Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for November, 2009

The Swiss Are So Wrong about Minarets

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 30th November, 2009

The building of minarets has been banned by law in Switzerland, following a 57-43 per cent vote by the public in a referendum on whether they should be forbidden. The far-right ‘Yes’ campaigners — who plastered billboards with provocative images of minarets ranged up like nuclear missiles and a woman in a niqab (an extremely rare form of ultra-modest dress among the predominantly Balkan Muslims who live in Switzerland) — used the familiar lies of their ilk, about how minarets on mosques are political, not religious, symbols and that they would inevitably lead to shariah or Islamic law being thrust on the Swiss as part of the Islamisation of Europe. All this would be laughable, if it were not so serious. There are at present precisely four minarets in the whole of the country. Muslims make up just five per cent of the Swiss population and most of them are well integrated. But they have now been unjustly portrayed as threatening aliens and their religion branded as dangerous. Similar foul things are being spouted in some other European countries, including the Netherlands and Denmark. Don’t people remember what happened when the Star of David was so maligned in the 1930s?

From the racists’ and Islamophobes’ point of view, it was of course o.k. for Europeans to build not hundreds but thousands of churches with steeples all over Asia and Africa — including in majority Muslim countries such as Kuwait and Iran — but this cannot be reciprocal, apparently. Are steeples not a danger to the Muslims of the rest of the world, then? Like most fascist and racist arguments, this one does not stand up to scrutiny. But the likely consequences are all too predictable. Muslims in Switzerland will feel in danger and there is bound to be an angry reaction in various parts of the Islamic world. Churches in countries such as Indonesia (already the target of Islamic zealots on some islands) are put at risk and Switzerland can expect to be subjected to various economic boycotts, as Denmark was after the disgraceful publication in a Danish newspaper of crude caricatures of the Propher Muhammad. Doubtless the perpetrators of the Swiss referendum will claim that they were defending Switzerland and European values, but in reality, they are likely to have achieved just the opposite.

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Floella Benjamin’s LibDem Playschool in Hackney

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 30th November, 2009

Keith Angus, LibDem PPC for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, played host this evening at a fundraising dinner for the borough party at the YumYum Thai restaurant in his constituency — a splendid venue occupying historic former Council offices. Made me think that the House of Commons could be turned into an excellent diner. Anyway, Floella Benjamin — hot from a weekend’s campaigning alongside her local LibDem PPC, Chris Nicholson, in Streatham — was the great draw of the evening. And drew she did, filling the private dining area and even eliciting a spontaneous ‘We love you, Floella!’ from one of the establishment’s regular young lady clients. Half of the men in the audience under the age of 50 turned into recycled infants, cooing as Floella gave us all an almost evangelical speech about how anyone, like her, can overcome the hurdles in life and how the LibDems must offer hope, honesty and trustworthiness at the upcoming general election. All grist to the mill for those of us in East London who have to talk to an electorate sickened by the disappointment (to put it mildly) of New Labour and the tinsel-like superficiality of Cameroonian Conservativism. The evening — with both an auction and raffle — made a tidy sum of the local party’s coffers, but more importantly inspired not only the Hackney footsoldiers, but those who had come from neighbouring Tower Hamlets, Islington and Camden as well.


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Remembering Conrad with David Starkey

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th November, 2009

Like many Liberal Democrats, I was deeply fond of Conrad Russell (1937-2004). When his slightly shambolic figure, dressed in a grubby overcoat and carrying his papers in a plastic carrier bag, hove into view, one knew that one was in for an intellectual feast as soon as he opened his mouth. The Chamber of the House of Lords would fill up when the 5th Earl Russell rose to speak. He was an eminent historian, notably of the 17th century, but he had his feet firmly planted in the contemporary world as well. He cared deeply about injustice and poverty and social exclusion, lacing his erudition with compassion and wit. So it was fitting this evening that a goodly crowd gathered to remember him at a memorial dinner organised by his younger son, John (a LibDem Councillor in Lewisham), in the Lloyd George Room (‘Lloyd George jailed my father,’ quipped Conrad) in the National Liberal Club. The keynote speaker was the historian and TV ‘personality’ David Starkey, who gave a predictably bravura performance, basically arguing that Conrad marked the end of an age. Dr Starkey was not at all complimentary about the standard of the current membership of the Upper Chamber, despite the fact that Baroness (Sally) Hamwee was sitting by his side. I’m not sure that some of Conrad’s progeny would have welcomed David Starkey’s claim that Conrad would have been an incomprehensible phenomenon except as a noble, an aristocrat. But he deployed his arguments with such sly humour, rhetoric and trademark camp arrogance that one surrendered to the bonhommie of the occasion, the good food and wine — and pondered how much Conrad would have savoured the prospect of the LibDems’ great surge in Lewisham in 2010.


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Taking on Poplar and Limehouse

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 26th November, 2009

This evening, at a packed AGM of Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats at Oxford House in Bethnal Green, I was adopted as the LibDem PPC for my home constituency of Poplar and Limehouse (new boundaries, having lost all the bits in Newham). It’s an extraodinary seat, illustrating both the huge diversity of London and also the yawning gap between rich and poor. It also looks like being a right royal battleground at the forthcoming general election, not only because the sitting Labour MP, Farming and Food Minister Jim Fitzpatrick, annoyed the large local Muslim community a while back by walking out of a Muslim wedding because he couldn’t sit next to his wife, but also because ‘Gorgeous’ George Galloway (Respect) is trying to move over from his current perch in neighbouring Bethnal Green and Bow. So we can expect some vigorous campaigning and lots of media attention. Having first moved into the area in 1985, I have seen huge changes — some good, some bad — and whatever the result at the end of it, I am determined to enjoy the next six months or so and to be part of a LibDem renaissance in Tower Hamlets.


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Electoral Reform, Democracy and the World

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 23rd November, 2009

This evening, Electoral Reform International Services (ERIS) hosted what they hope will be the first of many annual receptions, in the Brunei Gallery at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). As I was lecturing at SOAS immediately before, the event could not have been more convenient. But far more important that that serendipity was the quality of the people present, including a clutch of Commonwealth High Commissioners, my old BBC World Service colleagues Elizabeth Smith and Mike Wooldridge, Electoral Reform types such as Ken Ritchie, Eric Siddique, Michael Steed et al, and of course our host for the evening. former Tory MP Keith Best, who still holds the flame aloft for fair voting (and humane immigration policies) within the Conservative Party. It was also good to see various people from the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD, for whom I have done assignments in various parts of the world, including Ethiopia, where the British Ambassador at the time was Myles Wickstead, now one of the big cheeses in WFD and of course present this evening. I was heavily lobbied by a group of Iraqis who attended and who were urging that the West (including Britain) do more to foster genuine democracy and an end to corruption in that benighted land, which Tony Blair and Co ‘liberated’ only to create a political vacuum. We learn by our mistakes, I suppose — though personally I have long argued that the one thing we learn from history is that leaders learn nothing from history. Anyway, ERIS is doing great work and if it had some more financial backing, could be doing so much more!


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North Africa’s Football War

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd November, 2009

Football matches can be a tribal affair and in several parts of the world the ‘beautiful game’ can turn into a battlefield. In Lebanon, so I am told, many games are played without crowds of supporters in case they break out into sectarian fighting and restart the civil war. In case you think that sounds far-fetched, remember that the Central American states of Honduras and El Salvador did indeed go to war in 1969 in a conflict triggered by their qualifying match for the 1970 FIFA World Cup (though of course there were political issues at stake as well). In an alarming development over the past few days a similar stand-off has been brewing between Algeria and Egypt following their recent 2010 World Cup qualifier replay in Khartoum, Sudan. The Algerians say some Egyptians threw stones at them, while the Egyptians claim Algerian fans set on them. Whatever the truth of the matter, there have been angry demonstrations in both Cairo and Algiers and many injuries. Ambassadors from the two countries have been called in by their respective host governments for a dressing down and the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, has waded into the affair, basically saying that it is normal for people to hit someone who insults their country. All this is a useful distraction for him, of course, to turn people’s minds away from Egypt’s own internal problems and the big question about what will happen when he dies or retires. Meanwhile, the new ‘football war is a depressing reminder not only of how tribal soccer can become, but more seriously of how disunited the Arab world is, even within North Africa.

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European Liberal Democrats Back Turkey’s EU Accession

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 20th November, 2009

European Liberal Democrats, meeting at the annual congress of the ELDR in Barcelona, this morning passed a resolution (which I proposed) stating clearly our support for Turkish accession to the European Union, providing Ankara fulfils all of the so-called Copenhagen criteria for membership. This is in sharp contrast to the negative comments about Turkey´s EU vocation made recently by conservative leaders such as President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, as well as the newly appointed President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy.

The resolution noted the progress that Turkey has been making with regard to the Copenhagen criteria — as acknowledged in last month’s report from the European Commission — while pointing out that more needs to be achieved in areas such as freedom of expression and the media. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s initiatives towards resolving Turkey’s longstanding Kurdish question were welcomed.

The resolution — which was finalised in consultation with the German Liberal FDP (now in charge of the Federal Republic’s Foreign Ministry) — also called on the European Union to do more to facilitate a settlement of the Cyprus dispute and to end the isolation of Turkish Cypriots.


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Lord Mayor of London’s Warning to Euro-sceptic Tories

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 17th November, 2009

‘Scepticism about Europe — or even disengagement — is yesterday’s game,’ the Lord Mayor of London declared last night at his banquet speech at the Guildhall in the heart of the City of London, the financial district. ‘We need to be at the table shaping the future or others will,’ he added. His remarks, which were a scarcely veiled attack on David Cameron’s Conservatives and their persistent Euro-scepticism, was warmly applauded by the City figures present, many of whom would normally be natural Tories, but who are horrified at the way an incoming Conservative government might further distance Britain from the European mainstream. That could have a catastrophic effect on jobs and investment in London, as well as giving a boost to rival financial and business centres on the continent. Labour was not spared some of the Lord Mayor’s advice either, as he urged the Goverment to engage more enthusiastically with Brussels, to stop European rivals from choking off the City. But with the wind apparently blowing into the Tories’ sails in the run-up to the general election, we can be sure that it will be David Cameron’s office that will get more heavily lobbied by the City. And quite right too!

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We Don’t Want Nick Griffin in East London

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 17th November, 2009

The deluded voters of North West England who sent BNP leader Nick Griffin to Brussels as one of their MEPs in June must be disappointed that he has chosen to express his deep commitment to the area by putting forward his candidacy for the Westminister parliamentary seat of Barking in East London just five months later. Talk about carpet-bagging. The absurd thing is that the BNP is the official opposition to Labour on Barking and Dagenham borough council. They got in there not just because they capitalised on Labour’s failure to tackle some of the real problems in the area, but also because they shamelessly borrowed Liberal Democrat tactics of presenting themselves as community politicians, knocking on doors, seemingly caring about bread-and-butter issues, while keeping some of their more scary members and supporters of the streets. Could they really not find someone local to fight this parliamentary seat for them? Instead, they are going to parachute in their Great Leader, presumably in the hope that they will get lots of media attention. Probably they will, though it may not be helpful to their cause. Along with millions of other people, I watched Nick Griffin on Question Time the other week and was surprised, not by his deviousness and inconsistency, but that he came across as such a plonker.

When Oswald Mosley tried to woo the East End for his crypto-fascists he got the rough reception he deserved, and Nick Griffin deserves the same. It is also essential that all of the other parties, including the Liberal Democrats, choose strong candidates to fight this seat, not just to show the BNP leader up in hustings but also to give the disillusioned voters of Barking someone worthwhile to support.


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London Region LibDem Conference

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 14th November, 2009

City UniversityLondon Liberal Democras gathered at City University in Islington today for the last autumn regional conference before next year’s elections. Most pundits believe that the general and local polls will be held on the same day (first Thursday in May, 2010), which is something much of the rest of the country often has to cope with but is a distinct rarity in the capital. The prospect is viewed with mixed feelings, as was clear from contributions from several speakers at the conference, including councillors who may have to garner twice as many votes (on an increased turnout) this time round than they did last time, in order to to retain their seats. However, the mood was nonetheless upbeat. True, few shared Simon Hughes’s rosy forecast that the LibDems might almost double their number of London MPs — from eight to 15 — next year. But even the most theoretically vulnerable sitting MP — Susan Kramer in Richmond Park — was surprisingly confident because of positive feedback she’s been getting on the doorsteps. Ed Fordham (Hampstead and Kilburn) spoke on behalf of target seat candidates who are increasingly making their voices heard among the electorate. And both Ashley Lumsden (Lambeth) and John Macklin (Waltham Forest) were hopeful that there could be strong gains in several London borough councils as well. I am looking forward to being part of the regional support team for all this forthcming activity, having today been elected to be the next Chairman of London Region LibDems (taking office on 1 January), as well as working with colleagues to improve dramatically the party’s performance in London list elections.

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