Last evening I took part in a panel debate at King’s College London on what political parties are offering young people in May’s European elections. The event was part of KCL’s Europe Society’s European week, and attracted more than 50 students of diverse nationalities. UKIP had failed to nominate a spokesman, but the EPP (from which David Cameron withdrew the British Conservatives) was represented by the Finnish Chair of its youth wing. Labour and the Greens both sent Euro-candidates, but the Conservatives were represented by someone from the Beau Group. My message that the Liberal Democrats are the only party of IN regarding the UK and the EU went down well — and was unchallenged, even by Labour, who frankly don’t seem to have made their minds up about how they will play the European elections. I concentrated on the three key themes of the Liberal Democrat campaign — jobs, the environment and combating crime, but also highlighted the paradox that whereas young voters in Britain are the most supportive of the European project (and Britain’s rightful place in it), their voting participation is lower than older age groups. It is therefore crucial for a successful LibDem Euro-campaign that we motivate young people, first to register to vote and most importantly to go and vote, or agree to have a postal vote. As well over half of the audience were citizens of other EU member states I emphasized the fact that they can vote in the UK if they get on the register and sign a form saying they will not vote in their country of origin as well. I got the impression I was speaking to the converted as far as Britain and the EU was concerned, which is as it should be. But the message needs to be got out that this year’s Euro-elections are going to be rather like a mini-IN/OUT Referendum and the forces of youth, as well as of common sense, need to be mobilised to make their voices heard.
Archive for January, 2014
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 30th January, 2014
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 27th January, 2014
It’s incredibly easy and cheap to spy on people these days — wherever they are. That was the (depressing) core message of the presentation by Gus Hosein, Executive Director of Privacy International at an Association of Europe Journalists (AEJ) UK briefing at Europe House in Westminster this lunchtime. Technology means that just as George Orwell foresaw, Big Brother can and probably does watch all of us all of the time — only Big Brother could be of a variety of nationalities (or none, in the case of multinational corporations), not just those who, elected or not, in principle have a mandate to rule over us. What is more, a very significant proportion of the equipment used in this new surveillance world is manufactured by companies based in the UK. Gus Hosein identified three main areas of concern: (1) “Upstream collection”: for example the way that Google and others have agreed to allow access to electronic traffic by the NSA (US), GCHQ (UK) et al. By tapping into fibre optic cables underseas, they can literally monitor everything we send electronically, and GCHQ-monitored material captured off the coasts of the UK and Cyprus (sic) play an important role in this. (2) “Tailored Access Operations”: effectively, black ops done from a computer terminal which can compromise networks and computers anywhere in the world, through hacking and related techniques. They can, for example, turn on or off the microphone in your mobile phone without you realising. (3) “Sabotage”: the heavy stuff, which introduces “vulnerabilities” into supposedly secure systems. So can anyone have confidence in the security of any transaction by digital means? Alas, no. So who are the “baddies” in our surveillance world? Line up the usual suspects: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Israel — but also the US and the UK. Moreover, British companies have been selling the relevant surveillance technology to regimes such as Egypt and Bahrain (as I know, having been refused entry to Bahrain last time I landed there). So should we be worried? You bet. Particularly now we are in the age of what is known in the trade as “Big Data”, whereby what might appear seemingly innocuous information about us all is stored to make predictions about us (our likely purchases, as well as our beliefs or potential actions) that even we did not realise ourselves. And did you think it was smart to have a high-tech fridge or washing machine? Think again: it could literally be monitoring you and your movements. I asked Gis Hosein about drones, about which I have been quizzed at length on Iranian TV. Do we really need to fear the sophistication of new technology there as well? By now you won’t be surprised by the answer. “Drones can be flying hacking machines,” he replied, “which is what the police and security services would be interested in, more than mere surveillance.”
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: AEJ, Big Brother, big data, China, Cyprus, Europe House, GCHQ, George Orwell, Gus Hosein, Iran, Israel, North Korea, NSA, Privacy International, Russia, sabotage, surveillance society, tailored access operations, UK, upstream collection, USA | 1 Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 26th January, 2014
I guess many people go into politics out of a sense of frustration; I know that’s true in my case, in particular frustration that the debate about Europe in the UK is so skewed by the ignorant and at times malicious content of rags such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express and, more recently, the unrestrained rants of UKIP and the Tory right. That sense of frustration has been heightened further recently by the disgraceful prejudice that has been whipped up in this country against EU migrants from Romania and Bulgaria by those same culprits. Nigel Farage — who is a dangerous political menace behind his jolly man-in-the-pub facade — famously warned that 29 million such migrants were eligible to come to Britain (and other EU member states, of course) from 1 January. In fact, according to statistics provided by the Romanian Embassy, in consultation with the UK Border Agency, precisely 24 Romanians have arrived in the UK this month to date. Not a flood, not even a trickle. Moreover, the stigmatisation of Romanians in particular in the popular right-wing Press, as if all are those minority of Roma who beg and sleep out at Marble Arch, has helped lead to unpleasant acts of discrimination and voiced hostility to Romanians working here, the vast majority of whom contribute to British society, and I don’t mean just by paying their taxes. They work in a whole range of jobs from dentists to nurses, fruit pickers to waiters, in some cases doing jobs that indigenous Brits don;t want to do. So the next time you meet a migrant worker from Romania — or from Bulgaria — remember that it is highly likely that they have borne the brunt of prejudice that has been orchestrated against them, so please smile and make them feel welcome.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 25th January, 2014
This afternoon I addressed a boisterous but very good-natured, mainly young crowd of Egyptians rallying outside their London Embassy in Mayfair, in commemoration of the 25 January 2011 Revolution. As I said in my short speech, on that day — and for many days afterwards — I sat glued to Al Jazeera watching with emotion what was happening in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. There were highs and lows during the Revolution, on the one hand a magnificent example of people of different ages, genders, religions and political persuasions, united in their determination for change. For a while it seemed as if Hosni Mubarak would not go, and on one terrible day, a large band of thugs on horseback and on camels, came charging into the square, whipping and slashing around them. But then Mubarak did accept defeat and stood down, to widespread euphoria. But there is little euphoria among Egyptians today, particularly since the coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi and the introduction of laws that ban protests and curb other civil rights. As I said to today’s crowd, Mubarak was not ousted in order for another military-led regime to take office. Egyptians, like the British, deserve freedom and justice and true democracy, in which they can express their opinions without fear of arrest, and in which they can vote for who they want, not just those they are told they are allowed to support. Revolutions are rarely easy and it would perhaps have been too much to expect that in three short years Egypt could have made a satisfactory transition to a fairer system, after decades of effective dictatorship and repression. But I urged people not to lose hope. Change will come, soon, if people strive for it: bukra, inshallah
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 24th January, 2014
The Long Room at the Oval in London may normally be the scene for the relating of cricketing yarns, but last night it hosted a fundraising dinner for the London Liberal Democrats’ European elections campaign, at which Vince Cable was the keynote speaker. For a long time Vince was known as one of the least Euro-enthusiastic of LibDem MPs, but since being in Coalition government with a Conservative Party that seems ever more in danger of leading Britain to the exit door from the EU he has been one of the strongest champions of British membership. As Business Secretary that is hardly surprising. On a daily basis he has to deal with foreign companies and politicians, many of whom are getting increasingly alarmed by the possibility of a “Brexit”. As he said last night, this is seriously undermining investor confidence, and with the Tories failing to show proper leadership on the matter it is up to the Liberal Democrats to be unequivocally the party of “IN”. Of course, the Party recognises the need for certain reforms, but such reforms will only happen if we are fully engaged with our EU partners. Vince has been widely quoted as saying that there is a five per cent chance that the UK will pull out, but last night he acknowledged that the possibility was probably higher than that. UKIP is of course doing well in the European election opinion polls, and Vince acknowledged the conviviality of its leader, Nigel Farage. But he said we should be blinded to the fact that the “Faragists” appeal to some very unpleasant instincts, xenophobic and at time outright racist.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 21st January, 2014
When people don’t have existential worries, it is easy to be a Liberal, Cambridge MP Julian Huppert declared at a Kensington & Chelsea LibDem “Food for Thought” this evening, but it is much more challenging to remain so in an era of international terrorism. But as Julian’s many fans in the the Party and its constituent organisations are aware, he is one parliamentarian who has continued to champion civil liberties through thick and thin, and to keep Home Secretary Theresa May on her toes. That is in complete contrast to Labour’s supine submission to the demands of the security establishment post 9/11; Jack Straw’s role during that period was particularly nauseating. And although the Coalition government replaced the hated Control Orders with a watered-down version (TPIMs), it was thanks to Liberal Democrat pressure that these new measures were softened to take into account genuine civil liberties concerns. Forced internal exile within the UK– which was often a part of Control Orders — may not have been as harsh as Soviet-style banishment to Siberia, but it still uprooted people from their communities. However, as some of today’s newspapers pointed out, because the TPIMs were introduced in January 2012 and last for a maximum of two years, a few hardened individuals will be let back into society this week. Julian opined that even if there is a certain element of risk in that — though those people will be under close surveillance — the alternative of a Labour-style suspension of important human rights would be far worse. Julian also said that the Guardian’s publication of just a tiny percentage of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the level of surveillance by the UK and US security services was for many people a wake-up call to the scale of the problem. None the less, he paid tribute to the people who work at GCHQ in Cheltenham monitoring suspect communication traffic, declaring that the majority of the staff there remain scrupulously within the Law and some of their work does indeed make Britain a safer place.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th January, 2014
At school, my O-level history course ended with the Causes of the First World War; anything beyond that was Current Affairs, and that was not on the curriculum. Oddly, this is one of the few things that I remember about my school days, maybe because I would go on to read for myself all about the horrors of the First World War, and its in many ways disastrous aftermath. It resolved little, sacrificed 10 million lives or more, and led to the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire by the Western imperial powers, led by Britain and France — the consequences of which we are still struggling with today. So I couldn’t resist an invitation to go Canada House this evening for an interview with Canadian historian Margaret Macmillan by the Economist’s books editor, Fiammetta Rocco. I guess that because of the resonance of the Battle of the Somme I should not have been surprised that so much of the talk concentrated on the Western Front, with a passing glance at the Balkans. But the “side show” of the Middle East was absent. No matter, that is still what really interests me — and what has transpired in the Middle East and North Africa in the century afterwards. I enjoyed Margaret Macmillan’s Peacemakers, and doubtless will read her much weightier current tome, The War That Ended Peace. There is a positive sea of books about World War I spilling off the tables of every bookstore and out into the streets of England at the moment. But we should not read them in order to wallow in the horror of it all, much less out of nostalgia. Modern history is valuable for what it tells us about ourselves. Margaret Macmillan said this evening that after all her researches and writing she can’t really say who was actually responsible for the First World War. Interestingly, my history master, nearly half a century ago, said exactly the same thing.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th January, 2014
The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, has announced that Iran has now been invited to attend the Geneva talks on the future of Syria, due to be held on Wednesday. That is welcome news, though it is a little odd that the significance was almost lost in the revelation that a whole host of other states have also been invited, including Bahrain, Luxembourg and the Vatican. Given the small size and, at least in some cases, marginal direct involvement of some of the likely participants, it is maybe not surprising that Syrian Kurds — many of whom have also risen up against the regime of Bashar al-Assad — are asking, why not them too? The quick answer from the UN would doubtless be that they are not a state, though some of the other Syrian actors who will be present do not represent a state either. But of course there is a more substantial matter involved, namely the position of Kurds in the whole region. Only in Iraq have Kurds gained a high degree of autonomy; in fact, it is not inconceivable that the Kurdistan Region of Iraq could become an independent country one day. The issue then is, which other areas in the region with a high percentage of Kurds among their population would like to try to become part of some putative Kurdish state? The Iranians stamp hard on any attempts at Kurdish separatism, and Turkey — which houses almost half of the region’s population of Kurds — strongly resists any attempt to undermine the territorial integrity of the Republic of Turkey. Moreover, Kurds in Turkey are themselves divided about how far they ought or ought not to be autonomous, let alone independent. But what is clear from even a cursory study of Middle Eastern history following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire is that the Kurds were denied a proper opportunity for self-determination by the Allied Powers. And if Syrian Kurds are excluded from Geneva2 it will strike some Kurdish activists as yet more of the same.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 18th January, 2014
A local councillor belonging to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) — not in the photo — has declared that the recent floods in Britain were caused not by climate change but by gay marriage. If you thought that sort of Christian fundamentalist bullshit only existed on the other side of the Atlantic, think again. Moreover, this is not an isolated incident. A fair number of UKIP’s local councllors (they don’t have any MPs) would fit well into the US “Tea Party” of right-wing Republicans. Moreover, UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, despite his Hugeunot origins and German wife, has nailed his basically xenophobic colours to the mast by declaring the other day if stopping EU migrants coming to work in the UK meant that Britain’s economy declined, so be it. In other words, let’s keep the foreigners out. Of course, there has always been a Little Englander minority in this country — by which I mean England, rather than Britain, as this is an essentially English phenomenon — tapped into at various times by far-right groups such as the National Front and the BNP, and urged on by rightwing toe-rags like the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. And the Conservative party has always had within it those Sir Bufton Tuftons in the shires, regaling pub and golf club bars with tales of the perfidy of Johnny Foreigner. Tory Central Office is scared stiff that those insular Tory voters and activists will defect to UKIP, and alas David Cameron does not stand up to them. I do not for a moment believe the Prime Minister shares the narrow-minded views of some members of his party, but he has made compromises in a vain effort to humour them. They’ll probably vote UKIP in May anyway. But despite that, I wouldn’t be surprised if UKIP peaked this year and then fell back. As Tomn Jamieson of Private Eye put it brilliantly in a tweet this afternoon, UKIP is not so much a political party, more a League of Gentlemen sketch that got out of control.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 17th January, 2014
The Liberal Democrat President, Tim Farron, rightly won plaudits from liberal quarters when he said on the BBC’s Question Time last night that immigration is a blessing, not a curse, and that more politicians should be saying so. Doubtless his twitter and other social media timelines are now receiving a lot of very hostile comments, as well; immigration is an issue that tends to polarise the public, with some pretty extreme language being used by those who sing to the tune of the late Enoch Powell. Some of these viscerally anti-immigration voices are motivated by what can only be described as racism, but more often the problem is fear: a fear that immigrants will take jobs at a time of high unemployment among local people, that they’ll put an undue strain on council housing (not that there’s much of that around these days) or the social services and education. Fear can make people say irrational things, which is why it is important to have a measured debate about immigration in this country, based on facts not emotions, avoiding the xenophobic rhetoric and Armageddon prophesies of the more unprincipled Press, such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express. Let me state at the outset that it is a given that no nation in the modern world can have an “open door” policy for unlimited immigration. Britain doesn’t (despite what some UKIPers seem to believe), and shouldn’t. But controlled immigration for a country like Britain is not only desirable but necessary. Given demographic trends among the indigenous population, we need a regulated influx of younger, energetic workers to help pay for the pensions and social care of older citizens. Moreover, as most big businesses accept, for Britain to retain a leading role in key sectors such as financial services and the knowledge economy, we need to attract the brightest and the best from overseas to keep ahead of the curve. There are a couple of other important matters to be taken into consideration, which should also temper the UK immigration debate. The first relates to freedom of movement within the European Union, or EU migration, which should be seen as one of the greatest achievements of the single market and of huge benefit for Britain, both in terms of the workforce that has been attracted here — in all sectors of the economy — and in the opportunities it has given to British subjects living, studying or working in the other 27 EU member states. Instead of adopting the red tops’ negative narrative on freedom of movement, the Conservatives who lead the Coalition government should be championing the benefits. The other issue is the perception of many Brits that the country is “full” and therefore should shut the door completely to EU migrants and immigrants from other parts of the world. This is a false perception largely based on the fact that the UK economy and population are concentrated to an unhealthy degree in London and the South East. The solution to that is to regenerate areas of the country that saw a sharp decline in the post-War period because of the collapse of manufacturing, mining and other industries — and immigrants could play an important role in making that regeneration happen.