Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for August, 2008

Linda Chung, Hampstead Town and Ethnic Diversity

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 31st August, 2008

 The council by-election campaign in Hampstead Town, Camden, is in full swing. Yesterday several of us were out making good use of the one day of real summer this month, manning a survey stall in the High Street, canvassing voters and delivering leaflets. The choice of candidate is often key to winning such contests and the LibDems are fortunate in this case in having Linda Chung to fly the flag, which she is doing with characteristic panache. She is a true live wire, who has lived in Hampstead for the past 30 years and founded Hampstead NW3, the local organisation for traders and busineses. Linda also has been one of the lead figures in the new Chinese Liberal Democrats group, which aims not just to bring together ethnic Chinese LibDems, but also to encourage more people within Britain’s Chinese community to get involved in the political process.

In recent years there has been a lot of (necessary) navel-gazing within the party about the low level of ethnic minority representation, especially in our cosmopolitan capital city. But it is gratifying that over the past year there have been several important local by-election wins with ethnic minority candidates, with origins as varied as Zimbabwe and Pakistan — and that a majority of them have been women. After my stint in Hampstead Town yesterday, I went to the thank-you party for the Forest ward by-election in Waltham Forest, to help celebrate Samina Safdar’s win there with an excellent lamb biryani. In London boroughs such as Waltham Forest, Camden, Brent and Haringey, our council groups increasingly reflect the diverse communities they represent, as they should. The next challenge is to make sure that local parties’ representatives to party conferences do as well.

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Yes Darling, We Are Pissed off with You

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 30th August, 2008

 I suspect that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, is already regretting the candour of his interview in today’s Weekend magazine of the Guardian. But as Vince Cable — who was able to get in a pertinent reaction in time for last night’s ‘Newsnight’, showing yet once again how on the ball he is — said, Darling is correct: Britain’s economy is in far worse a state than Gordon Brown and his many spinmeisters have been prepared to admit, and that is not surprising considering how important the financial sector is here.

The Chancellor is also spot on when he laments that the British public are pissed off with Labour — his words, not mine. Indeed, even if we may be nearly two years away from a general election, it seems hard to imagine a Labour recovery vigorous enough to save them from defeat then. They have only been in power for 11 years — as opposed to their Tory predecessors’ 18 — yet the government is looking tired to the point of exhaustion. In fact, both Brown and Darling both look like walking dead meat. Interestingly, they and Jack Straw are the only three people left from the original 1997 Cabinet. I wonder if Darling will still be there next week?

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Why Jeff Halper Makes Israel Nervous

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 29th August, 2008

 In a welcome softening of its naval blockade of the Gaza Strip’s waters, Israel earlier this week allowed through from Cyprus the two ships Free Gaza and Liberty, which were bringing in humanitarian relief to the stricken territory, as well as 44 peace activists from 17 countries (including Tony Blair’s sister-in-law, Lauren Booth). The plan is that the ships will also transport out of Gaza some of the Palestinian Fulbright scholars who were granted scholarships by the United States, but were then prevented by the Israelis from travelling overland out of the strip. However, the Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni — who has high hopes of becoming Prime Minister following the expected departure of Ehud Olmert — told the conservative mass-circulation Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonot that this was a ‘one-off’ case and warned that other craft should not attempt to break the naval blockade.

Unfortunately, the good publicity Ms Livni could have expected from this move was undermined by the fact that the one Israeli Jew on board the two ships, the US-born professor of anthropology and key figure in the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions, Jeff Halper, was later arrested when he attempted to cross the land border between Gaza and Israel. Under current Israeli law it is an offence for an Israeili citizen to be in Gaza (though as Jeff Halper is also a US citizen, that legal argument is a little nuanced). Anyway, he was arraigned to appear in court in Ashkelon yesterday. A cynic might observe that it is a pity it is not also an offence under Israeli law for Israeli citizens to be in the occupied West Bank, as about half a million of them have taken up residence in settlements there, in controvention of international law.

Assuming Jeff Halper — who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 — does not have to spend much time in custody, he will be coming to the United Kingdom next month, and he will be one of the keynote speakers at the Liberal International British Group’s fringe meeting on ‘Middle East: Is a Two-state Solution Still Viable?’ at the Liberal Democrats’ autumn conference in Bournemouth, on 16 September.

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What Is God’s Place in Politics?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 28th August, 2008

For the past two days, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) has been hosting a seminar in the European Parliament in Brussels on the theme ‘Secularism and Religions’. Not the most inspiring of titles, I admit, but discussions about religion’s place in society and in politics are particularly pertinent, given the rise of so-called Muslim fundamentalism and the activities of the Christian right in the United States and Latin America. In Europe, of course, secularism has been on the rise for a long time now, and in various forms has been legally instituted in France and Turkey. And as the leader of the ALDE Group in the European Parliament, Graham Watson, pointed out in his brief opening remarks, secularism is almost part-and-parcel of European liberalism, in the sense of maintaining a strict separation of Church and State.

However, that does not mean that there cannot be a constructive interaction between religious and political bodies. Indeed, in an increasingly multicultural society, this is probably essential. Interestingly, what has happened at the European level is that religious faiths and institutions have built up an impressive lobbying presence in Brussels (as well as in the national capitals of the 27 EU member states). The Vatican, not surprisingly, is the most vociferous.

The ALDE seminar has had an eclectic range of speakers, from Frans Goetghebeur, President of the Buddhist Union of Belgium, to Rabbi David Meyer (formerly of Brighton and Hove Reform Synagogue) and Chéref-Khan Chemsi of the European Muslim Humanist Institute. The most well-known political speaker was the inimitable Italian Radical, Marco Pannella, who at 78 has lost none of his flamboyance or origniality. He still seems to be in a state of semi-delirium following a meeting he had a while back with the Dalai Lama, the memory of which literally drove him to tears in the plenary sesion. The Italian women present applauded this, while the few Brits in the room, including me, squirmed in our seats. Europeans are nothing if not diverse, thank God.

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Turkish Youth and European Values

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 27th August, 2008

The European Parliament in Brussels is currently holding an unusual photo exhibition highlighting projects involving Turkish schoolchildren and young people to raise their knowledge not only about what the European Union does, but also about core values such as freedom, equality, security, peace, solidarity and unity. As the up-and-coming generation is the one that in all probability is going to be the first to benefit from being EU citizens (including freedom of movement and the right to work or study anywhere in the EU), it is important that they understand what sort of grouping Turkey aspires to join.

This is more than a European PR exercise; however. In many localities and regions throughout Turkey, all sorts of events have been held within the framework of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue, not only building bridges between East and West but also helping people appreciate the rich ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of our continent. One recent initiative was the showing of 10 European films in 10 different villages in Turkey. Another was a short story competition for high school students on the theme of European values.

The exhibition in Brussels, whose launch I attended, showcased 80 large colour photographs of various activities, including some delightful shots of primary school children having great fun painting and drawing. There was also a musical accompaniment by Turkish ‘ney” (reed flute) and percussion, as well as a variety of Turkish  delicacies to taste.


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The Strange Case of Anwar Ibrahim

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 26th August, 2008

I left my meetings in the European Parliament this afternoon to do a live BBC World TV interview on today’s by-election in Malaysia, which sent the supposedly ‘disgraced’ opposition politician Anwar Ibrahim back into parliament with two-thirds of the vote, on a high turnout. This was not a surprise for anyone who has been following Malaysian politics closely recently, especially in the blogosphere, which has grown phenomenally, ironically partly because of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad’s policy of making Malaysia an ‘intelligent’ nation with a computer literate population.

Anwar Ibrahim had been Dr Mahathir’s chosen successor until a bitter falling out, which culminated in Anwar’s being sent to prison on charges of corruption (later overturned) and sodomy. The elections in March this year were deliberately timed to be just before his period of disqualification from elected office ended, but he got round that by having an arrangement with his wife, who had taken over his seat when he involuntarily left politics and which she recently resigned so he could fight a by-election. The campaign was extremely short, but vigorously fought.

The government coalition and its undercover supporters threw everything at Anwar, including more sodomy charges (seen by most Malaysians as being politically motivated, but which could result in a prison sentence of up to 20 years if proved) and accusations that he is both a Chinese agent and a friend of Israel (politically damaging in a Muslim-majority country). Most of these charges were pure calumny, and the Penang voters who elected him showed what they thought of them. But this certainly won’t be the end of the story, in what has the making of the most radical shake-up in Malaysian politics for half a century — the time that the current ruling coalition has been in power.

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Joe Biden Says Hello

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 25th August, 2008

Today I had an email from the US Democrat vice-presidential candidate, Joe Biden. Of course, millions of other people both in the United States and around the world will have received it too — which makes it even more extraordinary. Howard Dean, former presidential hopeful and now Chairman of the Democratic Party was the first to do this. Indeed, I still get regular emails ‘from’ him and various other Democat worthies. What is so striking — and worth copying by the Liberal Democrats, if the party is going to be a party interested in power, rather than permanently in third place — is the speed, efficiency and accessibility of all this material that goes out. Not stodgy press releases or drearily-formatted messages to supporters, but snappy, visually-attractive stuff with video clips inserted into the text. With such technology and the nouse to use it, a party deserves to win. Without both, a party might be condemed to lose. Mark Pack at Cowley Street has already started the LibDems down the right path, but far more resources are needed to take it further and faster.

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Speaking Truth to Power

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 24th August, 2008

    This morning I went to Meeting for Worship at Quaker House, Brussels, for the first time for several years. When I visit ‘the capital of Europe’ these days, it’s almost always during the working week, for meetings — and indeed I will be at the European Parliament for most of the coming week, to sit in on a Group Week of the ALDE (Liberal) Group and a seminar on religious fundamentalism. But I was glad I stuck on a weekend beforehand (even though I was thus unable to accept a TV slot back in London yesterday!) so I could catch up with some old friends and to see what has happened to the Quaker centre in whose creation I participated over 30 years ago.

In the 1970s a number of us who were members or attenders of the Religious Society of Friends (as the Quakers are formally known) and were working in Brussels developed a ‘concern’ to have an office in the Belgian capital, to monitor what was going on at the European Commission and other European institutions, as well as NATO (which also has its headquarters here), to report back to Friends worldwide and to lobby on issues on which we felt the Quakers had a particular message. This latter activity was called historically ‘speaking truth to power’, though unlike George Fox and William Penn, few Quakers today would use such language to describe it. This concern led to the creation of the Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA), of which I was the first Secretary, and which still thrives today, working on a whole range of issues from conscientious objection to energy security and terrorism.

QCEA still has its base in Quaker House, a glorious building in the Square Ambiorix, just a stone’s throw from the European Commission. If I recall accurately, we bought it for sixty thousand pounds. I’ve no idea how much it is worth today (in London it would be several million pounds), but that is not the point. It is not the value of the historic building itself but the value of the work done inside that counts. Having been absent for so long, it was great to be back.


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Hampstead Liberals Arise!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd August, 2008

The term ‘Hampstead Liberal’ has often been used by the conservative right as a term of abuse for left-leaning intellectuals who live in the north end of the London borough of Camden, including  many people who used to vote Labour before Tony Blair dragged the party towards Thatcherism. Hampstead Town ward is the natural habitat of this much-maligned species and indeed for quite a long period, the ward was represented by three Liberal or Liberal Democrat councillors. The last of these, Margaret Little, stood down in 2006 on health grounds.

On that occasion, Ed Fordham, Linda Chung and I were unable to prevent the local Conservative campaigner Mike Green succeeding in getting two colleagues in with him to represent the ward, even though we suspected that the said Mr Green would desert Hampstead in his quest for a Conservative parliamentary seat in Bournemouth before his term was up, as he has now indeed done. There is just over a month left to the resultant by-election, in which Linda Chung — a prominent ethnic Chinese local businesswoman —  will be flying the LibDem flag. Given the way David Cameron is letting slip some of his rightist tendencies, it is maybe time the good burghers of Hampstead reasserted their liberal credentials by returning Linda this time!

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The Kettner Lunch

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 22nd August, 2008

Yesterday I attended the AGM of the Kettner Lunch (of which I am a Vice-Chairman), at the National Liberal Club on the Embankment. This venerable lunchtime institution, as its name suggests, used to meet at Kettner’s Restaurant in Soho — which had been the scene of many of Oscar Wilde’s intimate suppers with his dangerous ‘panthers’, but was relaunched in the late 20th century by the Pizza Express and Peterborough magnate Peter Boizot (a generous donor to the Liberal Party and its successor). The luncheon club (what a deliciously outmoded yet splendidly ongoing concept) transferred to the NLC after another Peter, Peter Whyte took over — and it has flourished ever since. Even in 2008, there are not only ‘ladies who lunch’ but gentlemen too. Lord (Alan) Watson of Richmond has agreed to be its new President.

I think a major reason for the ongoing success of the group has been Peter Whyte’s decision to move outside the box of Liberal Democrat speakers to include a wide range of prominent people in public life and service. This has provided eclectic entertainment and indeed instruction — which is why it will be entirely appropriate if the Kettner’s Lunch now transmogirifies itself into a charitable enterpise, as is intended. Events to look forward to in the autumn include talks by Susan Kramer, LibDem MP for Richmond Park, and General Nick Parker.

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