Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for November, 2011

Paddy Ashdown Is Frightened

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 9th November, 2011

The London Liberal Democrats’ fundraising dinner at the National Liberal Club this evening of course featured Brian Paddick and Caroline Pidgeon (hot-foot from the Evening Standard’s 1000 most influential Londoners awards), who both spoke of the importance of next year’s London elections. But the keynote speaker was former party leader Paddy Ashdown — now apparently carving out a career for himself as the sane alternative to David Starkey as a TV presenter — who instead focussed on the state of the world. After a well-rehearsed joke about George Brown in Peru, Paddy gave us a pretty bleak overview of short-term prospects. He said he was ‘frightened, very frightened’ by the way that the stakes are being raised in the West’s standoff with Iran. If Israel launches a pre-emptive strike against supposed nuclear weapons installations in Iran, the situation could become very dangerous, he said. On this I felt he was being quite mild; I fear it would bring about Armageddon — for the Israelis. Intriguingly, Paddy was barracked, if not exactly heckled, by one member present about the LibDems’ failure to engage with the people protesting outside St Paul`s (Occupy LSX). Brian Paddick popped up and said he had been to speak to them, but whereas he sympathised with what they were protesting about (corporate greed and bankers’ mismanagement and overpayment), he could not detect a clear message from the protestors about any solution. Perhaps that is the job of the Liberal Democrats, though it will not be easy from within the Coalition government.


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Fair Trials International

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 8th November, 2011

Fair Trials International (previously known as Fair Trials Abroad) is a unique UK-based organisation which campaigns on behalf of people unjustly or cruelly imprisoned around the world, notably those who have been waiting years for a trial or else have been extradited unfairly, or convicted in absentia. Although its remit is global, a substantial proportion of FTI’s work, surprisingly, relates to the European Union, under a project entitled Justice in Europe (part funded by the European Commission). The legal system in a number of EU states does not live up to the high standard of some others, as victims such as Andrew Symeou (who was extradited to Greece and held in horrible conditions before being aquitted) and Edmond Arapi (an Albanian now naturalised Briton who was wrongly convicted of murder in absentia in Italy) can testify. As members of the British Section of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) were told this lunchtime at a meeting in Europe House by FTI’s Chief Executive, Jago Russell, many of the cases his organisation takes up are related to the European Arrest Warrant. This instrument — brought in following the 9/11 atrocities with the support of various parties, not least the LibDem MEP Graham Watson — allows courts in EU member states to demand the extradition of people wanted on criminal charges within their jurisdiction. That has produced some excellent results, such as the swift return of one of the 7/7 London bombers from Italy. But it has also been misusued. Poland has acquired an unenviable reputation for using the EAW for trivial cases, such as demanding the extradition of someone accused of stealing a pig. But it would be wrong to throw the baby out with the bathwater — as some Eurosceptic Tories and UKIP spokespeople would like — by scrapping the EAW. What is needed is to make sure its use is limited to serious crimes. Moreover, as Jago Russell said, some EU member states really need to bring their legal and prison systems up to scratch, including getting rid of corruption, nepotism and the like. I asked him whether it should not be possible to put pressure on Poland to curb unnecessary extraditions while Warsaw holds the rotating presidency of the EU, to which the answer was that the Poles would love to, but under their post-Communist constitution they have to pursue every case to its ultimate conclusion. Clearly a need for some reform there then!


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Simon Hughes on House of Lords Reform

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 7th November, 2011

It’s a hundred years since the last serious attempt to reform Britain’s anachronistc Second Chamber was made, by the then Liberal government. And some of us who believe passionately in constitutional reform sometimes wonder if it will be another hundred before a further major step forward is made. This is despite the fact that all three main parties at the last general election pledged in their manifestos to transform the Lords by making it a wholly or mainly elected institution — and one with fewer members than at present. The Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader, Simon Hughes MP, shared his optimism with the Gladstone Club at the National Liberal Club this vening by saying we might expect the Coalition government to put forward concrete proposals in 2013 or 2014. The matter of course falls within the brief of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, which is maybe unfortunate given the AV referendum failure and lingering public anger about tuition fees. It is essential, as Simon said tonight, that NGOs, pressure groups and even the media take ownership of this overdue reform. He is personally not enamoured of the idea of a list system PR election, though I think that might be the best way forward for electing the 80% of Senators that is widely being touted — an open list system, of course, in which voters, not just the party, would state their preference among candidates on the list. It also makes sense that the Senators should be elected from the recognised European regions in the UK, of which London would be one. Simon spoke of 15-year terms, with one third of the Senators being elected at the same time as elections to the House of Commons. I would actually prefer 12-year terms, with elections that would not therefore usually coincide with a general election but which could of course be held on the same day in May as local or other elections.

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Cannes Washout

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 5th November, 2011

The G20 met in Cannes in pouring rain and failed to exude glamour, despite the best efforts of host Nicolas Sarkozy, who is in a fine state of PR denial, beaming as if all in the world is rosy. Of course, it isn’t. Cannes was a washout, in more ways than one, not least because the Big Boys (and a few Girls) of the world failed to address adequately the problems facing not just the eurozone but the global economy. It didn’t help that Italy’s PM Silvio Berlusconi was wandering around with his usual clownish antics, as if global summits are a sort of It’s A Knockout, with a bit of bunga bunga thrown in. The Danish Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, should have worn a sign on her derriere, proclaiming ‘Any fellow Prime Minister giving me an inappropriate leer will be given a red card — and go straight to jail. Do not pass Go. And above all, do not collect any backhanders.’ The other oddity was to see how totally marginalised Barack Obama was in all this. This is inevitable, of course, now that the United States is well on its way downhill after a half-century (at least) of global domination. The Chinese are not grinning, however — they have too much to lose — but after Cannes the name of the game has changed.


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Palestine, UNESCO and the US

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 4th November, 2011

The vote to accord Palestine member status at UNESCO means that the Palestinians now have their foot in the door of the United Nations and this must now make it easier for them to obtain membership of UN specialised agencies such as the WHO. Of course, the impasse regarding Palestinian membership of the United Nations itself remains. Though it would have litle difficulty in achieving a majority in the UN General Assembly, Palestine still faces the threat of a US veto if the matter comes to a difinitive vote in the Security Council, where the matter is still being considered. The United States (and Israel, predictably) voted against Palestine’s UNESCO membership and Washington then compounded its folly by withdrawing some of its funding for UNESCO as punishment. One would have hoped that such stupid tactics had ended with the Reagan presidency, but alas the Obama administration seems as keen as its prededcessors to swear its loyalty to the government and priorities of Israel, even though it is Israel that is in violation of so many UN resolutions and aspects of International Law. Thus Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have hammered another nail into the coffin of US credibility across the Arab and Islamic world, as well as among many of the other  nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America. At least Britain did not vote against Palestine at UNESCO, though I am disappointed that it abstained. It is time for the UK to stop sitting on the fence and to actively back Palestine’s integration into the world community. London already has a full Palestinian Embassy, after all, so logically we should be recognising the territory as a state as well.

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Remembering Francis King

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 2nd November, 2011

The text of the Address I will give at his Memorial Service at St Luke’s Church, Chelsea, later today:

Remembering Francis King

Francis was a man with many voices. That is, of course, the novelist’s prerogative. But he had multiple personalities as well. Many people only saw his formal side; a short and for many years rather portly figure  with Edwardian manners and movements. He’d be immaculately turned out in suit and tie, and more often than not a hat as well, chosen to match the season. His natural courtesy extended to all those strangers he encountered. More than once I witnessed the look of astonished pleasure on the face of a young waitress at the Café Rouge off Kensington Church Street when she handed him the menu and he declared in a voice redolent of the British Raj, ‘Thankyou!’

But those of us who knew Francis as a dear friend were aware of the complex individual that inhabited that courtly carapace. The man who’d chaired International PEN with such flair and tact actually had quite a low threshold of tolerance when it came to bores and time-wasters. It was a source of permanent astonishment and aggravation to him that most human beings were neither as self-disciplined nor as productive as he. Though never rude to anyone’s face, he could be devastating about them once they’d gone. Occasionally the mask would slip, as happened on one of English PEN’s annual summer outings to a place of literary interest. As the assembled party dithered and bickered about which tea-shop they should visit for afternoon refreshments, Francis’s sighs and murmerings got louder by the minute, until Josephine Pullein-Thompson – who ran these jaunts with all the military efficiency of a Pony Club event – exclaimed in exasperation, ‘Stop grizzling, Francis!’

I wonder how many of the hundreds of people Francis entertained in his role as British Council representative in Greece, Italy and Japan realised that their punctilious host also had a side that can only be described as camp. He’d apparently acquired the nickname Francesca da Rimini Pimini while at Baliol College, Oxford, and many of the hundreds of letters that I have from him are indeed signed Francesca, though in recent years he adopted another moniker: Auntie Fanoula. I realised after a while that this was actually a useful device that he’d devised, consciously or unconsciously, to let off steam. Francesca and Fanoula could be as bitchy as they wanted about mutual acquaintances, whereas Francis would never have been so indiscreet.

He did however see a certain affinity between himself and Mrs Thatcher. This conclusion was based not only on their shared Conservatism but even more importantly on the fact that both only needed four hours sleep. When Francis and I travelled together, in places as disparate as Egypt and Romania, I would struggle down to breakfast bleary-eyed to find that he had already written a review for The Spectator, or corrected the proofs of a chapter of his latest book and was now chomping at the bit to go out sight-seeing.

He was able to squeeze a lot into his 20-hour days. Though he went much more rarely to the theatre after he ceased being a drama critic, his social diary in London was packed. He disliked large gatherings, but thrived on lunch and dinner parties, of which he hosted a great number himself. As a neatly embroidered little cushion on the sideboard in the dining room of his house in Gordon Place declared, ‘The Queen Doesn’t Cook’. Catering was invariably courtesy of ‘Maisie Sparks’, the Marks and Spencer food hall in Kensington High Street. In the middle of the round glass-topped dining table sat a Lazy Susan, on which the food revolved, like in a Chinese restaurant. Often Francis had invited too many guests to fit round the table, so chairs were placed along the walls. Dessert and cheese were set out on a second sideboard underneath a magnificent reclining male nude by Duncan Grant.

Afternoons were often spent walking in Holland Park or Kew Gardens, unless Francis had some friend to visit in hospital or in prison. Visiting the afflicted and the convicted was a charitable act that was about as near as Francis got to any religious belief or practice. I don’t think he did this for the good of his soul; the very concept of ‘soul’ was lost on him. But he was fascinated by the human condition, and one often sees that at its most raw when people are vulnerable. He relished details of friends’ illnesses and treatments, as well as stories of the criminal underworld. Not surprisingly, these sometimes later filtered into his novels.

For a man who was so kind and so generous, he was extraordinarily interested in people who were mean or even wicked. They were like specimens under a microscope for him, and he would often be on the phone to me to describe the latest appalling behaviour by some acquaintance. Perhaps he was able thus vicariously to feel sensations that were completely alien to his personality. For Francis himself was one of the 20th Century’s true gentlemen, a wonderful friend and a compassionate confidant. In a nutshell: rather naughty, but so nice.

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Don’t Forget the Western Sahara

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 1st November, 2011

I spent the weekend at a spa hotel outside Algiers at the Second International Solidarity Conference with the Sahraoui people, which drew two or three hundred participants from countries as diverse as Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Ethiopia, France, Lebanon, Mexico, Namibia, Russia, South Africa and Tunisia. The Algerian TV and other media wee there in force, as the Algerian government has been the firmest friend of the Western Sahara and its independence movement, the Polisario, since Morocco ocupied the phosphate-rich western half of the territory after it ceased to be a Spanish colony. It is often wrongly said that Namibia was the final African country to gain independence, whereas actually the Sahraouis have been struggling for theirs for nearly 40 years — almost as long as the Palestinians. The Sahraoui Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), as the Western Sahara is formally known, is a full member of the African Union and has been recognised by a growing number of countries round the world, though not as yet by Britain. I shall be arguing that Britain should raise the status of the Polisario representation in London to that of an Embassy — as HMG has already done for the Palestinians — which would be an important step towards statehood. There have been numerous UN resolutions about the Sahraouis’ right to self-determination, but the Moroccans have dragged their feet for many years, thereby preventing a referendum of the people of the territory that is meant to settle the issue one way or the other. Libeal Democrats (and the old Liberal Party before) have had longstanding relations with the Westen Sahara; the late Chris (Earl of) Winchilsea was a particularly active campaigner and organiser of aid to the Sahraoui refugee camps deep in the Algerian desert. And I was pleased that LibDem MEPs — not least Andrew Duff — recently opposed the renewal of the EU fisheries agreement with Morocco because it also covers the waters off the Western Sahara. Indeed, the Coalition government has taken a more progressive line on related issues than its Labour predecessor did, but it still has the task of standing up to France in the European context, as the French are staunch supporters of Morocco and its colonial occupation. But standing up to the French is something Brits have often done rather well in the past, so perhaps on this issue we should return to our traditions!

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