Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for July, 2009

Gloom over Dubai

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 31st July, 2009

Dubai in sandstormI landed in Dubai this evening, to find the whole city shrouded in a murky, yellowish mist. It reminds me a bit of the Lancashire fogs in my childhood, only the temperature outside is 40 degrees centigrade, not 40 degrees fahrenheit,and the reduced visibility is not from smoke pollution but from sandstorms which have been afflicting the region this week. If one ignores the temperature (hard to do, I know, but…) one would think this was mid-winter, not mid-summer. The hotel where I am staying, courtesy of Emirates Airlines, is virtually deserted, which both refelcts the relative unpopularity of Dubai at this time of the year but also the city’s downturn. The credit crunch has bitten hard here and many ambitious building projects have slowed or been put on hold. But for travellers there are bargains galore at the moment and staff in my hotel, at least, are almost falling over each other to be of assistance. The overall atmosphere is all very odd — but maybe things will look brighter in the morning!

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Three Men on the Box?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 30th July, 2009

Nick Clegg 4Gordon Brown 2David Cameron 3The likelihood of a US-style televised debate at the next British general election has moved a step closer, with the Conservative leader David Cameron declaring that he would be happy for it to be a threesome, with Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg. Previously, the prevailing notion was to exclude the leader of the Liberal Democrats, but that would now be seen as grossly unjust, as the LibDems have not only consolidated their position as a strong third force in British politics but they actually pushed Labour into third place in the county council elections last month. However, the $64,000 question is: will the Prime Minister agree to take part? Up until now, the indications have been negative, but (Lord) Peter Mandelson — Britain’s unelected Head of Government while Mr Brown is on holiday — has this week indicated otherwise. Perhaps the Scottish Sourpuss will be tempted to make a last-ditch stand to try to seize victory from the jaws of defeat, like John Major and his soapbox did — only didn’t. It’s a shame that a TV debate might further encourage British politics towards the presidential. And seen from multicultural London, it’s a pity that all three party leaders are middle class white men in the 40-60 age bracket, but if it encourages more electors to think about the issues at the election, and to vote, then, hey — let’s go for it!

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Priorities for UK-Kurdistan Relations

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 28th July, 2009

Kurdistan mallThe All-Party Parliamentary Group  (APPG) on the Kurdistan region of Iraq launched its latest report at the House of Commons the other day, following a visit to the region by several British parliamentarians, including LibDem peer Tim Clement-Jones. The remit of the APPG  is ‘to promote friendship and understanding between the peoples of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and Great Britain and to encourage the development of democratic institutions in the Kurdistan Region as part of the democratic and federal process in the wider Iraq.’  Last week, elections took place in Kurdistan, with a high turnout. Whatever may be the aspirations of  some of the disparate Kurdish groups in Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran, not to mention within the worldwide Kurdish diaspora, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is committed to the region’s status as an integral part of Iraq, while enjoying a considerable degree of autonomy.The British parliamentary delegation noted continuing economic development and stability in Iraqi Kurdistan, despite the fluctuation in oil prices and deteriorating relations between the KRG and Baghdad. In contrast, relations with Turkey had improved over the previous 12 months.

The APPG lamented  the fact that there was only minimal representation from the KRG at a seminar on investment opportunities in Iraq put on earlier this year in London by the Department for International Development, but noted that a special event on investment in the region will take place here in September. In the meantime, the parliamentarians argued amongst other things for an opening up of the visa regime, to make it easier for businessmen and students from Kurdistan to come to the UK; for cooperation not only the oil industry but also in agriculture, which is a sector that has declined seriously over the past 20 years; for the development of tourism in Kurdistan; and for the establishment of direct flights between London and Erbil.


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Labour Haemorrhaging in Waltham Forest

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 27th July, 2009

Milton MartinLabour woes in the London borough of Waltham Forest continue unabated. Not long ago, Harry Cohen, MP for Leyton and Wanstead (against whom I stood in the 1992 general election) bowed to pressure and declared he was standing down at the forthcoming general election, having been the centre of unfavourable media attention about his claims for a second home outside London. The last Borough Council leader, Clyde Loakes, meanwhile, had relinquished his post in order to fight a parliamentary seat in the Midlands; how he must now wish he had stayed in situ! But to cap it all, Labour Councillor Milton Martin (Catthall ward, photo right) recently defected from Labour to the LibDems, bringing the LibDem group up to 21 members and in with a serious chance of becoming the largest party, if not taking control, in Waltham Forest next year. Two other Labour councillors, Shameen Highfield (also Cathall) and Faiz Yunis (Forest, where the other two sitting councillors are LibDems) have reportedly also informed the Council’s Chief Executive that they wish to leave the Labour group, though it is not yet certain what their future affiliation will be. I remember a time when the Liberals won their first council seat in Waltham Forest and they have certainly come a long way since then. This makes Waltham Forest a borough to watch next year, along with Haringey.

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Istanbul: The Arabs Have Come!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 26th July, 2009

Istiklal CaddesiGulf Arabs who can afford it tend to flee their region during summer. Given their climate, who can blame them? Since the 1960s, London has been a favourite summer destination — many Gulf families own houses or appartments along or off the Edgware Road and in Mayfair — but Beirut and Cairo date back even further. There are Lebanese villages like the ‘cherry capital’ Hammana up in the mountains behind Beirut that become Little Kuwait in July and August. However, this year’s vacation location of choice for Gulf Arabs appears to be Turkey. There were loads of them on the ferry that took me across the Sea of Marmara on my way from Izmir to Istanbul last night and Istanbul’s top hotels are awash with Gulf families: the fathers and the (often depressingly fat) children kitted out in standard US leisure gear, the mothers swathed head to foot in black abbayas. What on earth these ladies make of the scenes around them, God only knows. One couldn’t possibly ask. Last night was more boisterous than ever along Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s main pedestrianised drag, with its side streets housing innumerable bars, restaurants, nightclubs and saunas catering to every possible taste. Or even on the more sedate avenue, Halaskargazi Caddesi, north of Taksim Square, where I have been staying on this visit to Turkey’s main city. Outside a car hire firm, whose widow posters of special offers are all in Arabic, a spectacular blonde transvestite prostitute was standing late last night in a gold lamé dress cut low to show off her sumptuous breast implants. The male punters walking past, both Arab and Turk, had no doubt at what they were looking at — and in several cases, clearly panting after; but what about the Arab ladies in their black shrouds?

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İzmir’s Waterfront

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 24th July, 2009

IzmirIzmir is Turkey’s Manchester, only much more attractıve in parts. I can admit that happily, as a born-and-bred Mancunian who moved away to live in Brussels and then London. The common factors are that İzmir and Manchester are both their country’s third city in size, with a considerable industrial component. But İzmir has the advantage of a huge, gently-sweeping Corniche, the Kordon, which is lined with waterfront restaurants and cafes. These truly come into their own on summer evenıngs, when the weather is stinking hot, as it is now. Like Manchester, İzmir doesn’t get all that many tourists, whıch means that the winding alleys of the sizable bazaar are packed wıth locals buyıng cheap clothes and food, rather than visitors being inveigled into buying carpets and brasswear they don’t really want. One long stretch of the waterfront resembles Thessaloniki, whıch is not really surprising as İzmir formerly had more Greeks and other non-Turkısh inhabitants than Turks when it was still Smyrna, a name that conjures up so much. Just how much of the past is still perceivable is why İ am here, preparıng a travel article on the city, though the more İ get to know Turkey in general, the more it intrigues me.

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Trebles all Round in K&C

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 23rd July, 2009

Carol Caruana and Caroline PidgeonWorkıng currently ın Turkey, it was great to hear of Carol Caruana’s sweepıng victory ın the Kensington and Chelsea by-electıon yesterday, polling more votes than the Tories and Labour combined. Having lived ın the borough when İ first moved to London, İ know what a hard nut it is to crack! İ met some pretty aggressive Labour canvassers when I was campaigning there recently and some people were intimidated to take down LibdDem posters from their windows (though many remained up). Labour seemed to believe it was their divine right (sanctioned by the ruling Tories) to represent the ward. Well. they got their come-uppance, thanks to several years of hard work by Carol and her local colleagues Robin Meltzer and Jacob Thorne. Labour slumped to third place. Trebles all round!

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So Who Was the Liberal Party’s Real Daddy?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th July, 2009

Lord PalmerstonA hundred and fifty years ago, about 280 British MPs gathered at Willis’s Rooms in King Street, St James’s, London, to discuss uniting to oppose the continuation in office of the then Tory Prime Minister, Lord Derby. The majority of Members present were Whigs, but there were also Radicals like John Bright and Peelite Tories at this memorable occasion — though not, interestingly, the celebrated Peelite Tory William Gladstone, who would go on to be the champion of Victorian Liberalism. Gladstone’s government starting in 1868 is often cited as giving birth to Liberal England, but  as Professor Anthony Howe from the University of East Anglia argued in a drily witty keynote speech at a National Liberal Club dinner this evening, the Willis’s Rooms’ occasion nine year’s earlier was the party’s conception — hence the Liberal Democrat History Group’s decision to hold the 150th anniversary event this summer, in collaboration with the NLC. The President of the Liberal Democrat History Group, Lord (William) Wallace of Saltaire compered the evening, with turns by Liberal Democrat Party president, Baroness (Ros) Scott, and former Liberal Party leader, Lord (David) Steel. Two other former party (SDP and Liberal Democrat) leaders. Lord (Bob) Maclennan and Charles Kennedy, MP, were in attendance.

As a well informed questioner pointed out, the term ‘Liberal’ really came into political currency in Spain earlier in the 19th century. Moreover, the aristocratic Radical Lord John Russell used the term Liberal Party a whole 20 years before the Willis’s Rooms conclave. But according to Professor Howe’s analysis, full of fascinating detail and cheeky asides, Russell’s paternity of the party was denied by the inferiority of his wife’s salons compared with those of the wife of Viscount (Henry) Palmerston (pictured above), the conservative renegade Irish Tory, who nonetheless had flashes of radical zeal and became the first ‘Liberal’ Prime Minister when he assumed office for a second time. Confused? One might well be. And the young Queen Victoria’s diaries suggest she got fatigued by the ins and outs of what some of the Old Men of British politics were up to. But the seeds of British Liberalism were indeed sown that summer’s evening in 1859 and the plants they brought forth have grown and mutated — narrowly surviving extinction in the years after the Second World Wat — to blossom once again as the hybrid Liberal Democrat Party of today.


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Blair Should Not Be EU President

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 19th July, 2009

Tony Blair 1It is looking increasingly likely that the Irish will vote ‘yes’ in the re-run of their referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in the autumn, which means that the Treaty could be operational before the end of the year. Among the various important implications of that is the replacement of the cumbersome six-month rotating presidency of the EU Council of Ministers (currently held by Sweden) with a so-called ‘permanent’ president — an individual who could serve a maximum of two two-and-a-half year terms. The thinking behind this is that this will give more continuity to decision-making by the Council and could attract a person of high calibre who would have significant standing on the world stage (which is why the Euro-sceptics hate the whole idea).

The good news is that Britain’s Labour government has embraced the notion of an EU President warmly. The bad news is that they are promoting the candidacy of former Prime Minister Tony Blair. One had hoped that the campaign for  ‘Blair for President of Europe’ (as the job has been inaccurately described) was dead in the water, having been mooted long ago. But Gordon Brown and his colleagues have been injecting new blood into it; ironic, when one considers that the Brown government is itself on its last legs. Once again, Labour is ignoring public opinion, just as Blair himself turned a deaf ear to public opinion when he led Britain into the Iraq War.

According to a YouGov poll in the Sunday Times, only 28% of people interviewed thought it would be good for Britain if Tony Blair got the EU presidential job, whereas 54% believed that it would be mainly good for Tony Blair, not the country. John Rentoul, writing in the Independent on Sunday, is right to note that the polling question was pretty loaded. Nonetheless, from soundings I have been taking, the message is clear: most Britons do not want to see Tony Blair in the post. It’s not just that they haven’t forgiven him for Iraq. It’s also because he seems to be collecting titles and positions and fat salaries and fees galore without achieving great results in any one field. I was always sceptical that he could deliver anything significant in the cause of Middle East peace, on behalf of the Quartet, or that he would be perceived as an impartial mediator there, but even I have been suprised just how invisible his impact has been in the region. Meanwhile, he has been raking in the millions with lecturing and publishing deals. Let him get on with that and keep him out of the EU presidency. Blair in that job would harm not just Britain’s interests, but the interests of the whole EU.

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Labour and LibDems almost Neck-and-neck?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 18th July, 2009

The Liberal Democrats are just one point behind Labour in a ComRes opinion poll published  in tomorrow’s Independent on Sunday — 22 and 23 per cent respectively. The Tories are out in front with 38 per cent, but that is interestingly short of the symbolic 40 per cent threshold. The poll says LibDems are up 3, Labour down 2, and Tories up 2, compared with the last ComRes poll at the end of June. Labour HQ — already worried by the possiblity of losing next week’s Norwich North parliamentary by-election — will be deeply alarmed at the thought that the LibDems are snapping at Labour’s heels, with the possibility of Labour falling to third place in the run-up to the party conference season. However, a rival YouGov poll has figures which suggest there is still a meaningful gap between Labour and the LibDems (25 and18), though the Tories are given a morale-boosting 42. The common factor is that the minor parties, such as the Greens and UKIP, are fading, after their moment in the sun during the European elections. But there does also seem to be a high degree of political volatility in Britain at the moment.

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