Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for September, 2007

Death of London Euro-candidate

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 30th September, 2007

john-stonehouse.jpgIt was with great sadness that I learned late tonight of the sudden death in Senegal of Dr John Stonehouse, who was running as one of the shortlisted candidates for the London LibDem list for the European Parliament. John was an agricultural entomologist and held the post of Research Lecturer at the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College, University of London. He studied history at Oxford, but got his PhD in Natural Sciences from Imperial and was a valued advisor to specialists working in the field of agricultural pests in the developing world.

John had a pied-a-terre in Ladbrooke Grove in Kensington, West London, but his main home was at Ugthorpe Windmill near Whitby in Yorkshire, where his family had lived for generations. He acted as Liberal Democrat agent for the constituency of Scarborough and Whitby at the 2005 general election, and only this May was a local council candidate for the Mulgrave ward of Whitby. He would have brought unusual and valuable expertise to the London list, and my deepest sympathy goes to all those close to him.

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The SOAS Freshers’ Fayre

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 30th September, 2007

Yesterday was a busy day of London campaigning, from Orpington to Enfield. But during the afternoon, I spent some time on the LibDem stall at the Freshers’ Fayre in SOAS (where I will start teaching again tomorrow). Jo Shaw, the parliamentary candidate for Holborn and St Pancras, was there as well, alongside Mark Gettleson, Chair of Liberal Democrat Youth and Students (LDYS), and Mohamed Hassan, who has been the stalwart of LDYS on campus. The two campaigns LDYS is running nationally — Save Darfur, and  countering homophobic bullying —  both proved attractive to the milling throng of keen new entrants, though sadly the Boris Johnson (free) merchandise seemed to be doing rather too well on the Conservative stall over the other side of the room!

As ever, this year’s intake is multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-everything, which is why SOAS is such a stimulating place to work (even if I am there only two-and-a-half days a week). And given the LibDems’ stance on Iraq, extraordinary rendition etc, it’s not surprising that many students are drawn to the party. On Tuesday, Chris Huhne will be coming to the Junior Common Room, as the first of a series of speakers lined up for this autumn.  He’ll be talking on the environment, naturally; not only was this the underlying theme of the latest party conference, but it’s rightly a big issue with younger people.


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An Incitement to War Crimes

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 28th September, 2007

There is an extraordinary article in today’s edition of the ‘Jewish Chronicle’, by Geoffrey Alderman, calling on Israel to cut off Gaza’s water-supply, in addition to the curbs on fuel supplies and the movement of people in and out of the territory that are already in place. This suggested collective punishment would not just be against international law, but could justly be described as a war crime, were it to be put into action. I quite understand why Israelis (and Jews elsewhere) are angered by indiscriminate rocket attacks by Palestinian militants based in Gaza, and by the rhetoric of Hamas. But to suggest cutting water off from the civilian population of an already impoverished and overcrowded Gaza reminds one of medieval sieges, or, much more recently, the treatment of Jewish ghettos in war-time Europe. I am amazed that Mr Alderman and the ‘Jewish Chronicle’ do not realise what huge damage publishing an article like this does to their cause, and how counter-productive it is to the sort of dialogue and rapprochement that needs to take place if there is ever to be peace in Israel/Palestine.

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Hampstead and Kilburn Raring to Go

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 27th September, 2007

hampstead-and-kilburn-libdems.jpgLibDems from Brent and Camden — and indeed, from as far away as Southwark — were out in force last night for the formal opening of the party’s campaign headquarters for the new cross-borough constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn. This is seen by the psephologists as a key Labour-LibDem marginal when the next election comes — which could be extremely soon, from what the pundits are now saying. Indeed, (Lord) Chris Rennard, the party’s campaign guru — who spoke at the launch event, alongside party presidential hopeful (Baroness) Ros Scott — was predicting that we may be put out of our collective agony on this point very soon. Maybe not at the opening of the Tory conference in Blackpool (which would be rather ungallant of Gordon Brown, after all), but more likely towards the end of next week — which might suggest an election on November 1st. That would in principle still allow the Queen to open the next session of Parliament the following week, on schedule. Or maybe not. Either way, the HQ in Hampstead in Kilburn is all geared up, with its new shelves groaning with boxes of leaflets at the ready — and its parliamentary candidate, Ed Fordham, raring to go.


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Conference Feedback, Election Frenzy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 26th September, 2007

Last night’s Haringey LibDem Pizza and Politics in Stroud Green was a debriefing session from those of us who had been at last week’s Brighton conference. I’m always fascinated by how people take away different impressions from conference, or emphasize different things. Partly this reflects people’s varied interests and perspectives, but it is also a result of the fact that the range of debates and fringe events is now so wide that several conference representatives can have totally different experiences. Nonetheless, there was general agreement last night that most of the media had focussed on the non-story of challenges to Ming’s leadership, while ignoring what was actually going on. Even the Guardian made not a mention of the extremely good debate on Israel/Palestine and the position that the Party has taken on the next steps forward.

Labour’s conference is similarly being dogged by the question about whether there will be or won’t be an election over the coming weeks. The Powers That Be at the LibDem HQ in Cowley Street have told everyone to be on standby in case one is called next Monday or Tuesday. It’s probably wise to be prepared. But I can’t help feeling Gordon Brown would be ill advised to go for an autumn poll. An opinion poll today suggests that only 29% of the electorate actually want an election this year. So the bulk of the population would probably not be pleased if one is called and would be difficult to enthuse. Which means that turnout could be lower than ever.


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How Not to Lecture Iran

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 25th September, 2007

Columbia University took advantage of the presence in New York of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (for the opening of the UN General Assembly) to invite him to a question and answer session on campus. So far so good. But then the university’s president, Lee Bollinger, completely blew it by being gratuitously insulting. In defiance of all diplomatic protocol and the age-old principle of rational academic debate, he introduced the Iranian President by declaring that he exhibited ‘all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.’ Mr Bollinger went on to call some of his guest’s views ‘simply ridiculous’. Now, I am no fan of the Iranian President and I condemn some of the statements he has made in the past, for example relating to the Holocaust. But Mr Bollinger’s performance just reinforced the impression that many people in Iran and the wider Middle East have that the Americans are ignorant, ill-mannered bullies.

I would not make such a sweeping judgement myself, of course. But I do believe that the United States has a serious problem in having no idea how to deal with Iran, or indeed Syria, or the Palestinian Authority or several other regimes in the Middle Eastern and North African region. This is potentially highly dangerous, particularly as there are those in Washington rattling their sabres at Tehran during the twilight Bush years. If the United States really wishes to see peace in the Middle East — not just in Israel/Palestine, but also in Iraq — then it is going to have to work with Iran and other regional players. Insulting them and threatening them is not the way forward, and only serves to alienate the population of the countries concerned, many of whom have little affection for their own leaders.

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Debt As Money

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 25th September, 2007

The Gladstone Club could not have predicted that Northern Rock would turn out to be made of papier maché (ok, a little bit of poetic licence there), but this made last night’s seminar on Debt As Money at the National Liberal Club singularly timely. The basic thesis was that we have moved to a debt-based money system that is ultimately unsustainable and potentially disastrous, if confidence collapses. In 1946, when the Bank of England was nationalised, debt-free publicly-created money accounted for 46% of the money supply. Now this is down to a mere 3%. And of course, mortgage credit is the central pillar of this debt-based house of cards.

One speaker argued that the rot set in with the launch of Access and its slogan ‘take the waiting out of wanting’; personally, I think that was symptomatic rather than causative. But certainly we have got into an unhealthy situation in which easy credit has put tens of thousands of households at risk of bankruptcy and has countless others under stress. Yet is any of the main political parties really taking such issues seriously — including educating the public about the associated dangers?

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Don’t Do It, Gordon!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 24th September, 2007

The BBC has done an interesting straw-poll at the Labour Party conference, asking delegates whether they think the Prime Minister should or should not call a general election this autumn. Interestingly, the majority opinion is ‘no’ (though many people loyally comment that it is up to him). Ming Campbell, meanwhile, is taunting from the sidelines, daring Gordon to do it, rather than prolong this period of uncertainty, though I have to say that the mood I picked up at the LibDem conference in Brighton last week is that there is no appetite for an early poll among LibDem activists.

The real issue at stake here, though, is the absurdity of our political system, in which the Prime Minister of the day has the power to call a general election when he thinks he or she has the best chance of winning it. To my mind this is little more than inbuilt corruption (added to the fact that our first-past-the-post election system means that most voters don’t get the government they want anyway). Meanwhile, acres of newsprint and hours of air-time are wasted speculating about whether there will be or won’t be an election, instead of examing real issues. So, Gordon, instead of teasing the public and the media about election dates, why not pledge yourself to true electoral reform? You would go up considerably in my estimation if you did.

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Getting Nearer to Brussels

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 21st September, 2007

Eurostar has successfully completed its trial run from Brussels to St Pancras Station, London, in well under two hours. Normal fare-paying passengers will be able to take advantage of this service before the end of the year, meaning that the ‘Capital of Europe’ should henceforth be seen as accessible as Manchester or Liverpool. I’m always astounded by how many Londoners have never been to Brussels, however, or even considered going. I know it doesn’t have the grandeur or Paris, or the naughtinees of (far more distant) Amsterdam, but the Grand’Place and surrounding area are beautiful and there are artistic treasures dotted around the city.

More pertinently, it is the nerve-centre of the EU, despite the grotesque anachronism of ongoing Euro-parliamentary sessions in Strasbourg. Yet how many people who gripe about the EU — usually on the basis of some article in the ‘Daily Mail’ or the ‘Sun’ — have actually gone to Brussels to find out what it’s all about? Do a quick survey, next time you hear a Euro-sceptic conversation in your local pub or wherever, and the response is likely to be telling. That is why the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG) — of which I am London Representative — organises regular fact-finding visits to Brussels. I can thoroughly recommend them to anyone who has not been. Almost without exception, the people who come back from these visits have not only had a nice time — and discovered the Belgian capital’s gastronomic delights — but also understand and appreciate the positive things the EU does much better.


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The Arab League and Mid-East Peace

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 20th September, 2007

In the debate on Israel-Palestine at the LibDem conference in Brighton yesterday, I stressed the need to integrate the Arab League into new efforts to find a peaceful settlement to the festering Middle East situation, despite reluctance on the part of the Israeli government to deal with Arab states with which they do not have diplomatic relations. As I pointed out, it is completely contrary to diplomatic protocol and international norms for a country to veto who a regional organisation appoints to represent it in discussions, be it the Arab League, the EU or whoever.

Moreover, it is counter-productive for Israel to try to exclude the majority of Arab states from having any role in seeking a settlement. Saudi Arabia, for example, has been a key player in trying to rally Arab agreement to recognition of Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. Moreover, as I am well aware, through my work and travels right across the Arab world, Israel has a serious image problem in the Arab street. It’s not hard to see why, given the ongoing illegal settlements, the horrendous security wall, house demolitions and the daily humiliation of Palestinians at check-points.

Of course, the Palestinians have an image problem in Israel as well, because of rocket attacks and suicide bombings. But there is never going to be any chance of peace unless everyone concerned is prepared to sit down with all parties involved. A new ‘quintet’, adding the Arab League to the current quartet of the US, the EU, Russia and the UN, could be in a position to give the peace process new impetus, if all sides enter into it in good faith.

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