Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for July, 2007

The Future of Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th July, 2007

peter-luff.jpgI was unable to get to the ‘Future of Britain’ project seminar at the LSE this afternoon, as I was campaigning in the Ealing Southall by-election. But I did attend the ‘Future of Europe’ presentation by Peter Luff at the European Parliament’s London office at lunchtime, following the AGM of the London Europe Society. Peter is in the unusual position of being Chairman of an organisation — the European Movement — of which he used to be Director. In between, the European Movement went through some dark days, not least because a lot of its thunder — and potential funding — was ‘stolen’ by the now defunct Britain in Europe, at whose launch both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were both prominent, before dropping it like a hot potato.

Peter argued that there have been great achievements in four areas of life and policy thanks to the European Union (though these are too often taken for granted): peace, jobs, justice and pleasure. And he is now inclined to add a fifth: security. What is clear to all but the most blinkered of europhobes, moreover, is that there are major areas of political action which quite simply have to be taken regionally if it is going to have any effect. Think migration, energy, the environment and nuclear proliferation, for starters.

‘Europe must be central to our thinking,’ he maintained. ‘Nationalism does not make sense in the modern world.’ Amen to that.

Links: www.euromove.org.uk   

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Lord Watson Champions Britain’s Assets

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 17th July, 2007

jamestown.gifAlan Watson — aka Lord Watson of Richmond — was the guest speaker at today’s Kettner lunch at the National Liberal Club, arguing that one can be a good European and be a trans-atlanticist at the same time. In fact, this thesis goes back to Churchill’s interlocking circles of Europe, America and the Empire — only today, the Commonwealth should be substituted for the Empire. Britain is ideally placed at the inter-section of these cricles, though the Blair government skewed us unnaturally towards Washington, at the expense of our other relationships.

The linking instrument, which Alan championed as one of Britain’s greatest assets, is the English language, which has now become the working language of the global village. When Alan was in Brusssels working for Roy Jenkins (then President of the European Commission), and I was there as a freelance journalist, discussion papers within the Commission had to be drafted in French if they were going to be dealt with quickly. Not now. English has become the major language of communication within the EU. Moreover, the Chinese are learning English in a big way, and it is the language of India’s internatiooal dealings, as well as a lot of the sub-continent’s inter-communal discussion.

Last month, Alan published a little book on the history of Jamestown, Virginia (Jamestown: The Voyage of English, Artesian, £10), timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the English settlement there. He sees this event as a milestone as in the English language’s transition from the tongue of four million Britons to its current global status. This is something which he believes we should be deeply proud, though not in a jingoistic way. And he furthers the cause by chairing the English Speaking Union.

Links: www.artpub.co.uk and www.esu.org

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Norman Baker Delves

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 16th July, 2007

everest-dinner.jpgnorma-baker-book.jpgIn the recent reshuffle in the LibDem Shadow Cabinet, Norman Baker, MP for Lewes, was made Shadow Cabinet Office Minister and Shadow to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, which is a long-winded British parliamentary way of saying that he is there to delve and probe. As he declared at the time, ‘Ming has asked me to rattle some cages, and I fully intend to do so.’ Norman clarified some aspects of his new role when he spoke on freedom of information issues at this evening’s Blackheath Supper Club, at the Everest Nepalese restaurant. We still have the most antediluvian laws in this country relating to classified information. And even at Prime Minister’s Question Time, Tony Blair frequently obfuscated, or hid behind the excuse that providing an answer would incur a disproportionate cost. It will be interesting to see whether Gordon Brown really is a new broom, ushering in a new and more open approach. But don’t bank on it.

Meanwhile, Norman will soon be bursting into print, as he has written a book: The Strange Death of David Kelly (Methuen, £9.99), due for publication in October. He strongly believes that the Hutton Report masked the truth about the death of the scientist in the Iraq affair, and that Dr Kelly was murdered, rather than committed suicide. He’s spent a year examining the evidence, which he believes shows that the official version just doesn’t stand up. The MP’s terrier-like quality is well-known in the House, so we can expect some juicy morsels as he embraces his new brief.

Link: www.normanbaker.org.uk

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By-electionitis

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 15th July, 2007

bakhai-hughes-ealing-byelection.jpgMid-July is usually the time when the political silly season starts in Britain. But not this year. We have not just one but two parliamentary by-elections looming on Thursday, and some of the things going on in Ealing Southall are tragedy posing as farce — for both the Conservatives and Labour. I’ve no idea what the final result will be (a lot will depend on the efficiency of the operation on polling day), but I’ll be amazed if the LibDem share of the vote does not go up substantially in Southall — and similarly in Sedgefield. No matter how much the Tory media and Labour spin-doctors try to rubbish the LibDems’ chances, the mood among party activists is upbeat — hence the tremendous turnout of helpers in Ealing, in particular. I’ve been at a fair number of LibDem social events around London in recent weeks, too, and similarly people there are motivated and there is an encouraging number of young people coming forward to get involved.

In fact, as I wend my political way across London, I sense that familiar collective condition of ‘by-electionitis’. Not just in Ealing Southall, but at the local government level as well, in Camden (where Haverstock ward fell comfortably last Thursday) and in other boroughs. Moreover, there is going to be no let up in the near future, with a number of contests now looming in several local authorities, including my home territory of Tower Hamlets on August 9. Whoever said that 2007 was going to be a quiet year for the LibDems in London, or the summer a season of idleness?

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Promoting Arab-British Understanding

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 13th July, 2007

amr-moussa.jpgThe Secretary General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, was in town yesterday, for talks with the foreign affairs spokesmen of the three major parties: David Miliband, William Hague and Michael Moore. He had a separate meeting with Tony Blair, who is off to the Middle East at some as yet unannounced date, to begin his mediation work on behalf of the Quartet (the USA, Russia, the EU and the United Nations). Forty years after the Six Day War and the Israeli occupation of Arab territories, that challenge is massively daunting, and hasn’t been helped by the political dislocation of Gaza from the West Bank.

It was the self-evident lack of knowledge about the Middle East at the time of the 1967 War that prompted the forming of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), which therefore also has its 40th anniversary this year. This was marked by a reception at the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce last night, at which Amr Moussa was the guest of honour. CAABU (on whose executive committee I now sit) has mainly focussed its attention on the Israel/Palestine question in the past, but is now widening its activities to embrace the whole Arab world more effectively. Similarly, in a speech last night, Amr Moussa underlined that while the resolution of the Israel/Palestine question and the implementation of a two-state solution remain paramount for any stability in the region, recent events mean that Iraq, Darfur, Somalia and nuclear proliferation have to be firmly on the agenda.

The Arab League has often failed to make its voice heard in world affairs, not least because of internal disunity. But Amr Moussa — a former Foreign Minister of Egypt, who is one of the few politicians commanding almost universal respect in his home country — is determined to alter that state of affairs. Similarly, in the current climate in Britain and elsewhere, fostering knowledge and understanding between the Arab and British peoples has never been so important.

Link: www.arableagueonline.org and www.caabu.org

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Tales of the City

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 12th July, 2007

armistead-maupin.gifAt lunchtime I was able to catch up with Armistead Maupin, who was doing a book-signing at ‘Gay’s the Word’ bookshop, just round the corner from SOAS, where I had an exam board this afternoon. We had a mutual friend in Christopher Isherwood, though I hadn’t seen Armistead since Babycakes came out in 1984 (my God, how time flies). His series of newspaper columns and then novels of bohemian life in San Francisco became cult reading and then television viewing for huge numbers of people on both sides of the Atlantic. So there will be many fans delighted that he has resuscitated Michael Tolliver and some of the other familiar faces in his latest work, Michael Tolliver Lives.

I’m fascinated by the way that certain novelists manage to capture the atmosphere of a certain city in a distinctive period, such as Maupin in San Francisco in the late 1970s/early 80s, or Isherwood in Berlin in the late 1920s/early 30s. With London, it’s more difficult, as the place is so huge and diverse. I’m not sure anyone has successfully achieved the task since Charles Dickens, though various writers have tried, including Peter Ackroyd and Martin Amis. Instead what we have been seeing has been a series of very successful local cameos, such as Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, or Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia. It’s significant that all of the last three came from BME communities, which are both recording and creating new cultural realities in this amazing city of ours. Personally, I am more gripped by fiction that conveys a sense of place as well as portraying credible characters — a sort of half-way-house to biography, I suppose!

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Malcolm Bruce Takes Over

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 11th July, 2007

malcolm-bruce.jpgThere was a good turnout at the Liberal International British Group (LIBG) AGM in the House of Commons this evening. Tribute was paid to outgoing President (Lord) Tim Garden, who is sadly out of action at the moment through ill health, but who has done a lot to raise the profile of the organisation, as well as being a media stalwart on anything and everything relating to Iraq and international affairs. He is succeeded by Malcom Bruce, MP for Gordon, who has held a wide variety of shadow portfolios since being elected to Parliament in 1983. Currently, he chairs the Select Committee on International Development, which means that he has had a good dousing in African issues (in particular) in recent months, building on his wide experience in Europe with former political work with the Council of Europe.

Human rights figured large in the general discussion at the meeting, not least because LIBG intends to focus notably on China in the short-to-medium term. There was a general feeling that we should engage with China, but critically, in a free and frank way. Similarly with all parties in the Middle East, including Hamas. Malcom Bruce recalled that he was chided by a Tory counterpart in the Chamber one day, who declared: ‘The trouble with you is that you always see both sides of the question!’ It was meant as an insult, but in true Liberal fashion, Malcolm took it as a compliment. More controversially, he argued that the West is misguided sometimes to promote democratic elections around the world, without making sure that institutions and functioning government structures are in place first. Otherwise disenchantment can quickly set in. From my own experiences in various parts of Africa and Asia, I know exactly what he means.

Link: http://libg.org.uk

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London’s Diplomatic Circuit

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 10th July, 2007

bahamas-coat-of-arms.pngThe Bahamian High Commissioner, Basil O’Brien, this evening hosted the annual Bahamas National Day party, at the Four Seasons Hotel just off London’s Park Lane. When I was Honorary Consul for Mauritania to the Court of St James’s, from 1991 to 2000, I used to have to go to three or four of these sorts of event every week, though now it’s down to about 10 a year. London has enormous importance in global diplomacy and is the ultimate location for networking. There are more embassies here than just about anywhere on earth, apart from Brussels (where some countries have up to three missions: to Belgium, to the EU and to NATO). Basil, who has been en poste here since 1999, has always ensured that the Bahamas party is special — not just because of the rum punch that flows liberally and the steel band that plays lustily, but also because of the eclectic mix of the guests. This evening, other diplomats — many of whom had come on from a Buckingham Palace Garden Party — rubbed shoulders with representatives of the shipping industry, businessmen, priests (both Catholic and Protestant), and a cross-section of London’s beau monde and demi-monde — including at least two former habitués of Soho’s Colony Room.

Interestingly, the most frequent subject of conversation was the amazement and in some cases irritation expressed at the blanket coverage being given by the BBC and the print media to Alastair Campbell’s diaries. Quite apart from the fact that it was an outrageous affront to democracy that this man was given so much influence over government policy-making and presentation during the Blair years, without any sort of democratic mandate, Campbell has always struck me as a flawed character and deeply insecure. I really can’t understand why so much of the British media is still dancing to his tune. It is not as if he is even a great diarist. Unlike that old rogue, Alan Clark, he neither spills the beans, nor has wit. I find it all a depressing reflection of our stage-managed age.

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Greg Dyke’s Recipe for Democratic Change

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 9th July, 2007

greg-dyke.jpgThere was a full house in the conference room at the Royal Commonwealth Society this lunchtime, when former BBC Director General, Greg Dyke, addressed a CentreForum meeting on political prospects now that Gordon Brown has taken over. Greg used the opportunity to give a fairly damning analysis of how politicians and the whole British political system have become divorced from the general public. This is not because people aren’t interested in issues; witness the swelling membership of numerous NGOs, in stark contrast to that of the political parties. But there is widespread cynicism about politics as we know it. Some people blame the media, but Greg thought that was unfair. Rather, the Blair government should acknowledge its culpability, for charging ahead with policies such as the Iraq War (despite public opposition) and for besmirching the reputation of government with the cash-for-peerages scandal. Moreover, we live in an era of cradle-to-grave politicians, who have little or no experience of life outside the Westminster village, so it is not surprising they are detached from reality.

Greg gave Gordon Brown credit for acknowledging some of the current political malaise and for at least promising to move away from the Blair presidential style of government. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, however. In the meantime, major suggestions for change which Greg promoted included proportional representation, welcoming the idea of coalition government and an end to the politics of confrontation, more devolution, and examining alternative ways for citizens to engage in the political process. All good sound LibDem stuff, of course. Which is probably why at least half of the audience today was hoping that Greg would announce he had had a change of heart, and would be running for London Mayor after all — solely in the LibDem interest. But no such luck, alas.

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The World Is My Oyster (Card)

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 7th July, 2007

oyster-swipe.jpgThere are many things I can (and do) criticise Ken Livingstone for, but the one legacy he will leave for which I will be eternally grateful is the Oyster Card system for integrated public transport in the capital. Mine may cost me the equivalent of the rental of a quite pleasant apartment in Istanbul each month, but it allows me to shuttle round the whole of London on my complex professional and political rounds, happily and easily tranferring from bus to tube to train (even Silverlink is getting plugged into the system).

Today, for example, I had some administrative stuff to do in the West End, followed by a trip over to Ealing Southall to help out in the by-election (and, incidentally, enjoy at lunch the most delicious garlic prawn masala I have ever eaten in my life), back home to clear emails and freshen up, before heading to Orpington Liberal Club for their annual gourmet BBQ — a good chance to catch up with what is going on in my old stomping ground, and to congratulate David McBride for being selected as PPC  for the seat I fought in 1987. And of course, my trusty Oyster brought me safely back home, with a swipe here and a swipe there. OK, the last few days were a pain, when my local tube station was closed because a train got derailed when a roll of tarpaulin fell onto the track. But, hey, that’s not my favourite molusc’s fault!   

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