Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for January, 2008

David Howarth’s YouTube Moments

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 31st January, 2008

The Cambridge MP, David Howarth, entertained Kensington and Chelsea LibDems this evening, when he addressed a Food for Thought event on Liberal Politics in the Era of the Superficial. His sub-title was a question, whether the political life is still worth leading. Given the fact that David followed several years as leader of Cambridge City Council by getting comfortably elected to parliament in 2005, to an extent the answer was self-evidently ‘yes’. But he had some hard truths to tell about the limitations of politicians, the public and the media.

The very word ‘politician’ has recently assumed negative tones, he argued, irrespective of party. And the inquisitorial style of Jeremy Paxman, John Humphrys and Co has turned news and current affairs programmes in the media into humiliation ceremonies. Moreover, politicians are under scrutiny by the public all the time, constantly at risk from people’s mobile phones and digital cameras, with the possibility of being broadcast on YouTube. No wonder so many of them no longer do anything as reckless as declare openly what they actually believe.

David revealed that all MPs are now routinely given training and advice on presentation — everything from their clothes to their delivery. According to the trainers, one’s appearance has eight times as much impact as what one actually says. And in a postmodern society (well, David is an academic by profession, after all), in which nothing really matters, the superficial is paramount. Chilling stuff, though delivered with his trademark dry humour and self-deprecation.


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Andy Mayer and the Orange Bookers

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 31st January, 2008

andymayer.jpgThe blogger, prolific photographer and linchpin of the now defunct Liberal Future, Andy Mayer, gave a very professional presentation on the Orange Book last night, at a Pizza and Politics at the home of the leader of Islington Council, James Kempton. When the book came out, it caused quite a stir, not least because of David Laws’s essay on the funding of social services. It was hailed as the rallying call of Economic Liberals — as opposed to Social Liberals, who later responded with ‘Reinventing the State’ — but Andy argued convincingly that such distinctions were largly redundant, and that we should just talk about ‘Liberals’.

One kite he flew was the suggestion that has been made in some quarters that Nick Clegg has surrounded himself with Orange Bookers. But one had to balance that notion with Andy’s reflection that most people come away from talking with Nick believing that he agrees with them. Is this a skilful politician at work,  or what? The coming months will tell. But with even Nick Cohen, in the Evening Standard, musing that both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson are so inadequate that he might have to consider voting Liberal Democrat in the upcoming London Mayoral election, we are in an interesting political situation, with everything to play for, providing the LibDems can communicate to the electorate what they stand for!

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Europe’s Growing Liberal Family

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 29th January, 2008

eldr-logo.jpgIn the run-up to next year’s European elections, British Liberal Democrats can take heart from the fact that across Europe, Liberal politicians are increasingly making their presence felt. Currently, six EU member states have Liberal Prime Ministers: Belgium (Guy Verhofstadt), Denmark (Anders Fogh Rasmussen), Estonia (Andrus Ansip), Finland (Matti Vanhanen), Latvia (Ivars Godmanis) and Romania (Calin Popescu-Tariceanu) — not to mention the tiny mountain nation of Andorra (Pintat Albert).

There are Liberal Ministers in 13 European countries (Andorra, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Romania, Sweden and Switzerland). Eight of th 27 European Commissioners come from parties affiliated to the European Liberal party, ELDR, while there are 102 members of the Liberal group in the European Parliament, ALDE, headed by Graham Watson, LibDem MEP for the South West of England.

British Liberal Democrats are numerically the biggest Liberal force in European politics, which is reflected in our strength in the European Parliament. Until we get PR for British national elections, however, the party will probably remain grossly unrepresented at Westminster, and therefore under-reported in the media.



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The Brent Mosque’s Liberal Tendency

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 27th January, 2008

sarah-teather-at-brent-mosque.jpgNick Clegg was the guest of honour at a large celebratory dinner for the local MP, Sarah Teather, at the Howard Road Mosque and Islamic Centre in Brent this evening, attracting large numbers of predominantly Pakistani Muslims, as well as the local chief imam and elders, plus LibDem members. Sarah holds MP surgeries in the mosque twice a month, and several speakers paid tribute to her work with the Islamic community in Britain’s most diverse borough. That includes her dogged campaigning against the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay.

In his keynote address, Nick Clegg picked up the theme of civil liberties and lambasted the government for trying to press ahead with legislation to permit 42-day detention without trial. Gordon Brown also came under fire for supinely agreeing to George W Bush’s new European missile shield. Principle must be the touchstone of LibDem policies, Nick said, especially in international affairs. And he highlighted the failure of the international community to prevent the breakdown of order in Kenya following the flawed presidential election there, for which Mwai Kabaki was initially congratulated by Washington.


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We Do Like Europe After All

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 26th January, 2008

Nick Clegg will be relieved that an ICM poll in today’s Guardian puts the LibDems back on 20%, after several uncomfortable weeks bumping around in the teens. But in many ways more fascinating are the poll’s findings about the British public’s changing attitude towards the European Union. A full 58% of people interviewed think Britain’s EU membership is a good thing, as opposed to 35% who think it is bad. That’s a considerable improvement over the results of a similar poll a decade ago. Moreover, among 18-24 year olds, the EU approval rating is 76%, with the lowest level of support being expressed by pensioners — which suggests that demographics are working in favour of the pro-Europeans.

This was heartwarming news for the London LibDem Euro-team, which broke off from campaigning in the Leyton by-election in Waltham Forest to hold a strategy meeting over lunch at the excellent and modestly priced Oceano Portuguese restaurant in Leyton High Road. This is a relatively new addition to the culinary and cultural choices in the area, and yet more evidence of the way that London is being enriched in very practical ways by EU membership. When I had a flat round the corner, in the 1990s, I never imagined I would one dqay have been able to find a weekend feijoada washed down with a delicious alentejano on my doorstep!

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Down Portobello Road

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 25th January, 2008

Brian Paddick led a walkabout along Kensington’s Portobello Road this afternoon, with a party of local activists, the GLA candidate for London West Central, Merlene Toh Emerson, and the three top London Euro-candidates: Sarah Ludford, myself and Dinti Wakefield. It was interesting to see how passionately so many of the market stallholders there feel about the western extension of the congestion charge, which Brian has pledged to scrap if he’s elected. We also did a photo-stop at Woolworth’s, which has become an iconic element in the Colville ward LibDems’ campaigning.

We ended up at the London Lighthouse, off Ladbrooke Grove. It’s several years since I’d been there, when I did a reading along with Francis King. At that time, HIV/AIDS was still a death sentence for many in this country, but mercifully that is no longer the case — although it still is in too much of the rest of the world. We were shown into the sheltered garden, where a lemon tree is in full fruit (maybe global warming has some advantages!), and we looked at the swing seat where Princess Di used to perch when she wandered in to see how things were going. Brian Paddick is a longstanding supporter of both the London Lighthouse and the Terrence Higgins Trust, so not surprisingly, we got a warm welcome.


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Ann Widdecombe at the NLC

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 25th January, 2008

ann-widdicombe.jpgThe Gladstone Club took the adventurous decision to have the Rt Hon Ann Widdecombe, MP — aka Doris Karloff  (pace the Daily Mirror)– as guest speaker at its annual dinner at the National Liberal Club last night. The place was pretty packed, as we had all come along hoping to be challenged, and duly were. Her chosen theme was Freedom of Speech, though that did not stop her ranging over a whole spectrum of issues and anecdotes, some funny, most feisty, and some downright disturbing (well, for a true Liberal, anyway).

I was struck by what seemed to me to be a basic inconsistency in her argument. She defended the right of the Oxford Union to host a debate at which Nick Griffin and David Irving spoke, even if what they said might be offensive to Jews, Muslims, immigrants or whoever — a position I can intellectually sympathise with. But she then said it was perfectly all right for printers to refuse to print flyers announcing a Gay Rights march. To me that sounded like giving bigots a free rein to attack groups they disapprove of, but not to allow people to promote their rghts. This inconsistency she justified, when questioned, on the grounds of individual conscience.

Now, I can understand why someone might have a conscientious objection to carrying out an abortion, or doing active service in the army. But I do not see that the right to be prejudiced against particular sections of our diverse society should somehow be sacrosanct. Fifty years ago, one could sometimes see in the windows of lodgings ‘No Blacks or Irish’. That today is, quite rightly, illegal. Recent legislation relating to the equal provision of services irrespective of sexual orientation has remedied a glaring lacuna in the law. It was good to have the opportunity to hear Ms Widdicombe outline her views. But even better to have the opportunity to tell her why I think she is wrong.  

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Malcolm Bruce’s Take on Burns Night

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 24th January, 2008

Malcolm Bruce — MP for Gordon and President of Liberal International British Group — put an interesting spin on his speech to the Immortal Memory of the Scots Bard at Merton LibDems’ Burns Night Supper in Wimbledon last night, by eulogising Estonia as the most Liberal country in Europe. Parties in both the government and the opposition there are members of Liberal International. And for centuries, the Estonians managed to keep their cultural identity alive, despite being ruled by Germans, Russians, Swedes etc. He also found an affinity between Estonians and Scots (which made me wonder why Lembit Opik has managed so far to be English, Northern Irish and now Welsh, but never a Scot…).

The Reply from the Lassies (following a Toast to them from Wimbledon PPC, Stephen Gee) came from the homegrown young MP, Jenny Willott, who won Cardiff Central at the last election. Her mother, Alison Willott (herself a former candidate in Wimbledon) was Mistress of Ceremonies, while her mother, Peggy Pyke-Lees, was, as ever, the queen-pin of the evening’s practical arrangements. Rabbie would have been enchanted (and would probably have run after them all…)

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Speaking Out for Arcadia

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 23rd January, 2008

The writer and columnist Joan Smith today delivered a letter from 600 of us writers and what the publishers described as ‘luminaries in the Arts’ asking the Arts Council to reconsider its decision to slash future funding to the independent publishing house Arcadia by a quarter. When the rosta includes such diverse characters as Tariq Ali, Antonia Fraser, Nobel laureate Doris Lessing, Joanna Lumley, Edwina Currie and me, one may begin to understand both the breadth and the depth of the outrage at the proposed cutbacks. Arcadia has been named by the Sunday Times as Small Publisher of the Year, and in 2007 one of its books, The Book of Chameleons, by the Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa, won the prestigious Independent Foreign Fiction award.

Indeed, under the spirited leadership of its young American director, Gary Pulsifer, Arcadia has brought to the British reading public a wide range of books in translation, in particular, which have enriched our literary environment. Books from the Nordic countries have been especially promoted, as well as several novelists from developing countries. The government says it wants to champion excellence in the Arts, so can the Arts Council please do its bit and reprieve Arcadia from the planned cuts? The sums involved are tiny in terms of the Arts Council budget, but would have a serious effect on Arcadia’s ability to build on what it has already achieved.  

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Hip Time at the Hop Cellars

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 22nd January, 2008

Brian Paddick had his in-house launch (as opposed to the recent public one at Lambeth Town Hall) at the Hop Cellars in Southwark tonight, with all five current LibDem GLA members, various hopeful GLA candidates and key activists by the score. Such parties can frankly be a bit tedious on occasion, but this one swang, not just because of the warm welcome from the locale and the organisers, and the very generous, modestly-titled ‘finger buffet’ — but also because of the buzz that is growing around Brian’s campaign. He spoke casually and well, without notes, and at a time when Mayor Ken is reeling (and snarling) from hostile media scrutiny, and Boris is floundering, Brian is increasingly being seen as the Serious Candidate, but also a genuine human being.

The party centrally has taken on board the fact that the mayoral race this time, far from being the foregone conclusion of last time, is going to be an exciting, sometimes bare-knuckle, fight — more akin to US politics than British, in some ways. That may, of course, not be an entirely positive thing, but it does promise an interesting contest which could get all sorts of people who don’t normally vote in GLA elections turning out. And all the gossip I am hearing is that the foreign media are also going to watch this as a great political show.

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