Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for June, 2009

Ashdown’s Law

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 30th June, 2009

Paddy Ashdown 1Sweltering temperatures did not deter the expectant crowd that attended the second Tim Garden memorial lecture, delivered this evening at Chatham House by Lord (Paddy) Ashdown, following wine and twiglets in the RIIA’s St James’s town house. The basement lecture hall itself — though windowless — is actually one of the few places in the capital that has functioning air-conditioning, so those who had survived the reception were given a chance to recover and be entertained at the same time. Paddy was on fine form, declaring that three factors have fundamentally altered the world we live in today: (1) the pattern of world power has shifted, from a monopolar, US-dominated reality to a multipolar situation in which new superpowers such as China, India and Brazil are rightly asserting their importance; (2) there has been a horizontal shift of power away from nation states and their governments to non-state actors, NGOs, communities and individuals; and (3) globalisation means everything connects with everything else. He also propounded an Ashdown’s Law: that one can only achieve results if you work with other people. None of this may sound very profound, perhaps, but he expressed it beautifully and the gist was all very sound.

However, Baroness (Shirley) Williams stumped Paddy with a two-pronged question — the latter part about global elites — during the question time, prompting him to suggest that she should be invited to give the Tim Garden lecture next year. Liberal International British Group, which sponsors the event, could certainly do worse, though there is no reason now that the event seems to have become an instant institution why LIBG shouldn’t look abroad for future speakers as well.

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Kurdistan: The Other Iraq

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 29th June, 2009

Kurdistan regional logoThis evening, David Anderson MP hosted a reception on the terrace of the House of Commons in honour of the High Representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the United Kingdom, Bayan Rahman (who worked formerly for the Financial Times, before assuming her diplomatic function). There was a good turnout by members of both Houses of Parliament, including several with longstanding connections with Iraq and the neigbouring region, such as (Baroness) Emma Nicholson and Anne Clwyd MP. But the star turn was the Minister for Natural Resources in the KRG, Dr Ashti Hawrami, who had two good items of news for those present. First, as Kurdistan is now responsible for producing approximately half of Iraq’s oil, it is a key component in the country’s security and prosperity. Second, despite the ongoing ‘Kurdish question’ in Turkey, the KRG has maintained rather good relations with Turkey — which is extremely important for regional stability.

Kurdistan likes to present itself as ‘the other Iraq’, and with some justification. A tremendous amount of economic and social development has been taking place in the region and it has its doors open for foreign investment. Indeed, a two-day trade and investment summit on the Kurdistan region is scheduled to be held in London on 9 and 10 September, at which Dr Hawrami will be joined by several of his ministerial coleagues, as well as high level speakers from the British side, including (in principle) the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband.

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Paul Burstow Whips up Support

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 28th June, 2009

Paul BurstowThe LibDem Chief Whip and and MP for Sutton and Cheam, Paul Burstow, was in upbeat mood at the annual summer party of Holborn and St Pancras Liberal Democrats this afternoon, saying that although we had failed to gain the second Euro-seat in London, the party’s performance in target and held Westminster parliamentary seats at the European elections had been encouraging. In Sutton borough there was actually a small swing from the Tories to the LibDems, which bodes well in the super-marginal Nonsuch ward by-election this coming Thursday, in which Gerry Jerome is the candidate. Obviously, when the general election comes round, the LibDems will be fighting hard to hold on to seats where Tories are the main challengers — in London’s case, basically in the ‘golden croissant’ of the boroughs of Kingston, Richmond and Sutton — while hoping to make some gains from Labour, including in Camden. By then the message might have got across to the electorate that in the recent (indeed, ongoing) expenses revelations, LibDems have fared pretty well. As Paul pointed out, not a single London LibDem MP has claimed a second home allowance, and none has been guilty of ‘flipping’ homes or claiming for phantom mortgages. The Conservatives, in contrast, might well find themselves hard pushed to justify their record. Over half of all Tory MPs have so far had to ‘own up’ to some excess or misdemeanour and pay some money back.


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Cloning Is the Only Solution

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 26th June, 2009

AvrupagazeteIt was frustrating to have to leave the Gladstone Club’s summer Pimms and canapé party on the terrace of the National Liberal Club just as the guest speaker, Michael Crick, was about to perorate. It would have been interesting to hear his take on recent events at Westminster, without the editorial control of BBC2’s Newsnight. But I had agreed at short notice to meet and talk with a group of opposition MPs from Turkey over a dinner in Wapping, organised by the London-based weekly newspaper for the Turkish community in Europe,  Avrupa. There are said to be up to 300,000 Turkish nationals in London — half of them registered with the Turkish consulate — living, working or studying here, not to mention all the additional Turkish Cypriots. So there is a big community in London with whom Turkish politicians can engage, as well as promoting — or not — their country’s accession to the European Union. Moreover, whatever the politicians’ political colour, they are keen for Britain and Europe as a whole to have a fuller and more accurate picture of realities in Turkey.

The rich cultural diversity of London is one the capital’s greatest assets. But it also means that there is so much going on that is impossible to keep tabs on every community, or even to attend all the functions and conferences one gets invited to as a journalist and/or a politician. I often feel torn in different directions, so I think cloning may be the only answer.

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Filling in the LibDem Black Holes

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 25th June, 2009

Lynne FeatherstoneIf Enfield Liberal Democrats can fill a French restaurant in Palmers Green for their annual dinner, how come they can’t win a single council seat? That was the core message — though not in quite such blunt terms — from this evening’s after-dinner speaker, Lynne Featherstone, MP for nearby Hornsey and Wood Green. Of course, Enfield is not alone among the LibDems’ ‘nuls points’ London boroughs to nonetheless put on brilliant and enjoyable social events — and in some cases, even to have quite sizable memberships — yet not manage to make a political breakthrough in recent times. The key to success, Lynne argued from her own experience in Haringey, is to target one ward, as she and her colleagues did in Muswell Hill, then move forward step by step. In Haringey’s case this has meant that the party has come from nowhere to being in spitting distance of taking control of the council next year, having already catapulted Lynne into Parliament in 2005.

How many of the local parties in the LibDems’ London black holes can seize this challenge and run with it? Kensington and Chelsea is having a good crack at it with the current council by-election campaign in Colville ward. And one of the secondary aims of the European election campaign in London earlier this month was to enable the weaker local parties to build up target wards. Breakthroughs in 2010 would not just be a cause of celebration for Liberal Democrats in the boroughs concerned. They would also strengthen the chances of the party in city-wide elections that are carried out under proportional representation. That should mean a rise in 2012 from the current three list members on the GLA and, with sufficient effort, seizing in 2014 the so-far elusive second London LibDem Euro-seat.

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Europe Is Culture, Too

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 24th June, 2009

Commission exhibition 1Last night, after a meeting of the Liberal Democrats’ International Relations Committee at Cowley Street, I walked round to the European Commission office at Westminster — accompanied by the newly-elected MEP for South East England, Catherine Bearder — for the vernissage of an exhibition of portraits and still lifes by the artist Ruth Addinall, a self-taught painter who like so many before her sought inspiration in Paris. As she says in the exhibition’s programme note, ‘I feel very much part of the continuum of European art. Most of my work could be described as a sort of homage to various of my favourite European image-makers, from Piero della Francesca to Bathus.’

Commission exhibition 2The European Commission office holds regular art exhibitions in its ground floor ’12 Star’ gallery, as a reminder to people living in or visiting London that Europe is about more than rules and regulations. The cultural diversity that can be found within the 27 EU member states is astounding in its diversity and richness. I have been to a number of interesting and sometimes innovative exhibitions there. The next one will be a display of photographs and videos by young Swedish artists, entitled Surfacing, on view during the last three weeks of July and marking Sweden’s assumption of the Union’;s six month rotating presidency.


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Pidgeon Takes Pot-Shots at Boris

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 22nd June, 2009

Caroline Pidgeon 2Holding the Mayor to account is about all that members of the Great London Assembly (GLA) can do, but that role is itself essential in a system in which the anointed one (Boris Johnson for the moment) has a great deal of power and an ability to accrue even more. Assiduous Assembly members can indeed take the Mayor to task if they work at it. And just as Lynne Featherstone (now LibDem MP for Hornsey and Wood Green) got her teeth into Ken Livingstone on transport issues when she was on the GLA, so now Caroline Pidgeon, holding the same brief for the party, is scoring hit after hit on BoJo. In a speech to the lively Lewisham LibDem supper club at a Turkish restaurant in Lewisham Way this evening, Caroline highlighted how the Mayor has been slashing transport infrastructure projects across the capital — such as the cross-river tram and the further extension of the DLR — while demanding that local councils in boroughs badly affected by these cuts still meet targets for affordable house-builds. Presumably he expects the prospective inhabitants to cycle everywhere. Meanwhile he has trumpeted his desire to dispose of bendy buses (at vast cost), even though that will be contractually impossible in the short-term and they are the most practical form of public transport on long, straight routes. Cuts will be the leitmotif of Boris’s second year in office, Caroline warned — maybe a taste of what is to come if people are foolish enough to vote a Conservative government into power with an outright majority at the general election.

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Shami Chakrabarti and Toffs in Wigs

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 18th June, 2009

Shami Chakrabati‘Unelected toffs in wigs, be they in the Courts or in the House of Lords, have been the defenders of civil liberties in many cases, during the current government,’ according to the Director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, who was the guest speaker at a lunch given today by the UK Section of the Association of European Journalists at the London office of the European Parliament. Because of the so-called War on Terror,  disturbing new powers have been granted to both the government and the police. For example, Section 44 of the Terrorism Act relating to stop and search requires no necessary grounds for suspicion at all. Tony Blair famously said that he would give the police whatever powers they needed. Shami opined that an ‘authoritarain arms race’ began in Britain when Michael Howard and Tony Blair became responsible for the Home Affairs brief in their respective parties — well before 9/11.

Liberty ID card bookletLiberty is currently celebrating 75 years of existence, having previously been known as the National Council of Civil Liberties (NCCL), in which, interestingly, several now prominent New Labour figures were previously involved. It’s always a spectacle to see them squirm when they try to defend the proposed introduction of ID cards in Britain, about which Liberty has been running a campaign. Shami Chakrabarti — who was a barister before working for six years for the Home Office — has no such ambitions to be sucked into politics with all its compromises. ‘I’d sooner be a rock-star before I’d be Home Secretary,’ she declared. She paid tribute to the work that Liberal Democrats have done in defending human rights (though she opposes the European arrest warrant, which the party has championed) and she sharply criticised Conservative plans to scrap the Human Rights Act, suspecting that their main objection to this important buttress to civil liberties is its essentially European origin.

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No, Elections Don’t Have to Be on a Thursday

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 16th June, 2009

votingThere is a convention that elections in Britain take place on a Thursday, but there is nothing set in stone that says this has to be the case. Like so much that has developed within the country’s unwritten constitution and political system, a habit simply became the norm. Sunday (a favoured polling day in much of continental Europe) was avoided because in places such as the Western Isles, members and supporters of the Lord’s Day Observance Society would refuse to take part. And holding the election on a Thursday means that the count can be finished by the early hours of Friday morning, or Friday afternoon in those places that only count the following day; then everyone in principle can go off and have a restful weekend. As far as British general elections go, the last non-Thursday poll was way back in 1931, when the election was held on Tuesday, 27th October. The notable post-World War I election of December 1918 was actually held on a Saturday. That was incidentally the first time women were able to exercise their vote and to stand for Parliament.

The reason for these ruminations is that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea — which was one of the last places in London to delay its election counts until Friday — has announced that the by-election it has called in Colville ward (a Labour marginal over the Liberal Democrats) is going to be held on Wednesday 22 July. Rumour has it that the reason from this departure from custom is that someone important in the electoral process is due to go on holiday the following day. Well, it’s as good a reason as any for setting a precedent in this sometimes Alice in Wonderland political setup of ours.

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Twitter and the Political Process

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 13th June, 2009

TwitterWhereas the Obama campaign last year thrust Facebook into the limelight as the social networking tool of preference for politicans who are cool — or a least care about connecting with the younger generation — Twitter has now vaulted into prime position as the instrument for quick and snappy communication, particularly in the love-hate interface between politics and the media. Though a comparatively late convert to the practice (despite the proselytising of my friend, Stephen Fry), I’ve been finding it hugely useful in recent weeks and have noted how one can enter into dialogue with politicians of other parties as well as with journalists and bloggers of all persuasions, who are quite happy to ‘follow’ one on Twitter, but who might not wish to ask or accept to be one’s Facebook ‘friend’, in case that were seen to be some kind of endorsement. And the same is true in the other direction! Moreover, the 140-character limit, while being constraining, is actually a very useful discipline, and when well-handled, can be as communicative as a Japanese haiku. As a means of posting a news ‘headline’ or a succinct political point, it is matchless.

Putting my journalist’s hat on for a moment, I suppose the event which really awakened me to Twitter’s impact and potential was the popular political movement in Moldova a few months back, when suddenly one could follow what was going on in the streets, as it happened, from among the people taking part. Something very similar has been occuring in Iran over the past couple of days, albeit often from a more partisan standpoint. God knows what the next great communicative breakthrough will be (thought transfer?), but for the time being, Twitter is a wonderful thing!


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