Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for March, 2012

Being a Junior Partner in a Coalition

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 27th March, 2012

For half a century and more the Liberal Party and its successor, the Liberal Democrats, languished as the high-minded, principled oppositional alternative to both Conseratives and Labour, and I have to say that most of us found that situation pretty comfortable, although we spoke wistfully of one day having the chance of getting into power. But I think we realised that the only way that would happen in the post-modern age was as a junior partner in coalition with one of the two ‘major’ parties, which could well result in a shrinkage in our level of public support (as indeed Chris Rennard long ago warned). We looked at examples such as Germany’s FDP and saw that even on a small share of the vote one could nonetheless wield quite a lot of influence (admittedly under a system of proportional representation in Germany’s case), and even aspire to having a few Cabinet Ministers. I suppose most of us imagined that if that opportunity arose, it would almost certainly be in a Coalition with Labour; indeed, Paddy Ashdown and some of his closest colleagues imagined that could happen with a Blair-led government, before Britain’s warped electoral system gave Tony Blair a humungous majority and he veered away from social democracy to become seriously illiberal and a George W Bush groupie. So it was with some surprise that after the May 2010 election the arithmetic meant that only a Tory-led Coalition in Britain was possible. But did that inevitably mean that the LibDems as the junior partner would be screwed? This was the subject of a fascinating seminar put on at Westminster’s Portcullis House yesterday by the Centre for Reform, moderated by former LibDem Chief Executive Lord (Chris) Rennard. Ben Page, Chief Executive of Ipsos-MORI was somewhat disheartening in his analysis of the way that sacrificing full independence had inevitably led to the LibDems’ sharp decline in the opinion polls. But his pessimism was counter-balanced by the Deputy Leader of the party, Simon Hughes MP, who — despite getting into a bit of a muddle with his statistics — managed to reassure the audience that the LibDems, far from crashing to oblivion are still alive and kicking and actually doing better than at many times in their recent history, as well as winning real victories on policy within the Coalition government. Martin Kettle, the acceptable face of the Guardian’s political columns, was also fairly upbeat; unlike Polly Toynbee he does not feel we have sold our soul to the devil, and moreover he believes that even in the North — from which, like me, he hails — there is a future for the party. In the ensuing discussion I pointed out that being the junior partner in a Coalition government is rather like travelling down a road full of hidden sleeping poliemen. The tuition fees débacle was probably predictable; the NHS Bill less so. But I warned that the Tory rethink on the Heathrow third runway could be a third bump that could shake the Coalition and cause a fall in support for the LibDems unless the party came out firmly against once again. I didn’t get quite the ringing endorsement of this line that I’d hoped for from Simon Hughes (or indeed Lord Rennard), but I think the point was taken.

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Wild Bill

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 27th March, 2012

There’s so much Hollywood crap being screened in British cinemas these days — as well as a few, genuinely worthwhile products of the Sunshine State — that it’s sometimes hard to realise just how much really good British film there is around. The French and the South Koreans protect their domestic film industry in the sense that they set quotas for their home-grown product in cinemas or on TV, to make sure it isn’t swamped by a tsunami of American pap. I’m not suggesting that such restrictive measures are necessarily appropriate for the UK, but I do wish the Coalition government would champion British film production more. Everyone knows the blockbusters, like The King’s Speech, or (for nostalgia) Three Weddings and a Funeral. But there is a lot of good stuff being issued now that deserves promoting more strongly. On Saturday evenig, I went to see Dexter Fletcher’s Wild Bill, which is an excellent example of truly worthwhile, extremely British cinema realité:  both confronting social issues in deprived, drug-and-crime ridden areas of London, such as parts of Newham, and at the same time portraying elements of parent-child responsibilities and bonding (which are universal) in a magnificently intimate, sensitive and significant way. This is not a movie full of stars from either side of the Atlantic, but the performances of Charlie Creed-Miles as the ex-con father and Will Poulter and Sammy Williams as his two sons are beautifully pitched. The vision of East London from the upper floor of a grotty tower-block in Stratford, gazing down on the Olympic site, is expertly projected as a metaphor for the widening gap in the reality of rich and poor, aspirational and dejected, homely and alienated. Yet this is a film that does not try to establish or defend moral values. No-one is in the film is truly good or truly bad; all are in shades of grey, which has left some American critics bemused. But I suspect most European and indeed South American audiences will “get” this. Highly recommended. A real treat, which may not garner any Oscars, but which will win its place in the rosta of fine British cinema.

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Bruce Yardley at the Catto Gallery

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th March, 2012

Impressionism may have had its heyday in Paris in the late 19th Century, but among some contemporary British artists several aspects of Impressionism — such as an emphasis on the depiction of light with all its changing qualities — can be identified. One of the most successful is the relatively young Bruce Yardley, who has an exhibition on at the Catto Gallery in Hampstead until 15 April. Many of his exterior works depict familiar locations, in Rome or Venice or wherever, though often with a slightly quirky focus, so that viewing the scene one gets the sense of seeing it through the artist’s sometimes mischievous eye. I particularly like his canvas of The Broad, Oxford, in which the viewer’s gaze is magnetically drawn to the figure of a traffic warden standing on the pavement (and after whom the picture is titled). But in my view Bruce Yardley’s great forte is found in his still lives and interiors, many of them painted within his own home, as sunlight through windows captures objects or flowers or even the moulding of a fireplace mantle. I especially loved his painting of white lilies in a vase standing on an occasional table. The artist was at the vernissage of the exhibition earlier this week and comments, ‘the more light effect one can introduce into a composition, the more fizz and interest there is likely to be in the fnished painting.’ Spot on! 


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Celebrating Newroz in Parliament

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 22nd March, 2012

London Kurds and their friends in Parliament gathered in the Jubilee Room of the House of Commons this lunchtime to celebrate the spring-time festival of Newroz. The event was hosted by Jeremy Corbyn MP, a stalwart supporter of minority rights, as well as a representative of one of the areas of north London with the highest concentration of Kurdish and Turkish inhabitants. His colleagues David Lammy and Andy Love also spoke, as well as Lord Rea and London Assembly member Jeanette Arnold and the women’s rights campaigner and lawyer Margaret Owen. In my short presentation I recalled my experiences as a writer and broadcaster covering Kurdish issues for the BBC and other outlets ever since the Halabja massacre in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. I have twice monitored Turkish national elections in the Diyabakir region and have sat in as an observer (for PEN) on trials of writers, publishers and others who have fallen foul of Turkey’s byzantine laws relating to the Kurdish issue. This is a matter that is constantly being taken up by the European Parliament, as it reviews Turkey’s progress towards possible EU membership, as Sarah Ludford MEP outlined in a written statement she sent to today’s gathering. There have been some genuinely positive steps in the granting of some cultural rights to Kurds in Turkey in recentyears, for example with regard to language, but much more still needs to be done. And although Newroz is a time for celebration, many of the speakers today were sombre in the wake of hundreds of detentions of Kurdish inside Turkey and curbs on Kurdish Newroz celebrations there.


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Jeremy Browne the Golf Club

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 21st March, 2012

Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne has increased his empire recently, adding India to East Asia and Latin America. But as he told a meeting of London Liberal Youth and others which I chaired at SOAS this evening, there is logic to this, in that he is now broadly responsible for emerging economies (outside the former Soviet Union). These are now ranked, reasonably, in FCO terms in three bands: the top one including China, India and Brazil; the second, countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Colombia et al; the third, the Philippines and others. He used some inventive analogies in his talk and during the subsequent Q&A, saying that at Foreign Affairs question times in the House he often feels like that oddly-shaped golf club which a player almost never uses, but you are jolly glad to have with you when the need arises. Almost all questions tend to be about Europe, the Middle East (including Afghanistan) and North Africa, with the United States being a recurring point of reference. But he is on to a good thing (my editorialising) by concentrating on countries that are on their way up. Europe, including Britain, is shrinking both in its share of global population and in its share of the global economy. But the EU is still the world’s largest economic bloc, and Britain still maintains considerable influence over ideas (through the Financial Times, the Economist, the BBC, etc). So providing Jeremy remains a reasonably long time in his job, he’ll be performing at question time in the House not so much as a chipper but as a wood.


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Rediscovering the Joys of Cinema

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 18th March, 2012

When I was a kid, I used to love to go to the local cinema for the Saturday matinées: two feature films, with some cartoon shorts in between, all for the price of sixpence. Later, I remember sitting through the animated film 101 Dalmations (Walt Disney, 1961) in two consecutive screenings. The only other time I’ve done that was much more recently: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010), on a long distance plane journey. At university the cinema was my main form of entertainment and I was fortunate soon after resigning from being a Reuters correspondent in Brussels to be offered the part-time job of film critic for the Belgian English-language magazine The Bulletin. This entailed two daytime screenings on Mondays and Tuesdays (with drinks in between, provided by the distributor) and one on Wednesday morning. In the course of six or seven years I thus saw many hundreds of films, some brilliant, many indifferent and a depressing amount appalling. One plus side to the assignment was that I usually got to meet film directors and actors when they were in town, but I have to say that by the time I returned to London I was sated. I hardly went to the cinema again for a decade or more. In fact, it is only since I happened to catch Niels Arden Oplev’s Swedish-language The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009), being screened in the open air on the top deck of a cruise ship on which I was lecturing in the eastern Mediterranean last year, that I felt a sudden pang of nostalgia. What’s more, this prompted me to go regularly to the cinema again, notably to my local in the East End, Genesis, which does a £3.50 ticket for concessions. I’ve been lucky recently with a whole series of great films, from Hugo to The Artist and The Iron Lady. And I hope experience and the trailers will help me avoid the sort of lulus I sometimes used to have to sit through in Brussels.


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Multicultural London Liberal Democrats

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 17th March, 2012

The selection by Hackney Liberal Democrats of Pauline Pearce to be their candidate in the forthcoming by-election in Hackney Central is symbolic of the way London Liberal Democrats have transformed themselves in recent years to be an inclusive party that can not only represent the UK’s multicultural capital but also reflects its diverse population. Pauline — dubbed the ‘Heroine of Hackney’ by one local newspaper after she stood up to young rioters last summer and berated them — would be a brilliant addition to the Liberal Democrat group on Hackney Council (which currently includes Orthodox Jews and a Muslim), and would justifiably shame the local Labour Party which just assumes that people will vote for a Labour replacement after their sitting councillor moved to Scotland. But this is about more than just Hackney. Across London, Liberal Democrats have been signing up members from all ethnic and faith groups and electing a range of local representatives who are of and with their local communities. The election to the London Assembly this 3 May (the same day as the Hackney council by-election) sees a LibDem list which features three South Asians, one Chinese, one Afro-Caribbean and one Irish among the 11-strong team. The Asian Muslim woman, Shas Sheehan, has the strongest chance of being elected, as Number 4 on the list. It is true that the Party still has a way to go in diversity among our MPs, even in London. All seven LibDem MPs in London are white and there needs to be a huge effort to ensure some new, diverse faces get in somewhere in London in 2015. But overall, London Liberal Democrats can be proud of the way that they have led the way on diversity as far as the national party is concerned. And the subject will be an important issue at the London Liberal Democrats’ Spring Conference in Canary Wharf at the end of the month.


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Europe at the Gateshead LibDem Conference

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 10th March, 2012

The agenda of this weekend’s LibDem spring conference in Gateshead has been almost entirely devoted to domestic matters, from tax to the NHS. But this morning, Conference overwhelmingly passed an important motion reaffirming the Party’s belief in the future of the European project and how Britain needs to be right at the heart of the European Union, not on the margins to which David Cameron foolishly propelled us at the Brussels Summit last December. I’ll be writing up the debate of the motion in next Friday’s Liberal Democrat News, including the recognition of necessary reforms in the way the EU functions. But in the meantime I offer here the speech I gave in the debate this morning:

Way out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean there is a small island, called Little Britain. A strange tribe known as the UKIP lives there, and over the last few weeks several Conservatives — notably the MEP Roger Helmer — have swum out to Little Britain, to help the UKIP repel foreign boarders. Alas, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, seems to dream of moving there himself — or at least that’s the impression he gave our European partners at the Brussels Summit in December. He thought they would be impressed, but they weren’t. And Cameron has done a grave disservice to the British people.

Let’s be brutally honest. Britain is no longer a first rank global power. Just recently, Brazil leapfrogged Britain in terms of GDP and India won’t be far behind. The world is moving rapidly towards a multipolar reality, in which Asia, Latin America and one day even Africa will assert their economic and political might.

For Europe to survive as a potent force in the 21st Century world, the European Union has to proceed with further integration. It must increasingly speak with one voice, not only on issues such as Trade and the environment but also in areas of common foreign and security policy. Currently, despite the best efforts of Cathy Ashton, the EU is punching below its weight. That situation must not continue, otherwise Europe itself will be marginalised.

So what does all this mean for Britain? At the moment, as so often during the past 60 years, the driving forces in Europe are France and Germany. But they would like Britain also to be at the heart of the European project. Because of our rich history and experience in international relations, Britain has so much to offer Europe. But there is a real danger that that opportunity is being lost. And the longer Britain positions itself on the margins of the European Union, the less the country will matter in global affairs. David Cameron needs to stop pandering to those in the Conservative Party who look through rose-tinted spectacles at the mid-Atlantic island of Little Britain  and instead face up to the real challenges ahead.

The world is changing fast and the EU must adapt to ensure that it keeps and indeed enhances its influence globally. It would be tragic if the United Kingdom were not a full partner in that development process. I do not want to live on the island of Little Britain, Mr Cameron — and neither should you.

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No Woman’s Land

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 9th March, 2012

To celebrate International Women’s Day and highlight the dangers faced by female journalists, Thomson Reuters hosted a panel discussion at its Canary Wharf headquarters this (Thursday) evening, chaired by my former BBC colleague Lyse Doucet, on behalf of the International News Safety Institute (INSI).The event also served as a book launch for No Woman’s Land, an illustrated collection of essays by women correspondents who have served on the frontline (including Lyse), with a foreword by Lara Logan, the American journalist who was sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square during last year’s tumultuous uprising in Egypt. Before the discussion — which was televised and streamed online — we participants stood in silence as the rollcall of women journalists who had been killed over the past decade was displayed on the screen. Many perished in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, but other fatal zones included Russia, Mexico and the Philippines. In all, over 1,000 journalists — male and female — have been killed since 2001, 174 last year alone. These days, journalists are often specifically targetted — as happened in Homs in Syria recently, the veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin being one of the casualties. Moreover, as several members of the panel and audience testified, women reporters increasingly find themselves the subject of sexual harrassment as well as intimidation. Yet this evening was by no means one of total gloom, as several female correspondents argued that their sex had not usually been any impediment to being given challenging assignments. And as Lyse Doucet said, while we must remember the fallen, today was also a celebration of the way women have established themselves more forcefully within the labour force and life in general, even if there is still a long way to go in some areas.

The book No Woman’s Land is available through priced £20. Proceeds will fund INSI’s safety training for women working in the media

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Slovakia’s Open (Art) House

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 7th March, 2012

The Slovak Embassy in London inhabits remarkable and rather beautiful premises at the very top of Kensington Palace Gardens in Notting Hill Gate. They definitely got the better half of the bargain when the former Czechoslovak Embassy was divided following Bratislava and Prague’s ‘Velvet Divorce’. This evening the huge main space of the building was turned over to a remarkable exhibition, which will be running until 10 April: ‘Independent Scene: A Segment of Slovak Visual Art 1960-2000’. It is a selection of the collection owned by the First Slovak Investment Group in Bratislava, put together with the canny eye of someone who realised that it was worth preserving the sometimes openly subversive art that had somehow managed to thrive in the eastern half of Czechoslovakia through the Prague Spring and beyond. It is utterly non-Socialist, and at times dissident, but for the most part simply post-Modern, in a way that will be familiar to connoisseurs of art production of the second half of the 20th Century. The intrinsic quality varies, and the mood too, from the whimsical to the startlingly sado-masochistic. Ambassador Miroslav Wlachovsky, who is relatively new to London’s diplomatic scene, deserves credit for hosting this exhibition, which can be viewed by prior appointment: (020) 7313.6493.


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