things such as schools performance (doubtless aided by the LibDems’ pupil premium) improved during his tenure. Nonetheless, there is a huge sense of relief among many of us residents in Tower Hamlets that maybe now we will have a return to more normal politics that is perceived to be less skewed towards the priorities of a particular section of the population. It was interesting that Bengali voters did not turn out to vote in droves to enable Ms Khan’s succession and indeed the overall turnout was a rather measly 37% — well down on 2014. And given past history, with Councillors swapping sides unusually frequently, we cannot be certain that stability has been restored. We can but hope. And now it will be up to all the other parties — including Cllr Khan and her “independent” colleagues — to hold John Biggs and Labour to account.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: John Biggs, Lutfur Rahman, Rabina Khan, Stepney Green, Tower Hamlets, Tower Hamlets First | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 8th June, 2015
“Closet queen” was a somewhat derogatory term much in vogue in Britain after the Second World War to describe homosexuals who kept their sexual orientation secret, not least politicians and other men in public life. The need for secrecy was obvious, as until 1967 male homosexuality was illegal (unlike lesbianism) but many politicians, in particular, remained in the closet long after that, fearing that revealing their true nature would jeopardise their careers. Some, such as the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, nonetheless continued to satisfy their instincts, even recklessly. According to Thorpe’s biographer Michael Bloch, who has now published a new book, Closet Queens (Little Brown, £25), the danger of illicit encounters explained much of their attraction, even though exposure sometimes led to men’s downfall, blackmail or even suicide. Inevitably, a book that involves a romp through more than a century of British political history means that some of the characters who appear in it get cursory coverage, while others get their due. Though stories about outrageous figures such as Tom Driberg will be familiar to many, other elements, such as the intense friendship between Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland will not. The thing that really holds the book together is the thread of changing public attitudes (fortified by legislation) which led to a situation in which the current House of Commons has over 30 “out” gay and lesbian MPs. However, one shortcoming for me is that the book brings together a motley cast, many of whom I would not consider to have been closet queens at all, either because they were open about their sexuality (like the pioneering Chris Smith) or because they were genuinely bisexual. Though the book is an enjoyable and often amusing read, largely avoiding prurience, Bloch never really comes to terms with the reality and complexities of bisexuality, which in my opinion is our age’s “love that dare not speak its name”.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: bisexuality, Chris Smith, Closet Queens, homosexuality, Jeremy Thorpe, Michael Bloch, Roy Jenkins, Tom Driberg, Tony Crosland | 1 Comment »