Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for January, 2015

Donizetti and Dementia

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 29th January, 2015

Grosvenor ChapelDonizettiDementia is a growing problem in the UK as the population grows older, but at least there is a growing understanding of the needs of people with dementia and of their carers. It affects people from all walks of life, even the affluent burghers of Mayfair, which is why the Grosvenor Chapel in South Audley Street runs a programme of Hymns and Pimms, occasions for those living with dementia or memory loss or who care for someone who does to come together for friendship, singing and refreshments in beautiful surroundings. Last night, the church hosted an Opera Gala, compered with camp good humour by Anthony Harris, and starring Ellie Edmonds, Samuel Pantcheff, Sophie Pullen and William Smith, with Elliott Launn on the piano. The group performed arias from opera, predominantly Mozart and Donizetti, the candlelit church proving to have excellent acoustics. Most of the repertoire was about love and intrigue, some of it quite saucy, and although the priest blanched somewhat when Sophie Pullen hung laundry on the edge of the pulpit in one extract, the spirit of fun clearly enthused the audience and several thousand pounds were raised to continue the church’s work with people with dementia and carers.

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Holocaust Memorial Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 27th January, 2015

Karel BaracsEvery year on Holocaust Memorial Day I go to a commemoration of some kind, usually at an embassy of one of the central or eastern European states, but this year was special — and not only because the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was being marked. Europe House, the London offices of the European Commission and the European Parliament, housed a remarkable show this evening: Why Tram 8 No Longer Runs. A monologue by the self-styled Story-teller of Amsterdam, Karel Baracs, with musical accompaniment, recounts the true story of how two young Dutch women — one Karel’s mother — managed to spirit 80 Jewish children out of a creche set up by the Nazis prior to their intended deportation and extermination, one or two at a time. In particular the narration focussed on the experience of a six-year-old girl and her two-year-old brother taken to safety to live on the farm of a gentile couple, with the active participation of a Jewish man who had been hiding in a basement in Amsterdam for months — and who after the War married Karel’s mother. As with all good storytelling, the facts only emerge gradually, amidst passages of suspense and moments of humorous relief. The tragic back-story is that most if not all of the parents of the rescued children did perish in concentration camps or under other dreadful conditions. There are bad guys among the Dutch, as well as heroes, in the story, as well as one good German soldier, who played a crucial role in ensuring the two infants and Karel’s father survived. These are the sort of stories that must never be forgotten, even as the last Holocaust survivors die out and it was a wonderful tribute, as well as a moving performance, to have a descendant keeping the flame of memory so brilliantly alive.

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Re-engaging with Iran

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 26th January, 2015

IranIran UKIt is 35 years since the Iranian Revolution and the US hostage crisis, yet the rhetoric between Tehran and the “Great Satan” America hardly seems to have varied during that time. Attempts to bring about a rapprochement faltered when it was discovered that Iran had been secretly enriching uranium, sending alarm bells ringing that it was intent on becoming a nuclear power. Such fears still linger in the minds of many US Congressmen, not to mention the Netanyahu government in Israel, which has made it clear that it would launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities if it felt its security was at stake. Israel, of course, is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and is widely believed to have an impressive arsenal of nuclear warheads. Iran, meanwhile, has been hit hard by sanctions, particularly from the US but also from the EU, and that was the background to an interesting seminar on Re-engagement with Iran put on by the Global Diplomatic Forum in London today. Among the speakers arguing for greater engagement were the former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord (Norman) Lamont, who declared that Margaret Thatcher would never have tolerated the way US pressure stops some British banks from dealing with Iran, and Lord (David) Hannay, a former UK Ambassador to the UN and a Farsi speaker. Great emphasis was put on seeing Iran not as a stereotype but as a diverse and culturally rich nation with a politically very alert population. Jeremy Corbyn MP highlighted human rights issues in Iran but also argued for the Middle East to become a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. Britain and Iran are currently considering the re-establishment of full diplomatic relations, though progress on that has been slow. It could well be, however, that progress on other issues, such as a workable deal on Iran’s nuclear programme, would progress more smoothly if the UK were once again present at ambassadorial level in Tehran.

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Matthew Oakeshott Is Right

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th January, 2015

Matthew OakeshottLord Oakeshott has often made himself unpopular with the Liberal Democrat leadership, not least for the way that he has criticised Nick Clegg’s handling of the Coalition with the Conservatives. While I think Matthew’s views are sometimes put across with an unhelpful stridency, I nonetheless feel he is sometimes right — as he is in his observation reflected in a piece he has written for LibDemVoice that one of the most crucial challenges of May’s general election will be how we engineer an outcome that will not lead to a Brexit from the European Union. He is fortunate to have the wealth to be able to back his analyses with cash, investing £20,000 each in a range of key seats (held and marginal, both Tory- and Labour-facing) where it is crucial that we retain sitting MPs — such as Jenny Willott and Martin Horwood — or make a good fist of electing a new one. I’m sad that sometimes what can appear to be personal animosity seems to flavour the differences of opinion between Matthew and Nick Clegg, but I hope the party is mature enough to recognise the very great assistance Matthew is offering for this election. Moreover, I agree with him that we need to ensure that a pro-EU government is in place after May. That is why, even though I think it was right to go into Coalition with the Tories in 2010 and I accept that many good things have been achieved (along with some unpleasant Tory-imposed horrors), I hope that any new Coalition in which we may be involved after May will be with Labour, who have unequivocally stated their belief that Britain must be at the heart of the European Union, in stark contrast to the Conservative position of standing with one hand firmly on the exit door, as right-wing backbenchers and UKIP supporters whisper anti-Brussels poison into their ear.

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ISIS and the London Conference

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 23rd January, 2015

ISIS London conferenceYesterday the Foreign Ministers of 21 nations gathered in London to discuss how to respond to Islamic State. There were not only representatives of major Western countries, including John Kerry from the United States, but also delegations from five of the six GCC States, Egypt and Iraq — the last mentioned very much in the front line. The case for additional aid — financial, training and military hardware — was reinforced by a plea from Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, pointing out that falling oil prices mean Baghdad has less money available to allocate to the fight against ISIS. There was little information released as to the London conference’s decisions, but I was surprised by the degree of scepticism in some quarters that the talks would lead to more decisive action by the anti-IS Coalition. I took part in an hour-long live TV debate on Kurdistan TV after the meeting finished and was made conscious of how the Kurds in the KRG feel the rest of the world could be doing more. My interlocutors were also concerned about Turkey’s apparent ambivalence given Ankara’s failure to stop anti-Assad groups using Turkey as a base from which to infiltrate Syria. I also pointed out the ambiguity of several Gulf States, not least Saudi Arabia, which is officially part of the Coalition, yet which has directly or indirectly fuelled ISIS and other militant groups with money (from wealthy private individuals) and by the export of its fundamentalist Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam. Given the way that women are sidelined from decision-making in Saudi Arabia and have often been the victims of ISIS barbarity, it was moreover unfortunate that the London conference seemed to be very much a men’s affair.

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The Writers’ Guild Awards

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 20th January, 2015

The Writers GuildSandi ToksvigLast night I was at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) for the Writers’ Guild Awards, of which ALCS (on whose Board I sit) is a sponsor. The setting was suitably glitzy and the host, Sandi Toksvig, in scintillating, cheeky form. Among the presenters, nominees and audience were such luminaries as Howard Brenton, Christopher Hampton and Steve Coogan. But many of the winners were unjustifiably less well-known names, as with both radio and TV, as well as in the cinema, it is often the actors and maybe the director who gets most of the credit, not the poor bloody writers. The whole point of the Writers’ Guild is to stand up for writers and the annual awards are a good way of highlighting talent and hard work. Among the winners last night were Marcus Brigstocke (Best Radio Comedy: The Brig Society), Rebecca Wojciechowski (Best Long-running TV series: Holby City), Nathan Filer (Best First Novel: The Shock of the Fall) and Sally Wainwright (Best Long Form TV Drama: Happy Valley). There was also a moving tribute to William (Bill) Ash, master storyteller and trade unionist, who died last May. Part of the point of such award events is for people in the industry — many of whom, including me, fit the caricature of the solitary writer in dressing gown and slippers working for hours on end at the computer at home — but the Awards also help promote the work of the winners as well as raise the profile of the craft itself.

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Another Coalition but Which Coalition?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 18th January, 2015

UK political leadersA new UK national opinion poll from YouGov this weekend puts Labour on 32%, the Conservatives on 31%, UKIP on 18%, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens both on 7%, and Others on 5%. Once again neither of the two main parties has managed to muster the support of a third of the electorate, or two-thirds together. Amazing to think back to the 1951 general election, when Labour and the Conservatives got 96.8% of the vote between them. Interestingly, in that election Labour polled 231,000 more votes than the Conservatives, but lost the election. The veteran Mr Churchill was thus put back in office, with a parliamentary majority of 17. That was not the only time that Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system delivered an odd result. And I suspect this May it will do so again, but with the added complication of a fragmented political scene. No-one can predict accurately what the outcome will be, but unless there is a sudden slump in support for the “minor” parties, including UKIP, then no single party can hope to form a majority government and maybe not even a credible minority one either. So another Coalition is the most likely scenario. But a Coalition between whom? I suspect both David Cameron and Nick Clegg privately hope the current one will endure, but that certainly cannot be taken for granted. Labour could well end up the largest party and thus be tasked to try to put a Coalition together. A traffic light arrangement with Labour-LibDems-Greens is one possibility. But could the SNP be the joker in the pack? On a national scale, they only figure under a small proportion of “Others”, but in Scotland the SNP may well end up sending more MPs to Westminister than any other, at the expense of both Labour and the LibDems.

Natalie BennettBecause of the electoral system, however, the headline figures shown in the opinion poll may not even be a rough guide to the number of MPs elected. For once the system might act in the LibDems’ favour, despite the huge drop in their vote share, because of the incumbency factor for many hard-working, respected LibDem MPs. In contrast, both UKIP and the Greens are likely to woefully under-perform in terms of MPs elected, thus making them less significant as potential Coalition partners. Caroline Lucas might hold on to her Brighton seat, despite some unpopular measures implemented by Green-controlled Brighton Council, but I think it is unlikely that Natalie Bennett’s Greens and UKIP will manage to elect more than half a dozen MPs between them. One of the ironies of UKIP’s continued strong showing since last May’s Euro-elections is that the UK has as a result now moved to a Continental-style multi-party situation, in which deals and compromises are becoming the norm. But we do not yet have a Continental-style electoral system by some form of proportional representation for Westminster (national) elections. Given the likelihood of some of the very bizarre and blatantly unfair outcomes that are possible this May for some parties under first-past-the-post I wouldn’t be surprised if the issue of PR suddenly shoots up the political agenda immediately afterwards.

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The Charlie Hebdo Debate

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 15th January, 2015

Charlie HebdoLast night, at short notice, I was asked to take part in a live TV debate on the Charlie Hebdo affair on PressTV, the Iranian channel, to give a European perspective on things. There was incomprehension from some of the interactive viewers as to why the French satirical magazine would once more produce a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad on its cover when it knew that millions of Muslims would find this offensive, even blasphemous. I said that it was an act of defiance by the publication and remaining members of its team to show that they would not be cowed by the appalling assault on the editor and his colleagues, and that millions of people who do not normally buy Charlie Hebdo were doing so this week as an act of solidarity with free expression. What took me by surprise, however, were the views of an American Muslim (convert?) also participating in the programme from the US who declared forcefully that the massacre had been carried out by French agents, not by the two French-Algerian brothers named, and that this was all part of the West’s oppression of Muslims. As he then went off on a tangent ranting about the alleged Establishment cover-up in Britain of rampant paedophilia he was not an interlocutor I could take seriously. But there a couple of points which I think are worth some reflection. The first is the willingness of many in the Islamic world to frame everything in the context of what they see as a giant conspiracy by the United States and Israel to oppress Muslims (with obvious links to the Palestinian issue), and the second is that there is a genuine gulf between two mindsets: one that cherishes free expression and believes in the right to offend and to be offended, as opposed to those who passionately believe that blasphemy (in its widest sense) is a heinous crime worthy of capital punishment. I don’t believe either side will ever persuade the other of its arguments, but in order to avoid further conflict and bloodshed, a modus vivendi has to be found in our globalised, multicultural world, in which we agree to differ. But that is going to require some inspirational leadership by religious and political leaders, as well as a heightened sense of responsibility in the media.

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LibDems Must Stand Firm on Free Expression

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 13th January, 2015

Snoopers CharterIt was inevitable after recent events in Paris that the Conservatives in the UK would try to breathe new life into the Snoopers Charter — specifically seeking the right for the government to read everyone’s emails, in principle on the grounds of national security and the fight against terrorism. Nick Clegg quickly countered that the Liberal Democrats will not stomach that, rightly pointing out the contradiction between David Cameron’s going to Paris to march for free expression while championing curbs on the freedom of expression back home. It is vital that the LibDems hold firm on this. Civil liberties are a keystone issue for the Party, and many of us members and activists were dismayed earlier in this Parliament when it seemed that unsatisfactory compromises were being made (for example on secret courts) which undermined the Partyy’s credibility on such matters. Nick Clegg has effectively prevented Cameron’s extension of Internet scrutiny for the remaining four months of this Parliament, but the LibDems must make civil liberties and freedom of expression core elements of the message the Party will broadcast in May’s election. All the opinion polls suggest that there will be another Coalition of some sort after May 7th., and if the LibDems are part of the next government — whether with the Conservatives or with Labour (whose own record in government on such issues is dire — they must once again curb the excesses of the larger Coalition partner.

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Blasphemy Laws Are Medieval

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 12th January, 2015

Raif BadawiJe Suis CharlieGiven the blanket media coverage of events in Paris over the past week many people will probably have missed the distressing news that on Friday, after midday prayers, the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi received 50 lashes in a public flogging, an act of medieval barbarity that is due to be repeated another 19 times on Fridays until the full 1,000 lashes sentence imposed on him for using electronic media to “insult Islam” has been implemented. Other words banded about in his case have included blasphemy and apostasy (renunciation of one’s faith), the latter meriting the death penalty in some extremist Islamic states. Of course, to any rational modern human being these “crimes” are not crimes at all and certainly do not deserve harsh punishment. I do not believe in gratuitously insulting someone else’s religion, but surely God and the Prophets are strong enough to stand up for themselves in the face of any such criticism, satirical or otherwise? At the heart of the Je Suis Charlie demonstrations in France and elsewhere, in the wake of the murderous attacks in Paris, was the principle of free speech — an essential element not just of modern western civilization but of universal values of human rights, thanks to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has been signed by all members of the UN, including gross abusers of human rights, including Saudi Arabia. The Saudis base their antediluvian approach to blasphemy and other such “offences” on their strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, which was, frankly, outmoded in the late 18th Century when it arose, and when the Enlightenment was sweeping Europe, let alone now. On Sunday, a wide range of world leaders gathered in Paris for the Je Suis Charlie march. But many of these same leaders are themselves guilty of curbing free speech, persecuting and even killing writers and journalists. All have a duty to improve their own records, as well as turning the spotlight on the worst culprits, including Saudi Arabia, applying sanctions where appropriate to reinforce their message. Those countries that still have blasphemy laws should repeal them now.

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