Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for May, 2008

Can Africa Solve Its Ills?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 31st May, 2008

Last night I took part in a live discussion on Voice of Africa Radio (VOAR) on solving the crisis in African development. Fifty years after Ghana led to way to independence, most of Africa remains firmly stuck developmentally, compared with a growing number of Asian and Latin American countries that are enjoying varying degrees of economic lift-off. Apparently last week the station hosted a programme outlining the problems affecting the continent, so this week, my two fellow panelists and I were meant to come up with solutions. I won’t be so arrogant as to claim that we did, but at least we highlighted possible ways forward.

I stressed the need to think positive: to spend less time blaming the colonial powers for the past (even if much of the blame is justified) and to focus on building the future. I was pleased to see that on Africa Day (25 May), the Chairman of the African Union, the Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, took a similarly forward-looking stance in his message to Africans and Friends of Africa. Africa is a rich continent, not a poor one, with an abundance of minerals and land and other resources, including a youthful population (in spite of the ravages of AIDS). The potential is huge if African states work together, tackle coruption in those countries where it is still a big problem, and reverse the outflow of capital.

As President Kikwete said, Africa is being particularly hard-hit by the rise in food and fuel prices (the latter despite the fact that there are a growing number of oil producers along the west coast). More needs to be done to boost Africa’s food production, which was badly hit by being undercut by subsidised foreign food imports. The European Union has an important role to play in opening up its markets more to African produce. But there wll only be significant amounts of inward investment when countries show that they are well-governed. One of my fellow panelists, from West Africa himself, argued that presidential terms should be limited to two. Looking at the example of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe — who seemed to be such a good thing when I was in Harare in 1980, but is now a callous monster — I could only concur!


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Feliks Topolski and GBS

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 30th May, 2008

This evening I entertained the Shaw Society with a talk on the Polish artist Feliks Topolski and GBS. Topolski moved to England in 1935, or rather came to London on a working visit and stayed. He quickly found an outlet for his ‘absolutely remarkable draughtsmanship’, as George Bernard Shaw called it, in magazines such as the short-lived but influential ‘Night and Day’. In 1938, he was summoned to visit the great playright — already an octogenarian — in his flat in Whitehall Court. Topolski’s write-up of that in his idiosyncratic volume of memoirs, Fourteen Letters, is self-admitted hero-worship.

At Shaw’s insistence, Topolski illustrated several of his published plays, starting with ‘Geneva’, though after a while the playwright became disenchanted with his protégé. Charlotte, his wife, was particularly pained by the artist’s portraits of GBS himself. And when Topolski produced illustrations for ‘St Joan’ which GBS actively disliked, a certain distance appeared between them. Nonetheless, they still kept in touch and both Topolski and his actress wife Marion Everall were involved in Shaw’s last theatrical production, ‘Farfetched Fables’, even if Shaw himself stayed away.


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Britain, the US and the EU

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 28th May, 2008

The Republican US presidential candidate John McCain has been promoting the idea of a new grouping of democratic nations of the world, which would include not only North America and most of Europe, but also India and Japan. His hope is that this grouping could take collective action in world affairs in the interest of common causes. Though superficially attractive, this idea strikes me as singularly dangerous. For one thing, the United Nations and multilateralism need to be strengthened, not weakened, at this particular juncture. Even more important, such a move would intensify the climate of ‘us and them’ which George W Bush has so disastrously engendered.

I find it especially disconcerting that some of Barack Obama’s advisers are tempted by McCain’s concept, though Obama himself has not committed himself to it. Instead, in a video link to a fundraising event at Elizabeth Murdoch’s home in London’s Notting Hill Gate last weekend, he talked of the need to ‘recalibrate’ US-British relations, to put them on a more equal footing. Again, at first glance, this might seem an attractive proposition, but actually it is nonsense. The United States is still the world’s leading power (though maybe for not all that much longer), whereas Britain is at best a middle-hitter. Certainly, it would be good to move away from the poodle-like relationship of Tony Blair vis-a-vis President Bush. But does anyone seriously believe that Washington would listen to London — whoever was in power in the White House — if US interests seemed to be at stake?

The missing element here is the European Union, of course. The US and the EU could certainly enjoy a partnership of equals. In fact, if only the EU would get its act together, with Britain at the centre, rather than sniping from the sidelines, the whole dynamics of global politics would change — usually for the better, I believe. So however attractive the ideas of McCain’s League of Democracies and Obama’s new partnership between the US and the UK might seem, what we should be striving for is a new relationship between a more united Europe and the US, as two big hitters on the world stage.


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Tessa Codrington’s Tangier

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 27th May, 2008

 On my way to a television studio to do a Press Review this evening, I was able to call in at Christie’s South Kensington for the launch of Tessa Codrington’s book of photographs Spirits of Tangier (Arcadia, £25). One of the auction house’s best galleries had been taken over to display the finest prints from the book and the event attracted a motley crew of gliterati and High Society, with an appropriate leavening of the raffish. Tessa Codrington is of course a successful Society photographer, as well as being married to the High Tory spread betting millionaire, Stuart Wheeler, and being the owner of a beautiful house in Tangier, inherited from her grandfather.

She first talked about doing this book in the 1970s with the American writer and composer, Paul Bowles, who features prominently in the finished product, which includes archive material from the 1920s as well as Tessa’s photos from the 1970s. Several of the people I knew in that still relatively wicked North African town at the time are also thereby perserved for posterity. My favourite picture, though, is of the Hon. David Herbert, in full drag, as Lady Bracknell in an amateur production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, put on by the Tangier Players.

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Carter, Hamas and a ‘Supine’ EU

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 26th May, 2008

Former US President Jimmy Carter made good use of a waterlogged Bank Holiday weekend to address an appreciative throng at the Hay Literary Festival at Hay-on-Wye, focussing his remarks on the Middle East. In an interview with a Guardian journalist present, he berated what he called the supine European Union for backing US policy on Israel/Palestine and its ’embarrassing’ failure to criticise the Israeli blockade of Gaza, which he described as ‘one of the greatest human rights crimes on Earth’. He also called on the EU to engage with Hamas, if Hamas agrees to a ceasefire.

Jimmy Carter has become quite a thorn in the side of the Bush administration and is in the somewhat enviable position of being able to say things that Barack Obama or indeed any other possible Democrat presidential candidate could not dare. At Hay, he spoke of his horror at American involvement in what he (and most Europeans) would consider torture. As a Democrat super-delegate, he’ll be quizzing both Obama and Hillary Clinton as to whether they will pledge not to permit such practices in future. He also hinted at the intriguing possiblity that even if George W Bush will be safe from prosecution in the United States after he completes his second term of office, he might not enjoy such immunity elsewhere.


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Freedom of Expression in Turkey

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 26th May, 2008

There’s an almighty stand-off between the Turkish government and the Courts at present, with various dark forces hiding behind the superficially innocuous mask of secularism in order to bring legal cases against the Prime Minister and other leading politicians. But the government cannot claim entirely to be the injured party, as Recep Tayyip Erdogan has still not scrapped the infamous Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, despite pressure from the EU and both domestic and foreign human rights organisations. On 29 April, Article 301 was instead amended by Parliament, to outlaw insults to the Turkish nation, the Turkish Republic, and institutions and organs of the State. That means that it can remain a catch-all to stifle freedom of expression and to harass people highlighting the situation of minorities such as the Kurds and the Armenians.

Week after week, the courts are filled with related cases. This week, for example, in Diyarbakir, Edip Polat and Erin Kesken are being charged for inciting hatred and hostility among the people by their speeches at a panel discussion on ‘Solutions to the Kurdish Problem, Past and Present’; in Kars, City Chairman Mahmut Alinak, stands accused of inciting people to break the law in a speech he delivered at the Student Union of the University of the Caucasus; and in Beyoglu (Istanbul), the Istanbul Lesbian, Gay, Transvestite, Transexual Solidarity Association (LAMBDA) is in the dock because not only do the organisation’s founding statutes allegedly violate the law and morals, but its name, LAMBDA, is not Turkish and therefore is illegal. And there are more!

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Is There Anything More Camp Than Eurovision?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th May, 2008

I have never really appreciated ‘camp’. Graham Norton sets my teeth on edge. But there is something wonderfully over the top about the Eurovision Song Contest — especially when one sees it at a Eurovision party, as I did with Lewisham Liberal Democrats this year. We all drew lots (at a pound a ticket) to see which country we would represent. I got the hosts, Serbia, which was never going to manage to replicate the butch originality of last year’s female effort — and didn’t. Moreover, the two smarmy presenters in Belgrade were pretty cringe-worthy. One or two of the songs were actually rather good, not least Ukraine’s, and Russia was a justifiable winner. Bosnia and Herzogovina entered into the crazy spirit of things. Spain was simply embarrassing. The guy in Stockholm announcing the Swedish votes seemed to be out of his head.

For some time now, in the UK, Terry Wogan’s commentary has been part of the carnival. He was as wry (and sometimes outright bitchy) as ever, though by the end he was souding weary, and genuinely miffed that the British entry came joint bottom (though at least without the indignity of ‘nul points’). It’s true, as he said, that voting goes along political and geographical lines these days, though actually most of the top places were won by reasonable numbers. If Wogan retires, I suppose we might end up with Graham Norton next year. Will that be more than I can bear?


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Leyla Zana at SOAS

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 23rd May, 2008

 The Turkish-Kurdish activist and former MP, Leyla Zana, received a heroine’s welcome at the Khalili Lecture Theatre at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) this evening, in recognition of her brave struggle for Kurdish cutural and political rights. In 1991, she was the first Kurdish woman to be elected to the Turkish parliament, but created uproar by uttering one single sentence in Kurdish at the end of her swearing the oath of alleigance to the Turkish Republic. Speaking Kurdish in a public place was still against the law; for nearly 70 years, the language had been officially banned in private as well. As Leyla said tonight, ‘the biggest genocide is linguistic genocide’. If you take away a people’s language, you destroy its culture and its soul.

Chilling footage was shown at the event of the reaction of almost the entire Turkish membership of the parliament on that infamous day in 1991, banging their desks in anger, shouting at her, some even accusing her of treason — for which she was indeed tried and found guilty, three years later, being sentenced to 15 years in prison. Her case was taken up not only by NGOs such as Amnesty International, but also by leading politicians worldwide, and the European Parliament, which awarded her the Sakharov Prize in 1995, in absentia — it would be another nine years before the Court of Appeal released her on a legal technicality.

Turkey aspires to join the EU and indeed, most Kurds in Turkey support this development, as they believe Turkey within the EU would be forced to improve both its human rights record and an acknowledgement of the country’s true multi-cultural nature, with the associated recognition of the position of minorities. But Turkey still has a long way to go before it will fulfil the so-called Copenhagen criteria for EU membership on such issues. Once again, Leyla Zana faces legal charges, relating to her alleged sympathy for armed Kurdish separatists, for which her possible jail sentence could be — wait for it — 60 years.


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The First Tim Garden Memorial Lecture

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 22nd May, 2008

 The inaugural lecture in what will be an annual event, in memory of the much missed Liberal Democrat peer and foreign affairs, defence and security expert, Tim Garden, will be given at the National Liberal Club in London on Wednesday 11 June, 7pm for, under the auspices of the British Group of Liberal International (of which Tim was President). The Rt Hon the Lord Robertson of Port Ellen — the former Labour Defence Secretary and NATO Secretary General, George Robertson — will speak on ‘Globalised Threats: how can the ordered world confront them?’ It’s a ringing tribute to Tim’s legacy that such a distinguished guest will be the first in what we hope will be a long line of eminent men and women in the fields to which Tim devoted most of his professional life. There is no charge for the event, which is open to non-members, but in order to help arrangements, people intending to go are asked to send an email to As with all functions in the National Liberal Club, gentlemen are requested to wear a jacket and tie.  

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The Highs and Lows of Malcolm Bruce

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 21st May, 2008

In a fortnight’s time, Malcolm Bruce, MP, will be celebrating 25 years as the Member for Gordon, but earlier this evening, he was the guest speaker at the National Liberal Club’s annual Chairman’s Dinner. That in itself was something of an innovation, as often these dinners have just been an occasion for socialising after the Club’s AGM. But the current NLC Chair, Paul Hunt, has taken the admirable decision to raise the level of political debate within the Club, and Malcolm was an inspired choice. Having not prepared a speech (as he endearingly admitted), he spoke off the cuff about the Highs and Lows of his parliamentary career, which was far more entertaining than most set speeches.

Among the lows (putting aside his failed bid for the party leadership) was the occasion when he and Paddy Ashdown had virtually to rugby-tackle Bob Maclennan to stop him storming out of a House of Commons committee room into a corridor full of journalists when the ‘Dead Parrot’ document was roundly rejected by his colleagues. Fortunately, time is a great healer, and we can now laugh about such things.

Amongst the high points has been Malcolm’s current position as Chairman of the (cross-party) Committee on International Development, which has taken him to many obscure corners of the world (and deeply enhanced his role as President of Liberal International British Group). Malcolm paid tribute to much of what the current government (and the Department for International Development, DFID) has been doing. And he contrasted the way that China has responded to the recent earthquake (with appeals and appreciation for outside help), with the monstruous policies of the Burmese junta, who appear not only indifferent to their own people’s suffering, but are actively making it worse.


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