Hillary Clinton and the US State Department are in a state of shock this week, as more than 250,000 ‘secret’ US diplomatic communications provided to WikiLeaks — reportedly by a young American soldier working in Intelligence in Baghdad — are being systematically filleted and published in five leading Western newspapers, including the Guardian. Today’s crop provided a feast for anyone interested in the Middle East, the main revelation being just how (privately) anti-Iran several Gulf Arab rulers are — in fact, some suggested that military action against Tehran’s atomic aspirations might be a necessity. Other things revealed are much more mundane, even funny — though one suspects that some of the diplomats concerned, including in the vast (but soon to be evacuated) US Embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square, lack a sense of humour. Indeed, having met some of them on my regular rounds of the capital’s diplomatic circuit, I know they do. Future instalments of the WikiLeaks State Department trove will touch on things closer to home, such as what the Americans make of Prince Andrew and of France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, and perhaps most interestingly, Britain’s new Coalition government and its leaders. But the question has to be asked: is all this unauthorised public communication of material that was meant to be classified (abeit available to about three million Americans who have access to ‘secret’ missives) a harm or a benefit to the common good? Will it cost lives, as Washington states? Or has it enhanced democratic accountability and indeed brought the public closer to the realities of international wheeling and dealing? I agree with Timothy Garton Ash, who argued in the Guardian today that the information revealed will be a huge boon to historians. But it is to journalists and politicians, too. So even while WikiLeak’s mastermind, the Australian Julian Assange, is being pursued by the Swedish courts over alleged sexual misdemeanours, I say hats off to him and to WikiLeaks. And also to the Guardian, which has got itself a (British) scoop most other major newspapers would (metaphorically) kill for.
Archive for November, 2010
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 29th November, 2010
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 27th November, 2010
The Campaign Director of the Yes to Fairer Votes Campaign, John Sharkey — who was recently announced as one of the Liberal Democrats’ new working peers — was a guest speaker today at the meeting in London of the LibDems English Council, the body which looks at English party matters and brings together elected representatives from all the English regions. London is unique as a region in that we do not have any planned elections next year, so the May referendum on switching Britain’s electoral system from First Past the Post to the Alternative Vote will be the main focus of campaigning activity in the capital (while keeping the 2012 GLA/London Mayoral elections in mind). As John Sharkey pointed out, London will be a crucial battleground, not just because there are over five million voters in the capital, but also because of media interest and the fact that there is a substantial body of progressive Labour opinion in London as well as Liberal Democrats. That means that there is much room for cooperation between the LibDems (overwhelmingly in favour of electoral reform) and many reasonable Labour supporters (plus the Greens, of course, and even UKIP; coalitions can sometimes entail strange bedfellows). Yesterday, a lineup of No2AV Labour figures was produced, notably Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett, John Precott and John Reid — a herd of political dynosaurs, basically. Of course, there will be some pro-Reform Tories who need to be brought on board, as well as people who have no firm political alleigance but who believe that Britain’s rotten political system requires a big shake-up. The national Fairer Votes campaign will be organising hustings (many in churches) at which the arguments can be thrashed out. And while it is important that the Yes campaign is not seen to be merely ‘Liberal Democrats and Friends’, the LibDems must be very active in it, locally and regionally, not just in London but nationwide.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 25th November, 2010
Baroness Rendell, peer of the realm and peerless writer of mystery/murder stories was the guest speaker at the AGM of the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) at the Clothmakers’ Hall on the edge of the City this evening. Though the organisation now has over 80,000 members — allegedly making it the biggest writers’ association in the world — fortunately only a few hundred turn up to the annual meetings, these days held in alternate years in London and the provinces. ALCS now distributes well over £20 million in royalties to authors each year — from photocopying and other rights — which doesn’t go all that far, but I can tell you, as someone who earns most of his bread and butter from his ‘pen’, it helps. After the administrative and financial reports, there is always a guest speaker, but Ruth Rendell broke with precedent by talking entirely off the cuff — a rather charming ramble along the past 47 years of her publishing life, through to her love of the London Underground. No dead bodies or unseemly messes were left at the end, disappointingly, but as ever on these occasions, the canopés were rather fine.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 23rd November, 2010
The President of Slovenia, Dr Danilo Turk, was the guest lecturer at an LSE event this evening, taking as his subject the EU as a Global Player: Reality or Illusion? I’ll be writing the event up at much greater length for Diplomat magazine, but a few coments are perhaps warranted earlier. Slovenia is definitely among the ‘good guys’ of the new EU intake of 2004. Indeed, it joined both the euro-zone and Schengen in 2007 and in January 2008 even assumed the Union’s presidency (very competently). But as the first of the former republics of Yugoslavia to join the EU, it inevitably has a particular vision of the Union’s future vocation. Dr Turk — who was a law professor and UN diplomat prior to his becoming Head of State — highlighted what for him is the primorial importance of the EU’s looking East: not just to taking the Western Balkans and Turkey into membership, when they have met the necessary conditions, but also maintaining positive relations with Ukraine and Russia. Of course, the EU is currently beset by the problems of the financial crisis in general and Ireland in particular, but that should not blind us to its global potential, he argued. That means championing our shared set of European values — including human rights — while not lecturing or being condescending to outside powers such as China. Probably the EU is over-respresented at present within the G20, but nonetheless, in the shifting geopolitics and economic balance in the world, the EU can and should be punching more at its natural weight.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 21st November, 2010
The most spectacular funicular in Lisbon — often missed by tourists — is the Ascensor da Bica, which starts from inside what appears to be a normal building in the Rua de Sao Paulo west of Cais do Sodre and climbs steeply up the hillside before entering the narrow Rua da Bica de Duarte Belo, in the direction of Chiado. Built by Raoul Mesnier de Ponsard in 1892, it originally ran on steam but after a number of transformations, it was converted to electricity. A depressing amount of the tightest stretch of the route has been covered in graffiti and the station at the bottom was blaring loud American pop music when I took the tram earlier this week. But it still has plenty of atmosphere. There’s a little metal fence and gate in the bottom station which the driver of the tram has to open to let passengers in, ceremoniously closing up when it is time to leave. The service runs every 10 to 20 minutes. My fellow passengers were local pensioners, not surprisingly daunted by the alternative of walking up one of the steepest of Lisbon’s hills. The service is run by the city’s public transport service Carris, and therefore costs the same as buses and other routes: 1.45 euro (at the time of writing), or else included in day tickets, season tickets or other promotions.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 15th November, 2010
The Liberal International Executive Committee that has ended in Cape Town was hosted by South Africa’s Democratic Alliance — the country’s Liberal force that has had even more transmutations and name changes than Britain’s Liberal Democrats. I’ve been following the South African Liberals’ fortunes since the days of Alan Paton and the termination of the old Liberal Party because it was multiracial. For years, the late Helen Suzman was the sole voice of reason in the apartheid era’s whites-only parliament and I was pleased to meet her when I was a young man (before one of my own books was banned and it was deemed wiser I stay out of the country). At the LI Executive at the weekend, it was good to see Colin Eglin — a former party leader, now quite advanced in years — chairing an excellent session in the Old Parliament Chamber, at which some of the Democratc Alliance’s bright talents (of all racial groups) spoke about their role both in government (in the Western Cape Province, which the DA controls, as well as the city of Cape Town) and in opposition in the federal parliament. These days, though, the party has 67 members of parliament, making it the official opposition to the ANC-led government and it is keeping up the good fight in favour of human rights, genuine democracy and against coruption. Its impressive leader is former journalist Helen Zille, who is Premier of the Western Cape. She hosted a reception for the LI Executive and African Liberal Network delegates in the grounds of her official residence on Saturday evening — a delightful occasion, despite the chilly weather that had even our hostess sniffling.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 13th November, 2010
When Liberal International was established, over 60 years ago (in Oxford), it was a very European affair. Apart from a few exceptions, such as the Canadian Liberal Party and some of the predecessor parties of what is now the Democratic Alliance (DA) in South Africa, Liberalism held little sway or even appeal in the Americas and the developing world (not to mention the Soviet bloc). That was particularly true in Africa, where dictatorships or socialist regimes (sometimes the same thing) were the order of the day. But just as Liberalism has spread through Latin America, parts of Asia and the Arab world over the past few decades, so too in Africa Liberal parties are now championing the values of freedom of expression, democracy and human rights. Some of them are still very small — such as Angola’s Partido Liberal Democratico (PLD), with whose leader, the late Analia Maria Caldeira de Victoria Pereira, I campaigned a few years ago — while others are now in government, such as the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS), whose octogenarian leader, Abdoulaye Wade, has been in power for some time now. Each year, new parties emerge and many are joining the African Liberal Network (ALN), as well as Liberal International. The fact that LI has held Congresses in both Marrakesh and Cairo has certainly helped this development, as has the LI Executive Meeting and concurrent ALN gathering being held in Cape Town now (hosted by the Premier of the Western Cape, the DA’s leader Helen Zille). The headquarters of both Liberal International and the ALN are in London, the former in the National Liberal Club and the latter in the Liberal Democrats’ HQ in Cowley Street, and the ALN gets assistance from the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, as part of that UK government-funded efforts to help promote human rights and the rule of law worldwide.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 9th November, 2010
When direct elections to the European Parliament were first introduced in 1979, not a single British Liberal was returned, as the first-past-the-post electoral system was still in place and Liberal support was too concentrated in pockets. But Graham Watson and Robin Teverson defied sceptics by winning two Euro-seats in the West Country in 1994, and with the introduction of the (fiendishly complex) d’Hondt method of proportional representation in 1999, the Liberal Democrat tally shot up to 10 (now 12). That has ensured not only that British Liberal Democrats have a strong voice in the European Parliament but also that they form the largest single national group within the European Liberal family. It was partly as a result of that that Graham Watson became leader of the third force in the Parliament, which he then set about ‘growing’, by wooing all sorts of parties and individuals (some more identifiably Liberal than others), until at its height, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE), as the parliamentary group is called, had over 100 MEPs. This process did not occur without some concern, as Graham makes clear in his new book Building a Liberal Europe: The ALDE Project (John Harper, 20 pounds or 25 euros). Some of the core members of the European Liberal Democrat and Reformist Party (ELDR) around which ALDE coalesced had reservations about Graham’s strategy of ‘bigger is better’ and were incredulous when he embarked on his frankly unrealistic personal project to try to become President of the Parliament last year. Now no longer leader of ALDE (the former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt succeeded him), Graham has instead had time to compile this survey of how the Liberal Euro-parliamentary group developed and the various political issues that members of the group pursued, individually or collectively. Because these are so numerous, and readers’ interests will vary, some pages of the book will be of more interest than others. Most of the British LibDem MEPs get a name-check at least and one is left in no doubt about how wide the author’s network both within and beyond the ALDE group has been. It’s a pity, though, that with the notable exception of a striking vignette of Nicolas Sarkozy in the Elysee Palace and to a lesser extent Silvio Berlusconi, most characters in the book fail to come alive. Graham himself comes across as rather cold and calculating (for example, describing the way he wined and dined ‘expensively’ in Brussels his colleagues, in order to try to win their support), though as I know from more than 30 years of friendship with him, that is not a fair self-portrayal. For better or for worse, he is no Peter Mandelson either. While academics and Liberal Euro-enthusiasts such as me will find lots of interest in Building a Liberal Europe, those avid for gossip will be disappointed.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 6th November, 2010
Watching former Labour Immigration Minister Phil Woolas announcing that he is seeking a judicial review, following the High Court decision to declare his election in May null and void because of his dirty tactics against his LibDem opponent, brought back many memories of the arrogant and often corrupt Labour politics of the Lancashire in which I grew up. I spent the first 17 years of my life in Eccles (now part of the irrepressible and unrepentant — over parliamentary expenses — Hazel Blears’s constituency) and although I could never have been a Conservative (unlike the household in which I was brought up), I similarly couldn’t touch the Labour Party with a barge-pole, because of the way they had made the town a rotten borough and their vicious hatred of anyone who wasn’t ‘working class’. So I joined the Young Liberals, even though the Liberal Party was almost non-existent in the area (apart from two councillors, whose seats they held only because of a pact with the Tories!). The then Liberal leader, Jo Grimond, clinched it when he came to my school during the 1964 general election and genuinely inspired my young self. Anyway, Phil Woolas, in all his unpleasantness, has reawakened all those memories of the unprincipled nature of the Labour Party Up North (and doubtless in some places Down South, too, though in many of the shires, Labour Party activists tend to be very decent, principled people, CND members and the like). I feel this situation now presents two challenges. The first is to Ed Miliband, to accept that what Phil Woolas did in the May general elections was morally as well as legally wrong, and to purge the Labour Party of such pratices. The second challenge is to my fellow Liberal Democrats: to go to Oldham East and Saddleworth asap — or to telephone canvass from wherever they are — to make sure we win the by-election convincingly!
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 4th November, 2010
On the plane out to Dubai last night I was able to catch the film that made waves at the Dubai International Film Festival last December, Ali F Mostafa’s City of Life. The core subject is Dubai itself, the multi-cultural, multi-faceted, hectically developing Arabian Gulf hub, which I have been coming to regularly for more than two decades. The movie tracks the lives of three disparate residents: the directionless young son of a pious, wealthy Emirati; a star-struck Indian taxi-driver who dreams of fame himself; and a Romanian air stewardess ready to fall in love. All three pass through the highs and lows of life-changing experiences before the they are thrown together — without realising it — in a spectacular car-crash in the city’s Sheikh Zayed Road. The cast of the film is as international as the city itself, ranging from UK-based Susan George to Egyptian-American comic Ahmed Ahmed and Mumbai-born Jaaved Jaaferi, not forgetting two UAE nationals Saoud Ka’abi and Habib Ghuloom (whose touching, intense friendship is one of the most effective elements of the film). The plot is at times preposterous, but then so too is Dubai, and if occasionally the characters stretch credibility, City of Life is an interesting milestone in the development of local cinema. Ali F Mostafa part financed the film through product placement, though that does not grate. As the self-styled first movie entirely made in the UAE, it is well worth catching, whether in a cinema or on a plane!