Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for July, 2011

London Mayoral Candidates’s Balls-skill Tested

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 31st July, 2011

Brent Liberal Democrats were blessed with fine weather at their annual summer garden party this afternoon, but also with the presence of all four potential London Mayoral candidates, who were strutting their stuff, as they have been doing valiantly around the region for the past couple of weeks. There was an unusual twist to this informal hustings, as they first had to compete in a game of bowls on hostess Freda Reingold’s lawn; this will of course have no effect on the outcome of the selection, but was a nice, light-hearted novelty. Brian Haley stormed to victory, with a throw that was almost up to the little black ball. But who among the four — the others being Lembit Opik, Brian Paddick and Mike Tuffrey– will win the members’ vote is anybody’s guess. Ballot papers (which have been sent to all London party members of sufficient vintage) have to be returned to the Electoral Reform Services by 31 August and the result should be known on 2 September.


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A Mansion Tax for Oligarchs?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 29th July, 2011

When Vince Cable launched his plan for a ‘mansion tax’ on homes worth more than £1 million, there were howls of dismay from LibDem activists in places such as Richmond Park and Kensington & Chelsea, where even quite modest dwellings are now worth well in excess of a million, thanks to London’s absurdly over-priced property market. There was then talk of a £2 million threshold instead, but the scheme was still unpopular and some Liberal Democrat party members actually resigned in protest. However, the LibDem Deputy Leader, Simon Hughes, last night unveiled at a Lewisham LibDems supper an intriguing variation which has gone to his colleagues in government for consideration: a Mansion Tax for non-doms, inlcuding oligarchs from the former Soviet Union — billionaires whose hunger for prime London property has been a major factor in house price escalation. Boris Johnson, London’s Tory Mayor, will doubtless scoff at the proposal, saying it will drive the super-rich foreigners away. But for the super-rich the ‘pain’ will be minimal, whereas the government’s coffers will get a useful boost and UK residents who happen to live in what is now a very expensive part of town will not be ‘fined’ for doing so.

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The Arab Spring: How Long Will It Last?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 27th July, 2011

Last night I spoke to the South Somerset Peace Group in Ilminster about the so-called Arab Spring, highlighting in particular what has been happening in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen — each of which is quite unique, even if certain common threads can be ascertained. One of those is the importance of youth unemployment and economic exclusion, as well as the feeling amongst many ordinary Arabs that for too long they have simply been ruled rather than having any meaningful say in their own destiny. Of course, Tunisia and Egypt (historically) have some experience with democratic politics, whereas in large parts of the Arab world government is top-down, with varying degres of benevolence or malevolence. Western-style democracy is by no means necessarily the most appropriate or relevant model for some states at present.  The key country to watch is Egypt, though it is far from clear whether the transition to a democratic government after elections in November will go smoothly and there is generally a feeling of a revolution only half-completed. Most worrying, I feel, is Syria. The government of Bashar al-Assad has made some minor concessions, but repression has not ceased. Whether a meaningful dialogue with opposition groups — both inside and outside the country — can be organised, leading to true reform, remains to be seen. But there is always the danger that the regime could provoke a regional crisis, drawing in Israel, which would  be downright disastrous. What is certain is that events will kep evolving way beyond the end of 2011: this new Arab Awakening is not a matter of a short season but of an epoch.

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Lessons from Oslo

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 25th July, 2011

Like many people — and most Norwegians, I suspect — I observed a minute’s silence at 11am, to mark the death of 93 predominantly young people at the hands of murderous right-wing fanatic Anders Breivik. The dignity with which the tragic episode has been handled by the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and the Royal Family is a lesson to us all. But there are other, more bitter, lessons to be learnt from the massacre. Details are emerging of the immensely long, rambling political self-justification that Breivik left behind. In the document are elements of the inspiration for his hatred and inhuman ideology, some of which will be uncomfortable for people elsewhere in Europe, including Britain. The Daily Mail’s ranter Melanie Phillips (no friend to Muslims) is one source quoted, and Breivik clearly had emotional and maybe physical links with groups such as the English Defence League (EDL), who spew out xenophobia, anti-immigrant bile and Islamophobia. These groups and individuals associated with them are poisonous and as we have just seen, potentially deadly. Just as men and women of principle stood up and spoke out against anti-Semitism in the 1930s, so now we should stand up and speak out against Islamophobia, xenophobia and all forms of hate speech and incitement to violence.

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The London Mayoral Merry-go-round

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 24th July, 2011

Voting has now started in the Liberal Democrats’ selection of a Mayoral candidate to fight next May’s London elections. Ballot papers have gone out to all London party members of more than one year’s standing and they have until 31 August to return them to Electoral Reform Services. There are four candidates in the field: Brian Haley, Lembit Opik, Brian Paddick and Mike Tuffrey — four very diferent characters with diverse experience. There will be one official hustings, which I will be chairing, on 27 July at 7pm at Hamilton House in Camden. But with the contest occurring during summer, there is a whole range of local party events for the four men to parade their policies and meet with the selectorate. On Friday Julie Horton and Phil Middleton of Islington LibDems hosted a particularly well-attended garden party at their home in Highbury Hill, with all four candidates present — and I suspect I will be running across most of them again this afternoon at the Croydon Libdems’ annual garden party near Sanderstead. I trust that all will also put in time at the St Peter’s ward local by-election in Islington — a seat held by LibDems until 2006.


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20 Years of Abuja

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 18th July, 2011

For the past week, I have been at a Leadership Conference in Abuja, Nigeria, which has attracted an extraordinary range of Ministers (past and present, including several former Heads of Government), academics and religious figures, particularly from Africa but in fact from all over the world — as well as the odd entertainer, such as the singer Patti Boulaye, who is here promoting the work she does on AIDS with children in Africa. I’ll be writing about some of the discussions we’ve had elsewhere, but I want to highlight here the host city itself: one I have often mentioned in my lectures at SOAS — as a planned capital, built from scratch, like Brasilia — but had never actually visited before. This year it is celebrating its 20th anniversary as federal capital, which is a convenient milestone at which to pause and reflect. Building began in the 1970s, at the height of Nigeria’s oil bonanza, but that subsequently stalled, and the construction is still continuing, far from complete. Many high-level civil servants and foreign diplomatic staff reportedly used to go back to Lagos (the former capital and by far the country’s largest city) at weekends, as they found Abuja to be so boring. But these days there are more facilities and it is actually rather a green and pleasant place, with a nicer climate, fewer traffic jams and a much lower rate of criminality than Lagos. There are few “OMG, wow!” buildings than in Brasilia, but the main mosque is rather fine and stands out against the skyline. I visited the National Christian Centre, which is an immense non-denominational church, which I imagine must be quite impressive when thronged. Here, as all over Nigeria, religion is taken very seriously, and the number of different churches is dizying.


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The Escape of Sigmund Freud

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 12th July, 2011

The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, has been the subject of many biographies and critical studies, but as proof that there is always something new and interesting to say about a truly great figure, David Cohen’s The Escape of Sigmund Freud (JR Books, £18.99) focuses in illuminating fashion on the last few years of Freud’s time in Vienna leading to his exile in London. The key new element is Cohen’s speculation about the exact role of the young Nazi sympathiser and chemist Anton Sauerwald, who seems to have eased the passage for Freud and much of his household, as well as hiding the existence of some of Freud’s foreign bank accounts. It is an exaggeration to compare Sauerwald with Oskar Schindler, but his story is nonetheless intriguing. There are also some fascinating insights into the Freud family’s lifestyle in Vienna as catastrophe approached. All in all, a book that is both enjoyable in itself and likely to stimulate the reader to move on to other accounts of the period and its personalities.


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Europe in 2061

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 9th July, 2011

I’m spending the weekend at Robinson College, Cambridge, at my first ever Federal Studies Conference, courtesy of the James Madison Trust. The theme is Europe in 2061: How will the European Union develop in the next 50 years? Proceedings began challengingly with the local LibDem MEP, my old chum Andrew Duff, giving an uncharacteristically downbeat appraisal of the mess he thinks the EU is now in, his own federalist dreams going up in a puff of smoke. I put his melancholy down to the fact that he has just returned from Cyprus, which remains an intractable problem both internally and with regard to Turkey’s aspirations to join the Union. But today’s sessions were much more optimistic, with contributions from former Tory MEP and climate change specialist Tom Spencer and Professor David Coombes. The dinner this evening will be preceded with Pimms in the College garden (glad to see that Cambridge shares this habit with my alma mater, Oxford) and an after dinner speech by the Hon Christopher Layton, lifelong Liberal and European.

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Poland’s EU Presidency

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 8th July, 2011

Poland took over the presidency of the European Union on 1 July and the last few days have seen a positive feast of commemorative events put on by the Polish Embassy in London. On Wednesday there was a glorious reception in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and today the Embassy building itself hosted an academic seminar on Politics and Presidency Priorities with a range of distinguised speakers, including former Prime Minister Kyzysztof  Bielecki. He spoke of the need to rearrange expectations: in other words, Poland is a medium-sozed European country that is not part of the eurozone, which must face up to the challenges of a weakening of Brussels institutions alongside increasingly parochial national governments. That might sound downbeat, but the gist of his argument — and that of others — was that Poland can and must stand up to the challenges, especially the economic challenges. The government in Warsaw has the comforting knowledge that over 80% of the Polish public believe in European integration and are in effect cheering ‘PL2011’ on from the sidelines. In the afternoon at today’s seminar, an interesting session focused on how Poland can help promote one particular agenda item on the EU’s to do list, namely upgrading the Eastern European partnership with Ukraine, Moldova and — with certain caveats — Belarus.


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In Memoriam Francis King

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 7th July, 2011

Francis King, who died at the weekend, was my oldest friend and closest confidant. In the 35 years or so that we knew each other we shared not just our views on everything under the sun but also our innermost thoughts and fears. I suppose everyone has someone like that in their lives, or would like to. I first met Francis in Brussels, at the home of my honorary (not blood) grandmother, Edith Bisch, who wrote novels under the pen-name Edith De Born. When I later moved back to England, Francis helped me settle into literary London, particularly through the activities of English PEN, but also at the many lunch and dinner parties that he organised at his house in Kensington, which became a fixture of my social life for three decades. He had an eclectic group of friends and acquaintances and was extraordinarily welcoming to strangers who were visiting London and who had been given his name. He was also unstinting in the time he was prepared to give to reading unsolicited manuscripts — a degree of self-sacrifice that I found incomprehensible. Though a strong supporter of the Conservative Party, Francis was very liberal in most ways: a gentleman of the old school, in the best sense of the term.

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