Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for August, 2013

Don’t Throw Syria Baby out with the Bathwater

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 30th August, 2013

Cameron in ParliamentThe Government’s defeat last night over its motion on intervention in Syria was always on the cards given the deep divisions of opinion within all three main parties. It was interesting that some of the strongest speeches against going down a road that could lead to UK military strikes came from Tory rebels. Clearly memories of the way that the House was lied to over Iraq 10 years ago played its part, but there was also a realisation that a sizable majority of the British electorate is against going to war. At one level I am pleased about that; as a Quaker, that is hardly surprising. But I am anxious that we should not throw the Syria baby out with the bathwater. Last night’s Commons vote should not be an end to the affair. Assad supporters in Homs were out in their cars honking their horns in victory once they heard about the UK vote, but now it is important that Britain and other Security Council members work hard to get a negotiated end to the bloodshed in Syria. That means getting both Russia and Iran on board. I have no illusions about how difficult that may be, but that is not a reason not to try. The killing and destruction and dispossession have got to stop and in the meantime the UK and other countries that were braced to go to war should spend some of the resources they would have devoted to that on humanitarian assistance instead. Syria’s neighbours Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey are all struggling under the weight of the refugee influx and deserve support. The Arab League, which has never really lived up to its potential, should also now step up to the plate and take a leading role in promoting a diplomatic solution. The blatant truth is that on progress so far, the armed rebels in Syria are never going to win militarily and frankly the country would probably descend into anarchy if they did. The military benefits of any external strike were always doubtful too. But to reiterate, just because the House of Commons has given the thumbs down to a course of action which could have led to war must not mean that we just turn our backs on Syria’s agony and walk away.

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An English Affair

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 29th August, 2013

John ProfumoAn English Affair 1Fifty years ago this summer, British newspapers — which still had many millions of readers, especially on Sundays — were full of the Profumo affair, involving a government Minister (John Profumo), a good time girl (Christine Keeler), a society osteopath (Stephen Ward) and a Tory viscount (Bill Astor). When I gave a talk about it to around 60 mature ladies at a women’s club in Rainham, Essex, last night, it was striking how clear the scandal was in most of their minds, after all this time. For those people under 60, and therefore probably too young to have known what was going on in 1963, I can make no better recommendation that Richard Davenport-Hines’s book, An English Affair (William Collins, £9.99). Davenport-Hines — whose earlier books include a biography of the poet W H Auden — is scrupulously fair in his assessment of the main characters and clearly feels, as I do, that all of them were dealt with harshly, not least Dr Ward, who committed suicide under the pressure of a trial on the trumped-up charges of living off immoral earnings. The police clearly used underhand tactics that produced tainted evidence, and some in the judiciary were complicit, with the gutter Press harassing anyone remotely connected with the affair and cheering on what was in effect a witch-hunt. Davenport-Hines makes a convincing case that this was a last outraged stand by the British Establishment to preserve what had become outdated standards of behaviour and values. Hypocrisy pervades the sad story, and 50 years on it is startling to remember that straitlaced Britain then was a country in which male homosexuality was totally illegal, as was abortion, divorce was difficult (usually involving the man arranging a staged assignation with a woman so adultery could be claimed) and the upper classes still dressed for dinner. What makes An English Affair truly remarkable is that it is far more than just an excellent restaging of the Profumo Affair; it is in effect a social history of Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, on a par with the work of writers such as the late social historian Arthur Marwick, but considerably more entertaining. There are some super photos in the book, and anyone who wants to see more of the main characters can still catch (until 15 September) the small but worthwhile “Scandal 63” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, which includes the celebrated image of a naked Christine Keeler astride a chair.

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The Syria Dilemma

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 27th August, 2013

Bashar al-AssadSyria casualtiesBritain’s armed forces are preparing themselves for an armed strike against Syria, following the recent use of chemical weapons inside the country, probably by the Assad regime’s forces. As I said in a live interview on the al-Etejah (Iraqi Arab) TV channel last night, the justification for the UK, US, France and maybe Germany taking such a step, along with sympathetic Middle Eastern countries including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, without UN approval, would be the relatively new concept within International Law, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), about which I have written extensively. This asserts that if a government is unable or unwilling to protect its own people, then the international community has a responsibility to intervene on humanitarian grounds, providing there are reasonable prospects of success. Of course it would be preferable if the UN Security Council backed such a move, but that is currently impossible given the fact that Russia and to a lesser extent China are standing behind Bashar al-Assad — though in China’s case this is mainly because of its strong belief in the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. The humanitarian need in Syria is self-evident. More than 110,000 Syrians have been killed, a high proportion of them civilians. There are now between four and five million Syrian refugees and whole swaths of cities such as Aleppo and Homs are a wasteland. Yet still Assad and his thugs continue to try to pound the people into submission. The situation is complicated by the fact that this is not a fight between good and evil, however. Evil the Assad regime certainly is — and has been for over 40 years — but the disparate rebel forces contain some pretty unpleasant characters and radical groups that seek to impose an alien, fundamentalist creed that is alien to the modern Syrian secular society. But things have now reached a stage at which the world cannot just sit by and watch a people and a country be annihilated. The problem is what exactly should be done, now that what President Obama described as the “red line” of chemical weapon use has been crossed? The imposition of a no fly zone is one obvious option, or carefully targeted use of cruise missiles against the regime’s military installations. But there is no guarantee of effectiveness. What certainly needs to be avoided is sending foreign — and especially Western — troops on the ground, which would not only lead to heavy casualties but also risks turning some of the anti-Assad population against the intervention. Russia meanwhile has warned the West against intervention. But I think the momentum now is unstoppable. Unless the Assad clique stands aside — which it has shown no willingness to do — Syria is going to be the latest in a string of Middle Eastern/North African Wars. And the poor United Nations will look even more impotent and marginalised than ever.

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Cowboys and Indians, Israeli Settlers and Palestinians

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 21st August, 2013

Cowboys and IndiansIsraeli settlersAs a child of the 1950s and 1960s, I was raised on The Lone Ranger (black and white TV version) and other Westerns, in which the noble white cowboys and sheriffs fought against the dastardly redskins, as the wagon trains carried settlers across the Mid-West, in the name of civilization and Christianity. One just took it for granted that this crucial period in US history was an enterprise to be admired, and it was only much later, when I had acquired an educated, critical mind, that I realized that Justice had been stood on its head. The Indians were desperately trying to halt their dispossession, in the face of brute force and more advanced firepower, and it was the settlers and those who protected them who were the real baddies. I’m reminded of this by what is happening in Occupied Palestine today. Again, as a child, I grew up in an environment in which the creation of the new state of Israel was seen as a heroic endeavour, in which the young labourers on the kibbutzim were involved in a noble purpose, the Jewish people risen like a phoenix from the ashes of the Holocaust. And had Israel remained within the boundaries drawn up by the United Nations that argument might have continued to hold water, even though the approximately 700,000 Palestinians who were made refugees by the Nakba or catastrophe of 1948 would see things otherwise. But Israel did not remain within those boundaries, and many within Likud and some even more extreme political groups in Israel persist in their expansionist aims and colonising Occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, in defiance of International Law, and the feeble protests of the West. Once more, the narrative enunciated by Israel, AIPAC and other pro-Zionist groups is that the “settlers” in what was formerly Jordanian territory and is meant to be the basis for a putative Palestinian state are engaged in a noble enterprise, like the colonisation by white immigrants of the American West. And once again, Justice has been stood on its head. It is the Palestinians, whose land is being appropriated, olive trees cut down and children intimidated, who are the victims and the Israeli settlers and the IDF army that protects them that are the villains. The ultimate irony, of course, is that while in the short term the Palestinians will be the losers, in the long term, if this occupation and absorption by Israel of Palestinian territories persists, demographic trends will mean the Jewish state will de facto cease to exist. I think that’s called “shooting yourself in the foot”, as cowboys might say.

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Standing up for Gibraltar

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 20th August, 2013

GibraltarGibraltar demo 1This evening I’ll be on a live current affairs programme on the English language service of the Iranian broadcaster PressTV, defending the British position on Gibraltar. By coincidence I sailed past Gibraltar last Wednesday (and got some very friendly waves from Spanish fishermen as they came up close, maybe partly because we were flying a Maltese flag, the ship being registered in Valetta). Anyway,  I have been to the Rock on a number of occasions, including an Executive of Liberal International some years ago, when Liberal Democrats from around the world were able to get an insight into this odd little place, with a population of under 30,000. That population is very mixed; a sizable minority has Spanish origins and some British, but many hark back to Malta, Morocco, Portugal and other places in the Western Mediterranean region. The territory is British, having been ceded in perpetuity by the Treaty of Utrecht, 300 years ago, but it is self-governing. Moreover, as regular intervals the Gibraltarians have been asked in a referendum whether they wish to join Spain or stay British, and the answer each time has been a resounding “British!”. There have often been spats between London and Madrid over the status of Gibraltar. General Franco, the dictator who ousted the Republican government in Spain in the late 1930s, actually closed the border to the colony in 1969. And at various times Spain has imposed restrictions on traffic. That’s what is happening at the moment, with some vehicles taking three hours or more to get across. Moreover, the Spanish have threatened to impose a €50 fee for entry into Spain from Gibraltar, which would be in complete contravention of the principle of free movement within the European single market. The official cause of the current dispute is the construction of an artificial reef off the shore of Gibraltar, which Spanish fishermen say will harm the environment and fish stocks, claims the Gibraltarians refute. But the matter has now been handed over to the European Commission to examine the claims and counter-claims. As Britain and Spain are both members of the EU (and Gibraltarians vote in European elections as part of the South West England constituency) this is the sensible way forward. The Commission President, José Manuel Barroso is Portuguese, so ideal as a peacebroker. But there will doubtless be much posturing by both sides until the matter is resolved.

Link to the PressTV debate:

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Slow Train to Guantanamo

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 18th August, 2013

Slow Train to GuantanamoAmerican presidents have come and gone, but the Castro brothers have hung on to power in Cuba for 54 years; there’s a delicious irony in that. I first visited the island nearly 20 years ago, when its economy was flat on the floor following the withdrawal of Russian subsidies, exacerbating the effects of the unjustifiable US trade embargo and, let’s be frank, the inbuilt incompetence of a centrally-planned economy. Six visits later, in 1999, I made a radio documentary for BBC World Service at the time of the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, but I haven’t been back since. So I was particularly interested to read Peter Millar’s new book, Slow Train to Guantanamo (Arcadia, £11.99), to see how much has changed. Not that much, it transpires. US dollars no longer operate as a parallel currency, giving enormous privileges to those with access to them; instead they have been replaced by a mickey mouse “convertible peso”, compulsory for foreign tourists, while most Cubans subsist on the national peso one 25th its value, and their ration cards. At least health care and education and in some instances housing are free. There are now more small private businesses, including tiny guesthouses and restaurants, though Peter Millar’s experience of the latter was mainly dire. However, the main curiosity in his book is that he set himself the challenge of travelling from Havana to Guantanamo (the town, not the nearby US base and notorious prison camp) by train. In Cuba that is more of a challenge than one might imagine. And some of the trains are barely holding together, even when they run. But as many other writers such as Paul Theroux have shown, train journeys are a great way of meeting and observing local people, as well as the passing scenery. Alas, Peter Millar’s Spanish was rather basic when he arrived, though it improved during what was actually quite a short stay on the island. So his contacts and the conversations he has with them inevitably remain somewhat superficial, and he not surprisingly focuses on those who Cubans he encounters who are eccentric or physically striking. What saves the book from a certain triteness, however, is the fact that the author can draw on his experiences in central and eastern Europe during the twilight of Communism, especially in East Germany, and therefore make some interesting comparisons. So even if Millar in Cuba isn’t quite the “expert” he was in his earlier book, 1989 The Berlin Wall (which I reviewed when it came out), he is an entertaining companion and at times endearingly self-deprecating in highlighting instances of his cultural naivety.


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Bilbao and Postmodern Regeneration

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 13th August, 2013

Guggenheim Museum BilbaoBilbao was the centre of Spain’s industrial revolution, making fortunes for factory owners and other members of the elite and drawing in workers from the impoverished south of the country. True to the old Yorkshire saying, “where there’s much there’s brass”, the city developed into a glaring mix of luxurious homes of the minority, filthy factories and docks polluting the area, and poor quality housing for the masses, though  there was an old centre that has stayed intact, its narrow streets now pedestrianised. But after the inevitable decline in much of the industrial heartland Bilbao took a bold leap forward by agreeing to host a branch of the Guggenheim Museum, in a dramatic building designed by Frank Gehry. Other cities, including Madrid, reportedly turned down that possibility, fearing it would be a white elephant. But Bilbao took the plunge and by welcoming the museum set in train a process of urban regeneration that has become a model for urban planners worldwide, as well as being a draw to tourists. Inside the museum — whose raison d’etre is contemporary art — has a permanent collection of familiar names, including Andy Warhol and Gilbert & George. The day I went it also hosted an excellent and often moving temporary exhibition or art works, photographs, filmclips and ephemera from France under German occupation. It was perfect after taking those in to walk along the promenade alongside the river before crossing a bridge into the old town.

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Torteval Scarecrow Festival

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 5th August, 2013

Visit Guernsey Image Library: Pictures Chris George - Coast MediaBy a happy coincidence, the Quest For Adventure’s morning stopover on Guernsey yesterday coincided with the annual Scarecrow Festival in the parish of Torteval. So while many of the passengers went off to visit the Occupation Museum and Underground Hospital, following my lecture the day before on Guernsey under Occupation, I accompanied my cousins — who live in St. Peter’s Port — on a walk round the lanes and pathways along which boh householders and busineses had set out their scarecrows, all of which are entered into a competition. I was impressed by one depicting Little Mis Muffit, with a giant spider hovering from a web nearby, and another comprised of a group of motorcross scarecrows on bikes. But by far the cleverest was one that showed a rural man who had switched to new communications technology, each element of which was punningly represented in the montage (e.g. apples hanging from his mlackintosh, a piece of log on a net). It was fortunate that we were literally the first people to start the walk, at 10am, as by the time we finished the circuit a little over an hour later there were big crowds, and a long aueue at the ticket desk by the church where the route started. This pro,ptness also meant my cousings and I zere able to enjoy a Guernsey crab lunch at their home, washed down zith a dry rosé wine,before I had to return to the ship and sailed off for Britanny.

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