Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for October, 2011

Gilgamesh Launches at Daunt Books

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 27th October, 2011

The Arab world has become not so much flavour of the month as flavour of the year, thanks to the tumultuous events that started with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia last December and the blossoming of the so-called Arab Spring. So maybe it’s not surprisig that there is now a boom in publishing about the Arab world and of literature translated from Arabic. One welcome newcomer to the field is the London-based publishing house Gilgamesh, set up by Max Scott (former Managing Director of Stacey International) and several colleagues, Gilgamesh had its first launch last night at Daunt Books, that treasure-trove of travel writing in Marylebone High Street. The book being celebrated was Lament for Jerusalem by the veteran Palestinian author, historian and archaeologist Yasmine Zahran, who was educated at London University as well as Colombia, New York, before working for UNESCO in Paris. These days she divides her time between Paris and Ramallah, also travelling to research archaeological sites. She was on fine form at the Daunt launch last night, where an eclectic mix of guests from the worlds of academics, publishing, media and diplomacy wer treated to wine and canapés with a distinctly Middle Eastern flavour. I’ll be reviewing Lament for Jerusalem, which draws its inspiration from the 614AD sacking of that great city, shortly.

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Tim Farron, Hornsey and Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 26th October, 2011

It’s rare to hear a Westminster MP talk enthusiastically about Europe, but this evening Liberal Democrat Party President Tim Farron launched into a spirited defence of the EU at a Haringey local party event in Hornsey. Clearly the adrenalin was still flowing from last night’s Commons debate on a putative EU Referendum, during which Tim had the dubious pleasure of finding himself sitting next to John Redwood, arch-Eurosceptic. Tim confessed he was only five when the last EU Referendum was held, but neither he nor the parliamentary party at large were in any hurry to see another one. As Prime Minister David Cameron had declared, the time was not right, while the eurozone, and interested countries outside it, including Britain, are trying to face up to a very serious debt crisis. Moreover, Tim believes if a Referendum were held in the near future it would likely be lost, with catastrophic consequences for the UK economy if this led to withdrawal. Too large a proportion of the electorate is still feeling sore about the Coalition government’s austerity measures, but even more important much of the Press in Britain has poisoned the debate over Europe. Rupert Murdoch and Co have been violently, vehemently anti-Europe, Tim said; if one considers their particular brand of free market global capitalism it is not hard to understand why. I am not quite so pessimistic about the outcome of any EU Referendum, if the case of EU membership were argued eloquently as it was in 1975. But I agree with the Government that at the moment it would be an unhelpful distraction, when all of Europe — including Britain — needs to be putting its shoulder to the wheel of economic recovery.

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We Need to Talk about Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 25th October, 2011

The parliamentary debate on a call for an EU referendum last night was not the most edifying of spectacles. What struck me most was the disturbing ignorance amongst many MPs — notably the Tories supporting the referendum motion — about what the EU actually is and what it does. In that, of course, they are sadly typical of their electorates, as Euro-ignorance is endemic in this country. Things are not helped by the rabidly Euro-sceptic Press (with some noble exceptions such as the Guardian, Independent and Financial Times) which peddles anti-European prejudice and often outright lies. If the EU were an individual, rather than an institution, newspapers such as the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Sunday Telegraph would repeatedly find themselves in the Courts facing libel charges. There is a desperate need  for objective public education about the European Union. Some might argue that such an educational programme could be part of any EU Referendum campaign, and I respect the opinion of those MPs who voted for a Referendum not because they loathe the EU but because they feel the issue needs to be publicly debated. In the meantime, I understand the frustration felt by French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the UK Conservative Party’s carping from the sidelines about policies in the eurozone. Now, I wonder just how many Brits could say clearly what the eurozone is, let alone be able to list its member countries?!

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London Liberal Democrats’ Autumn Conference

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 22nd October, 2011

From 1979 onwards, Britain endured 31 years of centralising government, but since May 2010 a new doctrine has been in place, as yet little referenced by the political commentariat, bedazzled as they are by distractions such as the putative EU referendum. With Eric Pickles, no less, the Minister in charge, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government has espoused the philosophy of Localism: bringing decision-making down to an appropriately lower level (something the EU’s principle of subsidiarity also promotes). This was the key theme of today’s London Liberal Democrats’ Autumn Conference, held at the University of West London in Brentford. Former local councillor Andrew Dakers reminded those of us who were present of some of the ideology and analysis behind Gordon Lishman and Tony Greaves’s mantra for Community Politics a generation ago. And a session moderated by Terry Stacy, Leader of the Opposition on Islington Borough Council, provided us with some examples of best practice from places such as Sutton (Ruth Dombey) and Liverpool (Richard Kemp). Dr Mark Pack also added his weight and experience to the subject. Listening to speeches about both localism and the London Mayoral and Assembly elections brought to my mind Chairman Mao’s dictum about walking on two legs — in this case one local, one regional. Team London, the concept that London Liberal Democrats successfully launched last year and is now integral to regional activity, understands the wisdom of that two-legged strategy — and also manages to keep one eye firmly focussed on May 2012 and the other on the borough council elections in 2014.

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Remembering Hungary’s Uprising

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 21st October, 2011

The world was so mesmerised yesterday by the capture and summary execution of Muammar Gaddafi that most people failed to notice the 55th anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising. Coincidentally the events in Budapest in 1956 were also overshadowed by North Africa so far as London and Paris and even Washington were concerned because of the Suez Crisis. But last night the Hungarian Embassy in London hired the circular great hall at Church House Westminster — the place where the Synod of the Church of England meets — to host a reception in memory of what is now referred to as the Hungarian Revolution. I mused that for well over half a century, the word ‘Revolution’ had been tainted by Communism, but the Arab Awakening — and in particular Egypt’s February 2011 Revolution — has given the term a new respectability, even chic. In case anyone present doubted just how firmly Hungary has returned into the European mainstream, Ambassador Janos Csak (who sports a moustache that would have graced the Austro-Hungarian Empire) led everyone present, including the Conservative junior Foreign Minister Lord Howell, in a rendition of the Hungarian and British national anthems.

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Gaddafi: The End of an Era

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 20th October, 2011

The capture and fatal shooting of Libya’s long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi brings to an end over four decades of the country’s Green Revolution. It is hard to remember now that when he first came to power there was widespread jubilation in Libya. But like many rulers who stay in office too long, he got more ruthless and despotic as the years went by, and he failed to ensure that the people benefitted from the country’s oil wealth. Gaddafi and his henchmen liked to pretend that Libya was run by people’s committees, and that he had no direct control himself. But everyone in Libya knew that was a lie and that even the hint of opposition could land one in jail, where torture was endemic and where hundreds, maybe thousands, of people were executed. I visited Libya many times over the past 20 years, travelling from west to east and north to south, much of it in a four-wheel drive. I was well aware how deeply the people of Benghazi in particular hated Gaddafi, but I also knew he had his supporters in Tripoli, Sirte and elsewhere. It is a remarkable tribute to the NTC forces (‘the rebels’, who must now be called the government) than they managed to topple the regime, albeit with assistance from NATO, Qatar and the UAE. Now comes the difficult task of reconstruction and reconciliation; one can only hope that the journey ahead is smoother than that being experienced next door in Egypt. For today, though, the mood amongst most, though not all, Libyans is one of celebration. The man who could have ordered their death on a whim has been dragged out of the pipe in which he was hiding and shot. Of course, those of us in the liberal West would have preferred to see him captured alive and brought to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, to be tried on charges of crimes against humanity. But many Libyans are just glad the nightmare is over and that Gaddafi perished inside the country he plundered for 42 years.


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Gregorio Zanon at the Wigmore Hall

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 19th October, 2011

The Swiss Ambassador’s concert has become a much-loved feature of London’s diplomatic calendar and it is good that H.E. Anton Thalmann has carried the tradition through to its 13th year. As usual this evening there was a generous reception at the Residence before the 300+ guests ambled through the streets of Marylebone in the balmy autumn air to the Wigmore Hall. The performers this year were the cellist Lionel Cottet and the pianist Louis Schwizgebel-Wang. The first half of the programme was charming and safe: Betthoven’s Sonata in F major (op. 5, no. 1) and Schubert’s Lieder for cello and piano, arranged by the performers. But after the audience had been fortified by yet more Mauler Swiss sparkling wine, the second half was much more adventurous. There was the world premiere of the young Swiss composer Gregorio Zanon’s ‘…and still there is room to fill’, skating the line between melodious and atonal — actually the sort of music I was trying to write during my short stint at the Northern School of Music many years ago, only infinitely better. After that, Cottet and Schwizgebel-Wang really came into their own in a spirited rendition of Brahms’ Sonata No. 2 in F major (op. 99), though I have to say that for me the crowning glory of the evening was the encore: a brilliant, energetic rendition of Shostakovich. I hope they are invited back, but this time to play a more ambitious programme, especially of 20th Century Russian composers with whom they could let rip.


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Caroline Havers’ A Walk in the Park

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 18th October, 2011

Caroline Havers, wife of the No 2 at the Dutch Embassy in London, looks down on Kensington Gardens from their flat in the Embassy building in Hyde Park Gate and since arriving in London she has been regularly taking walks there, as well as in Hyde Park. This experience has deeply infused her latest series of paintings, semi-abstract landscapes that are a riot of bright colours and which are currently enlivening Smith Square’s Europe House, headquarters of the European Commission and European Parliament in England. As the programme note to her current exhibition states, her use of colour is luscious; I particularly savoured the vibrant ‘Yellows Along the Serpentine’. Water is a key element, but so too the seasons — all a very different vista from her earlier work focussed more narrowly on flowers, trees and animals. The Dutch Ambassador, Pim Waldeck, gave a witty and well-thought out short speech at the vernissage, confirming his position as one of the more culturally intelligent plenipotentiaries accredited to the Court of St James’s. It was lovely also to see there Maggi Hambling, whose work launched Europe House at its opening, reminding us by her presence just how diverse and exciting exhibitions there have proved to be.

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George Mitchell and David Miliband on the Middle East

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 17th October, 2011

Chatham House this afternoon hosted a ‘conversation’ with former US Senator George Mitchell and former Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband on the theme ‘The Middle East in the 21st Century’. It was striking that the focus of the discussion was almost entirely about that most 20th Century of questions: the Arab-Israeli conflict and the related ongoing occupation of the Palestinian West Bank. George Mitchell — who was President Obama’s Envoy to the region for a period — believes there will be a two-state solution one day, but stuck to Washington’s line that this can only come about through negotiation. I made the point that so long as settlement expansion continues, in East Jerusalem as well as in the West Bank, there can be no negotiated settlement and indeed a Palestinian state is looking increasingly unviable. The US is the only country that can put sufficient pressure on the Israeli government to halt settlements, but it has shown its unwillingness to back calls for a halt with any action (such as cutting aid to Israel). Moreover, George Mitchell — charming and drily witty as he is — also endorsed the US line on voting against the Palestinian Authority’s current attempt to get statehood recognised at the United Nations. David Miliband, interestingly, said he thought that President Abbas had used brilliant tactics in making this move, in that it thrust the issue of Palestine into the limelight when it was running the risk of being overshadowed by the so-called Arab Spring. David Miliband also wished to see the peace efforts further internationalised, with Arab states having a more direct input and Europe making its voice heard more strongly.

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Responsibility to Protect

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 14th October, 2011

This afternoon, at the Liberal International Executive at the National Liberal Club in London, I gave a presentation on my paper on Responsibility to Protect, which will be the theme of a day-long conference in the capital tomorrow. I argued that Liberals have to approach the subject from the perspective of their core values, such as freedom, human rights and the Rule of Law. International Law is evolving constantly, and for the past decade or so, R2P — as it’s known in the trade — has become a core issue of concern when governments show themselves unable or unwilling to protect their populations from genocide, gross human rights violations such as systematic rape etc; then there comes a time when the international community must react. Ideally, the first responsibility is to prevent: to take preventive action before things get too bad. Then there might be the responsibility to act: perhaps first by economic sanctions — military intervention must be a last resort, but it will sometimes be necessary. And lastly there is the responsibility to rebuild. As we have seen recently in Libya, such intervention can succeed, when it is genuinely supported not only by a significant proportion of the local population but also by other countries in the region. But often the world is reluctant to intervene or else the UN Security Council blocks things because of the political alignment of one or more of its permanent member states. This may mean that regions increasingly have to take on the role of policing the behavour or countries in their area, though thar is by no means simple in all cases. One hopes tomorrow’s conference might produyce some guidelines.


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