Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for May, 2013

Abdelkader Saadoun at the EBRD

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 31st May, 2013

Abdelkader Saadoun 1Abdelkader Saadoun 2Though the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has traditionally focused on countries in central and eastern Europe and central Asia, parallel to the post-2010 Arab Awakening it has been getting involved in the southern and eastern Mediterranean as well, investing in projects, engaging in policy dialogue and providing advisory services to enterprises. In recognition of that new dimension last night the Bank’s HQ hosted a concert by Algerian-born musician Abdelkader Saadoun, who had put together an ad hoc little group of fellows from Tunisia, Morocco, Italy, Spain and Albania for the event. Rai is the most familiar North African music in Europe, but Saadoun and his band played a much more eclectic mix, drawing on traditional songs from both the Middle East and North Africa as well as blending styles, one constant thread being truly wicked percussion. The group was singing and playing to the converted, in the sense that the (free) concert had attracted both young expats from the region as well as enthusiasts of the genre, including a group of young North African women who enlivened the proceedings by ululating in dramatic fashion. As the host of EBRD the evening declared at the end, with measured understatement, the premises had never experienced anything quite like it. The event was staged in cooperation with Dash Arts, which has since 2005 been bringing exciting contemporary theatre, music and dance from all over the world to Western audiences, with a particular recent focus on Arab cultures.

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Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 28th May, 2013

EuripidesaodThe ancient Greek tragedian Euripides (c484BC-c406BC) was a prolific writer with a distinctly political bent and he was composing his dramas during a period of outstanding achievements — but also risks — for his home-state, Athens. We know that one of his most forceful serial works was the Trojan Trilogy, though only the final part, The Trojan Women, survives. However, last year, the Brighton-based theatre company Actors of Dionysus (aod) performed an imaginatively reconstructed version of the first play of the trilogy, Alexandros, reworked and directed by David Stuttard, at Europe House, the headquarters of the European Commission and European Parliament’s representations in London. This evening, David and his colleagues from aod completed the resurrection with a menacingly staged reading (by torchlight) of a piece that took the few surviving fragments of the second play of the trilogy, Palamedes, and worked them into a coherent whole, again at Europe House. The scene of the action in Palamedes  is a Greek army camp, well into the long siege of Troy. The area is blanketed by fog (effectively reproduced in the performance space by having all the lights turned off); the general whose name is the title of the play is stitched up in a story employing many of the themes that would become classic in drama, through William Shakespeare and beyond: jealousy, vengeance and betrayal, foremost. The sense of foreboding was admirably intensified by a dissonant musical score by Hannah Quinn, played very softly, with the aid of a laptop computer. The company aod — currently celebrating its 20th anniversary — has ambitious plans for the future, including performances of MedeaHelen and Lysisrata next year and the complete Trojan trilogy in 2015.


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Qatar UK 2013 Concert

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 27th May, 2013

Qatar UK 2013Wael BinaliThis year the Gulf state of Qatar is collaborating with the United Kingdom in an extensive programme of cultural events, the spirit of which was captured tonight in a Musical Celebration at the Cadogan Hall off London’s Sloane Square. The concert provided an eclectic mix of both traditional (Handel and Elgar) and modern (David Heath) British as well as contemporary work by the Qatari-Lebanese film score composer Wael Binali. It was not surprising that the style of the last-mentioned sounded familiar as he has written music for a number of movies and TV specials; conveniently for that business he lives in West Hollywood with a menagerie of pet-companions. His work is orchestral, in the best sense of the word, and atmospheric, conjuring up the sounds and sights of Arabia while remaining accessible to a Western audience. I confess I was completely unfamiliar with the work of David Heath (no, not the Liberal Democrat MP for Somerton and Frome), but was fascinated that it reminded me of stuff I used to write as a teenager (only Heath’s work is infinitely better) when I briefly studied musical theory and composition at the Northern School of Music. Apparently one of Heath’s main inspirations was the African-American saxophonist and jazz composer John Coltrane, plus a healthy dose of religious mysticism, and in the world premiere performance of his piece “Hope Springs Eternal” tonight the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was joined by the Royal College of Music’s Vigala Singers. We in the audience were spoiled, as there were also world premieres of Wael Binali’s “Earth”, “Journey to the Oasis” and “Shafallah Suite 3: The Oryx and the Unicorn”. Qatar has of course used a sizeable chunk of its oil and gas revenue to turn itself into something of a world cultural hub in the Arabian Gulf; indeed, the Chairperson of the Qatar Museums Authority which organised this evening’s event as part of Qatar-UK 2013, Sheika Mayassa Bint Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, is the Ruler’s daughter.


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Tope’s Hopes

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 22nd May, 2013

Graham TopeGT A Life in PoliticsOver the past 40 years Graham Tope has served at almost every possible level within the British political system: MP (thanks to the famous by-election victory in Sutton and Cheam), local councillor, Leader of the Council, GLA member, Member of the House of Lords, member of the EU Committee of the Regions and more besides, but throughout all this he has avoided falling into pomposity. He still cooks a mean lasagne for local activists every autumn and dutifully goes out on the rubber chicken circuit — this evening as guest speaker at an Islington Liberal Democrats pizza and politics. The starting point for his very informal, extended presentation was the book that he wrote at his son Andrew’s bidding, A Life in Politics, recounting the highs and the lows of four decades at the political coalface (mainly the first part), most of it — as he confessed tonight — transmitted to his son through his Blackberry. As was the case with me, Graham was inspired to join the Liberal Party by Jo Grimond, a truly remarkable man of principle and vision. Indeed, I wondered aloud tonight whether one problem of the current political scene is that we are missing charismatic figures such as Grimond or indeed Jeremy Thorpe, who was truly magnetic in his heyday. That is not to criticise Nick Clegg, but it is true that there is a certain similarity between David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband; none pops and fizzes in the way that, alas, Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson does. Graham is himself not a showman, but rather a solid man, someone you can count on and someone who continues to give a great deal to the Party and to Sutton. He will not be standing again for the Council in 2014 — after so long he can be excused handing on to others. But in the Lords and on the Liberal Democrat social circuit he will doubtless continue to make his contribution and, as tonight, offer hope for the future — that basically Liberal values are as important today as they ever were. Next May will not just be about winning seats, at London borough council and European Parliament level (important though that is) but also inspiring people with Liberal vision.

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Peter Tatchell and LGBT Rights in Russia

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 21st May, 2013

LGBT RussiaPeter TatchellBy a spooky coincidence, while the House of Commons was debating the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, Liberal International British Group (LIBG), in collaboration with Liberal Youth, was holding a long-planned meeting on LGBT Rights in Russia, at the National Liberal Club. Through a skype link we had a long exchange with a brave young lesbian in Moscow, who for her own protection I shall simply call “A”, and who declared that essentially LGBT individuals have no fundamental rights in Russia. She is fortunate in having parents who accept her, as well as her boss at work, but the prevailing atmosphere is homophobic, from the government, the Orthodox Church and a large swath of public opinion. Neo-nazi groups are particularly hostile — a point Peter Tatchell also made, when he came to address the meeting, taking time out from following the House of Commons debate. Peter was of course badly beaten in Moscow some years ago when he was attending a Gay Pride event. Such events are now generally banned and Peter argued that probably there are other ways that LGBT groups can campaign for improvements in their situation. Earlier I had asked A whether LGBT individuals feel any common cause with political dissidents, journalists and others who are also suffering harassment, including death in the worst cases, so I was interested when Peter emphasized the point that human rights restrictions in Russia should be seen as a whole. He also made the point that many Russians reject Western values (a phenomenon I have noticed in parts of Asia and Africa), so what we may think of as universal rights or norms can appear to them alien and unacceptable. It is no coincidence that it is among the ultra-nationalists that one finds the highest levels of intolerance.


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David Cameron’s European Car-crash

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th May, 2013

David CameronDavid Cameron was elected Leader of the Conservative Party with a manifesto to modernise, though it would appear from the grassroots rebellion in the shires that a worryingly high percentage of Tory Party members have changed their minds. On issues like equal marriage this clearly has something to do with the high average age profile of the party’s membership, as well as the fact that Conservatives are by nature traditionalists. However, the really extraordinary feature of the past few months has been the slow-motion car-crash over Europe. The way that John Major’s authority was undermined over Maastricht in the 1990s should have served as a warning to Cameron that the EU was a potentially explosive issue yet however well he may have handled some other aspects of government — not least getting a Coalition with the Liberal Democrats swiftly in place after the 2010 general election — the way he has dealt with Europe has been a disaster. He has not only dismayed many of Britain’s EU partners by his posturing, instead of winning allies for necessary reforms; he has also failed to make clear what his government’s position on Britain’s role in the EU should be. One minute he is saying that he thinks EU membership is a good thing on balance, providing some reforms do take place, while the next he is pandering to the Europhobes and threatening to pull out. By throwing the red meat of an in-out referendum promise to his more rabid backbenchers he has only made them hungry for more. And he has given succour to UKIP, encouraging some of his more disaffected party members to defect there, while at the same time lambasting Nigel Farage and Co as clowns. As Leader he should have given clear guidance and then insist that the Party sticks to it — especially Cabinet Ministers, who have collective responsibility for government policy or else must resign their post. Instead, the Tory Eurocar is being steered by a driver who doesn’t after all appear to have passed his driving test.

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Making Europe Engaging

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 17th May, 2013

EU Nobel Peace PrizeRichard CorbettThe European Union has a good story to tell; you don’t win the Nobel Peace Prize without one. But alas all too often the story gets lost in a mist of jargon and worthiness. Having covered the European project since Britain joined the then European Community in 1973 I am only too aware of the problem, even while being an ardent supporter of the European project myself. These thoughts came to my mind today at Europe House (the London HQ of the European Commission and European Parliament’s representation in London) when the British Section of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) held a lunchtime event for Richard Corbett, special adviser to the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy. Now Richard is a nice and intelligent man and it was a tragedy that he lost his seat as a Labour MEP in Yorkshire and the Humber in 2009 while UKIP noodle Godfrey Bloom hung on to his. Herman Van Rompuy is also a nice and even more intelligent man. But it is a sad fact that the vast majority of Brits ( and many other European citizens) have not the faintest clue what he does or indeed what the European Council is. Richard this lunchtime gave us a very fair and balanced appraisal of where things stand in the eurozone and the wider EU, stressing how Europe has avoided protectionism in no small part thanks to the single market. The major objection to putatative UK opt-outs is that it would mean Britain competing under unequal circumstances. Germany’s Angela Merkel has said she is keen to keep the UK in, but as Herman van Rompuy aptly commented re David Cameron’s position, when someone has one hand on the doorknob and is looking for his coat he can’t expect people to take him very seriously. Indeed, the message the Conservatives are giving, through the crackle of Cameron’s ambiguities, is not so much about an opt-out as about a walk-out. That is of course what UKIP wants. Now Nigel Farage has been getting more than his fare share of publicity recently, including on the BBC, but this is not because his rather vague policies are supported by the media. It’s because he fires witty rhetorical fireworks from every orifice; in short he entertains. So a big chunk of the public warms to him. What the proponents of the EU project — and defenders of Britain’s membership — need is to loosen up, to drop the jargon and worthiness and to present a narrative that will make people in the UK and beyond enthusiastic about being European citizens. Engage them!

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Celebrating Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 15th May, 2013

Europe HouseFernand Bertemes seascapeWhile far too many Tory MPs were obsessing in the Houses of Parliament corridors and bars about the ins-and-outs of an in-and-out referendum on the EU just over the road in Westminster Abbey friends and supporters of the Wyndham Place-Charlemagne Trust were celebrating the EU’s achievements at a Europe Day service. The volume of propaganda against “Brussels” that people are subjected to in Britain often masks the Union’s real achievements. Quite apart from the fact that the EU (along with NATO) has guaranteed peace in most of Europe for over half a century (for which it was justifiably awarded the Nobel Peace Prize) it has established a single market that is good for business and for consumer protection. Most people in the UK have, alas, absolutely no idea what the EU actually does, though occasionally snippets of positive news do get into the Press. Last night’s Evening Standard, for example, mentioned in passing that the raid on a predominantly Russian gang that had been trafficking women for prostitution and running brothels in Kensington and Chelsea was the first police operation to of its kind to get assistance (including funding) from the European Commission. Yet there are Tories (not to mention UKIPers!) who want to do away with European justice and home affairs cooperation! After the Abbey service last night many guests repaired to Europe House, headquarters of the European Commission and European Parliament’s representations in London for an exhibition of paintings by Luxembourg artist Fernand Bertemes — seascapes that were almost symbolic of the freedom of movement enjoyed by someone from a tiny and locked nation. Every fortnight during most of the year there is a fresh exhibition at Europe House, as well as meetings and events of all kinds. If the average Eurosceptic went to only a few of them they might have the blinkers removed from their eyes!

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A Sensible Conservative View of the EU

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 14th May, 2013

Tory Eurosceptics have been dominating the discussion about Britain’s relationship with the European Union, riding on the wave of populist sentiment engendered by UKIP. But it is wise to remember that they are a minority — albeit a sizeable one — within the parliamentary party. It’s a pity that David Cameron is unable or unwilling to make the case for Britain’s continued membership of the EU — a real failure of leadership, in my opinion. Fortunately there is some sanity re Europe around in the Conservative Party, as witnessed by recent remarks by figures such as Ken Clarke and Sir Malcolm Rifkind. And Robert Buckland, MP — Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the EU and Joint Secretary of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee — has added his positive voice, in the form of an article on the European Movement UK’s Euroblog:

Britain must resume a positive role at the head of the EU table and be clear that we are in to stay.
by Robert Buckland MP
Margaret ThatcherMargaret Thatcher was not a political leader who was much inclined to looking back, but her death last month has allowed us a little time to reflect upon her leadership and legacy. Much has already been written about her impact on Britain and a fair amount too on the wider world, but the true extent of her legacy to Europe and Germany bears a closer look. If you were to ask the average voter whether Lady Thatcher was pro or anti European, then I suspect many of those questioned would respond in the latter. The vivid image of Lady Thatcher swinging her proverbial handbag in the general direction of Eurocrats such as Jacques Delors seems to sum up, for some, her approach towards Europe. However, as was the case with many of her policies, this image does not do justice to the nuances of her position towards Europe over the years. In 1975, as the newly-elected Leader of the Opposition, Mrs. Thatcher was busy playing a significant role in campaigning for the United Kingdom to remain part of the then European Community. An abiding memory of that campaign is a jumper she wore, made up of the flags of the then member states of the EEC. Moving forward thirteen years to her Bruges speech in September 1988, Lady Thatcher may have sallied forth about the dangers of a supposed European super-state but she also robustly made the case for Britain’s future within Europe. Notably, she said that “The European Community is a practical means by which Europe can ensure the future prosperity and security of its people in a world in which there are many other powerful nations and groups of nations.”
Robert BucklandEuropean affairs during the first four or five years of her premiership were dominated by the question of the British rebate, which was finally resolved at the Fontainebleau European Summit of 1984. The Lady’s handbag and the repeated cry of “we want our money” back are now remembered by many as the first stirrings of a latent euroscepticism, but the reality was somewhat different. In truth, her position was more akin to that of De Gaulle’s at the time of the Luxembourg Compromise in the mid 1960’s; in other words, a strong leader who was asserting a national interest whilst maintaining a belief in membership of the developing institutions of Europe.Moving forward only a couple of years, we come to her greatest European legacy: the creation of the Single Market. This concept, which largely unites the modern Conservative Party, is the jewel in the crown of our EU membership. Without her typically robust support for the Single Market and the signing of the Single European Act, we would not have seen its creation. At the heart of Lady Thatcher’s straightforward views was a belief in free trade and open markets; her support for the Single Market did more to make this a reality than any other decision. 
However, if I were to identify her most troubled legacy on the global stage then I would look no further than her hostility to German reunification. Looking back from today’s perspective, such opposition seems strangely quixotic. Today’s UK/German relationship is extremely positive. The Prime Minister’s recent family visit to the German Chancellor’s personal residence at Meseberg is a reflection of the growing strength of his relationship with the German Government and our shared agenda of free trade and open markets. At varying levels, British Conservatives are busy forging new relationships with our German colleagues. However, there was a time where our Prime Minister was privately committed to stopping the reunification of Germany and personally identified her own greatest policy failing as having not achieved this. The long shadows cast by the Second World War had a huge effect upon Mrs Thatcher’s generation, which allows us to have a greater understanding of her concerns. The Cold War had helped drive the cause of unity in Western Europe as a bulwark against Soviet power. Within only a few months in 1989, all this changed, creating a new political landscape. She and other politicians can be forgiven for not having been able to forge a new policy in such a short space of time. As is so often the case in international politics, her poor relations with the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, proved to be a further obstacle to Anglo-German relations. 
Cameron and MerkelI believe that Britain’s initial reluctance to embrace the opportunities created by German reunification was a mistake. As we have seen over the last two decades, Germany’s decision to reunite was a resounding success. The Federal Republic is the driving force of a peaceful EU and its powerful economy has played a key role in spreading prosperity across Europe. Germany plays a positive role on the global stage and is one of our most important trading partners. It is increasingly willing to play a role with other Western nations to deal with conflicts in the Sahel, for example. Without a strong Germany at its heart, Europe would not be the world power that it is. What of Franco-German relations? For much of the past sixty years, the strength of the Franco-German alliance has been seen to be driving force behind greater European integration. Although we should not underestimate the institutional and political will that drives this partnership, the situation is undeniably evolving. France’s Socialist administration is making decisions that are causing real concern in Germany, and which are creating new opportunities for different coalitions of interest to be created within the EU. The Anglo-German agenda on free trade and open markets are examples of this fresh approach. More than twenty years have passed since German reunification, but it took far too long for Britain to come to terms with the changed politics of Europe. Pinning this failure upon the shoulders of one leader, however great and notable, may be somewhat unfair, but the events of 1990 were seminal and she, to adopt a later John Major slogan about Europe, was at the heart of things.
My hope is that if we are to take anything from Lady Thatcher’s legacy with regards to Europe, we should look at the earlier part of her rule when she was more inclined to support, not obstruct; to lead, not to follow; and, to cooperate, not quarrel. Lady Thatcher was not simply a Eurosceptic, even if her dislike of the EU and its institutions, feigned or real, did grow in later years. She saw the virtue in the “family of nations” of Europe and so should we. The EU is in need of great reform and change, but achieving that will only come about if we resume our positive role at the head of the table and are clear that we are in the EU to stay.

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An Alternative Liberal Narrative on Immigration?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 12th May, 2013

immigrationAfter the ALDE (European Liberal Democrats) Council in Pula, Croatia, the Ralf Dahrendorf Roundtables held a seminar on “Illegal Immigration: The Crossing Point” with a thought-provoking initial presentation by Felicita Medved, the (Slovene) President of the European Liberal Forum. Although the main purpose of the ensuing debate was to focus on illegal — or, as Commissioner Cecilia Malstrom has rightly encouraged people to rename it, “irregular” — immigration, in fact the whole issue of immigration in general got debated, with a sharp division emerging between more left-leaning Liberal parties including the UK Liberal Democrats, D66 from the Netherlands and the Swedish Centre Party on the one hand and more right-wing Liberal parties, notably the VVD from the Netherlands and Venstre from Denmark. I was so alarmed by the degree to which one VVD speaker, Mark Verheijen MP, seemed to have wandered on to the territory of Geert Wilders (just as a depressingly large number of British Conservatives have lurched into the openly xenophobic, even racist, anti-immigrant domain of UKIP’s Nigel Farage) that I argued passionately for the urgent need for a new alternative Liberal narrative and vocabulary on immigration. Of course levels of immigration have to be managed, but the positive side to immigration needs to be championed and due recognition given to how it has helped the economies of many EU member states, including Britain. Indeed, thanks to our greying population continued immigration is going to be a necessity if Europe is going to play a significant economic role in the globalised world of the future. The ensuing debate in Pula was so lively that it was fortuitous that the UK LibDems had already suggested the issue could be the subject of another session, associated with the ALDE Congress in London this November. I believe immigration will be the top issue in the European elections next May, thanks to UKIP, and it is essential we LibDems have a persuasive counter-narrative in place by then.

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