Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for January, 2010

Un Prophete

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 31st January, 2010

When I was a film critic in Belgium in the 1970s, I used to see five films a week in the various distributors’ screening rooms, whereas these days I am lucky if I get to five films a year. Journalism and politics combined leave little time for ‘normal’ activities. But I was lucky in my first 2010 cinematic outing, as I was taken this evening to see Jacques Audiard’s ‘Le Prophete’, a complex and compelling portrayal of a young Arab Frenchman’s graduation as hardman (yet still with a heart) in the violent world of a prison largely controlled by members of a Corsican mafia. Though gory in parts, the violence is never gratuitous and fascinatingly the story and acting are handled in such a way that the viewer remains concerned for and attached to the central character, Malik (Tahar Rahim), even after he starts commiting terrible murders as part of his survival strategy in the jungle into which he has been thrust. Niels Arestrup is brilliant in the supporting role of the Corsican Big Cheese. The film has already deservedly picked up a number of awards at Cannes and elsewhere and is being predicted for several Oscars. A marvellous testament to the ongoing vigour and artistic creativity of French cinema.

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Ken, Julie, Shazia and a Tory Called Dave

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 30th January, 2010

There was a rowdy Question Time-style meeting (compered by DJ Stewart Who?) at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in Lambeth last night, at which the main sport for some was clearly Bindel-baiting. Columnist and radical feminist political activist Julie Bindel has upset the transgender community with several of her comments about gender dysphoria and related topics, and about 40 Trans-people and friends held a good-humoured demonstration outside the venue (corraled safely by police, well away from the entrance) chanting slogans criticising the RVT’s decision to ‘give a platform to bigotry’. Inside the pub was much noisier at times, as a few persistent hecklers shouted at her every time she said (or they thought she said) something that offended them, some even drawing parallels between her and Nick Griffin of the BNP. One person threw a plastic name-badge and lanyard at her. Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, the out-gay Tory parliamentary candidate for Eltham, David Gold, and I therefore found ourselves having to speak up for freedom of speech, as well as defining our own varying lines on the LGBT issues that were being raised. Shazia Mirza, the Muslim comedian who, like Julie Bindel, has been receiving death threats, brought some welcome light relief with some well-judged satirical jokes. It was a shame, though, that the evening became rather dominated by the Bindel-bashing, as I would have liked to ask the personable David Gold what he is going to do to protest about his party leadership’s cuddling up to homophobes in Northern Ireland and the European Parliament. And also to explain the extraordinary boxed quote at the top of his website, from ‘a former Labour voter’, viz: “My purse was stolen in the supermarket. Immigration is out of control. We need a change.” That strikes me as pandering to xenophobia, even racism, which sits oddly with his commitment to LGBT rights.

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Julia Neuberger Champions Volunteering

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 28th January, 2010

The Liberal Democrat peer, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, was the guest speaker at Islington LibDems’ pizza and politics last night. The original idea had been that she would be interviewed by the Leader of Islington Council, Terry Stacy, but he was bedridden with flu. In the discussion, Baroness Neuberger was asked how she got on as an advisor to the Labour government a while back, when Gordon Brown was trying to assemble a government of all the talents, or GOATs (as opposed to the sheep that make up most of his Cabinet). She said that her personal relationship with the Prime Minister was good, having worked with him professionally on various issues when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and her experience as an advisor was happier than that of her fellow LibDem peer Anthony Lester, QC. Perhaps, she surmised, this was largely because there was much greater consensus on the topic of her consultancy: volunteering. She is a strong advocate of the value of volunteering, not last within the National Health Service, and she believes that it will inevitably take on a more important role as our population ages, meaning more frail elderly in need of personal care, but also more fit older people with time on their hands. She also underlined the success of one project she had been involved in, which was to encourage government departments to allow their civil servants to volunteer in working time. This had greatly improved their job satisfaction and performance, she said.

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Elspeth Attwooll’s Merton Burns Night

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 27th January, 2010

Merton Liberal Democrats’ Burns Night suppers have become something of an institution; odd, really, when one considers that the Willott family that has for so long been heavily involved in the organisation of the event has far stronger roots in Wales. But year after year, local party volunteers put on a splendid three course haggis supper, with copious wine (and of course whisky), a piper and this year, as an innovation, an excellent musical rendition of some Burns songs, arranged for piano and tenor. The star of the evening last night was former LibDem MEP for Scotland, Elspeth Attwooll, who proposed the toast to the immortal memory of Robert Burns with erudition and wit; she could not only pronounce the dialect of some of the quotes but clearly understood it all as well! She even had a saucy anecdote about a canvasser campaigning for the late George Mackie and his encounter with a pipe-smoking old woman way up north — a useful reminder that puritanism does not have a monopoly among Scottish Highland souls. I suppose the reason so many Brits — by no means only the Scots — love Burns is because he was a raffish rebel, a bit of a cad in some ways, but essentially a romantic and a free thinker (though his Whig friends in Edinburgh liked to think he was one of them). Of course, dying so young only embellished his reputation. In the 19th century, that was what poets were meant to do.


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The LibDems’ New Generation

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 25th January, 2010

The boardroom at the Liberal Democrats’ headquarters in Cowley Street, Westminster, was packed this evening for a New Year reception for the New Generation intitiative, which seeks to make the party more representative of the communities that it serves, notably in the fields of ethnic diversity, LGBT sectors and disability. Since New Generation was first launched six months ago, the number of people directly involved has tripled. But as Nick Clegg — the keynote speaker at this evening’s event — stressed, the LibDems as a party still have quite a hill to climb in making the party’s elected representaties more diverse. There are currently only two LibDem ethnic minority members of the House of Lords, none in the Commons (following Parmijit Gill’s defeat in Leicester South at the last General Election), nor in the European Parliament, following N.W. England MEP, Sajjad Karim’s defection to the Conservatives. However, in recent months, the LibDems have not only selected a number of excellent BME PPCs to fight parliamentary seats, but also many BME Council candidates. Present at this evening’s gathering was the latest addition to the LibDem BME Councillor fold, Brian Haley, formerly a senior Labour representative on Haringey Council who had become disillusioned by that low-performing borough’s Labour administration. Nick Clegg is right: the necessary change won’t happen overnight, but things are moving in the right direction, especially in London — and quite right too, as the capital is Britain’s most diverse society. 

Photo: Cllr Brian Haley is welcomed by Lynne Featherstone MP (Hornsey & Wood Green) and Haringey Council LibDem Group Leader Robert Gorrie

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Tories Still Stand for Hereditary Privilege

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd January, 2010

David Cameron likes to make out that the Conservative Party has changed, thazt it is no longer the party of wealth and privilege (despite the social and educational background and financial status of so many of its MPs and key parliamentary candidates). But now the cat is out of the bag. As reported in the current issue of the Sunday Times newspaper, the Conservatives are trying to scupper government plans to phase out the 90 or so remaining hereditary members of the House of Lords — peers who have a say in shaping UK legislation for no other reason than their ancestry. It is, of course, mere coincidence that most of the remaining hereditaries are Conservatives. Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Justice Secretary, bleats that the hereditaries play ‘an important role’ in the work of the House of Lords. Some of them doubtless do, but that’s not the point. Britain is meant to be a democracy, but the continued presence of so many hereditaries — and the system by which they are replaced when they die off  — are more appropriate for the 18th rather than the 21st century.

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4289 Ways to Be a Criminal

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 22nd January, 2010

The Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman, Chris Huhne MP, has highlighted the astounding fact that since coming to power in Britain in 1997, New Labour has created 4,289 new criminal offences. As Chris comments tartly, ‘This legislative diarrhoea is not about making us safer, it is merely Ministers posturing on penalties. Many of these offences are worthless, as they duplicate offences which could perfectly well have been used instead.’

It’s a nightmare for the police and lawyers, let alone the public, to keep up with the legislation. As Chris says, ‘The legacy of Labour is hyperactive law-making that has spread confusion among police officers, judges and every other official who has to deal with this cascade of nonsense.’  The Liberal Democrats are suggesting that a new legal ‘stop unit’ should be set up within the Cabinet Office, to which every government department would have to make the case for the need of bringing in a new offence. Too many laws risk making the society paranoid, as well as clogging up the criminal justice system.

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The Medina of Tunis

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 21st January, 2010

Tunis is one of the lowest-key capitals of North Africa and all the more pleasant for it. Like many other cities of the Maghreb, it has an old Arab quarter or medina, as well as a New Town, built during the French colonial period. The two could not be more unlike. The winding alleyways of the Medina, lined with merchants selling their wares, all seem to lead eventually to the great Zaitouna or Olive Tree Mosque, a serene and tranquil haven in the middle of all the bustle. The New Town has a reassuringly easy-to-navigate grid pattern of streets and boulevards, and both railway stations and suburban bus stations are centrally located.

I’ve always enjoyed coming to Tunis on lecturing and journalistic assignments. Things work, in general, and the people are welcoming. It’s odd that not all that many tourists seem to pass through here — especially not in winter — as they prefer Tunisia’s beach resorts instead. But they are missing a lot. The Tunis Medina has rightly been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site: It even has one glorious mansion-turned-hotel, the Dar El Médina, reminiscent of some of the riads of Marrakech. I’m sure there will be more before too long.


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Baha’i Seven on Trial

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 19th January, 2010

With all my political and media activities, I don’t always get to the Comments pages of my daily paper every day, but today I was glad to  pick up on Cherie Blair’s article on the Baha’i in Iran in a recent back issue of The Guardian. On 12 January the trial began of the so-called Baha’i Seven: seven prominent members of the Baha’i faith in Iran who have been accused of spying for Israel — a charge which, if validated could carry the death penalty. The case is, of course, monstruous, like so much in today’s Iran, where any sort of dissent or difference is likely to invite harsh retribution. The Baha’i faith began in Iran in the nineteenth century, but has been systematically persecuted since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 because of its eclectic nature, recognising that of God in prophets of all sorts of different religions. It is an essentially pacific religion, universal and based on human values of love and understanding. The Israel connection is largely because the most spectacular Baha’i religious site is in Haifa: a hillside garden arranged in tiers. It is important that the world keeps its eyes on the trial of the seven Baha’i leaders and deplores the maltreatment of Baha’i followers. The Iranian constitution permits freedom of religion, but alas the reality is quite different.

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UKIP Calls for Ban on Burqas

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th January, 2010

The leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) — and its only Westminster parliamentarian — Lord Pearson of Rannoch has said that his party wishes to ban the wearing of the burqa or the niqab (full face veil) not only in public buildings, but in private ones too, if possible. ‘We are taking advice on how we could do it,’ he informed The Times. This puts UKIP even further to the right than the British National Party (BNP) on the issue, as the BNP has only called for a burqa ban in schools. Both are of course pandering to the irrational fears of a disenfranchised white working class which feels abandoned by the Labour Party and ignored by politicians in general. But some right-wing county types in the shires will doubtless also applaud UKIP’s stand on the issue. They will probably sympathise with Lord Pearson’s statement that UKIP wants to bring to the fore the issue of the alleged increasing influence of Shariah (Islamic law) in Britain. ‘We are not Muslim-bashing,’ he says. ‘but this is incompatible with British values of freedom and democracy.’

Apparently Lord Pearson is blind to the irony in that statement, as British values of freedom of democracy have at their core tolerance and diversity — both things that UKIP and the BNP clearly reject. Moreover, Lord Pearson’s claim that this is ‘not Muslim-bashing’ is disingenuous, as that is exactly how it will be seen by many of Britain’s Muslims.  The proposed burqa/niqab ban also gives a green light to racist bigots to insult and maybe even assault women wearing it, which alas already happens sometimes. I find it sad that some Muslim women (or their husbands/fathers/brothers, on their behalf) feel it necessary to cover their face completely — as opposed to wearing modest dress, which is what the Quran actually stipulates — but I respect their right to be able to do so in most public situations. There have to be some limited exceptions, of course, but these should indeed be the exception, not the rule. Many of my Bengali neighbours in Tower Hamlets habitutally wear the niqab when they leave the house. I wasn’t surprised that politicians in France (which is an officially secular nation) should call for a burqa ban, but it is depressing that a British political party — albeit one as loopy as UKIP — should be following suit and thereby fuelling the fire of community discord.

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