Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for July, 2007

Paying Tribute When It Matters

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 31st July, 2007

margaet-little.jpgThis afternoon I attended the funeral service for Margaret Little, the long-serving Liberal Democrat Councillor for Hampstead Town ward in Camden. It was a very Hampstead occasion, held in the parish church, followed by tea and biscuits at the Community Centre in the High Street, where Margaret used to hold her surgeries. She didn’t stand for re-election last year, because of the cancer that was devouring her. When I visited her in the Royal Free Hospital, she was remarkably resilient and cheerful. But she was saddened when our lead candidate in the ward, Ed Fordham, was unable to prevent the Conservatives snatching her old seat, despite a vigorous campaign.

The Leader of Camden Council, Keith Moffitt, paid tribute to Margaret’s commitment and service in his short address in St. John’s Church. While remembering her then, I also thought of the other two party activists whose funerals I have attended in recent days: Lennard Woods, the Chairman of Bromley and Chislehurst LibDems (who was knocked off his bicycle and killed), and Chris Gaster, the veteran councillor for what is now Crystal Palace ward in Bromley — another victim of cancer. It is right and proper that we pay tribute to such stalwarts when they pass on. But I hope we also remember to pay tribute to those who work so hard while they are still alive; a word of appreciation can mean so much, not just in political associations, but in all fields of voluntary activity.

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Soccer, Identity and Reconciliation

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 30th July, 2007

younis-mahmoud.jpgLast summer, I flew from Bahrain to Dubai with the Iraqi national football team. As our plane was severely delayed, we had time to get to know each other in the departure lounge, in the sort of chummy way guys do in the Middle East. They were thrilled to know I had been to Baghdad (even if it was before any of the players were born). And now I am really chuffed that they have won the Asian Cup Final, captain Younis Mahmoud’s header in the 71st minute giving them a 1:0 victory over Saudi Arabia.

Last night, the area around Edgware Road — London’s Little Arabia — was awash with celebrating Iraqis: Sunni, Shia and Kurds alike, united in their joy at this frankly unexpected triumph. Even more exhilirating was the TV footage of the fans in Baghdad going wild and taking to the streets, sectarian conflicts pushed aside in a burst of national pride. Even the suicide bombers took the night off. As Richard Caborn, England’s World Cup bid ambassador, commented today, ‘this shows the power of football that it can unite a nation where there are such problems.’ Alas, Younis Mahmoud and his team-mates won’t be going home to a UK-style victory parade in an open-top bus. The security situation is just too dangerous for them to go to Baghdad. But as a long-standing friend of Iraq, I see this soccer-based common identity as a glimmer of hope for peace and reconciliation, however long that might take.


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What Would We Do without Volunteers?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 29th July, 2007

Over a long, leisurely lunch at the home of the Chair of Holborn and St. Pancras LibDems, David Simmons — to thank all those who helped in the recent successful council by-election campaign in Haverstock ward, and to raise money for the next contest, wherever that might be — I reflected on how on earth we would manage without the goodwill and energy of volunteers. This is true of all the political parties in Britain, which rely on countless thousands of unpaid hours by members and helpers, delivering leaflets, organising events, telling at elections and all the other mundane tasks — as well as often chipping in financially as well. Sometimes when foreign visitors come to look at the electoral process in this country, they are astounded at the way we do things.

It isn’t just in party politics that volunteering provides the backbone that keeps everything together. Whether it is the retirees helping out in the local Oxfam shop, people working with the League of Friends of various hospitals, or the collectors for special charity weeks, a significant proportion of the population of Britain offers some of their time, gratis, to serve the community or other causes. Whenever I’m feeling gloomy about the state of modern society — the litter, the rudeness, the carelesness about other people’s comfort — thinking about the volunteers who help make our country tick brings me back to reality with a gratifying bump. 

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A Tale of Two Cities — in Tower Hamlets

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th July, 2007

rosie-clarke.jpgI was out this morning with LibDem candidate Rosie Clarke, in the Shadwell by-election in Tower Hamlets. It’s a ward of extraordinary contrasts, demonstrating that it’s not just London that is ‘two cities’ (traditionally the affluent West End and the poor East End), but even a small local area like Shadwell. The north part of the ward, around Watney Market, off Commercial Road, houses large numbers of first and second generation Bengalis from Sylhet (Bangladesh) and some white working class, while in the south there are the million-pound docklands flats of City personnel, foreign investors and a few of the artistic elite who got their riverside pads in Narrow Street before it became chic. Profiting from a little burst of sunshine (a rare thing this summer) I later had a meal on the terrace of an Italian café and delicatessen that has become a favourite haunt of Russian ladies who lunch.

Politically, the main focus of the forthcoming battle will be between Respect (whose Councillor’s resignation caused the by-election) and Labour (who currently control the local Council). Whether either can adequately respresent the interests of such a diverse area is debatable — which also poses a challenge for the Liberal Democrats, as a party which needs to be relevant to London’s diverse communities and garner support across economic and ethnic divides.


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No Simple Solutions in Sudan

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 26th July, 2007

omer-siddig.jpgAnyone who imagined that the humanitarian crisis in Darfur ought to be easy to resolve would quickly have been disabused of that notion at a packed meeting at the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce in Mayfair earlier tonight, organised by Arab Media Watch and the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). The Sudanese Ambassador in London, Omer Siddig, put up a spirited defence of his government’s record, while the Independent’s Africa correspondent Steve Bloomfield gave his more critical, non-partisan view, based on several visits to Sudan. One thing they were both agreed on was that the situation is Darfur is extremely complex, and has got more so recently. It is by no means as simple as the ethnic cleansing of Africans by government-backed Arab militia, as is sometimes simplisticly argued. Moreover, the fragmentation of various rebel forces in Darfur, and the seemingly unending flow of weapons into the region, have made matters much more difficult. And as several members of the audience, from different regions of Sudan, with various political affiliations, stressed, Darfur is but one of a number of regions in conflict in the country, despite several peace agreements supposedly finalised or else on the table.

Ambassador Siddig characterised Sudan’s relations with the United States as being ‘between scepticism and hostility’ — which concurs what I found when I was in Khartoum a couple of years ago and visited the pharaceutical factory that the Americans had bombed to smithereens. The Chinese are far more in favour in Africa’s largest nation, not least because of their investment in Sudan’s oil industry and other sectors of the economy. I asked both speakers what they thought the EU could and should be doing. Not surprisingly, the Ambassador hoped that the suspension of EU aid agreements because of Darfur can be overcome. Steve Bloomfeld argued that the EU could usefully formulate a genuinely common policy relating to Sudan, and he chided the Union for failing to come up with all of the resources it promised for the African Union’s military mission to Darfur.

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Ming’s Take on an Autumn Election

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 25th July, 2007

ming-campbell-3.jpgThere’s a one-in-six chance there’ll be a general election this autumn, according to LibDem leader Sir Menzies Campbell, who gave a short speech at the summer party of the Liberal Democrats in PR on the terrace of the National Liberal Club in London this evening. The date campaigns guru (Lord) Chris Rennard is urging MPs and activists to pencil into their diaries is Thursday 25 October, if Gordon Brown feels that opinion polls justify the risk of going to the country in order to get a post-Blair mandate. Of course, this might not happen — indeed, the odds still are that it won’t — but it’s better to be prepared than be caught off-balance.

Ming himself was looking distinctly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (doubtless partly because of Schadenfreude at David Cameron’s recent miscalculations). He had another good innings at Prime Minister’s Question Time earlier today and seems in prime condition to tackle whatever is ahead.


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Chris Huhne Rides Green Wave

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 24th July, 2007

chris-huhne-2.jpgWhen Ming Campbell rang Chris Huhne at the time of his recent Shadow Cabinet reshuffle, to offer him the Environment portfolio, Chris accepted with alacrity. When Ming then went on to say that it really is quite a significant role, whatever some people might think, Chris stopped him in full flow: ‘Ming, I said YES!’ The floods of the past few weeks have underlined the importance of the brief, and as Chris told a gathering of the Connect group in Parliament last night, ‘climate change is THE policy area of our time.’ Moreover, the environment is the one policy area in which the Liberal Democrats score highest in the public consciousness of the three major parties’ policies.

Chris was scathing about David Cameron’s attempt to co-opt the green cause. The Tory leader has no track record whatsoever on green issues, he argued; moreover, the Tories’ interest in the environment is pure rebranding. The Labour government hasn’t exactly covered itself with glory, either, on the domestic front. ‘The government’s response to climate change is incredibly unco-ordinated,’ Chris said. ‘They are still planning to build hundreds of thousands of new homes on flood plains. And they are still planning to increase airport expansion.’

In contrast, he gave credit to the European Union and to international cooperation in dealing with environmental matters. It was EU pressure on Russia to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol — effectively threatening to veto Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organisation if Putin didn’t — that made that crucial step possible. Similarly, co-ordinated EU action will be vital in the follow-up to Kyoto. Fortunately, as Chris pointed out, in Angela Merkel we have a strong German Chancellor who was formerly Environment Minister and is determined to promote the green agenda.

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Turks Back Democracy and Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 23rd July, 2007

turkish-elections.jpgThere was a resounding endorsement of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in yesterday’s general election. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) won 47% of the vote, giving it a very comfortable majority in parliament. Moreover, the turnout was over 80%, even though many people had to abandon a slice of their summer holidays to take part. It’s a slap in the face for the military, which had been making threatening noises, and for those opposition forces — including ultra-nationalists — who had been wrongly claiming that Mr Erdogan intends to turn the country into an Islamic Republic.

‘We are the strongest advocates of a democratic, secular, social state governed by the rule of law,’ the Prime Minister reassured the public last night. ‘I call on all leaders not to close their doors. Let’s get round a table and discuss the problems of Turkey’s democray and make the rule of law reign.’

There are still dark forces in Turkey which need to be emasculated. And there are many improvements that need to be made in both the letter and the application of the law, relating to freedom of expression and other civil rights. Turkey must also do its part (as must others) to ensure that there is a workable settlement of the longstanding division of Cyprus. But we should welcome the advances that have and are being made. There have been some unhelpfully hostile noises about Turkey’s eventual accession to the European Union from some continental political leaders, who should know better. I, for one, am delighted that this has not dampened Mr Erdogan’s determination to pave the way for Turkey’s EU membership, as a modern, developing, secular state.

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Lambeth Country Show

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd July, 2007

lambeth-country-show.jpgI put in a couple of hours on the LibDem stall at the Lambeth Country Show in Brockwell Park this lunchtime. The weather was kind and there were sizeable crowds, of every age, shape and colour. As well as the fun rides and other family-oriented entertainment, there was a wide range of ethnic foodstalls, a cider tent and a mobile pub. Dozens of local organisations had stalls. Lambeth LibDems’ was festooned with yellow and black balloons, a small selection of literature, petitions etc. To say we were swamped with punters would be a spin too far, but there was a steady trickle of people coming to raise various issues — which made it especially helpful to have some local councillors on the stall for a substantial part of the weekend.

I was interested, but not entirely surprised, to note that the most popular stalls of all were those of what one might call micro-organisations: groups concerned with the history or amenities of a really small locality within the borough of Lambeth. The new localism — in which many people are taking a deep interest in events and conditions both past and present in their immediate locality — runs parallel to a form of global awareness that embraces such things as climate change and fair trade. It’s not true that people are not interested in politics like they used to be; it’s just that the sort of politics many now relate to is different. And the mainstream political parties, including the Liberal Democrats, have to adapt to that reality, or else they will wither and die.


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Oscar’s Little Ray of Sunshine

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd July, 2007

downham-ld-celebrations-1.jpgAfter my London European candidate selection interview yesterday, I took the Oxford Tube to Magdalen College, for the annual Oscar Wilde Society summer lunch. This is always preceded by Pimm’s and a recitation of ‘Magdalen Walks’ in Addison’s Walk. Miraculously, the weather is always fine for this quaint event, and so it was again this year, despite the fact that there have been downpours and flooding over the past few days. At the lunch, John Sloan, who wrote the Oxford ‘Authors in Context’ volume on Oscar Wilde, gave a talk, after which the guests moved off to see the Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas collections in the Magdalen archives — where I will have to return sometime soon, as I work on a book on T.E.Lawrence.

In the evening I was back in London, for the 20th anniversary celebration of the election of the first Liberal Democrat (Alliance) councillor in Lewisham, for Downham Ward. I was a councillor in neighbouring Bromley at the time and remember going over to help in that election. I don’t think any of us then could seriously have believed that by now, we would have 17 councillors in Lewisham, and a realistic prospect of taking control in 2010. So while the local party’s inhouse DJ played a medley of hits from 1987, the merry throng at the party was able both to look back with satisfaction and forward with hope.

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