Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for August, 2011

We Don’t Need a Religious Right in Britain

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 30th August, 2011

One topic I get my students at SOAS to discuss each year is the familiar proposition that Religion and Politics should never mix. Of course, historically in Britain they often did. Until the emergence of the SDP in the early 1980s, the Church of England was often referred to as the Conservative Party at prayer. And both Methodists and Quakers had a big influence on the old Liberal Party. But secularism has swept Britain over the past 50 years and the fall in church attendance has been mirrored by a distancing of most politicans from overtly religious standpoints. As Alastair Campbell famously said when he was the master of dark arts at 10 Downing Street, “We don’t do God.” — though in the case of Tony Blair himself, that proved to be completely untrue. One cheeky journalist is said to have asked Blair if he prayed with George W Bush. And of course, in the United States, religion and politics most certainly do mix, whether it is in the form of the liberal Christianity of Barack Obama or the disturbing beliefs of the Christian Right and the Christian Zionists, with their hatred of homosexuals, Muslims and many others who aren’t like themselves. Liberals in Britain have comforted themselves with the assumption that we don’t have that sort of Religious Right here in the UK, but recent trends have suggested that may not be the case. Maybe the Religious Right didn’t dare show its head above the parapet before, or simply didn’t get organised. That doesn’t mean it won’t. And if it does, both the secularists and those believers of moderate or even radical political views need to be prepared to rebut any suggestion that the Religious Right has God and morality firmly on their side.

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Ionescu’s Chairs at Camden Fringe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 28th August, 2011

There is so much good theatre going on in London, both in and outside the West End,  that I sadly miss many things I really would like to have seen, being too busy with writing, lecturing, politics and travel. But I was really pleased today to be winkled out of my Summer Bank Holiday home retreat to see an old friend from Brussels, Alison Sandford, performing with David Brett in Eugene Ionescu’s ‘The Chairs’ in an Atelier Community Theatre production at The Etcetera Theatre above the Oxford Arms pub in Camden High Street. Today is the last day of the Camden Fringe, four weeks of performances of many kinds that have taken place around the borough. I think the last time I saw the play (in its original French) was at school, when I was doing French A-level. To be honest, I remembered almost nothing about it; as with all Ionescu’s absurdist writing, not much happens and people seem to be living in their own mad little worlds, to a grimly hilarious effect. Sandford and Brett are perfectly paired in this fine production by Vasile Nedelcu. Sandford’s old woman is motherly, but also childlike, and one gets flashes of suppressed lust hiding somewhere under her copious petticoats. David Brett is superb as the little old man who has achieved very little in life but lives with his illusions and inflated memories. The translation by Donald Watson is first rate. I do hope the production will be shown elsewhere so more people can have a really enjoyable experience.


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Stop Using Clegg as a Whipping-Boy!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 26th August, 2011

Yesterday in Glasgow a protestor threw blue paint into Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s face, splattering not only him but the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Willie Rennie, and some policemen (the last of whom are expected to press charges). Clegg’s team laughed off the incident, saying that as Nick has small children, he’s used to getting splashed. The protestor was doubtless making the point crudely that some voters in Britain feel that Clegg has turned the Liberal Democrats into Tories by joining with the Conservatives in Coalition government. Anyone who hears Nick speak, or reads recent statements he has put out, for example in defending human rights legislation, cannot honestly believe that. It’s maybe true that he sometimes seems to get on too well with Prime Minister David Cameron, though a good working relationship is of course necessary for a functioning coalition. And of course the LibDems didn’t get all of their manifesto commitments into the government programme; they are the junior partner, after all, yet they achieved most of what they wanted nonetheless. The same could be said about the Conservatives. But what has become abundantly clear is that over the past year or so, Nick Clegg has become a whipping-boy for the Left, having every criticism of the government — however fair or unfair — hurled at him personally. At times it has appeared that some Conservatives are happy for that to be the case. They should stop, and so should Labour or other opposition supporters and actually take the trouble to find out what Nick Clegg the man is like, what he believes in, and why he felt it was right to take a radical party like the Liberal Democrats into the Coalition after last year’s inconclusive election.

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Tim Clement-Jones and Social Angst

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 24th August, 2011

If you have a social event lined up with a top rank political speaker and then suddenly a council by-election is called, what should you do? Camden LibDems provided the answer this evening when they moved the speaker event with Lord Clement-Jones from its original venue to the house of the candidate in the said  by-election, Martin Hay, so at least some of the guests could come on after campaigning. The by-election is in Highgate and Martin is the only candidate standing who actually lives in the ward. He and his wife put on a wonderful spread of smoked salmon, French cheeses and extremely good wine, while Tim regaled us with tales of being a backbench member of the House of Lords. Of course he does not agree with everything the Government is doing — no Liberal Democrat does — but that is life within a Coalition, where you only get some of what you want. Interestingly, Tim said that he thought students would come to realise that they are actually going to better off under the new system of post-graduation payments than they are under the one set up by Labour. But there is no denying it was a mistake to persuade PPCs to make the pledge to scrap tuition fees, which Vince Cable, for one, had declared unsustainable. Tim understands some of what he called ths social angst at present, and he is not alone amongst LibDem peers in feeling the current cuts are maybe too much too fast. In good LibDem fashion he would have preferred something somewhere between what George Osborne has demanded and what Labour would have done had they been returned to power. But he was buoyed by the latest ICM poll just out which puts the party up at 17% (Tories 37%, Labour 36%), which is a much rosier picture thn YouGov and others have been painting.

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The Bell Tolls for Dictators

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 22nd August, 2011

Like many bloggers and tweeters I stayed up late last night, transfixed by the scenes in Tripoli, where the National Liberation Army (as I prefer to call it) penetrated neighbourhoods of the city, including the iconic Green Square, which was immediately renamed Martyrs’ Square. At least two of Mouammar Gaddafi’s sons have been captured and it can only be a matter of time before Gaddafi himself is cornered. Will he do a Hitler and shoot himself, or arrange things so that he gets killed? Or will the cause of justice be served by him and some of his closest associates being taken to the International Criminal Court (ICC)? It’s staggering to think how fast events have moved since the impoverished Tunisian fruit-vendor Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself last December. The Tunisian President Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, Egypt’s President Mubarak was forced to resign and is now on trial, Yemen’s President Saleh was seriously injured in clashes during the uprising to oust him and remains in hospital in Saudi Arabia — which has a reputation now as the retirement home for dictators, beginning with Uganda’s Idi Amin. And now Gaddafi’s day of judgement is nigh. To remind ourselves of the speed and significance of these events, just take a look at the photo here of the four dictators looking so pleased with themselves at an African Union Summit last year. And next? Syria, inshallah.

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Peter Brookes: The Best of Times

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 21st August, 2011

There are many good reasons not to read the Times, Rupert Murdoch being the most obvious. But one of that newspaper’s best features for some years now has been the output of political cartoonist Peter Brookes. Like all the best of his breed, he is topical, irreverent and puts the boot in where it’s needed. Unlike some cartoonists, however, he draws charicatures that are clearly identifiable, no matter how far-fetched the distortion. I think particularly of his Nature Notes, which have, for example, featured Harriet Harman as a praying mantis, Nicolas Sarkozy as a cockerel on stilts and Hazel Blears as a snail. No-one of any political party or natonality is free from his humorous barbs. Fortunately, every so often his very best cartoons appear in beautifully reproduced full-colour collections such as the one I have been savouring this afternoon: The Best of Times… (JR Books, London, 2009; £15.99). Peter Brookes holds no-one sacred, be it the Pope, the Queen or Barack Obama. Moreover, his willingness to get right to the bone prompts outright guffaws, such as his drawing of a very smug Bill Clinton declaring: ‘Fellow Democrats, trust me! Would I ever leave a sour taste in you mouth?!’ Because the volume covers the final years of the last Labour government, both Tony Blair (over Iraq) and Gordon Brown (portrayed naked on a sofa, in a pastiche of Lucian Freud’s ‘Benefit Supervisor Sleeping’) get it in the neck. I particularly love the image of a manic Cherie Blair, with terrifying grin, typing her autobiography on an old-fashioned cash register. And there is an unfogettable image of John Prescott impaled by a croquet hoop on a croquet lawn while Peter Mandelson aims a ball straight between his legs. As Liberal Democrats were not yet in government, they don’t fgure very much in this collection, apart from poor old Ming Campbell drawn alongside a Thora Hird-style stair-lift and Nick Clegg as a bird called the Great Shag. But I am sure there will be lots for LibDems to groan and giggle over by the time the next collection of Peter Brookes’s work comes out.


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EU-Russia Relations

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 20th August, 2011

The European Union’s relations with Russia hit a low in the summer of 2008, when Russian troops intervened in Georgia. And the energy crisis triggered by the Ukrainian gas dispute of January 2009 didn’t help. But in the two-and-a-half years since then, there has been a degree of reconciliation, or at least the mutual acceptance of a kind of modus vivendi. As  the Centre for European Studies’ short book, EU-Russia Relations: Time for a Realistic Turnaround (CES, Brussels, 2011), points out, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wants to see more Western investment in Russia, while President Dmitry Medvedev concedes that Russia will need Western (including European) assistance if it is to modernise. One of the main conclusions of the book is that at the end of the day, Russia needs Europe more than Europe needs Russia. Three authors have provided short essays that form the core of the work: Katinka Barysch (the Deputy Director of the Centre for European Reform), my chum Christopher Coker (Professor of International Relations at the LSE) and Leszak Jesien (EU coordinator at the Polish Institute  of International Affairs). It is good to have a Pole involved, as the Polish-Russian dynamic has often been the most problematic within the overall EU-Russia relationship. A central, stark warning by the book’s authors is that the EU still tries to change not only what Russia does but also what it is. Europeans like to think that Russians should be just like us, whereas in fact they aren’t, and probably never will be. In short, Russia is not a Western society.

Christopher Coker takes a cultural approach to the subject. He draws a valuable distinction between what we profess (values) and what we practise (norms). He pulls no punches: ‘Russia is less a functioning nation state than a collection of vested interests… Russia is still trapped in the old ways of thinking.’ He nonetheless foresees a way of resolving the dilemma inherent in bilateral relations: ‘Only by granting [Russia] a distinctive identity will be able to acknowledge that its norms may not be ours, any more than ours are America’s.’ Leszek Jesien focuses on energy relations and trade. Russia enjoys a faourable balance of trade with the EU, but its exports are mainly gas and steel — commodities that are vulnerable to the whims of the market. Europe, on the other hand, is keen to secure its energy supply, even though the trade is currently mainly bilateral between Russia and EU member states, rather than being coordinated Europe-wide. Russia uses energy supplies as an instrument in its foreign policy. ‘For Russia, energy seems to be more like a chess game than a market game,’ Jesien writes. Europe needs to build up a single energy market, he argues. Finally, Katinka Barysch examines the institutional framework. The admission of central and eastern European states into the EU during he 2000s complicated maters considerably, even driving Russia to argue for compensation because of new barriers to trade with its former satellite partners. The current institutions for EU-Russia relations function badly, she argues. But we need to recognise that a chaotic, angry and unstable Russia is a risk to European security and prosperity, So the EU must continue to offer assistance and advice in helping Riussia strengthen the rule of law, build solid institutions, diversify its economy and develop a vibrant civil society.



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Israel/Palestine: Déja Vu All over Again

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 19th August, 2011

The tragic cycle of violence has restarted in Israel-Palestine, this time triggered by a terrorist attack on bus passengers in southern Israel not far from Eilat. The Israelis say the killers infiltrated from Gaza via Sinai, which both Hamas and the Egyptians deny. Whatever the truth of the matter, reprisal strikes were almost immediate, with several Gazan militants being killed — along with civilians, including children. Inevitably, given the assymetrical nature of the conflict, the Palestinian death-toll of the past 24 hours has already surpassed that of Israelis this year. Moreover, as I write, Egyptian media are reporting more bombing raids over Gaza, more deaths (including more children). Will this cycle of violence never end? The armed wing of Hamas has declared that its ceasefire has been suspended, which is an ominous indication that Israel can expect more rockets or other attacks, which in turn will more than likely lead to yet more disproportionate bloodshed in Gaza at the hands of the IDF. All this, of course, in the run-up to the Palestinians’ plan to ask for statehood at the United Nations next month. Indeed, the timing of that is so close that this seems more than a coincidence. Someone, somewhere, wants that initiative strangled at birth. The so-called Middle East Peace Process already was long ago.

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The Kettner Lunch AGM

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 18th August, 2011

For 38 years, the Kettner Lunch has been attracting guest speakers from politics, industry and the Arts on an almost monthly basis, originally under the sponsorship of Peter Boizot, founder of Pizza Express and then owner of Kettner’s restaurant in Soho. These days, the Club meets in the National Liberal Club in Whitehall Place, Westminster, under the chairmanship of retired probation officer, Peter Whyte. Memorable lunches so far this year have included an address by the pollster Sir Robert Worcester, the author Colin Dexter and junior Transport Minister Norman Baker. Coming up are the Vice President of the European Parliament, Edward Macmillan-Scott (22 September), the eminent legal authority Lord Carlile of Berriew (18 October), a speaker from the Dollis Hill House Trust (16 November) and the Chairman of the Royal Mail, Donald Boydon (5 December). Membership of the Club is open to people sympathetic to its liberal educational aims at a very modest cost. It was moreover decided at the AGM at the NLC today that the Kettner Lunch club will apply for charitable status in the near future.


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Regenerating London’s Neighbourhoods

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th August, 2011

It has long been said that London is a city of many villages, but in recent years the ‘village feel’ about many areas has disappeared. This is partly because of insensitive redevelopment, but a more serious cause is the change in people’s lifestyles. Many Londoners today simply don’t know their neighbours, don’t patronize their local shops (apart from quick dashes to the nearest convenience store when the milk runs out) and they plan their social life city-wide. That’s all very well up to a point, but only up to a point. Neighbourhoods should be communities, diverse yet united and concerned with maintaining or improving the local quality of life. Of course, this concept was at the heart of ‘Community Politics’, launched by the old Liberal Party back in the 1970s. But it needs to be dusted down and re-invigorated, especially in our capital city. Paradoxically, the violence, destruction and looting of the past week has indirectly given a healthy impetus to the process of regeneration. People have come out of their little cocoons or dormitory-apartments and declared a stake in their neighbourhood. Political parties, faith groups and community organisations should seize the moment and regenerate the character and spirit of their neighbourhoods before people slip back into their isolation and their inertia.

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