Jonathan Fryer

Stalin’s Englishman

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 6th October, 2015

imageAndrew Lownie’s biography of Guy Burgess, Stalin’s Englishman (Hodder & Stoughton, £25) was in gestation for 30 years, but like a fine single malt it is all the better for it. Though Burgess has been dead for half a century, his flight to Moscow with the other “Missing Diplomat”, Donald Maclean, still resonates in the English collective consciousness. Too often he has been portrayed as something of a joke, a spoilt mummy’s boy who wore Old Etonian ties even in his Soviet exile, who drank and dribbled, groped and propositioned and when in his cups alternately mocked and lauded his home country. Burgess was viewed wrongly as the most frivolous of the so-called Cambridge spies, but as is clear from Andrew Lownie’s extensive interviews of both Russian and British friends, colleagues and lovers of his subject, he methodically transferred to the Soviet intelligence service thousands of classified documents, as well as providing them with in-depth analyses of British politicians and other public figures, many of whom had been his personal friends — and some of whom would remain so even after it became clear that he had abused his positions at the BBC, in the Foreign Office and the British intelligence services.

imageAlan Bennett’s rather endearing dramatisation of a real-life meeting in Moscow between Guy Burgess and the actress Coral Browne (An Englishman Abroad) offers an image of a man who was a rather pathetic figure, a fish out of water in his adopted home, but that was only partly true. At the height of his powers — when not drunk or feeling sorry for himself — he was brilliant, amusing, phenomenally well-read and a lively gossip. It was not only his overbearing mother (who used to send Fortnum & Mason hampers to him in Moscow) who adored him. So did his Russian housekeeper and several of his lovers, including Jack Hewit (whom I interviewed for my biography of Christopher Isherwood) and Tolya, the faithful young Russian companion who he first met in a foul-smelling Moscow public toilet (perhaps planted by the KGB, who knew he frequented such places?). Like many very bright people, Burgess was easily bored and I get the impression from this definitive biography that the naughtiness and excitement of treachery were as much of a motivation for his actions as his rather shaky ideological conviction. He was a Marxist, but was not particularly impressed by the Soviet reality. Yet although he spied for the Soviet Union (including during his time at the British Embassy in Washington) not because of blackmail (as was the case with the Labour MP Tom Driberg and others) but out of some kind of commitment, it was nonetheless a very half-hearted commitment at times. It is no criticism of Andrew Lownie that this reader felt at the end of his meticulous work that Burgess still remained something of an enigma; that is what Burgess would have wanted, what he succeeded in being for much of his life.

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A New Deal for a New Europe?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 27th September, 2015

imageimageSpending a gloriously warm, sunny late summer afternoon indoors in a lecture theatre is maybe not everyone’s idea of fun, but those people who signed up for the New Europeans’ debate on A New Deal for a New Europe but didn’t come this afternoon really missed a treat. Three major political groups from the European Parliament — the Socialists (PES), the Liberals (ALDE) and the European People’s Party (EPP, from which David Cameron, alas, withdrew the Conservatives) — were represented by the current President of the EPP group in the parliament, former Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Sergei Stanishev, the President of the ALDE Party (and former group leader) Sir Graham Watson, and Dirk Hazelll, Chairman of the UK Chapter of the EPP. There was a remarkable degree of agreement between the three, perhaps partly because all believe fervently that Britain ought to stay in the EU, both for the sake of Britain and for the sake of the EU. Graham Watson feared that in the current mood in the UK the referendum vote (on some still unspecified date in 2016 or 2017) could go the wrong way. That is why the “remain” campaign needs to fight hard. Sergei Stanishev (who was en route to the Labour Party conference in Brighton) spoke of the need for a truly European response to the great challenges the Union currently faces, including the refugee and migrant “crisis”.

imageDespite being a former Chairman of London Conservatives, Dirk Hazell lambasted David Cameron for his failure of leadership and the folly of the ambivalent Tory attitude towards Europe. Graham interestingly stated he thought that Britain ought to be part of Schengen, which got some murmurs of support from the predominantly young audience, and he argued that maybe Britain should have joined the eurozone when it had the chance, under Tony Blair. The whole history of the subsequent 15 or so years might have been different. Of course, there is not much to be gained (except as an academic exercise) in considering might-have-beens, and in principle the meeting was about the way forward. The eurozone is emerging from its own crisis, though one could be forgiven for not knowing so from reading the British press, but there needs to radical reform of the EU as a whole to make it fit for purpose. The big question for the UK is whether David Cameron can frame positive rather than negative demands for reform, and bring other member states onside through negotiation, rather than scaring them away with impossible demands.

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Simon Hughes and Magna Carta

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 25th September, 2015

imageSimon Hughes was Justice Minister in the tail-end of the Coalition government and already we are missing his Liberal voice in that department. Today, however, at the National Liberal Club, members of the Kettner Society and their guests were treated to a fascinating exposition by him on the legacy of the Magna Carta. He wisely avoided dwelling too much on the history of the document itself, apart from enunciating clearly the three elements of it that remain a part of the British constitutional landscape: freedoms for the Church, freedoms for the City of London and boroughs, and, most important, what these days we would call civil liberties, not least the right of people to be tried by their peers (juries). Simon then set out the major milestones of the intervening 800 years, including the Speaker of the House of Commons standing up to Charles I, the Great Reform Act of 1832, the extension of suffrage in the 20th century and the important incorporation of the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act. These latter instruments the Conservatives would, of course, like to replace with a British Bill of Rights, despite the fact that much of the ECHR was largely framed by British jurists and leaving the convention would put the UK in a position not dissimilar to that of Belarus (as indeed the then Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, pointed out three years ago). Simon is nonetheless satisfied with most of the ways Britain’s constitutional framework and civil liberties have developed through history, though he thinks it would be useful to have a written constitution, if only so that schoolchildren would be able to learn the values and principles at the foundation of British society, as their counterparts in France and the United States do.

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Tim Farron Hits the Spot

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 23rd September, 2015

Tim Farron 2When Tim Farron was elected Leader of the Liberal Democrats earlier this year there were many, both inside and outside the party, who wondered whether he would be able to cut the mustard. From his period as President we knew he was a brilliant speaker, and that he was the perfect warm-up man for rallies, including federal conference. But would he have the gravitas of his predecessors, given that he had never held any higher public office than being the (extremely effective) MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale? That question was swirling around in the hall at the LibDem conference in Bournemouth this week, not least because the former leader, Nick Clegg, gave such a masterful, polished performance in a speech that rightly brought the delegates to their feet. One newbie member (of whom there were a lot in Bournemouth) sitting next to me at the time whispered in my ear, “Now, that’s a leader!” But Tim’s speech to conference this lunchtime, closing what was the best-attended ever LibDem conference, will certainly have laid any fears to rest. It was passionate and it was Liberal and there cannot have been anyone in the hall who doubted that it was totally, utterly sincere. Tim chastised David Cameron for his shoddy response to the current refugee crisis, as well as for his dangerous flirtation with Brexit. The Liberal Democrats are European and internationalist and Tim is firmly in that tradition, with a gritty northern directness that commands attention. He also mentioned core domestic issues, such as the environment and the need for social housing, showing that he can indeed be the voice of the reasonable but principled opposition to the Conservatives. As David Cameron has been dragged to the right by his Eurosceptics and elitist chums and Jeremy Corbyn takes Labour on a magical mystery cruise to we-know-not-where, so Tim Farron has staked out the Liberal Democrats’ political ground, in the radical, compassionate centre, underlined by his heartfelt plea for a more humane approach to refugees. In a nutshell, he has hit the spot.

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Yes to Europe, Great for Britain!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 21st September, 2015

imageimageTim Farron positioned the Liberal Demcrats firmly at the fore of the campaign for Britain to remain a member of the European Union in a rousing speech to a packed fringe meeting at the Party’s Bournemouth conference today. He described himself as a patriot who loves his neighbours and said that the forthcoming EU referendum was the most important challenge that Liberals in this country face. About a third of the population is resolutely anti-EU and a third is keenly aware of the benefits of EU membership. That means that victory or defeat depends on persuading the other third, who are not sure either way — and getting them out to vote. Nick Hopkinson, Chair of the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG), opened the meeting by recalling his own childhood in Canada, at a time when Quebec separatists were effectively forcing anglophones like his family out of the province. Laura Sandys, a former Conservative MP and Chair of the cross-party European Movement, produced a resounding rallying call of “Yes to Europe, Great for Britain!”, while Catherine Bearder wrapped herself in a Union flag shawl to emphasize that staying in the EU is the most patriotic thing Brits can do. While UKIP seeks to take Brutain back to an England of the 1950s, the LibDems are now committed to moving the country forward with Europe, but no-one should under-estimate the challenges of the political battle ahead, with a Tory Prime Minister who seems to be sleep-walking towards the Brexit door and a new leader of the Opposition who is Luke-warm on his support for the EU at best.

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EU Migrants Welcome Here!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 21st September, 2015

Europe and Britain’s continued membership of the European Union were centre stage at the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth yesterday morning, as we debated (and passed overwhelmingly) a motion calling for a vigorous campaign in favour of remaining in the EU in the referendum that is forthcoming, probably in the Autumn of next year. There were some powerful speeches, including from the mover, Peter Price (one of a number of former Conservative MEPs who defected to the LibDems over Europe) and the summator, former London MEP Baroness Ludford. I spoke in favour of four lines in the motion school which referred to freedom of movement. Though the LibDems are massively in favour of Britain’s EU membership (with a few exceptions, such as the speaker from Somerset and Frome, who spoke against the motion) I am under no illusion that the British public as a whole has yet been persuaded. So although I relish the prospect of the referendum campaign we should not fool ourselves that it is going to be easy. It’s not just the Faragistas who will be campaigning all out to take Britain out, even some Tory MEPs, such as Daniel Hannan, openly advocate withdrawal. Moreover, they will fight a scare-mongering campaign, pandering to some of the worst fears and prejudices of sizeable sections of the public, not least regarding free movement — which is a central pillar of the EU single market, from which Britain has benefitted enormously. Recently, along with tens of thousands of other people, I marched in London under the slogan “Refugees Welcome Here!” As I said in my speech, the LibDems need to have the courage over the coming months to also argue”EU Migrants Welcome Here!” Just as more than two million Brits have enjoyed the benefits of studying, working or just living in other EU member states so EU migrants have brought new dynamism to the UK economy. We must stand up and be proud in our defence of the EU case. We are all Europe!

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The LibDem Conference Rally

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 20th September, 2015

imageThe Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth is reportedly the best-attended ever, and certainly the traditional opening rally last night was packed, including many new faces. One of the thousands of new party members, a 19-year student from Bristol called Amy, followed party president Sal Brinton as a speaker, describing her own journey into membership. In contrast, the candidate for Mayor of London, Caroline Pidgeon, has been in the party for 25 years and has been making waves as a member of the London Assembly, holding Mayor Boris Johnson to account. In her speech, she emphasized how the elections next May in London, Wales and Scotland can be the springboard for the LibDemFightBack, which is the slogan of this conference. One of her GLA running mates, Zack Polanski, provided the rally’s main entertainment, along with the multiracial London gospel choir that he sings in. Tim Pickstone from the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors (ALDC) reminded us that many council seats up and down the country will also be up for grabs next May. He then introduced someone he had signed up as a young student, Tim Farron — now transformed into Leader, rather than the comedy warm-up act that he has been in previous conferences. He particularly mentioned the forthcoming EU referendum and claimed for the Liberal Democrats the role as the radical but sensible opposition to the Conservative government, which in just four months has overthrown many if the good things brought in over the past five years when the LibDems were part of the Coslition government.

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Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 19th September, 2015

imageimageI have never liked horse-racing and had only the vaguest idea about the Palio races that take place in the main square of the Italian city of Siena each summer, but last night at the Italian Cultural Institute in London I was enchanted by a film that is all about the jockeys that take part in that mad and often brutal dash. The film is by Cosima Spender, grand-daughter of the poet Stephen Spender, interspersing interviews with the jockeys between sequences of the 90-second races themselves, in which horses often crash into the walls of the arena, the bareback jockeys fall off and many of them beat their rivals with a long stick which they claim is made from an elongated dried animal penis. Each represents a particular district of Siena and the testosterone-fueled rivalry between the gangs of fans is more brutal than that between football supporters. The jockeys themselves are sometimes local heroes, but at other times vilified and literally in danger of a beating. Moreover, the whole process is riddled with financial corruption, making this a singularly Italian “game”. The imagery of the film is spectacular; it justifiably won an award for its editing at the Tribeca festival. But its greatest value is as a work of social anthrolpology, as a study of how a particular community expresses itself through a unique festival that has survived down the centuries. Out on general release in British cinemas soon, it is well worth seeing.

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Avi Max Spiegel’s “Young Islam”

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 16th September, 2015

imageWestern media and politicians tend to view the rise of political Islam through a prism of binary opposites: moderate versus extremist, Sunni versus Shia and so forth. But in reality the situation is far more complex. There are as many types of Islamism – the belief that political systems and structures should be based on Islamic teaching – as there are Islamists.

Similarly, young Muslims who are radicalised or who make their religion the foundation for their individual and collective lives do so for a variety of different reasons. Commentators in Europe have focussed on the influence of militant imams and Islamist websites. However, extensive fieldwork by the ethnographer Avi Max Spiegel in Morocco (Young Islam, Princeton University Press, £19.95) suggests that a more common method of recruitment is via the example and encouragement of friends.

Morocco has two main Islamist streams: the PJD, which is a registered political party that has sometimes had Ministers in government, and the more radical underground movement Al Adl. These operate in parallel, in a country whose Head of State is a King who traces his own ancestry back to the Prophet Mohammed (thereby validating his own legitimacy).

By mixing with young Moroccans over a lengthy period, the author was able to discover how individuals, male and female, make their choices about which group they favour and which activities to embrace. A fluent Arabic speaker, he lets them tell their own stories, so we see them as people with their own personalities and concerns rather than just statistics.

Avi Max Spiegel is that rare creature, an academic who presents serious fieldwork in a totally accessible form. This book is therefore not only a valuable contribution to understanding Moroccan youth today but has relevance to the entire Islamic world.

(This review was first published in Liberal International British Group’s magazine Interlib) 

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Jeremy Corbyn at PMQs

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 16th September, 2015

imageThe new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had to face David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions this midday, looking far more calm and collected than one might have expected after the roller-coaster week he has gone through since being elected. He asked the Prime Minister to help change the nature of PMQs and himself introduced an interesting innovation by asking questions that members of the public had sent in to him — of which he said he received 40,000. He led on affordable housing and ended on mental health, true to his principles but reasonable in his delivery — in short, defying those critics who had been hoping he might fall apart under the pressure. To his credit, David Cameron also behaved with dignity in his answers, as well as congratulating Jeremy Corbyn on the size of his victory among Labour members and supporters. Mr Cameron said he also hoped that PMQs would become more civilised, though after Mr Corbyn’s quota of questions was exhausted the familiar raucous resumed. Predictably, some MPs, including one from Northern Ireland, used their questions to the Prime Minister to make digs at the new Labour leader’s attitudes towards the IRA and the British national anthem — something we are bound to see more of in the future. So on balance, how did Jeremy Corbyn do? Rather well, in my view, though if the Tory Press keep up to their usual low standards, they will spin this differently.

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