Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for March, 2010

Latymer School Political Question Time

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 25th March, 2010

The British general election is unlikely to be called until 6 April at the earliest, but already the phoney war is in full swing. This afternoon, Latymer School in Edmonton — which has a lively politics society — put on a 4-party Question Time in their splendid new studio auditorium, attended by a couple of hundred pupils, teachers and visitors from around Enfield borough. Labour and the Conservatives were represented by local MPs, Andy Love (Edmonton) and David Burrowes (Enfield Southgate), alongside me as the LibDem (as Chairman of London region), and Douglas Coker, Chairman of Enfield Green Party. The economy figured large, not surprisingly, given yesterday’s budget, but so too the issue of political funding and cleaning up politics. I was disappointed that David Burrowes — a Christian ‘wet’ on most issues — obeyed his party’s whip to boycott the parliamentary committee looking into the Ashcroft affair, though at least he did not try to defend the peer’s protracted obfuscations about his tax status. Andy Love did defend the expansion of Heathrow airport, which I imagine won him few friends in the audience, but the interesting thing was how much all four of us agreed on most things (though not on nuclear energy). It would have been interesting to have had a straw-poll of the audience both before and after the debate, but if attitudes are at all similar to those in East London where I live, the political mood amongst the electorate at the moment is distinctly fluid.

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Simon Callow Laid Bare

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 24th March, 2010

For a dozen years or more, the Friends of the Heath Library, in Keat’s Grove, Hampstead Heath, have been trying to get actor and biographer Simon Callow along to talk to their members, as part of their regular series of encounters with writers. This evening they finally pulled it off and we were rewarded with a bravura performance from the boy from Streatham who was launched into literature by lending libraries. His theatrical initiation, as the sextuagenarian thespian informed us all, began at the age of five, when he was taken to see Peter Pan at the now defunct Scala Theatre. He was immensely impressed by Captain Hook (though at his tender age not realising that this character was being portrayed by none other than Sir Donald Wolfit).  Simon’s own stage début was in a school production that did not bode well. But his real immersion in the theatre came when he wrote a fan letter to Sir Laurence Olivier, who had taken over at the National Theatre, getting a response by return suggesting that the young Simon come on board the staff, working in the box office. It was while watching actors rehearse that he realised that acting was work, and hard work to boot — and something that he knew he wanted to do. People will be able to learn more when his next book comes out in May: an essentially autobiographical collection of literary journalism, ‘My Life in Pieces’.

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The UK Election and Brussels

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 24th March, 2010

Yesterday lunchtime I took part in a debate in Brussels (hosted by LutherPendragon) on what the next UK government will mean for the EU and the various interest groups who lobby there. My fellow panelists were Jessica Asato, Director of the Labour magazine Progress, and Jonathan Isaby, formerly of the Daily Telegraph and now co-editor of ConservativeHome. The audience were a mixture of lobbyists, diplomats and Euro-parliamentary staffers, plus a couple of Tory MEPs (including the somewhat Euro-sceptic Roger Helmer). I stressed that the answer to the debate question depended totally on the outcome of the election (stating the obvious), but that the Liberal Democrats would be pressing for a far more constructive engagement with our European partners. It will be particularly important to try to moderate the Conservatives’ semi-detached approach to the EU, whether there is any formal arrangement between them and the LibDems or not. Personally, I suspect that David Cameron will be more pragmatic over Europe if he does indeed become Prime Minister than he and William Hague have been stating recently — presumably to try to counter the attraction of UKIP. It is interesting to remember that it was Conservative leaders who took Britain into what is now the EU, facilitated the single market and approved the Maastricht Treaty. But such has been their drift away from pro-European position in recent years that most of their pro-European MEPs left, were deselected or else joined the Liberal Democrats.

[photo: Oliver Kaye]

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Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 20th March, 2010

I spent a couple of hours this lunchtime with a lively group of Bengali youngsters from Tower Hamlets in Chrisp Street Market in my constituency of Poplar & Limehouse, collecting signatures for a petition that will be delivered to Gordon Brown, urging that more is done to ensure that people in developing countries have access to clean water. The message ‘Safe water can save a child’s life’ went down well with most passers-by — though a certain percenatge always run shy of anyone collecting signatures for anything. The action (which was mirrored by a similar operation by other young people in Whitechapel, in the neighbouring seat of Bethnal Green & Bow) was organised by Drop4Life, a ‘Beyond Boundaries’ project organised by BRAC UK, the UK arm of an organisation that was originally set up in Bangladesh in 1972 by Fazle Hasan Abed, to help the country overcome the devastation and trauma of the Bangldesh Liberation War. Subsequently, BRAC evolved into what organsiers describe as a self-financed paradigm in sustainable human development and claims to be the largest NGO in the world, employing over 100,000 people, 72 per cent of whom are women.


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Streatham on a Knife Edge

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 18th March, 2010

Chris Nicholson, LibDem candidate for Streatham in South London in the forthcoming general election rallied the troops at his launch at the Bocca restaurant in Streatham High Road this evening, aided and abetted by (Lord) Chris Rennard (and other attendant locally resident peers), who shared recollections of the 1986 West Derbyshire by-election, when my earstwhile BBC colleague Chris Walmsley failed by a mere 100 votes to seize the seat from the Tories, and Ed Davey’s dramatic win — by a margin of 56 votes — in Kingston and Surbiton in 1997. The purpose of this nostalgia was to incite the assembled throng to yet more activity because, Lord Rennard opined, the Streatham result this time is going to be very, very close. And as a political betting man with a sixth sense when it comes to predicting results, he should know. So, a double message for the burghers of Streatham in the run-up to 6 May: all LibDem hands from the constituency and surrounding area to the pump, and for those Conservatives/Greens and others who may just want to get Labour out: you know what to do!


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LibDems The Only True British Internationalists

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 15th March, 2010

The Liberal Democrats are the only truly internationalist party in Britain — as well as being the only committed Europeans — according to the party’s Foreign Affairs spokesman, Ed Davey MP, who gave a brief address at the annual reception for London’s diplomatic corps hosted by the British Group of Liberal International (LIBG) at the National Liberal Club this evening. The warm-up act was (Lord) David Steel, former Liberal Party leader and an earstwhile President of the worldwide Liberal International. Malcolm Bruce MP, LIBG President and Chairman of the House of Commons’ select committee on International Development, ended the formal part of the proceedings by on the one hand welcoming the fact that the Labour government has been moving towards the UN goal of devoting 0.7% of GDP to overseas development aid while on the other, chiding them for not progressing on this more quickly.

It was interesting to see just how many Ambassadors and High Commissioners turned up, which reflects how seriously the Liberal Democrats are being taken by the diplomatic corps in the run-up to what promises to be an exciting election. It was good to spot among those present the High Comissioner of South Africa and the Ambassador of Panama, both of whose countries will be hosting Liberal International meetings in the months to come.


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European Liberals and Media Freedom

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 14th March, 2010

The governing Council of the European Liberals Democrats (ELDR) met in Rome this weekend, against a backdrop of public sector strikes and a massive demonstration against the Italian Prime Minister and media mogul, Silvio Berlusconi. Few of the Council members present (with the exception, perhaps, of our Russian colleagues from Yabloko) could have envied he Italians’ situation — operating in a country in which one man wields such enormous power and is shameless about using legislation to protect his position. On top of that, the mafia and other organised crime outfits have a terrible hold on many sectors of the economy. No wonder Italian Liberals (whose main political grouping these days is Italia de Valori) look north across the Alps to the EU for stability and support.

Yesterday morning, there was a seminar session on Freedom of Information, at which I was a keynote speaker talking about freedom of the media across the EU. Those of us who work as jsnalists in the UK are comparatively fortunate in the freedom we do enjoy to express our views (providing we don’t libel anyone or endanger national security), but the recent case relating to the News of the World suggests that our system of media self-regulations (through the Press Complaints Commission) needs an overhaul. I devoted much of my speech to new media, however, and the way that so-called ‘citizen journalism’ (whereby orindary people can report and comment through blogs, twitter etc, is transforming the name of the game. Sometimes this is in positive ways, such as the transmission of eye-witness accounts or of alternative perspectives. But there are also negative sides to citizen journalism, not least the lack of editorial control and standards, which means that a lot of the material out there on the Net is rubbish or outright lies.

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K&C and the Rennard Formula

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 9th March, 2010

Lord (Chris) Rennard was the ideal guest speaker at tonight’s launch for Chelsea and Fulham Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate Dirk Hazell — who was Chairman of London’s Conservatives before seeing the light. For it was the Rennard formula of targeting, choosing the right candidate and then bombarding the said ward or constituency with literature which enabled the local party to make its first breakthrough last summer, electing Carol Caruana to the borough council as the first ever elected Liberal Democrat councillor, representing Colville ward. Of course it helped that Carol (who works at the party headquarters in Cowley Street) not only lives in the ward but had already established a reputation for herself as a local champion, not least fighting to save the character of the Portobello Road. But it was the Rennard formula — implemented by agent Robin Meltzer, who is now the prospective parliamentary candidate for Kensington, and aided and abetted from helpers from all over London — that clinched it, with a very healthy majority, to boot. Now the challenge will be to elect Carol’s two running mates, Tim Jones and Peter Kosta, so that there is a Liberal Democrat group on the Council — albeit a small one — that can propose motions and start to function as a potential opposition in the otherwise largely true-blue Royal Borough. I was pleased to be at the launch event this evening, not only as part of my job as Chair of London Region LibDems to keep in touch with what is happening round the capital, but also because I fought the then Chelsea parliamentary seat in 1983. I moved the party up into second place on that occasion and I look forward to Dirk Hazell’s making greater progress under the revised boundaries.

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An International Court for the Environment?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 8th March, 2010

Everyone’s in favour of the environment these days, even the Tories. Yet the planet continues to suffer appalling degradation and biodiversity is being compromised at an alarming rate. Of course, some of this is due to natural causes, but most is the result of the activities of humankind — whatever the climate change deniers say. Yet at present there is no global mechanism to bring many of the worst ecological abusers to book (with certain exceptions such as oil spills), particularly if they are sovereign states. Hence the need for an International Court for the Environment (ICE), whose case was put by Stephen Hockman, QC, at the eighth annual Ruth Steinkraus-Cohen International Law Lecture in the Brunei Gallery lecture theatre at SOAS this evening. The presentation was more of a lawyer’s brief than a stirring piece of rhetoric, but the message was one that appealed to the large numbers present — including many members of the United Nations Association. At present, the ICE is just an idea being floated rather than a concrete proposition and many countries would doubtless be reluctant to sign up to it (as is already the case with the International Court of Justice). But that should not stop the campaign to get one instituted. The environent is screaming out loud for itself about the abuse being inflicted on it, but it needs a human court to bring some of the worst violators to justice.


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Are the Tories Falling Apart?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 7th March, 2010

The British general election campaign hasn’t even started yet, but already the wheels seem to be coming off the Conservative campaign. They’d hoped to swing voters in marginal seats by pouring in lots of money, much of it donated by Lord Ashcroft. But the protracted revelations about the peer’s nom-dom tax status and his relations with Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague have now made him more of a liability than an asset. The party has also got unwisely close to the Young Britons’ Foundation, whose head espouses US neo-con views about the ‘disaster’ of the NHS and people’s right to carry a gun. Meanwhile, Lord Tebbit has said that Tory activists should be free to vote and even campaign for UKIP’s Nigel Farage, who is standing against the Speaker, John Bercow. And one of David Cameron’s neighbouring MPs has made the claim (now furiously denied) that Samantha Cameron may have voted for Tony Blair. Any one of these things might not be too damaging, but as the gaffes and indiscretions come thick and fast, the party is being made to look undisciplined and foolish. And we still don’t know what David Cameron stands for, other than vague ‘change’.

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