Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for June, 2012

Pete Pattisson’s Burma

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 30th June, 2012

The Liberal Democrats’ Parliamentary Candidates Association (PCA) has produced several editions of Who’s Who in the Liberal Democrats, listing the parliamentary and civic achievements of leading members of the Party (or at least those who filled in the necessary form, as is indeed the case with ‘the’ Who’s Who). But I can’t help feeling that it would be more entertaining if a volume were produced which highlighted the creative side of Liberal Democrat activists. Some people might be surprised by the revelations. Pete Pattisson, Councillor for Whitefoot ward in Lewisham om south-east London, for example, is a notable photographer and film-maker who in recent years has particularly focussed on Burma (aka Myanmar). Over the last few years he has done a number of shorts for the Guardian, sometimes by entering Burma through Rangoon (Yangon), sometimes crossing the border from neighbouring countries. And this evening he shared some of these films with attendees at a Lewisham Liberal Democrats’ Pizza and Politics at his home. There is a lot that can make us hopeful about developments in Burma, after decades of military rule and repression, not least the release of hundreds of political prisoners and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi (from house arrest). ‘The Lady’, as she is widely known, was successfully elected to the Burmese parliament in a by-election not so long ago, though she got her knuckles metaphorically rapped the other day by the men still in power for calling her homeland Burma (the old Britsh appelation) and not Myanmar, the name imposed by the junta. But as Pete’s clips — some of which you can find easily find on YouTube — vividly portray, life for many in Burma is still difficult, endemic poverty exacerbated by natural disasters and even the plague of rats attracted by the  twice-in-a-century flowering of bamboo. I have only been to Burma once, way back in 1969, when I was making my way slowly back from Vietnam, where I had been a cub reporter covering the War. The lasting image that stays in my mind, even at that time of a closed, impoverished country very much under the military’s heel, was the sublime atmosphere of the Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon. I circled it barefoot at sunset with Buddhist pilgrims, not a tourist in sight; visas were not readily given. Moreover, for years since then people in the West were urged to stay away from Burma, in protest at the junta’s restrictions. But today Aung San Suu Kyi has put out the welcome mat, saying that foreign visitors should go, not only to savour Burma’s special quality, but to link up with the people and help them along the road to a more open society.


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Vince Cable’s Question Time

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 29th June, 2012

One good aspect of Britain’s political system is that when MPs become Ministers they retain their seats in the House of Commons as well as their constituency responsibilities. That is particularly important for Liberal Democrats, many of whom got into Parliament because they made their mark as community champions. So even if their Ministerial diaries are bursting at the seams, they must carve out time to be among the people who elected them. This is very noticeable in London, where five of the seven LibDem MPs are Ministers (and a sixth, Simon Hughes, is deputy leader of the Party). And as government is based in London, their constituents expect to continue to see a lot of them, however important their portfolio. This is some ways unfortunate for someone like Vince Cable, whose ministerial responsibilities at the Department of Business, Industry and Skills take him not only all round the United Kingdom but also on frequent overseas trips, drumming up orders and investment. Yet the voters of Twickenham, Vince’s seat, are lucky, as he is regularly available at his constituency surgeries, and sometimes — like tonight — is the star of a Q&A session organised by the Twickenham and Richmond local party. This evening an audience made up mainly of party members — including me — had the pleasure of watching Vince field almost 20 varied questions, ranging from Trident replacement to an EU referendum. It was a tour de force, and he was not afraid to say in a couple of instances that the subject was out of his area of activities or expertise (too many politicians, when asked a question on a subject they know nothing about just spout whatever comes into their head; that is fatal, as usually the questioner knows more about the subject than they do, and will be only too happy to point out the hapless politico’s ignorance). This evening’s event was held at the big Baptist Church in Teddington, scene of many a Liberal Democrat meeting and community gathering. It was a pity there was no coffee or other light refreshment available, so that people could mingle afterwards. Instead, we wandered off into the still light night to reflect on what Vince had said.


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David Walter’s Thanksgiving Service

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 27th June, 2012

The breadth and depth of friendship and affection for the late broadcaster and Liberal Democrat activist David Walter was on view this afternoon when St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, was packed by family, friends and former colleagues, remembering one of the kindest and most intelligent of men (a rare combination). So many people came that the berobed ushers spent much of the first 20 minutes on tiptoes bringing in extra chairs. The service itself was a charming balance of religious and secular, reverent and irreverent, in keeping with David’s character. Traditional hymns such as ‘Come Down, O Love Divine’ and ‘Praise, My Soul, The King of Heaven’ shared the bill with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s ‘The Turtle Dove’ and the tongue-twisting Gilbert and Sullivan ‘I Am The Very Model of a Modern Major General’. The justly renowned St Bride’s choir did us all proud; Bainton’s ‘And I saw a New Heaven’ was indeed heavenly. Patrick Worsnip gamely read, in ancient Greek, ‘The Playmaker’ from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, in recognition of David’s classical erudition, while David’s daughter Natalie joined fellow Royal Shakespeare Company actors Kathryn Drysdale and Mark Hadfield in a spirited extract from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There were three addresses, the first fittingly by David’s son Pete, who spoke of the night he had spent with his father in hospital near the end, during which he had learnt many things about David he never knew. Sir Trevor Macdonald concentrated on David’s professional integrity, his modesty and the extraordinary fact within the broadcasting profession that David never had an unkind word to say about anyone. Finally, (Baroness) Susan Kramer spoke of the way that David had touched various Liberal Democrat politicians’ lives. When she choked slightly towards the end, we all choked with her. But Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ — the anthem of the European cause that was so dear to David’s heart — lifted our spirits and prepared us for the merry wake round the corner at the Press House Wine Bar.

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Reaching Out to Latin America

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 26th June, 2012

Latin America has been the Cinderella of British diplomacty in recent decades, though that situation has mercifully been changing since the Coalition Government came into office twp year ago and Liberal Democrat Jeremy Browne took over responsibility as junior Minister for the region (along with East Asia, Australasia and most recently India). Several new British Embassies have been opened in Central and South America — some resuscitating posts the previous Labour government closed down — and staff beefed up at others. There has been a series of new consulates too, one of the latest being in Recife in North East Brazil, which Jeremy recently opened. This evening he came to talk to the International Relations Committee of the Liberal Democrats to explain the thinking in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. There is recognition that as well as the BRIC, Brazil, there are other countries in the region that have been developing economically to a notable degree. Interestingly, he divided the states of Latin America up into three groups, from his point of view: those with liberal economies (the new Pacific Alliance of Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile), the Left-leaning fraternity (Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and to an extent Bolivia) and the rest. Most have undergone profound and in general positive political change over the past three decades, but British companies have by and large not capitalised on new opportunities there. Despite the ongoing difference of views regarding the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands — in which Argentina’s claim to ‘Las Malvinas’ gets widespread support across the region — in general Latin Americans have a fairly positive view of Britain and we are a country that still punches well above our weight. Although Jeremy did not say so, another reason we are liked in Latin America is because Britain is not the United States, though often the British government — of whatever political colour — finds itself in close partnership with Washington.

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Stand Firm on Lords Reform

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 25th June, 2012

At the 2010 General Election all three main British political parties argued for reform of the House of Lords. And that is still on the Coalition Government’s agenda. It is indefensible that in the 21st Century the Upper House of the UK’s Parliament should be comprised of appointees and a sizeable residue of hereditary peers and Anglican bishops. As someone who has done a lot of work overseas on behalf of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, in promoting democratic practices around the world, I am always embarrassed by the anachronism. Yet as the issue of reform looms, a sizeable body of Conservative MPs — maybe as many as 100 — are threatening to rebel when it comes to a vote. David Cameron, to his credit, has so far stood firm in favour of change, and he must continue to  do so. Some of those recalcitrant Tory backbenchers are basically aiming to give a black eye to Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who is in charge of such constitutional matters. That is extraordinarily petty and short-sighted. Moreover, up till now most Labour MPs have not come out as strongly as they should in favour of the Government’s proposals. Labour effectively scuppered the AV referendum campaign by being lukewarm, at best, on the issue. They must not allow a similar thing to happen with the House of Commons vote on Lords Reform. Meanwhile, London Mayor Boris Johnson has stuck his oar in, declaring that ‘Clegg’s scheme needs to be liquidated, vaporised and generally terminated with extreme prejudice.’ Johnson is of course thereby also undermining David Cameron, doubtless with the aspiration of becoming a future Tory leader and Prime Minister. The Mayor denies that this is his ambition, but it is crystal clear. And of course, were he ever to become Prime Minister, he could then retire at a moment of his own choosing and claim a seat in the House of Lords, as has often been the tradition, without having the bother of going through anything as vulgar as another election (as would be the case with a reformed House of Lords or Senate). So, the message is clear: LibDems must not waver (including those LibDem Peers who have discovered an unsuspected love for the House of Lords as it is since they joined it); David Cameron must whip his troops in; and Ed Miliband must push aside the prospect of party political point-scoring and come out with all guns metaphorically blazing in favour of Lords Reform. Otherwise, a once in a lifetime opportunity will be lost.


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Ed Davey’s Renewable Energy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd June, 2012

Keeping warm is not usually a major consideration at a midsummer Garden Party even in England, but conditions were distinctly chilly for once at Sutton Liberal Democrats’ annual event this afternoon. As the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Davey, spoke about insulation, lagging and other matters pertaining to energy conservation and cosy homes not a few of us were thinking we could have done with a bit of personal insulation in the garden. At least the rain kept off. Ed acquired his job when Chris Huhne had to step aside, pending the outcome of legal action, and Ed paid full tribute to Chris’s groundbreaking work in the role. Ed says he now spends a lot of time talking to his counterparts in France and Germany, in particular, as energy supply is increasingly an issue dealt with transnationally. There should be some way of taking greater advantage of the solar potential of southern Europe, he argued, as well as the wind and wave potential of the North, as part of the drive to use more renewable sources of energy. He was particularly pleased to have helped  broker a collective deal for energy consumers who switched suppliers en bloc, thus benifiting from a lower tariff. However he caused unease among some LibDems at the garden party by declaring that nuclear energy cannot be ruled out as a possible component of Britain’s future eneregy strategy, employing a new generation of reactors that create less hazardous waste. The mention of waste inevitably led to a question about the proposed incinerator project at Beddington, which has caused a lot of concern locally. The current landfill site is almost full. Ruth Dombey, who has recenty taken over as Leader of Sutton Council, says she has an open mind on the subject while she studies the implications. But she stressed that recycling would still receive the greatest emphasis from the Council that now has the largest LibDem majority of any in the country.

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Alex Carlile on Counter-Terrorism

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 22nd June, 2012

Baron Carlile of Berriew — the former Liberal MP for Montgomery, Alex Carlile — is one of  the LibDems’ most distinguished but also controversial Members of the House of Lords, which is one reason why he attracted a particularly large attendance at the Kettner Lunch at the National Liberal Club today. Another reason is that Kettner Lunch regulars have enjoyed his performances three times in the past and were therefore keen to experience another one. The reason for Alex’s ‘controversy’ — as well as a major element of his distinction — is that after 9/11 and up until early last year, he was the Government’s Independent Reviewer of the UK’s anti-terrorism laws, thereby effectively advising Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron in turn on the sensitive issue of national security. This sometimes put him at odds with LibDem Leader Nick Clegg and other parliamentary colleagues who have taken what they consider to be a more ‘liberal’ line in relation to matters such as the rights of terror suspects, privacy and data retention. To an extent those disagreements are ongoing, given the legislation now before Parliament relating to communication data and so-called Closed Material Procedures, included within the Justice and Security Bill. Alex believes, on the basis of his experience at the Bar, as well as his inside knowledge of issues relating to counter-terrorism, that it is important for the defence of a liberal society that the intelligence services and the Police, where appropriate, can have access to certain information — for example, relating to a suspect’s location at a particular moment, which  these days can be discovered from retrieved mobile phone ‘cell site’ records. Similarly, he argues that there are instances when the prosecution of alleged terrorists or other people trying to undermine society can be jeopardised if all information is made available to the people concerned. I trust I am not bowdlerising what is quite a complex position, eloquently expressed at the lunch by Alex himself. Anyway, this is a story that is going to run and run, not least as, so Alex believes, networks such as Al Qaeda are gowing in some areas of the world, including Yemen and northern Nigeria, posing a real thraat to the UK’s security. ‘Debate about terrorism has been characterised by ignorance,’ he declared at one point. Clearly, he will continue to take his stand, even when other elements in the party raise what for them are valid concerns about the infringement of civil liberties.

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Jamaican Men

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 19th June, 2012

For an exhibition entitled ‘Jamaican Men’, there are an awful lot of naked women in the show that opened at the 12 Star Gallery at Europe House in Smith Square, Westminster, this evening. But the title refers to the artists, not the subjects, and Jamaica is a famously macho country. Its music (think reggae, think Bob Marley) and its sport (think Usain Bolt) have given the Caribbean island a renown that belies its small size, but its Art is less well known. So the assiduous collector and promoter of all things Jamaican, Theresa Roberts — who divides her time between Britain and Jamaica — is to be congratulated for loaning for display a selection of her own collection.Lest anyone think her sexist, she also supported an exhibition of Jamaican women artists in Cambridge recently. Inevitably, given the large number of painters and sculptors represented, there is a wide spectrum of styles. Being rather conservative in my tastes where pictures are concerned, I naturally found Ken Abendana Spencer’s ‘Maggoty – St Elizabeth’, with its tranquil tropical village green and neat little figures dressed in white, particularly appealing. Carl Abrahams’ ‘Schoolgirls with Prophet’ is both enchanting and mysterious, not least because the skull-capped prophet is staring not at the young, smiling girls in their canary yellow uniform but out into the distance behind their backs and beyond the right hand side of the frame. Among the sculptors on show, there is also an extraordinary variety of moods and modes: Gene Pearson’s bronze ‘Mother’ is distinctly African in heritage, whereasRaymond Watson’s dynamic bronze maquette ‘First Child’ could easily pass as European.

 The exhibition runs until 29 June.

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Patrick Keiller’s London

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 18th June, 2012

It was a smart move of the Stratford Picture House to screen an avant-garde full-length feature film on London just a javelin’s throw away from the Olympic Stadium, though I was surprised and saddened to find only half a dozen or so other people in the audience. The film was Patrick Keiller’s ‘London’, made in 1994 and set two years earlier. It is the first of three ‘Robinson’ films that he has authored. Robinson is the companion and sometime lover of an unseen narrator, voiced by actor Paul Scofield; together they trudge round London’s gloomier parts, bemoaning how inferior it is to continental Paris, with the latter;s good food and proper outdoor life. The pair certainly find desolate and inhuman vistas aplenty in London, redolent of urban blight and the legacy of industrialisation. They make a pilgrimage to various sites connected with Rimbaud and Verlaine, though the transgressive poets’ main abode in London was apparently knocked down to make way for the Post Office Tower (cheekily shown as a phallic innuendo is intoned). But to describe the film in this way is not to do it justice, as it is at heart a series of static images, rather as if an alienated but literate observer is stood still, just staring ahead. Trains (and one cruise liner) provide the greatest movement throughout. The narrator at one stage declares that Robinson (equally unseen) ‘believed that, if he looked hard enough, he could cause the surface of the city to reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events, and in this way he hoped to see into the future.’ There  is one scene where the flaneurs chance upon a hallucinatory street at the side of St Paul’s cathedral, still frozen in the 19th century. But essentially the viewer is being challenged, the over-riding sense of melancholy punctuated at times with bursts of sardonic humour. It’s not an attractive portrayal of our capital, which was indeed rather dull in 1992, though even worse in 1972 and infintely worse in 1952. One could hardly call it dull now. But I wonder if Patrick Keiller — who currently has an exhibition on at Tate Britain, called ‘The Robinson Institute’ — did foresee what things would be like now?

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Tim Farron’s Licence to Roam

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 17th June, 2012

There was a moment on the BBC’s Question Time this week when someone asked Liberal Democrat Party President Tim Farron whether he agrees with any of the Coalition government’s policies. It was a forgivable jibe and actually quite useful, as it gave Tim an opportunity to “differentiate”. I wager that is going to be the buzzword at the LibDem Conference in Brighton this September, as people stake out clearly the differences between Liberal Democrat policy and government policy. Of course, often the two do coincide. Considering how much the LibDems are the junior partner in the Coalition in terms of seats (thanks to our antideluvian voting system), it’s remarkable how many “wins” the party has had in getting through such things as raising the tax threshold and a reasonably positive attitude to the European Union (most of the time!) — often to the fury of backbench Tory MPs, who seem to believe that because they are the bigger party in the Coalition they should get their own way all the time. David Cameron, to his credit, understands the nature of Coalition government better than they do. But much of the public is still a bit baffled. The situation is not helped by the Labour opposition muddying the water by carrying out a full-frontal assault on the LibDems almost from Day 1. But this means that the LibDems need to keep saying over and over again — in the media, in Focuses, and most importantly on the doorstep — what these LibDem policy “wins” are, and moreover what the Party’s policy is and remains. As President, with no Government job, Tim Farron is in a ideal position to lead that effort. And maybe that is why he often gives the impression, on Question Time and elsewhere, that he has been given a Licence to Roam.

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