Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for February, 2008

With Brian Paddick along Brick Lane

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 29th February, 2008

altab-ali-park-memorial.jpgThe London Mayoral campaign came to my backyard today, as Brian Paddick (accompanied by his predecessor and current party president, Simon Hughes, MP), the LibDem GLA candidate for City and London East, Rajonuddin Jalal, and I ‘did’ Brick Lane. After a walkabout with photo-opportunities, and a swift but delicious curry-house lunch, we were greeted at the Brick Lane Mosque, which has made a point of getting the local Bangladeshi and wider Islamic community involved in public life, welcoming political parties of all hues. In Jalal we have a candidate who is a former Deputy Leader of Tower Hamlets Council and a mainstay of the Bengali community in East London.

Later we walked to the nearby Altab Ali park, where Brian laid flowers at the monument to the martyrs of the Bengali-language campaigners who died in 1952 during the struggle for their language rights in what was then East Pakistan — the precursor of Bangladesh. As I said in my short speech at the monument (broadcast by Bengali-language TV), language is an essential part of both individual and community identity. I was proud to be able to pay my respects to those who perished in defending their rights, and I celebrate the fact that Bengali is now one of the community languages in my home borough. But in some parts of the world, linguistic communities are still suffering oppression, and not all those who dream of political self-determination (for example, in Kashmir) have yet seen their goal achieved.


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Vince Cable in Court

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 28th February, 2008

vince-cable.jpgThe Court Room at Brown’s in St Martin’s Lane was the unusual venue for this evening’s Westminster LibDems’ annual dinner; in past years, it has tended to be in the House of Lords. In the dock, so to speak, was the party’s Deputy Leader and Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Vince Cable, who gave an impassioned defence of Liberal policies on matters as diverse as Northern Rock, tackling the culture of binge borrowing, and pressing for a referendum on Britain’s continuing membership of the European Union (rather than on the Lisbon Treaty). It was a magisterial performance. After his brief spell as Acting Leader during the final months of last year, one expected nothing less.

On Monday, he will be in a working court, as he is appearing in a case largely instigated by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), regarding the continuing suppression of information relating to British arms deals with Saudi Arabia. Vince memorably took a principled line in refusing to snuggle up to the Saudi King on his state visit to Britain last year, and is still pressurising the Labour government to come clean not only on what they have been covering up, but also the previous Conservative administration. It is always risky for a political party to claim the moral high ground, but Vince repeatedly demonstrates that he actually occupies it, doing the Liberal Democrats huge credit in the process and winning approval across the board.

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Looking Forward to Liverpool

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 27th February, 2008

Many local LibDem parties don’t take federal conferences very seriously, apart from selecting a few representatves to go each year. But Islington is an exception. This evening, Islington’s monthly Pizza and Politics was devoted to the agenda for the Spring Conference due to take place in Liverpool in 10 days’ time. Local activist — and stalwart of the Federal Policy Committee, Federal Conference Committee, etc — Jeremy Hargreaves presented some of the main themes that will be up for discussion, both in plenary debates and in seperate, themed consultative sessions, including major matters such as Health, Housing and Security.

Bridget Fox, PPC for uber-marginal Islington South, and her fellow Councilllor, Greg Foxsmith, spoke about the motion they’ll be proposing at Liverpool on Legal Aid. It was a Labour government that introduced legal aid 60 years ago, but it is an indication of how far New Labour has drifted from socialist ideals of justice for all and overcoming inequalities that our current goverment is whittling the service down. Islington actually proposed three motions for Spring Conference, so maybe it is not so surprising that one was selected. But this issue is indeed worthwhile.

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Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 26th February, 2008

abra.jpgThe best bargain in Dubai is the trip by abra or small motor launch from one side of the Creek to the other. For a mere 1 dirham (about 25 US cents), one gets a swift but atmospheric sweep of the waterfronts of both Deira and Bur Dubai, in the company of overwhelmingly Indian commuters. The two sides of the Creek are quite different. Though there aren’t quite as many Iranian wooden trading ships on the Deira side as there used to be when I first starting coming to Dubai 20 years ago, they still add colour to the place, along with the Somalis. On the Bur Dubai side, there has been an attempt to resuscitate some of the local culture that so nearly got completely submerged. Much of the Big Souk is reconstructed, as is the quarter of Bastakia, where you can still see wind towers, the tradtional form of air-conditioning. Photos in the museum in the house that used to be the ruler’s residence are a jolting reminder of just how far and how fast the place has come in just 40 years.

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UAE Magnet for Migrants

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 25th February, 2008

The latest census figures for the UAE have been released, showing that nationals (i.e. Emiratis) now make up only 15 per cent of the population: 866,779 out of a total of 5.6 million. A full 75 per cent of the workforce is Asian, the majority of them Indians, who now make up over 40 per cent of the total population, and are thereby by far the largest ethnic group. No wonder Dubai often gives the impression of being an Indian city, minus the cows!

The UAE’s oil-fuelled wealth — now substantially supplemented by all sorts of activities, from property to finance and the media, following economic diversification — has acted as a magnet to workers from all over the world. The census says there are people here from 200 countries — which means all the member states of the United Nations and a few more besides. London often claims to be the most cosmopolitan city on earth, but there, Brits are still in a majority!

Many expats — Asian and others — have decided to make UAE their home, though they do not enjoy citizenship rights, which means that if the economy ever went pear-shaped, the government would be able to expel many foreign workers by not renewing their visas. Not that there seems any immediate likelihood of that just at present. With oil around $100 a barrel and skyscrapers popping up everywhere, the mood is boom boom boom.

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Sharjah’s Motor-car Madness

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 24th February, 2008

The Arabian Gulf emirate of Sharjah has both the advantage and disadvantage of being next door to big and brassy Dubai. In comparison, it is a conservative place — there’s no alcohol in Sharjah, for example — but the Arab world’s low-cost airline, Air Arabia, is based there and property prices (to buy or rent) are considerably cheaper than Dubai’s, making it a popular place for commuters.

Therin lies the problem. At quiet times of the day, you can drive from Sharjah to Dubai in 15 or 20 minutes, whereas during rush-hour it can take up to 3 hours. People nonetheless do this. day in, day out. No wonder there has been a recent outbreak of road-rage in the emirate. Even when the Sharjah commuters get home, their difficulties are not over, as there aren’t enough spaces to park all the cars, so it can take people half an hour or more to find someone to park anywhere near their apartment.

Dubai itself is now building a new metro system; the first line should be ready in September of next year. But otherwise, public trasport provision in the rapdily expanding conurbations of the region is woefully inadequate. At the current rate of population and car ownership expansion, it won’t be long before there is permanent gridlock. But petrol is only a fraction of the price of Europe’s, and for many people, there is no alternative to the car. Something will have to be done soon, though, or the whole place will literally grind to a halt. 

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Opening up the Musandam Peninsula

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd February, 2008

musandam.jpgWhen I first visited the Musandam peninsula in Oman, more than a decade ago, I arrived by sea, being decanted from a converted fishing trawler in the Straits of Hormuz onto a wooden dhow, which then sailed into a fjord, where some local men came out to meet us in a little boat. Many coastal villages then were only accessible by sea. And the whole peninsula was redolent of mystery and intrigue, largely cut off from the rest of the world (and, indeed, from the rest of the Oman, from which it is separated by a chunk of the UAE).

Returning there yesterday by the tarmacked road that hugs the towering rock cliffs and winds round the inlets, from Ras Al Khaimah to the Musandam capital of Khasab — as it is now possible to do, with a quick purchase of a visa at the border — brought mixed emotions. There was the pleasure of being back in this wild territory, and discovering some new places, but tinged with a certain nostalgia for an age when tourists couldn’t just drive in. In Khasab itself, high walls and fences have been built around many of the individual palmgroves. And the imposing shoreline castle has been given a facelift. But little boys in embroidered caps still run up waving and smiling when one drives off the beaten track, a European visitor as exotic to them as they appear to us.

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Pakistan at the Crossroads

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 19th February, 2008

Early results from the parliamentary elections in Pakistan indicate sweeping gains by several opposition parties, notably the PPP of the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif’s PML (N). President Musharraf has said he will abide by the results and so far opposition fears of widespread vote-rigging seem unfounded. Voter turnout was below 40 per cent, however, partly because many electors were afraid to go to the polls, given the violence in the run-up to the elections, but also because many people understandably regard most politicians in Pakistan as corrupt. As the PPP and the PML (N) can’t stand each other, it is hard to see them working together in a ruling coalition.

Last night, Liberal International British Group held a forum at the National Liberal Club on Pakistan at the Crosroads. As the two hoped-for speakers had to withdraw for various reasons, my old SOAS colleague Dr David Hall-Matthews and I led the lively discussion instead. Both of us delivered a fairly gloomy prognosis, whoever technically wins the elections. The army is always a looming presence in Pakistan, and it would be an exaggeration to say that liberal democracy has taken hold. What most people there like are strong leaders and it is anyone’s guess as to how things will play out now. It would be too much to say that Pakistan is a failed state. But it is ominously unstable and there are some dark forces at play.

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Welcome to the World, Kosovo

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 17th February, 2008

There was jubilation on the streets of Pristina today, following the parliament’s declaration of Kosovan independence. Thus Europe gets its newest nation, born out of years of often violent tension between ethnic Albanians and Serbs. EU and other international institutions will continue to play a role in Kosovo, not only to help protect its territory, but also to try to ensure security for the Serbian minority, most of whom opposed the state’s quest for independence. There have been angry demonstrations in Belgrade, and Russia has decried Kosovo’s move. Some commentators in Moscow are portraying it all as a dastardly US-led Western led plot, in language reminiscent of the Cold War.

Tomorrow, in Brussels, EU Foreign Ministers will be discussing how to react, though alas, once again as in the recent history of the Balkans, they are unlikely to present a united front. Whereas countries such as Britain, France and Germany are likely to offer early recognition to the new country, at least three — Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia — are said to oppose this. Cyprus, of course, worries that the Turkish-occupied north of the island could see an independent Kosovo as encouragement to pursue its so far unsuccessful attempt to persuade anyone other than Turkey to recognise the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Amd many Romanians worry about the possiblity of Hungarians in Transylvania pressing for secession. Slovakia’s situation is a little more complicated, as it actually pressed for its ‘velvet divorce’ from the Czech Republic, leading to the break-up of Czechoslovakia.

From the EU’s point of view, the important thing now is to limit any fallout from the Kosovan declaration. And it will be trying to work with democratic forces in Serbia, including the recently re-elected president, to ensure that Serbia pursues its own EU vocation. Before the end of the decade, in principle, the whole of the Western Balkans could achieve EU membership. Solving regional differences should in principle be easier inside the EU than outside.


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Greenwich Brain Teaser

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th February, 2008

Greenwich LibDems tonight hosted quite the most surreal quiz I have ever attended. Apart from the fact that we would have needed to stay around until after midnight to get through all the scheduled rounds, the questions themselves were quirky and obscure, with two leitmotifs: numbers and sex. Even if our brains were like spaghetti by the half-way point, at least we all had a lot of fun. And prizes were distributed after every round, not to mention the copious raffle booty. So just about everyone left laden with goodies. I departed with enough body lotion to see out my mortal coil, a box of smarties and four blackcurrant muffins.

What is it about the British and quizes? They are not just the mainstay of many political fundraisers; they pack in the punters in pubs up and down the country. It’s not as if we’re all trying to be Mastermind, as knowing the answers to many of these brainteasers is often a matter of luck. But hats off to Anthony, who organised this evening’s marathon — in which one correct answer was to leave it blank!

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