Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for December, 2011

Christians, Syria and the Arab Spring

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 20th December, 2011

I’m often asked: why hasn’t Syria gone the way of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Yemen, to which my short answer has been: because of the country’s religious diversity. There are many things one can legitimately criticise the al-Assad regime for over the past 40 years, not least the brutal crackdown on dissent since this April. But one thing the government in Damascus has done has been to protect the interests of minorities such as Christians and Druze, as well as the Alawites who form a significant part of the government and army apparatus. The greatest danger that the country faces as it teeters on the brink of civil war — which one could objectively argue has started already — is that srife could occur along sectarian lines. As Revd Nadim Nassar, a Syrian Anglican priest now based in London, confirmed at a meeting of the Liberal International British Group (LIBG) at the National Liberal Club last evening, this means that some Christians are petrified that any overthrow of the current regime could lead to an Islamic government which would not give them the rights they enjoy today. Over 70 per cent of Syria’s population is Sunni Muslim, though only a small proportion of those would identify with the Muslim Brotherhood (for decades the Assad’s main bugbear) let alone more extreme salafis or Islamic fundamentalists. Revd Nassar said that when he was a schoolboy, people really weren’t aware or particularly bothered who was Muslim or who was Christian in his class; as in his case, often one couldn’t even tell from somebody’s name. And at some Christian shrines in Syria you can also find Muslims praying. But Revd Nassar despairs that in the West — including Britain — most people make the simplistic equation Middle East = Muslim (and extremist, to boot), without recognising the significance of the Christian communities in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, notably. That is why he and colleagues set up the Awareness Foundation, to help Church congregations amongst others learn and understand about the realities in both the Middle East and Europe and make sense of their faith in today’s world. The organisation has eschewed the more theoretical or academic approach of bodies such as the Alliance of Civilizations (spearheaded by Turkey and Spain), calling instead for practical programmes which change minds and attitudes among ordinary people. This was all certainly a new take for many members of LIBG and of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum, which co-hosted the NLC meeting. In a nutshell, the issues are far more complicated that simply democracy versus dictatorship.


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Cleaning up Oscar Wilde

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 18th December, 2011

This weekend in Paris the usual tide of pilgrims to the tomb of Irish playwright Oscar Wilde were able to see the product of approximately 40,000 euros-worth of renovation, most of that funding being provided by the Irish government. The maginificent carving by Jacob Epstein — commissioned by Oscar’s friend and patron, Helen Carew — has sat in the Pere Lachaise cemetery for over a hundred years, but over the last 50 or so it has suffered from repeated assaults by the passionate lips of female admirers, who left stains of lipstick all over the solid base. Not only did this require considerable cleaning to get the marks off, but there had even been a corrosive effect on the stone. To prevent this happening again, a two-metre high plate-glass screen has been erected round the cleaned tomb. Some fans are distraught and a few lip impressions have already appeared on the glass. But I think most Wildeans will concur with Oscar’s grandson, Merlin Holland, who unveiled the restoration earlier this month and who was not only concerned about the damage being done to the monument (which had its prominent genitalia chopped off by a vandal some time in the 1960s) but also argued that the effect of the kisses was unsightly. The glass screen itself is pretty unsightly, it has to be admitted, but at least it should perform a useful function. Wilde himself would be amused that 111 years after his death he is still hailed as a literary genius as well as a social reformer and (some would argue) LGBT martyr, and that his tomb is the subject of so much conversation in Paris. But as he himself said, there is only thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.

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Mohamed Bouazizi’s Legacy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 17th December, 2011

A year ago today the young Tunisian itinerant fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself outside the municipal offices in the southern town of Sidi Bou Zid. He had reached the end of his tether after months of harassment and humiliation at the hands of the police and the authorities; little could he know that his act would trigger the undiginfied departure into exile of longstanding President Ben Ali and the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring (which I prefer to refer to as the New Arab Awakening). A year on, the leaders of Egypt, Libya and Yemen have gone and Syria’s President Assad is under threat. But the democratisaton process has been neither as swift nor as smooth as that which happened in central and eastern Europe 22 years ago. People are still losing their lives, not only in the worsening civil war in Syria, but also in ongoing incidents in Egypt, notably. It is still far from clear whether Egypt’s Revolution will lead to what many of the liberal-minded demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Cairo hoped for. Moreover, minor disturbances or marches continue in other parts of the Arab world, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It is not only dictatorial presidents who are potentially at risk now but also some hereditary monarchs. But even though Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-sacrifice was an act of despair, as Tunisia today leads commemorations of the first anniversary of his self-immolation, there is hope that at least in some parts of the Middle East and North Africa we are seeing the dawn of greater respect for the aspirations of ordinary people and for human rights.

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Lessons from Feltham and Heston

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 16th December, 2011

Labour won the Feltham and Heston parliamentary by-election in Hounslow, Greater London, yesterday, which was hardly a surprise; it would have been astonishing if the result had been anything else than a comfortable hold in a traditionally safe Labour seat 18 months into a Con-LD Coalition government that is pursuing a policy of cuts. But there were some elements worth remarking. The first was the appallingly low turnout — less than 29 per cent — which shows a serious disengagement from politics by much of the electorate. The second notable fact was that the postal vote turnout was more than twice that level. Elections can easily be won or lost on the postal vote, which makes it all the more urgent that measures are implemented to avoid the sort of postal vote fraud that undoubtedly occurs in some parts of Britain. Roger Crouch, the Liberal Democrat candidate, was an excellent choice and would have made a first rate MP, and he did well to hold on to the party’s third place despite a very strong and well-resourced campaign by UKIP at a time when Europhobia is rampant in much of the UK media. I was a little concerned that some of the LibDem literature was banging on too much about Roger’s “local” credentials, when the Tory candidate is a local councillor and the victorious Labour candidate Seema Malhotra spent a lot of her youth in the area, even if she reportedly now lives in Chelsea. The LibDem literature did highlight some important local issues that had been raised by Hounslow residents and party activists. But the campaign probably needed more of a persuasive national LibDem narrative: why should people vote LibDem nationally at the moment?

The standard line is that having LibDems in Cabinet has restrained the Conservatives from bringing in some of their more right-wing policies, which is undoubtedly true. But it was difficult to make that sound convincing at a time when David Cameron had essentially ignored LibDem pressure and advice vis-à-vis the recent Brussels Summit. Another issue which the LibDems have to come to terms with is that despite the austerity measures and a surge in protests from some sections of the British public, the Conservatives are proving resilient. The latest national opinion poll actually puts them just ahead (CON 41%, LAB 40%, LD 10%). That reality was underlined by the double by-election in the Coombe Vale ward in Kingston, which also took place yesterday, and which the Tories held by a clear margin despite a very concerted and well-focussed LibDem campaign.

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Germany’s Despair at Cameron

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 13th December, 2011

When Angela Merkel met David Cameron 10 days ago, she told him, ‘I want to help you!’ She understood that he had problems with his Europhobic backbenchers and was offering to work with him quietly to help sort out some way that last week’s EU summit in Brussels could help find a structure in which to strengthen the euro (and the eurozone with it) while meeting some of Britain’s particular concerns. But instead of welcoming this offer, when the summit’s opening dinner went on well into the night, the British Prime Minister threw his toys out of the pram, actually jeopardising Britain’s best interests in the process. He had of course already marginalised his party from the European mainstream by pulling it out of the EPP — to which Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and many of the EU’s other big hitters belong — so he wasn’t even present at the crucial EPP Leaders’ pre-meeting in Marseilles, or even properly plugged in to what was happening on the Continent in recent weeks. The Germans were aghast at his behaviour, I am reliably informed from the highest source — and not especially delighted that this allowed Sarkozy to prance around crowing like a cockerel ruling the roost. Nonetheless, the Germans have decided to keep schtum, as they believe that openly attacking Cameron would only make matters worse. They will remain silent while praying that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats manage to row the Coalition Government at least a little way back from the disastrous place that Cameron has landed us in. German banks based in the City are horrified by the way things are going; far from helping the City of London, they say, the PM risks undermining it. And a final comment from my high-level source from Berlin (with which I can only concur): ‘Those politicians and newspapers in Britain who describe themselves as Eurosceptics are not sceptical at all. Scepticism implies a healthy determination not to accept something until one has examined it thoroughly. They are actually Europhobes, who blatantly ignore or distort the truth unless it happens to fit in with their own prejudices.’

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Mulling over Cameron’s Misguided Move

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 11th December, 2011

This Sunday is traditionally the time when Liberal Democrats in London stop writing Focus leaflets and do a bit of festive socialising as a reward for working hard all year round. And today the parties did indeed take place — I attended a lunch put on in Barnes by the local branch, then a mulled wine and mince party in Hornsey — but the conversation at both was highly political. This is not just because two elections are due to take place next Thursday: the parliamentary contest in Feltham and Heston (where I ran into Ken Livingstone and a posse of Labour MPs, including my local MP Jim Fitzpatrick, while I was out delivering yesterday) and a double local council by-election in the Coombe Vale ward of Kingston borough. Most LibDem members, including me, are furious at the way David Cameron mishandled the Brussels EU Summit, pandering to his Eurosceptics but marginalising Britain in the process. The Tory Little Emglanders will doubtless cheer him to the rafters when he addresses the House of Commons tomorrow, but I hope LibDem MPs will blow him a giant raspberry. Certainly the comments from Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, Lord (Paddy) Ashdown and others have been pretty strong, as have the criticisms from the UK LibDem MEPs, most significantly Sharon Bowles. At the Barnes event this lunchtime, Susan Kramer — until 2010 the local MP and now a highly valued member of the House of Lords (as well as being President-elect of London Liberal Democrats) — gave an excellent short summary of what happened at the summit and its possible consequences. In Hornsey, local MP and Home Office junior Minister Lynne Featherstone preferred to concentrate more on the very real ‘wins’ on equality issues which the LibDems have managed to obtain since going into government. But most of us will be going to bed tonight thinking more of the big losses to Britain’s standing in the world that our misguided Conservative Prime Minister has inflicted on us.

[Photo shows blogger Mark Pack, Lynne Featherstone MP, Enfeld and Haringey GLA candidate Dawn Barnes and JF]

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Cruising the Thames with Brian Paddick

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 10th December, 2011

London Liberal Democrats scored a ‘first’ last night when about a hundred of us were entertained on a Thames river cruise aboard the M.V. Eltham. We were blessed with a clear night, which meant that the illuminated buildings on either shore looked truly magnificent. The new vista of Tower Bridge with the half-completed Shard of Glass rearing up not that far away was particularly striking. The event was a fundraiser for the London 2012 Mayoral and GLA campaigns, with mayoral candidate Brian Paddick and most of the GLA candidates on board — indeed one of them, Merlene Emerson, was the prime organiser of the event. After a supper of lasagne and salad, we were given a performance of African music and dance by a group from the university where I teach, SOAS, and the evening was compered with Yuletide panache by LibDem activist Ben Mathis, whose jokes were as corny and seasonal as those inside Christmas crackers. I was roped in to be Santa Claus — my fault for growing a white beard, I suppose — and doled out the raffle prizes from a scarlet sack. The whole evening was a great success, as well as being fun; the London campaign is more advanced and already better funded than in 2008, and Brian Paddick is positively fizzing and popping with energy for the fight ahead.


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Sakharov Prize 2011

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 9th December, 2011

Next week, at a formal session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought will be awarded to five representatives of the Arab Spring movement: posthumously to the Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation partly triggered the whole new Arab Awakening; Asmaa Mafouz (Egypt), Ahmed al-Zubair Ahmed al-Sanusi (Libya), Razan Zeitouneh and Ali Farzat (both Syria). The Prize is named after the Soviet physicist and political dissdent Andrei Sakharov and has been awarded annually by the European Parliament since 1988 to individuals or organizations who have made an important contribution to the fight for human rights or democracy. Last year’s laureate was Guillermo Farinas from Cuba, whose government refused to allow him to travel to France to collect it. Here in London, the European Parliament representation hosted an event at Europe House on Thursday, to mark the prize, though the subject was not the Arab Spring but rather the broad issue of human rights, and in particular attempts in Britain to get rid of the Human Rights Act and thereby disassociate ourselves from some of the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR, which is a product of the Council or Europe, not the European Union, of course). The Conservative MP Robert Buckland and Conservative MEP Charles Tannock, from slightly different perspectives, argued how they thought Britain would be better off with its own legislative provisions, but Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, fiercely defended the Council of Europe and the ECHR, and from the rumblings in the audience, including from some pro-Euro Tories, the majority were on her side. Incidentally, had we known what David Cameron was going to do at the EU Summit in Brussels subsequently, I suspect the rumbings would have been more like howls of outrage.


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The Conservative Party and Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 7th December, 2011

Ben Patterson, former Tory MEP and EU Parliament official, this evening at Europe House, Westminster, launched his new book, The Conservative Party and Europe (John Harper Publishing, £20), which I will be reviewing elsewhere. The timing could not have been more perfect, nor the author more qualified to remind us all that it was the Conservatives (under Ted Heath) who took Britain into the EU, who under Lord Cockfield’s brilliant guidance helped fashion the Single Market (endorsed by Margaret Thatcher) and who may — yes indeed, may — help take us forward into the next stage of necessary European integration, despite the huffing and puffing of Bill Cash, Daniel Hannon et al. Ken Clarke, who wrote a foreword to Ben’s book, was with us at the launch in spirit, if not in body, as probably would have been Michael Heseltine. Tory Peers who did show their faces (and pinned their Euro-colours to the mast) were Lords (Leon) Brittan and (Richard) Inglewood, the latter giving a short address. Otherwise, the room was filled with numerous LibDems (several of whom had moved from the Conservatives or the SDP, because of their Europhilia). Chatting with Graham Bishop, John Stevens, Stephen Haseler and others, I was delighted to find support for my contention that far from making those in favour of Europe despondent, the current critical situation in the eurozone gives us the ideal opportunity to rally the force of Euro-realism. David Cameron needs to be able to show how many pro-Europeans there are in Britain, so he can be confident enough to tame his Euro-sceptic head-bangers. And Nick Clegg, whose Euro-credentials are impeccable, needs to have the courage to stand up and champion the message from the front. History will bless him if he does.


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Boris the Boricua

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 6th December, 2011

London Mayor Boris Johnson this evening had his fifth meeting with the capital’s Ibero-American community, i.e. the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking populace, who are thought to number about 700,000 in the city, and over one million in Britain as a whole. As a warm-up act, those of us (including several Ambassadors) who had gathered in one of the large meeting halls of Senate House, University of London, were entertained with an interesting power-point presentation which highlighted those areas where the community is strongest, including Southwark and Lambeth (mainly Hispanic Americans and Portuguese), Brent (Brazilians) and Tottenham (a bit of everything). Isaac Bigio, the indefatigible Peruvian journalist and Ibero-American community activist who has been one of the prime movers in getting this section of London’s diverse population politically motivated, gave an amusing stream-of-conscious style introduction to Boris, claiming that because the Mayor had been born in a Puerto Rican trust hospital in New York (true), his parents had called him Boris, as a nod to boricua (which is what PR natives call themselves). That got a big laugh and a round of applause, but Boris himself — who is not so much a Mayor as a performance — provided an alternative and rather moving explanation, which was that he was called Boris after a man who had known his parents when they were living in Mexico and who had stumped up the airfare to New York so the pregnant Charlotte Johnson (a painter whom I knew in Brussels, along with her husband Stanley) could give birth in the comparative safety of the United States. Boris — who is the spitting image of his father, even down to his voice and intonation — was his usual charming bafoon self, mixing overtly political points with wild gestures, sighs and outrageous exclamations. One of his more challenging over-the-top statements was that we Londoners are now ‘going through a neo-Victorian period of investment in our city,’ which offers great prospects for progress and infrastructure. If he uses that line much in the run-up to next May’s elections, I’m sure his opponents will be quick to point out that whereas the Victorian age was wonderful for capitalists and professionals, life for much of the urban poor was pretty dire.


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