I am not an American citizen and never will be, so I will never have the chance to vote in a US presidential election. But that does not stop me — like so much of the British political class — following US presidential contests with fascination. Or fascinated horror, might be more truthful. The horror is partly because of the obscene amount of money spent in these quadrennial campaigns; I see nothing to celebrate in the fact that 2016 will probably see the first US$2 billion dollar contest. Even worse is the quality of the rival candidates and their political discourse. Not surprisingly, I lean towards the Democrats rather than towards the Republicans (though northern liberal Democrats, rather than die-hard southern ones, I should stress). Nothing in the world would persuade me to back that chump Trump, or indeed any of his rivals for the Republican nomination. But the Democrats’ choice this year fails to inspire me. I was quite taken with Bernie Sanders and have loved the way that he has blown apart age-related prejudice. He’s radical on many issues and quite international in many ways. But he is so American, and so very, very wrong (in my view) when it comes to gun control, which he reportedly largely opposes. Poor President Obama has done his best to awaken the US public to the inherent dangers of adhering to the constitutional right to bear arms, but with as little success as a drugs counselor trying to get a heroin addict off his fixes. Sanders isn’t even trying. Which I suppose makes Hillary Clinton a preferable choice, though her pledge to be an even greater friend to the State of Israel, despite its egregious violation of human rights and international law in Occupied Palestine, makes her pretty hard to stomach, too. So, in short I probably couldn’t vote for either of them. And I’m just glad that as a European, I don’t need to. Some say that because of globalisation, everyone around the world is becoming the same. But I feel that on the contrary, the Atlantic divide between the United States and Europe is getting ever wider, and it’s probably best that it stays that way.
Archive for January, 2016
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 31st January, 2016
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 30th January, 2016
Today is the first of what is expected to be an annual event: the Global Day of Support for Palestinian Rights. In London, this was marked by a seminar this afternoon at the P21 Gallery in Camden, “Targeting Dissent: Israel’s Crackdown on Palestinian Citizens”, organised by Middle East Monitor. The plight of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is increasingly well-known in Europe, including Britain, but less familiar is the situation of Palestinian Arabs living in Israel. They make up about 20 per cent of the population but only own about 3 per cent of the land, and although they can vote and enjoy many other civil rights they are not completely equal citizens of the Jewish state, particularly when it comes to property and treatment in the Courts. At this afternoon’s event we heard from an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset, Yousef Jabareen, who said that Ministers of Israel’s ruling coalition are rarely in the chamber when Arab members speak and attempts over the years to get the concept of equality enshrined in the basic law of human rights have been rebuffed. The law professor, Durgham Saif, highlighted the situation of Bedouin in the Negev desert, and pointed out that while Palestinians have no right of return to their historic homeland Israel has let in hundreds of thousands of Russians, many of whom are not even Jews. The journalist Ben White cited a litany of ways that Israel has suppressed Palestinian rights over he decades, while the NUS’s Black Students Office Malia Bouattia spoke of the way that pro-Palestinian activists in this country sometimes get caught up in police and security services’ operations against radicalisation. The event was chaired by LibDem peer, Baroness (Meral) Hussein-Ece.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 27th January, 2016
More than 70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the lessons of the Holocaust are still highly relevant. Over the past year there has been a disturbing rise in anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other instances of ethnic and religious discrimination, not least in Europe, and Holocaust Memorial Day is a stark reminder of just how terribly wrong things can go when prejudice and discriminatory behaviour are considered acceptable and reach extremes. The refugee and migrant crisis of the past year has given rise to some splendid spontaneous acts of generosity but it has also provoked negative reactions in some quarters. Hearing the British Prime Minister David Cameron in the House of Commons today refer dismissively to “a bunch of migrants” I found chilling, as well as reflecting a disturbing element of entitlement within the current Conservative government. Even worse has been the shameful proposition from the government in Denmark to seize valuables from asylum seekers. Don’t the Danes realise what dreadful echoes of the not-so-distant past that provokes? Europe is undeniably under pressure at the moment but the way forward is to cooperate with compassion, not to scapegoat vulnerable communities and incomers. Even among our indigenous populations in Europe there are growing numbers of marginalised and dispossessed people, including homeless in our cities, not least London. We should not fall into the trap of looking down on people, including those sleeping in the streets, because that is the start of a slippery slope.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 25th January, 2016
The Commonwealth is a rather odd club, made up of 53 states of wildly different size, most (but not all) of which once formed part of the British Empire. They therefore share an interest in the English language, as well as maintaining ties with the old country and among themselves. There is a Secretariat in London and Dominica-born Baroness Scotland is its latest Secretary General, but the organisation does not have the sort of resources at its disposal of a regional body such as the European Union or even the United Nations. But also unlike the UN the Commonwealth has the advantage of being a club, which means that members who misbehave badly can be suspended or even thrown out. Others choose to withdraw instead when the they see that they are in disgrace. Since the beginning the main reasons for exclusions have usually been human rights violations and a democratic deficit, both of which sadly are still evident in some of the current member states. This evening, as the first event of the National Liberal Club’s new Commonwealth Forum, chaired by Lord (David) Chidgey, the writer and longstanding human rights activist Richard Bourne spoke in particular about the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative with which he has been closely involved, but setting this in a wider context. Developing countries tend to highlight basic human rights such as access to food and housing whereas comparatively wealthy countries like Britain put more emphasis on civil and political rights. The latter can sometimes be extremely sensitive, paradoxically because of colonial era laws which are still on the statute books in many Commonwealth states while Britain has evolved in a different direction. Richard Bourne mentioned LGBT+ rights, for example; whereas same sex marriage is now accepted in many ‘developed’ countries, including Britain, homophobic laws are still acted on in some Commonwealth states, such as Uganda and Malaysia. Similarly, whereas long ago the Commonwealth championed the merits of democracy there has been a worrying tendency for some African states in particular to revert to an older model of presidents for life. Because the Commonwealth works by consensus and pressure is brought to bear on misbehaving governments behind the scenes, unless their behaviour is egregious, it is often hard to see what the Commonwealth actually achieves in promoting human rights and Patricia Scotland has a daunting challenge ahead of her to try to change that. But perhaps the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative can quietly chalk up successes while keeping the Commonwealth on its toes.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 24th January, 2016
For several years now, I have been celebrating Burns Night with Lewisham Liberal Democrats at the home of two hospitable members in Honor Oak Park. To the best of my knowledge I do not have any Scottish links, nor is any of the participants at these jolly occasions usually a Scot, but that does not stop us entering into the spirit of the evening with gusto. We follow the set pattern of speeches, which usually includes me addressing the haggis, in a mangling of Scots that might make Rabbie Burns spin in his grave. But I hope it would amuse him too. It is surely good that even Sassenachs — and a few other ethnicities here in multicultural London — gather to commemorate Scotland’s bard. I believe that as Liberal Democrats, as indeed for the British public in general, we should celebrate diversity, and that means the cultural diversity within Britain as well as abroad. Moreover, theme nights are a great way of bringing party members together, new and old, for socialising that helps bonding inside political teams. Campaigning is the core activity of political parties, but a team is more likely to be happy and gel if the campaigning work is leavened by social occasions. Moreover, in the run-up to the EU Referendum, which may or may not take place later this year, there will be countless opportunities for country-themed evenings, which can also be useful fundraisers as well. There are 27 other EU member states to choose from, not to mention some of their constituent parts. Anyone up for Hungarian goulash or a Paella Party?
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 22nd January, 2016
Thirty-five years ago, Labour’s “Gang of Four” — Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rogers — met at Dr Owen’s home in Narrow Street, Limehouse, where they signed the Limehouse Declaration, which would soon lead to the formation of the Social Democrat Party, the SDP. Last night, just a few doors down the road from Dr Owen’s House, Liberal Democrats gathered to celebrate that anniversary and to give the City and London East GLA campaign a hefty boost. Though none of the three surviving Gang of Four was present, there was a stellar line-up of speakers, starting with Vince Cable, who had started his political life as a Labour councillor in Glasgow before joining the SDP and eventually getting elected as Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham. He noted the parallels between the situation in the Labour Party in 1981 and that today under the respective leaderships of Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn, and said that many moderate Labour MPs now are running round like headless chickens, alarmed by the way things have developed within the party but unable to decide what to do about it. Moreover, in 2016 the dissidents lack figures of the gravitas of the Gang of Four who could be capable of organising a break-away. The fate of the SDP under Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system was also a dire warning. As Lord (Dick) Newby reminded us in his speech last night, although the SDP-Liberal Alliance polled 25.4% of the vote, compared with Labour’s 27.6%, the Alliance only bagged 23 parliamentary seats as opposed to Labour’s 209. Only five of the SDP MPs who had defected from Labour hung on to their seats and the party’s only gain was Charles Kennedy.
Tom Brake — London’s sole-surviving Liberal Democrat MP — warned that we must not assume that the Party will just bounce back in 2020 and that it is vital that we consolidate our hold on the eight seats we still have, as well as building in the targets. The compere for the evening, Dr Mark Pack, gave his own thoughtful commentary on the rise and fall of the SDP as well as providing some colourful memorabilia, which did indeed bring back memories among those of us old enough to remember the heady days of 1982, when the Alliance was leading in the opinion polls, only to have our hopes dashed on the rocks of the Falklands War, which saved Mrs Thatcher’s political skin. Interestingly, many of the guests at the Limehouse Declaration anniversary dinner were too young to have such memories, including the GLA constituency candidate Elaine Bagshaw who rounded off the evening and highlighted the remarkable rise in membership and activities in the local parties of Tower Hamlets, Newham and Barking & Dagenham.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Bill Rodgers, City and London East, David Owen, Dick Newby, Elaine Bagshaw, Jeremy Corvyn, Liberal Democrats, Limehouse Declaration, Margaret Thatcher, Mark Pack, Michael Foot, Roy Jenkins, SDP, Shirley Williams, Tom Brake, Vince Cable | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 19th January, 2016
The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)was taken over last night by the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain for their annual awards ceremony, when the people who write the scripts of programmes people watch on TV or films or plays or even video games get a chance to step into the limelight. The ALCS, one whose Board I sit, was one of the sponsors. This year’s compere was the raunchy Scottish comedian Susan Calman who got the evening off to a jolly start by informing us how lucky we are to be able to work in our pyjamas. With three nominations in each of 12 categories, from radio drama to first screenplay, there were far too many winners (and losers) to mention in a short blog item, but a few were definitely highlights. Deborah Frances-White (best radio comedy) was funny but touching about the challenges of facing up to one’s adoption, while Timberlake Wertenbaker (best play) added some welcome gravitas. But to my mind the star of the show came right at the end — not an easy slot, when the audience has been sitting in the theatre for over two hours and there is a drinks reception with canapés waiting outside — was Russell T Davies, who was recognised for his Outstanding Contribution to Writing. He gave a bravura performance of self-deprecation mixed with slapstick. As he is immensely tall and Susan Calman distinctly short, they made an amusingly odd couple in the laureates’ line-up.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 17th January, 2016
Though we don’t yet have an official date yet for Britain’s IN/OUT EU Referendum, the hot money is on 23 June — or at least that is what the attendees at yesterday’s London Liberal Democrats’ EU Referendum Rally were told. That assumes that David Cameron will get what he considers a satisfactory response to his four key demands for EU reform from his 27 EU counterparts, either at the European Council on 18 February or possibly at a special Council meeting later that month. Otherwise the timetable might slip and we would be looking at a referendum in the autumn instead. Personally I hope it is in June, with the London, Scottish, Welsh and local elections out of the way but the weather in principle benign, therefore encouraging people to go out to vote.
We already know the Referendum question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”, to which the alternative answers are “remain” and “leave”. The big challenge for Liberal Democrats, as the political party most enthusiastically in favour of Britain’s EU membership, is to enthuse the “remain” voters, which will mean appealing to their emotions, not just relying on statistics. That is what UKIP does so effectively on the other side of the argument. There was a galaxy of LibDem stars at the rally at Friends House in London yesterday, including Sir Graham Watson (former Leader of the ALDE Party), Catherine Bearder MEP, Baroness Sarah Ludford, London Mayoral candidate Caroline Pidgeon and the man charged with runing the LibDems’ EU Referendum campaign, Iain Gill. But for me, the most fascinating contribution was from Tom Smithard, the party’s Strategy Research guru, who showed detailed results of polling about the referendum and related issues among LibDem members and voters, as well as among Conservative and Labour voters for whom the LibDems would be a second choice. The headline issue was that essentially the electorate is made up of three roughly equal groups: those who are strongly in favour of the EU and therefore are likely to vote to stay in come what may; those who are strongly against who will do the opposite; and a third group of those who are undecided. The pro-business, cross party Stronger in Europe campaign will be targetting the last of those three groups, which means that the LibDems should focus on the first, ensuring that the “remain” voters actually do vote, including as full a polling day operation as possible, just as we do when an ordinary election is taking place, the difference this time being that literally every vote will count.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Caroline Pidgeon, Catherine Bearder, EU Referendum, Graham Watson, Iain Gill, London Liberal Demorats, Sarah Ludford, Stronger in Europe, Tom Smihtard | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 9th January, 2016
I was totally opposed to the recent decision by the UK parliament to bomb Syria, in the absence of a coherent strategy for bringing an end to the civil war in that country, and I was pleased that among the LibDem MPs, at least Norman Lamb and Mark Williams voted that way. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground has got much worse in many places, thanks partly to the Russian support for the murderous Assad regime, which is itself responsible for the vast majority of deaths in Syria, without mentioning the gross human rights abuses that it perpetrates in its prisons and detention centres. Now, there is a new, horrific spectre in the land, in which over 250,000 have died and millions have fled or been displaced. This has been most vividly illustrated by the harrowing images of starving children from Madaya, which has been under siege by regime forces for many weeks, and other places. The images are as awful as the pictures that came out of Bergen-Belsen at the end of the Second World War, and are similarly of the victims of a pattern of extermination. Quite apart from the adults who are dying on these appalling conditions, infants and babies are being fed on boiled leaves, watered-down jam and anything else that distressed parents can lay their hands on. So tell me, am I being unrealistically utopian in wishing that instead of dropping bombs on Syria, the RAF should be dropping food and medical supplies on Madaya and other communities in distress? I don’t think so. It is pain humanity. But that seems to have been lost in the noise of the anti-ISIS narrative. Of course, self-style Islamic State is repulsive and needs to be combatted, but can we really say we are on the side of the angels if that combat means we stand by and let innocents die?