Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for October, 2012

LIBG’s Look at the US Elections

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 30th October, 2012

The US election is exactly one week away, but the two main candidates have not been out campaigning today because of the Frankenstorm Sandy. However, in the bowels of the National Liberal Club members of Liberal International British Group (LIBG) gathered this evening to hear a brilliant presentation by Karin Robinson, Vice-Chair of Democrats Abroad UK, on where she thinks the contest is at. Obviously she is rooting for Barack Obama’s re-election, but she acknowledges that there isn’t quite the same buzz as four years ago, when many new voters were encouraged to register and volunteers poured in to Democrat offices (especially after Sara Palin was chosen as the Republicans’ vice-presidential candidate). Nonetheless, early voting — which varies in type in different states — has been going well for the Democrats this year. For the British public, US politics is a bit of a mystery; why, as someone asked tonight, should Mitt Romney be against universal health care, especially when he introduced in Massachusetts a state-wide version of Obamacare? Karin agreed with the contention that the US public in general is rather insular and the country isolationist, but the main thrust of her remarks was how much the economy matters in this election, even more than usual. Social issues have rarely figured. She welcomed advances in US public opinion on LGBT rights, for example, but is alarmed by the retrogressive slant of many Republicans’ views on women’s rights. A recent opinion poll in Britain suggested that two thirds of Britons would vote for Obama, which makes it difficult to comprehend how someone like Romney can have traction in the US. But as Karin emphasized, the US electorate is essentially split 50:50 between Republicans and Democrats, so the actual outcome next Tuesday will probably depend on a small number of voters in swing states. In the meantime, the two main candidates and their supporters have reportedly spent more than $2 billion between them. Democracy in America does not come cheap, and it is very different to what we’re used to over here.

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Merlin Holland after Wilde

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 26th October, 2012

When Merlin Holland was invited to the United States some years ago to give a lecture on his grandfather, Oscar Wilde, the woman at immigration at JFK asked him what claim he had to be an authority on the Irish playwright. Merlin confessed the blood link, at which point the immigration officer — rather surprisingly, perhaps — said, ‘Oh, when Oscar Wilde came to America didn’t he say “I have nothing to declare but my genius!”? So what do you have to declare?’ Merlin replied, ‘only my albatross.’ And indeed for much of his adult life being Wilde’s only grandchild did weigh like an albatross on his shoulders. Fortunately, in a more liberal age than that his father Vyvyan lived in Merlin did not have to confront acrimony or shame; on the contrary, Wilde is now such a cultural icon that the problem is more one of heightened expectation. At times Merlin feels like a letterbox receiving Oscar’s undelivered mail. All these points came out this evening at the 21st annual Oscar Wilde birthday dinner put on by the Oscar Wilde Society (OWS) at the National Liberal Club, at which Merlin was the guest speaker, giving a preview of his next book, After Wilde, which will recount aspects of the Wilde legacy as experienced by him and his family. The OWS Chairman, Don Mead, had been trying to get Merlin — who now lives in France — to address such a dinner for several years, so finally ‘bagging’ him for this sell-out occasion was a triumph, and he did not disappoint. He is a stickler for accuracy when it comes to his grandfather’s life and works, for which all serious Wildean scholars must be truly grateful. I certainly benefited from his help and advice when I was writing my three books about Oscar and his coterie. Being a stickler didn’t always make Merlin popular however; he has pointed out errors and possibly unfounded speculation in Richard Ellmann’s classic biography of Wilde, for example. Those shortcomings (some of which could be put down to the fact that Ellmann was dying of motor-neurone disease while trying to complete his book) have been scrupulously analysed and corrected by the German schollar Horst Schroeder, who fittingly introduced Merlin this evening. The thanks were given in a bravura performance by Gyles Brandreth, who has been making a good living from a series of detective novels based on the conceit of implications of the friendship between Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle. At least Brandreth makes no bones about fabricating his stories, and he has certainly added to the gaiety of Wildean circles.

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Remembering Mike Harskin

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 25th October, 2012

A dozen or so of us gathered in the Guest Room at the House of Lords this evening, courtesy of Lord (Chris) Rennard, to celebrate the memory of Mike Harskin, former editor of Liberal Democrat News, who died at a tragically young age 20 years ago. My contact with him was that between editor and contributor, which was enough to make me realise how unconventional his approach was, sometimes concertina-ing a whole week’s production schedule into one marathon day-and-night session. Mike fought the Brent South parliamentary seat, unsuccessfully, and for a while could be found in the Liberal Whips office in the House of Commons, but he will better be remembered for being one of the key activists in what were dubbed the ‘Green Guard’ of the National League of Young Liberals who sometimes were such a headache to David Steel. These were an ecologically-minded antidote to the previous libertarian socialist Red Guards of Peter Hain & Co, who had made life hell for Jeremy Thorpe, and brought together such figures as Felix Dodds (now in the US) and a literal household of young Liberal activists including Carina Trimingham and Louise Bloom and up-and-coming political stars such as Martin Horwood MP. All of the aforementioned (except Felix) were there tonight, along with Peter Chegwyn, David Boyle and others. It was a delightfully incongruous setting for such an assemblage, but Mike would have enjoyed the irony. He didn’t live long enough to experience the full flowering of the Internet revolution and social media, alas, but I have no doubt he would have revelled in it if he had.

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Investing in Poland

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 24th October, 2012

The Polish Embassy in London threw its doors open to the Wednesday Club of the Institute of Directors (and a couple of journalists, including me) this evening, to promote investment opportunities in Poland. The country has much to be proud of, having been judged by the IMF to be one of the best places to put one’s money in Europe. This is remarkable when one thinks that only 30 years ago it was in effect a Communist dictatorship, albeit one with the Solidarnosc trade union activists in Gdansk demanding freedoms. Britain is actually the third most important investor in Poland, after the United States and Germany, with much of the FDI going into the automobile and heavy industry sectors, though IT and other concerns are growing fast. The fact that very few foreigners actually speak Polish is of little import, as increasingly Poles, having dumped Russian as a compulsory subject at school, now speak good English. Moreover, Poland make a great success of its presidency of the European Union last year, including putting on a brilliant cultural programme, and many of the Polish migrant labourers who came to Britain after EU accession have since returned home to take part in the country’s progress. Poland is not part of the eurozone as yet — perhaps a blessing just at the moment — but its economic growth rate is something the UK can only envy. So there is every reason to look forward to increased bilateral trade and investment.

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Gareth Epps on Fairer Tax

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 22nd October, 2012

The Liberal Democrats are currently carrying out a consultation on tax and admirably it really is a consultation, in that views are being sought not only at the national level (for example at last month’s Federal Conference in Brighton) but also at the grassroots. This evening, Gareth Epps — a former leader of the LibDems on Reading Council and parliamentary candidate in Reading East at the last general election, as well as a leading light in the Social Liberal Forum — came to sound out opinion among Hammersmith and Fulham LibDems in London, though the subject drew in attendees from other boroughs. The key principle at the heart of the Party’s review is fairness, but as the discussion tonight made abundantly clear, fairness is a subjective rather than an objective factor when it comes to tax. Not surprisingly, given the preponderance of members from West-Central London, Vince Cable’s proposed ‘mansion tax’, which would see people who inhabit houses worth over £2 million paying an annual tax on the figure over that amount — was unpopular. The concept of land tax won more favour, with others preferring a rebanding exercise of council tax which would take into account the fact that an absurdly high percentage of London homes all figure in the current top band; higher bands are obviously needed if we keep that system. I pointed out that London really does need special measures when it comes to tax-raising, not just because of the relatively high value of property but also because of the disturbingly high and accelerating cost of renting in the capital, which puts the Government’s cap on housing benefit into perspective; poorer families are already being chased out. There was also quite a lot of discussion this evening about the wisdom of continuing with national insurance as a separate item from tax — far too complex to go into here. But the Fairer Tax working group of the LibDems is still collecting evidence!

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London LibDem Conference

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 20th October, 2012

London Liberal Democrats descended on Croydon today for our autumn conference, which also featured a Question and Answer session with nine of the ten shortlisted London Euro-candidates. The full hustings will be at Friends House, Euston Road, on Sunday 4 November. But the star turn of the day today was guest speaker Elif Shafak, the Turkish novelist who writes in both Turkish and English, including penning articles for The Guardian from time to time. She read an extract from her latest novel and also spoke on the theme of identity and belonging, especially in the context of a migratory life. While no model of multiculturalism is perfect, she feels London is an amazing place to be, and rather regrets that Kemalist Turkey modeled itself on France, laicité and all. Today was also special as it provided a platform to launch the by-election campaign for the newly-selected Croydon North Liberal Democrat candidate Marisha Ray. By a coincidence that Dame Edna Everage would undoubtedly have termed ‘spooky’ we had chosen Croydon as the venue for this year’s autumn conference long before there was any inkling that the poor Labour MP for Croydon North — the much-respected Malcolm Wicks — would pass away, leaving a vacancy. In the extended lunch-break, accordingly, most of us set off to the constituency to do some delivery and surveying, and a very friendly reception we got too. In the afternoon, Tom Brake MP, newly appointed Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, explained entertaingly what that job entails. Brian Paddick made an excellent power-point presentation on leadership and then the man who will succeed me as regional Chair when I step down at the end of the year, Mike Tuffrey, gave a speech which proved why he is a very sound choice.

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William Wallace’s World View

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 18th October, 2012

‘We in Britain are stuck in the narrative of June 1940,’ (Lord) William Wallace declared at a meeting of Putney Liberal Democrats this evening. ‘At the Remembrance Day celebrations, for example, there is a “we are in it alone” mentality.’ Some on the right of the Conservative Party, including Daniel Hannan MEP, would like to see the UK become a form of Switzerland and right-wing historians like Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson are championing a narrative of Empire, while the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph pour out anti-European sentiments. ‘We need to shift our narrative on Europe,’ William said. ‘We have got to engage with and challenge the world view of the Conservatives.’ He has just been appointed to an advisory board on the 2014 centenary Commemoration of the start of World War I, and I stressed in the Q&A that as the European elections will fall in the run-up to that commemoration we should put across the message that the so-called Great War was disaster, a masssive failure on the part of the European powers to solve their differences diplomatically, with the result that millions of lives were sacrificed for nothing. ‘Never again’ was a popular refrain in the 1920s, though the polarisation of Communism and Fascism in the 1930s led inexorably to renewed conflict and destruction. The EU rightly won the Nobel Peace Prize recently for its role in bringing and sustaining peace in Europe. This is a message we Liberal Democrats should trumpet, as others won’t, and we only have 18 months or so to undermine the eurosceptics’ narrative.

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Stephen Williams at the Orpington Liberal Club

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 17th October, 2012

As Chairman of the LibDems’ Finance and Business Committee in parliament, Stephen Williams, MP for Bristol West, has a platform to talk about economic issues without having the constraints of being a government minister. At an Orpington Liberal Club dinner this evening he identified himself as an economic Liberal, albeit with a strong social Liberal side. And certainly he had some good economic news to share, with both unemployment and inflation down in the UK. It will probably be crucial for the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats at the 2015 general election that the painful austerity measures brought in to tackle the deficit will have been seen to have worked. In the meantime we can and should champion the fact that most ordinary people in this country who receive a salary or wages or a pension will have seen their net income rise, because of the raising of the tax threshold and the boost to the state pension. Liberal Democrats are currently the largest party on Bristol City Council, though not in majority control, and they are now fighting a Police and Crime Commissioner election — something we in London are spared. At one point in the proceedings this evening I bizarrely referred to Stephen as Simon, but he says that often happens. Weird.

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The Oldie British Artists Award

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 16th October, 2012

Earlier this evening I joined other contributors to and staff of The Oldie magazine, including Editor Richard Ingrams, at Dartmouth House (headquarters of the English Speaking Union) to celebrate the inaugural Oldie British Artists Award. Many other people from the world of the Arts were present, as well as a good contingent from Soho, about which I wrote a book some years ago. The Oldie Award was won by 93-year-old Donald Zec, for his drawing of a gaunt, bearded old man. Amazingly, Mr Zec has only been working as an artist for five years; he turned to this after his wife died after 66 years of married life, as a tribute to her. He gave an extremely witty acceptance speech at the party, in mock imitation of the Hollywood Oscars ceremony, saying that as he had no art teacher to thank (as he never had one) he must thank his cardiologist, opthamologist and urologist instead. He claimed that he felt nostalgia ‘for an age at which I was only senile’, the main joke being that he was considerably more on the ball than some others much younger who were present. I settled in a corner with Elena Salvoni, who was a fixture at Bianchi’s Restaurant in Soho for many years, especially when it was the (reasonably priced) haunt of writers, artists and bohemians. What I didn’t know until she told me this evening was that her house in Islington (in which she still lives) is next door to the building in which Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell lodged and they used to come over regularly for a cup of tea and a chat and to use her phone. Halliwell of course murdered his lover in August 1967, a night Elena will never forget.

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What Kind of Intervention in Syria?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 15th October, 2012

This evening I took part in a lively and well-attended debate at the University College London (UCL) Debating Society, speaking on behalf of a proposition in favour of international intervention in Syria. I pointed out that there already has been intervention of various kinds on both sides of the conflict for several months, with the Russians, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah notably helping the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad try to cling onto power, while countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey — not to forget jihadis from all over the world, including the UK — have backed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or other armed opposition groups, including the Muslim Broherhood. So the real question to answer is: what sort of intervention is desirable? I emphatically ruled out an Iraqi-style US-led invasion (which I, along with the Liberal Democrat Party, vociferously opposed in 2003). But I also excluded a Libyan-style intervention (which I did support), as the situation on the ground in Syria is so utterly different; as Syria’s population density is much greater and there are no big centres of opposition strength, such as Benghazi. No great military intervention would be likely to achieve much except raise the casualty levels, which probably top 35,000 deaths already. On the other hand, the world cannot just stand by and watch Assad and his cronies slaughter the Syrian people (and destroy the country’s rich cultural heritage in the process). We are morally and legally obliged to do something, now that the Responsiblity to Protect is part of International Law, i.e. that when a leader is unable or unwilling to protect his own people then there is an obligation on the international community to come to their aid. I argued that Lakhdar Brahimi’s new plan — which involves a ceasefire and a UN-organised peacekeeping force — should receive strong international endorsement as a good starting-point. I believe even Russia could be won round to this, as Moscow is desperate for some face-saving exit from its current embarassing alliance. Today, even Assad said he would go along with the plan, though the FSA has turned it down. A ceasefire is an essential step in the direction of a workable and lasting solution, but clearly the departure of Assad and some of his closest associated would have to be part of the package.

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