Given the recent stand-off between Spain and Gibraltar, in principle over an artificial reef dropped in the sea by the Gibraltarians, it was daring of the Spanish Embassy in London to host a two-day seminar on the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Utrecht, which, among other things, ceded the Rock to the British in perpetuity. Grabbing the bull by the horns, one might say. Ambassador Federico Trillo-Figueroa attended throughout, as academics from Spain, the UK and elsewhere delivered a series of papers, some strictly historical, others more political, before an audience that notably included a couple from the Argentinian Embassy, doubtless looking for parallels with the Falklands/Malvinas. As a journalist, I was invited only for the Ambassador’s closing speech, which was in effect a summary of what had been said over the previous 36 hours, followed by a light buffet lunch of appropriately delicious Spanish food and wine. The papers of the seminar will ultimately be published, but even without them it was an intriguing affair — and prompted me to read the Treaty of Utrecht for the first time (thoughtfully provided in both language versions). That document is a remarkable reflection of the different map of Europe 300 years ago, as well as a record of the transfers and concessions that followed the War of the Spanish Succession.
Archive for October, 2013
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 30th October, 2013
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 29th October, 2013
This evening I was at the Turkish Embassy in London for the 90th Independence Day celebrations. In brief but pertinent remarks the Ambassador, Unal Cevikoz — one of the most assiduous and popular members of the London diplomatic corps — noted that this year is not only the 90th anniversary of the birth of the Turkish Republic (out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire) but also the 50th anniversary of the Ankara Agreement, between Turkey and the then European Economic Community, precursor of the European Union. There is understandable resentment among many Turks that half a century on, Turkey does not appear to be all that nearer membership — though not through the fault of the United Kingdom, it has to be said, as all major political parties in Britain are firm supporters of Turkish accession. The Ambassador made reference to that, while also remarking that 2013 is also the 40th anniversary of the UK’s accession to what is now the EU. In a nutshell, he urged Britain to stay in, and to help Turkey in as well — which of course resonated with all the Liberal Democrats in the room, and indeed politicians of other parties present. As the Ambassador declared, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s vision was to modernise Turkey and to make it a Western nation (in parenthesis, one should note that even if the 19th century Great Powers’ description of Turkey as the “Sick Man of Europe” was derogatory, nonetheless they accepted that Turkey was a European nation. Of course, Turkey secular, democratic development has not been entirely along Western European lines, but that is hardly surprising or indeed a matter of great contention. It is true that some events this year have raised eyebrows in Europe — and rightly so — but the general direction is positive, and economically Turkey has been advancing at a rate that Europe can only envy. I am one of those who believes that Turkey, like Britain, should not only be in Europe but also should be at the heart of the EU — and all would benefit from that.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 28th October, 2013
Islam has a long history in Bosnia, but in the fratricidal war that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia there were attempts by the (orthodox) Serbs, in particular, to ethnically cleanse Bosnia Herzegovina of its Muslim population, demolish many mosques and divide the territory up with the (Catholic) Croats. I went to Sarajevo not long after the siege of that city was lifted, bringing an end to the nightmare that its inhabitants lived through, running the gauntlet of “sniper alley” and seeing so much of their patrimony, including the library, destroyed. This in a city which had for centuries been a place of religious tolerance and co-existence, echoing Moorish Andalus. Two decades on the situation is much improved, if not perfect, and it was good to join many fellow residents of Tower Hamlets, as well as the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve. and other political figures, at a celebratory dinner this evening at the Maryam Centre, next to the East London Mosque, at which the guest of honour was Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniac member of the presidential troika of his country. I met his late father, Aliya, when he was President and like many was deeply impressed by his spirituality and generosity of spirit, determined to reconstitute at atmosphere of tolerance, while ensuring Islam’s survival in that corner of South East Europe. Bakir Izetbegovic, in his speech at the dinner, recalled his father’s work, and said how remarkable it is that Islam has flourished over the past 20 years including in Europe. This was not said in a triumphalist way and indeed the ethos of genuine multiculturalism was evident tonight. All guests were presented with a copy of Alya Izetbegovic’s autobiography as we left, which was a nice touch.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 25th October, 2013
Creating jobs was the central theme of London Liberal Democrats’ autumn conference held in Camden last night, with inputs from the borough council, national and European levels. Both Sutton MPs, Tom Brake and Paul Burstow, were on hand to champion the work they and their colleagues are doing in the Party’s flagship London borough, with some interesting new information about how they are relating to some of Sutton’s “hidden gems”, such as the Royal Marsden and related centres for excellence looking at cancer. Housing was also high on the conference agenda, with Stephen Knight, one of the two LibDem members of the London Assembly, presenting his report on how the capital’s critical housing shortage can be tackled by building more homes, which would also bring many thousands of the currently unemployed qualified construction workers back into the labour force. Anood al-Samerai, Leader of the Opposition on Southwark Council, highlighted the need for more genuinely affordable homes and accused the Council’s current Labour ruling group of failing to ensure these are being provided by developers. Sarah Ludford MEP — whose trip to the US had been cancelled, meaning she was present after all, gave a brief summary of what she has been achieving at the European Parliament level, notable in her chosen field of Justice and Home Affairs. As many speakers emphasized, including Robin Meltzer, PPC for Richmond Park, in his closing speech to the conference, with all-out London borough elections taking place on the same day as the European elections in London next year (22 May), there must be an integrated campaign and it is a matter for celebration that the Liberal Democrats really will be fighting the European election next year on European issues — as the party of IN. It was heartening to not only see the numbers who turned out for the conference on a Thursday evening but also to feel the real buzz in the hall, which bodes well for the energy of the campaign next year.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 23rd October, 2013
So much vitriol is thrown at Liberal Democrats in government by the opposition Labour Party that it was appropriate and helpful to have the LibDem Social Care Minister in the Department of Health, Norman Lamb, as guest speaker at Camden Liberal Democrats’ fundraising reception this evening at the magnificently restored (deconsecrated) St Stephen’s Church in Hampstead, to remind us that the LibDems are the caring side to the Coalition. The Norfolk MP is so transparently decent and honest — in contrast to the caricature of MPs in the tabloid Press — and he has picked up Paul Burstow’s mantel and worn it effectively, homing in particularly on care for the elderly — a hugely growing issue in Britain as elsewhere in the “developed” world — and mental health, the Cinderella of the NHS. Norman batted away the suggestion from one questioner that the NHS is under threat (by privatisation, if one believes Labour propaganda), despite the fact that Tony Blair’s government instigated many of the current reforms; the Coalition government wants to see the NHS function well. In a short warm-up speech, I noted that tomorrow, 23 October, is a significant date for LibDem activists in Camden and across London, as seven months hence will be the day when it is too late to say “I may lose”, in local or European elections, as the polling booths will have closed at 10pm the previous evening. It is essential that in the interim LibDems campaign not only to hold what they have got (in London boroughs and the European Parliament) but also to champion the European ideal. The electorate in the UK knows that the Liberal Democrats are the only major party in Britain that “gets” Europe; it’s our USP, and we should not try to hide that European light under a bushel. Mercifully, Nick Clegg is the first party leader who has dared to proclaim the European love that dare not speak its name: i.e., the EU is good for Britain, and Britain is good for the EU. To leave would be, in Nick’s words, a disaster. Of course, the EU needs reform, but you reform from inside, not from throwing stones from outside — UKIP and Tory Euro-sceptics please note.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 15th October, 2013
Robin Meltzer’s campaign to win the Richmond Park constituency in south-west London back from the Conservatives in May 2015 recevied a boost last night when Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg spoke at a fundraising dinner at the Russell family’s old home of Pembroke Lodge. Apart from singing the prospective parliamentary candidate’s praises, Nick particularly emphasized the pro-European message of the Liberal Democrats. Though the Party believes the EU would benefit from reform, it would, in Nick’s words, be a disaster for the UK to leave. This means that the Liberal Democrats really will pin their European colours to the mast in next May’s European elections — for the first time ever, if truth be told, despite the fact that the electorate knows where the Party stands on the issue. Because of the nature of Richmond Park constiuency and, let’s be frank, the affluence of most of the people attending last night’s dinner, there were some sharp questions about the proposed “mansion tax” on properties worth over £2 million pounds. But Nick held his ground on this and insisted that it was only right that the most wealthy help pay for the government policies that have been lifting millions of the poorest people out of tax all together. The junior Education Minister, David Laws, was the back-up speaker, not surprisingly highlighting the pupil premium and other Coalition government policies aimed at th less wll-off — and all Liberal Democrat initiatives. Robin Meltzer should get a pointer as to how the mood amongst voters in the constiuency is developing next May, when the borough elections take place alongside the Euro-poll. But the many thousands of pounds raised at the dinner will give him and the local party a shot in the arm and will lead to a campaign office being set up in Richmond once again.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 12th October, 2013
The radicalisation of Muslim youth has been a prime concern of Western governments and security agencies ever since 9/11. But it is sobering to realise that the path to militancy — with its intolerance and, in extreme cases, its contempt for human life — is not necessarily only one way. Readers of Ed Husain’s 2007 book The Islamist (Penguin, £9.99) will be aware of that, but it is useful to have the message reinforced by the record of another SOAS alumnus’s journey to Islamism and back, Maajid Nawaz’s Radical (W H Allen, £8.99). Born in Southend, Essex, in what white neighbours would doubtless have considered to be a “well integrated” Pakistani-origin family (his mother was positively liberal), Maajid experienced not just casual racism as a child but also the violence of white skinheads. He learnt to stand up for himself, carrying a knife around with him for years. But it was at college in Newham, East London, that he came under the influence of Islamist radicals, notably from Hizb ut-Tahrir. After witnessing a fatal stabbing there he was recalled by his family to Southend, enabling him to get the grades necessary to go to SOAS to read Law and Arabic. He met a similarly radical young woman, married and fathered a baby boy, moving with them to Egypt to work on his Arabic, following a prolonged stay in Pakistan where he worked to further Hizb ut-Tahrir’s cause. He hoped to do the same in Egypt, but the omnipresent Mubarak security forces had him under surveillance and before long he was taken away in the middle of the night from his apartment in Alexandria and entered the hell of the regime’s torture chambers, where every inmate was electrocuted on a rota system, the screams of their agony resonating through the dark dungeon hour after hour. Maajid was fortunate himself to narrowly escape the electrodes, instead being knocked about and threatened with rape, and eventually he was put on trial and transferred to a political prison, whose inmates included Ayman Nour, the Egyptian Liberal who had dared to stand against Hosni Mubarak in a presidential election and was incarcerated on trumped up charges for that impertinence. By this time Maajid was getting regular consular visits a well as some contact with his family, but his release was as sudden as his arrest and maybe partly because Amnesty International had adopted him as a prisoner of conscience, putting pressure on both the Egyptian and British governments. SOAS let him resume his studies, but his marriage had broken down and he had become disillusioned with the ideology that had driven him for several years. He met up with Ed Husain, who had defected to rationality well before, and made his own great leap away from Islamism; together they established Quilliam, a foundation dedicated to countering Islamist extremism (and also Islamophobia) and won open access to both the last Labour government and its Coalition successor. Indeed, so far did Maajid’s conversion go that he joined the Liberal Democrats and is now the Party’s candidate for the three-way marginal London constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn. I read Radical at one sitting, over eight hours on a plane back from Beijing on Thursday. It was literally a book I could not put down, passionate and at times chilling, but ultimately cathartic. Highly recommended.