Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for February, 2009

Israeli Eurovision (Dis)harmony

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th February, 2009

Israel’s choice of artists to represent the country in the Eurovision song contest in Moscow in May has put the cat amongst the pigeons, as the Jewish singer and peace activist Achinoam ‘Noa’ Nini will sing in tandem with the Israeli Arab performer Mira Awad. They will perform four songs, all in a mixture of Hebrew, Arabic and English, on Israeli TV, from which viewers will choose the song that they will take to Russia. While geographically outside Europe, Israel qualifies to participate because the Israeli Broadcasting Authority is a member of the European Broadcasting Union. Commenting on this surprise choice of representative performers, in the wake of the Israeli asssault on Gaza, Mira Awad said that Arabs and Jews have no choice but to find a way of living together. ‘It’s very important for me not to go back to the corner and just disappear.’

Her decision has come under fire from some Palestinians who have accused her and Noa of being accomplices to Israel’s ‘killing machine’ and of abetting Israeli government propaganda. While I can see where such critics are coming from, there is no question of the two artists’ sincerity. Moreover, the last thing needed in the tense and polarised Middle East region at the moment is for people to try to stamp out dialogue and cooperation between divided communities. Music is a particularly appropriate medium for this, as Daniel Barenboim and the late Edward Said underscored with the creation of the Seville-based West-East Divan orchestra, which employs both Jewish and Arab players.

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What Next for the Palestinians?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th February, 2009

Anyone who feared that current economic difficulties might have diverted people’s attention away from international questions would have been disabused by the healthy turnout at Thursday night’s Pizza and Politics at La Forchetta in Bethnal Green, hosted by Tower Hamlets LibDems, when the Bethnal Green and Bow PPC Ajmal Masroor and I spoke on prospects for peace in the Middle East. Things have not gone well for the Palestinians in 2009, what with the Israeli onslaught on Gaza and the subsequent swing to the right in the Israeli elections, though maybe the picture is not entirely negative. The election of Barack Obama injects at least a modicum of hope that Washington might be less of an uncriticial benefactor for Tel Aviv and that the new President will create a completely new atmosphere in US relations with the region. I also pointed out in my remarks that although the idea of Bibi Netanyahu as Israeli Prime Minister is depressing, past evidence has sometimes shown that hawks are more effective at making peace concessions than doves. But the main thrust of my contribution was that the EU must assert its soft power in the Middle East in a more united and effective way than it has done so far, using both carrot and stick. All parties to the conflict have to be made to recognise that only a lasting, negotiated settlement that respects the human rights and security of all the region’s peoples can bring an end to decades of suffering.


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Charles Kennedy on Europe @ Shish

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 25th February, 2009

charles-kennedy   Charles Kennedy was the keynote speaker at a LibDem social event at the Shish restaurant in Old Street last night, where there was a notably good turnout of Turkish party sympathisers and community activists as the former party leader and the barrister Emma Edhem addressed such issues as European citizenship and negative trends in civil liberties in this country, the continent’s Number 1 surveillance society. Charles, who is currently President of the European Movement in Britain, underlined the need for the Liberal Democrats to have the courage of their convictions in the European elections in a political environment in which the Labour government has failed to make the European case and the Conservatives are thrashing around on the fringes of Euro-scepticism. He pointed out that between 25 and 30 per cent of Brtish voters are even in favour of joining the euro, despite the fact that the government has made no real case for it. More important, it is now blindingly clear that the only way that a medium-sized country like Britain is going to extract itself from current economic and environmental probems is through closer collaboration with our EU partners. 


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Two Turkeys Don’t Make an Eagle

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 24th February, 2009

Anyone but Brown, the opinion polls are saying — and one can understand why. I am starting to feel sorry for the poor man. But frankly, the ineptitude which ‘Incapability’ Brown has shown in trying to lead Britain out of this crisis is breath-taking. Thank goodness Vince ‘The Invincible’ is around to inject some common sense. So too Nellie Croes, the European Commissioner for Competition, who declared the other day that governments need to wind down banks that are submerged with toxic assets and to encourage smaller, leaner banks to emerge. She is due to issue guidelines  this week on how banks’ impaired assets might best be treated. Part of that process will be obliging banks to reveal accurate figures of their holdings. ‘Let’s start again with a clean sheet,’ she says, ‘knowing the full scope of the problem.’ In a delightful turn of phrase, she has also cautioned against opportunistic mergers: ‘two turkeys do not make an eagle’. Instead, it may be that as well as the leaner, meaner smaller banks we shall see the emergence of new Europe-based global financial players — but if so, these should be ones that are not likely to repeat the mistakes of the recent past.

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Lloyd George Society Weekend

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd February, 2009

david-lloyd-george    For over 50 years, the Lloyd George Society or previously the Welsh Liberal Party have held annual residential weekend schools, originally intended for Welsh Liberal parliamentary candidates to bone up on party policy, though these days they are opened up to a wider group of the faithful, to discuss topical political issues and to socialise. It must be over 20 years since I was last at one, but I had been invited back this weekend to give a presentation on ‘Europe, the United States and the Obama Effect’. Because of a diary clash with the London LibDem election training day on Saturday, I wasn’t able to travel up to Llandrindod Wells (via Crewe and Shreswbury) until yesterday afternoon, arriving just in time for a Welsh lamb dinner at which the speaker was Chris Huhne. He pointed out that (Baron) Emlyn Hooson, who was also sitting at the top table, was one of only six Liberal MPs back in 1970 — quite a different matter from the 63 returned in 2005. Moreover, Chris was upbeat about the chances of LibDem MPs who have small majorities over the Conservatives (including himself) holding their seats at the next general election, as studies show that the incumbency factor works well for LibDems. And he was confident we would pick up a swath of new seats from Labour, as their support continues to crumble.

This morning, in the graveyard slot after breakfast, as well as giving a tour d’horizon of European and US relations within the new world order, I focussed on positive lessons we in Britain can learn from the Obama campaign. Firstly clear messages, simply put (in the Euro-elections concentrating particularly on the economy, the environment and crime/civil liberties); outreach to specific groups, such as students and resident citizens of other EU countries; and utilising new technologies (e-campaining etc). The morning was rounded off with a question time panel including the Number 1 on the Welsh Euro-list, Alan Butt-Philip, Lord (Martin) Thomas, Baroness (Celia) Thomas (no relation) and the inimitable Lembit Opik, MP, who was in combative form, not least on the subject of tabloid journalists.


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Austria Confronts Its Past

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 21st February, 2009

Being part of the European Union is partly about forging a new destiny, in partnership with the other 26 member states. But often this involves re-evaluating the past — whether this is a history of conflict, as between Britain, France and Germany, or a period of Communism, or the dark days of dictatorship. Austria is going through such a period of re-evaluation now, in relation to its own Nazi past. There is an old joke that the Austrians perfected the art of spin, by portraying Beethoven as an Austrian and Hitler as a German. But at long last — decades after Germany went through the process — Austria is confronting the Hitler years.

I wrote about this in a article in the current issue of ‘Diplomat’ magazine, focussing on Linz as this year’s European Capital of Culture (alongside the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius). The castle in Linz has a vast exhibition on Hitler’s plans for it as his capital of culture, which includes some chilling film footage of his triumphal entry into the city at the time of the Anschluss. But here in London, too, the Austrians are examining what happened following 1938, with a whole series of lectures and events at their Cultural Forum in Rutland Gate. The next one is a talk on the legacy of Nazi-expropriation in Austria, given by Clemens Jabloner, former Chairman of the Austrian Historical Commission, on Tuesday 3 March at 7pm. Given the rise of anti-semitism in this country, following the Israeli assault on Gaza, it is salutory to be reminded where anti-semitism can lead.

(for further details email:

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Congratulations Jenni Clutten and Duwayne Brooks…

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 20th February, 2009

jennicluttenduwaynebrooks      … on winning both Lewisham (Downham Ward) byelections yesterday.

Jenni Clutten (LD) 1075, Duwayne Brooks (LD) 1067, Damien Egan (Lab) 655, Christine Allison (Con) 654, Pauline Morrison (Lab) 635, Andrew Lee (Con) 632, Tess Culnane (BNP) 287, Cath Miller (Grn) 63, Lee Roach (Grn) 62. Turnout 27.4%

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Welcome Release of Ayman Nour

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 19th February, 2009

ayman-nour   The imprisoned Egyptian Liberal politician Ayman Nour was unexpectedly released yesterday, in a move that has been welcomed in Brussels and Washington. The 44-year-old Mr Nour is the leader of the Ghad Party (with which I have had contact in Cairo, through my work with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and Liberal International). A lawyer by profession, he ran against the incumbent President Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections, coming a distant second.  He was subsequently charged with fraud and sentenced to five years in jail, but he insists that the prosecution was politically motivated and designed to punish him for standing against President Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981.

The official reason for Ayman Nour’s release was ‘on health grounds’, though many commentators believe that the Mubarak administration wishes to ingratiate itself with the Obama administration in Washington, which is likely to take a tougher line than its predecessor’s on human rights abuses and democratic constraints in Egypt, which receives huge amounts of US aid annually. Mr Nour says he intends again to take over the helm of his party — which has been in a state of demoralised shock since his imprisonment — though he is technically barred from standing for public office because of his conviction, unless he receives a presidential pardon.

Commenting on Mr Nour’s release, Graham Watson, MEP, leader of the Liberal (ALDE) Group in the European Parliament, said, ‘I applaud Ayman Nour’s brave decision to return to political life. We all know that this courageous move comes at high risk to his own security and we stand with him, shoulder to shoulder.’ Those who think that this marks a return to democratic norms in Egypt should not celebrate too soon, however. As Amr El-Choukabi, of the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo told Reuters, ‘All indicators show that [Egypt] is poised for more restrictions until the government wins the next legisltive elections by an overwhelming majority and the candidate of the NDP [Mubarak’s party] wins the presidential elections in 2011.’


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Rose Collis on Nancy Spain, Coral Browne and Colonel Barker

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th February, 2009

rose-collis   I took a break from campaigning and work this evening, to go to hear my friend Rose Collis talking about her writing, at Brompton Library in Earl’s Court. When I first met her she was working on her biography of the Daily Express columnist, cookery writer and lady about town Nancy Spain and it was interesting to learn tonight that there was no Nancy Spain archive to work from when she started. So she had to construct one — something I am having to tell some of my students on the M.A. Non-Fiction Writing Course at City University. Rose has a knack of picking somewhat offbeat subjects; her second book was about Colonel Barker, who gave birth to two children when married to a man as a woman, then married a second time while fooling everyone — including the little wife from Littlehampton — that she was a man. Then last but not leastcame Rose’s biography of the wonderfully gutsy Australian actress Coral Browne, immortalised for me as doubtless for many others for her performance as herself in Alan Bennett’s teleplay about her visit to Moscow to see Guy Burgess, An Englishman Abroad.

Rose had terrible problems getting that last book published, but perseverence paid off. After eleven publishers had turned the idea down, it was twelfth time lucky. A lesson to us all. But like most of us freelance writers and journalists, she cannot live by her pen (or computer) alone, so has carved out an interesting alternative niche for herself, not only giving talks (as many of us do), but also walkie-talkie tours round Brighton, in whose cemeteries she has now evinced a burning passion.

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What Has Brussels Ever Done for Us?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 16th February, 2009

Yesterday afternoon I was out surveying in Bethnal Green with Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats, finding out which issues are of major concern to residents. As anyone who takes part in such activities knows, even at a time of economic recesssion, it’s often very local matters like rubbish collection or anti-social behaviour that bother people most. As one of the ward members (and Council group leader), Councillor Stephanie Eaton, was with me and the rest of the team, those were amongst the things she could follow up.

As a European candidate out on the doorstep, though, I often get asked, in an echo of the famous line about the Romans from The Life of Brian, ‘What has Brussels ever done for us?’  In the case of Tower Hamlets, for one, I can truthfully reply: ‘A lot!’ Between 2000 and 2006, the borough received 17 grants totaling millions of pounds from the European Social Fund (for projects as varied as Bridging the Digital Divide, Leaside Regeneration and the Creative Entrepreneurs’ Training Partnership), and even more from the European Regional Development Fund (for the Spitalfields Small Business Association, The Environment Trust, Tower Hamlets College and others). As one of London’s poorest boroughs, Tower Hamlets has rightly received more than most areas of the capital, of course, but an enquiry to the local Council (preferably by a councillor) will elicit details of European funding in your area. Few Councils (in London, at least) actually publicise this funding adequately, so it is not surprising most people are unaware of it.

Since the ‘big bang’ enlargement of the European Union, to take in 10 mainly poorer member states from central, eastern and southern Europe, the European funding structure has changed and less money is available for more affluent countries like Britain. But one of the things I’ll be doing in the run-up to the Euro-elections is monitoring what funds are coming into London from Brussels and letting people know (as the Labour government singularly fails to do so sufficiently).

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