Jonathan Fryer

Archive for February, 2016

Keepers of the Golden Shore

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 29th February, 2016

Keepers of the Golden ShoreThe transformation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from impoverished sheikhdoms along the Trucial Coast to a dynamic post-modern society with one of the fastest rates of economic and population growths in the world is surely one of the most remarkable development trajectories of the second half of the 20th century. As a country, the UAE has only existed since 1971; previously, the seven emirates had survived with often indistinct borders between them drawn in the sand, all under the tutelage of Great Britain as the protecting power. It was largely thanks to the UK’s cost-cutting decision to withdraw from East of Suez that concentrated the minds of the local rulers that they would do better in an uncertain world as a single identity rather than as seven, though Ras Al Khaimah dragged its heels for a while. Bahrain and Qatar could have been part of the new enterprise but decided to go their own way. Subsequently, oil revenues helped Abu Dhabi become the strongest kid o the block, though Dubai’s embracing of economic diversification and in-your-face self promotion has made it the one emirate of which that everyone has heard.

UAE 1950sIt would be tempting to think that the above is all the really matters when one considers the history of the UAE, but as Michael Quentin Morton’s new book Keepers of the Golden Shore (Reaktion Books, £25) recounts, archaeological findings show significant human activity in this region at a time when the climate was more benign than it is now. Moreover, pearl fishing brought periods of prosperity to Gulf communities, albeit unevenly distributed, for several centuries. But the bottom fell out of the pearl market around 1930 in the face of competition from Japanese cultured pearls and the impact of the Great Depression. The following two decades, including the Second World War, were a period of great hardship for Gulf Arabs, including widespread malnutrition, causing some local people to leave. The subsequent exploitation of oil dramatically changed that situation so that now the UAE’s hunger is for overseas migrant labour and the newest and flashiest of everything.

Sheikh ZayedQuentin Morton, who grew up in the Gulf, writes with calm authority and rational judgment about the often passionate rivalry between the various emirates and their ruling families, several of which engaged in fratricide and other dastardly acts. He rightly underlines the particular significance of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan (1918-2004), ruler of Abu Dhabi and President of the UAE, without fully explaining his charisma. I was in Bahrain when Zayed died and the public mourning even there was dramatic and sincerely felt. Perhaps because he does not want to get his book banned in the UAE and neighbouring countries, the author is a little circumspect in his treatment of the bloody suppression of the Pearl roundabout protests in Bahrain in 2011. But for anyone who wants to understand from where what is now the UAE emerged and how that happened this is a most useful and readable account..

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LibDems and Labour Must Be INTogether to Stop Brexit

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 28th February, 2016

LibDems INtogetherLabour RemainHearing Angela Eagle MP on the Marr Show defending the EU and the importance of British membership really drove home the importance of Labour and the LibDems working together in the EU referendum campaign, as the incurably split Conservatives tear themselves apart. Only five Labour MPs have come out as backing the LEAVE campaign, including the maverick Kate Hoey, which means that they have plenty of opportunity to make the case for REMAIN up and down the country (well, England and Wales; the Scottish Nationalists will be shouldering the burden of doing that north of the border). Labour was often vicious to and about LibDems during the 2010-2015 Coalition government which means that many LibDem activists do not see Labour as a natural ally. Indeed, anyone like me who grew up in a Labour rotten borough has a natural instinct to treat the party warily. However, given that the LibDems have only eight MPs now and the media do not pay as much attention to Peers, of which we have over 100, we need to work together on this single issue. The threat of Brexit is too great to let tribal loyalties divide us. Of course each party can work specifically among its own supporters as appropriate but out on the streets of our towns and villages we need to have a coherent, unified, simple set of messages about why being in the EU has been good for Britain, from food safety to workers’ rights and cheap flights and reduced mobile phone roaming charges. UKIP will be treating this Referendum as a life-or-death battle; if the vote is for REMAIN, Nigel Farage and Co will deflate. But we need to recognise that Labour can speak to working class voters who are natural Labour supporters, but who are wooed by UKIP, in a way not many LibDems can. And, who knows, if working in tandem in the INTogether campaign is a success we might also find other important common causes, such as exchanging our distorting electoral system for PR!

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Why the Risk of Brexit Alarms the G20

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 27th February, 2016

G20 ShanghaiFinance Ministers and Central Bank Governors from the Group of 20*, meeting in Shanghai this week, have unanimously agreed that Britain’s possible withdrawal from the European Union (Brexit) could pose a risk to the global economy. In a draft statement from China’s business capital they highlight this as one of the most serious potential dangers confronting the world economic outlook. Growth in many of the leading industrial economies is sluggish and there are particular concerns regarding the performance of the two biggest economies, the United States and China. “The global recovery continues, but it remains uneven and falls short of our ambition for strong, sustainable and balanced growth,” a draft statement from the summit says. The statement notes that markets have reacted adversely to economic anxieties exacerbated by such things as Britain’s possible exit from the EU, as well as the European refugee crisis. The British Chancellor, George Osborne, has seized on the communiqué to underline why the British government’s formal position is to campaign for the UK to remain in the EU, despite opposition from many MPs within the ruling Conservative Party. The matter is being put to the British electorate in a referendum on 23 June, following Prime Minister David Cameron’s negotiations with his continental counterparts to promote limited EU reforms. Those campaigning for Brexit will doubtless maintain that this is another example of scaremongering by the “Remain” camp, but they should take note of the fact that the G20 is about as serious as it gets when it comes to global economic analysis and forecasting. The message is clear: Brexit would not just be a leap into the dark for Britain but would also cause instability within the EU and the wider world economy.

  • The G20 comprises Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States of America, plus the European Union. For the first time, Egypt also joined the Shanghai summit.

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Cameron’s Shameful Saudi Arms Sales

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 26th February, 2016

Yemen strikesWhen he visited the BAE Systems factory in Preston yesterday UK Prime Minister David Cameron boasted of his success in helping promote “brilliant” arms sales top Saudi Arabia, whereas he should have hung his head in shame. Of course the Desert Kingdom and other Gulf states have the right to defend themselves and it is natural that Britain, as a major arms producer, should wish to corner an important part of a lucrative market. However, Saudi Arabia is not a normal case, for at least two reasons. The first is the air campaign it has been waging in Yemen, which has caused not only immense physical damage — including, reportedly, to all the country’s universities — but serious civilian loss of life. All this in by far the poorest country on the Arabian peninsula, in which hundreds of thousands of people, especially children are suffering from acute malnutrition. The second reason for Britain to balk at its cosy relationship with Saudi Arabia, rather than bask in it, is the Kingdom’s egregious human rights record. Since King Salman came to power, far from reducing the number of executions Saudi Arabia has accelerated their number. Medieval punishments are carried out under the false flag of religion, while women are still denied a full place in society and those who dare criticise the system, such as the liberal blogger Raif Badawi, face imprisonment, flogging or worse. The European Parliament rightly called for an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia this week, because of the Yemen conflict, though Mr Cameron’s Conservative MEPs failed to back that resolution. Labour politicians Jeremy Corbyn and Hilary Benn, to their credit, have spoken out in Britain and Tim Farron and other Liberal Democrat figures have also made their revulsion known. But the spotlight needs to be turned on David Cameron, who is presiding over a government that has put human rights concerns on a back burner and which celebrates making billions from arms that are not for legitimate defence but for offensive action beyond Saudi’s borders and sometimes for domestic oppression as well.

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Boris Hooks onto the Wrong Zip Wire

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 23rd February, 2016

BorisThe House of Commons is rarely as packed as it was yesterday afternoon for Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement on the EU Council, from which he had brought back a deal which he feel means Britons should vote to remain in the European Union. Dozens of MPs were left standing as the entertainment began. I use that word advisedly, because the Mother of All Parliaments becomes like a circus on such occasions, with backbenchers barracking and joking, emitting strange zoo-like noises and loud cries of Hear! Hear! as appropriate. Poor Jeremy Corbyn had a rough time of it responding to Mr Cameron’s statement. Even though the Labour leader was also calling for a Remain vote in the EU Referendum on 23 June the Tories were merciless in their ridiculing. One wag’s aside of “Who are you?” had the more boisterous of them rolling in the aisles. But for most people present, as well as for the unusually large audience watching on BBC Parliament channel, the star turn was always going to be the confrontation between Mr Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson, especially as Mr Johnson had only hours before lumbered off the fence he has sat on uncomfortably for some time regarding the Referendum to come out in favour of Leave. Mr Cameron made rather a good joke about people who are launching divorce proceedings rarely seeking to reaffirm their marriage vows — which both referred to the Leave side’s curious contention that if the UK left the EU it could always have another referendum to come back as well as making a cheeky swipe at Boris’s own amorous activities. As Boris stood up to speak there were loud cries of “Tuck your shirt in, Boris!” from his own side. Like Marmite, he is adored by some and disliked by others. Even his own father, the forme Conservative MEP Stanley Johnson, thinks Boris is wrong in opting for OUT. And although those in favour of Brexit are cooing about wooing Boris over to their camp I can’t help feeling that he has made he wrong decision, even for the purposes of his own political advancement, which is really the only thing he cares about. To use another apt image, he has attached himself to the wrong zip wire and is in grave danger of getting stuck up in the air as a result.

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LGBT+ LibDems’ Priorities

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 21st February, 2016

LGBT+ Libdems 2016At a winter strategy conference at the Liberal Democrats party HQ yesterday, LGBT+ LibDems celebrated the real gains made for LGBTi rights during the life of the Coalition government but recognised that more still needs to be done. Though there has been an extraordinary shift in public attitudes in Britain over the past few decades that is more true in metropolitan London than in rural areas. Moreover, there are specific issues which still need addressing properly and a series of expert presentations at the conference helped us to do that. These included the need to promote the use of PrEP medication that acts as a preventive for HIV/AIDS among at risk groups, as has happened more effectively in France; work with schools and parents to tackle the causes of homophobic bullying; and improving Britain’s record in dealing with LGBTi asylum seekers, some of whom are still being returned to countries where they face persecution or even death. Tim Farron has come out strongly against the blood donor ban for gay men, but participants at the conference believed he still needed to be less ambiguous about his view of the “morality” of gay sex. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have been ahead of the curve in acknowledging the needs of the Trans community, yet often unconscious prejudice and bias remains at a personal level. In some ways, this area is the new frontier for the rights and diversity movement. The Party has also been carrying out a review of its own policies on diversity relating to its political candidates, committee structures and internal workings, about which the Party President, Sal Brinton, was able to update us and which figure in both the governance review and the 2015 general election review that are being taken forward to the York spring conference.

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Four Months to Keep Britain IN

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 20th February, 2016

Vote RemainLast night, just in time for the Ten O’Clock News, David Cameron got his deal with the 27 other EU member states which will allow him to return to London and campaign for Britain to remain a member of the European Union in the Referendum that will almost certainly now take place on 23 June. The Prime Minister played to the gallery of the UK’s tabloid Press by conducting his negotiations (at least in public) in a bullying, adversarial fashion that was redolent of the boorish behaviour of the House of Commons, rather than the more gentle manoeuvres of compromise favoured on the Continent. But his collocutors, including Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, were diplomatically congratulatory when the marathon talks came to an end. Britain’s EU partners genuinely want us to remain in Europe, but the question now is whether the British public can be persuaded that this is in their best interests. At the AGM of London4Europe at Europe House last night the point was emphasized that the big challenge for the Remain campaign will be to motivate supporters actually to go out to vote. The other side is all revved up, ,though I have to say that the GO camp’s unveiling of George Galloway as their new secret weapon in the battle to leave is likely to repel more people than bring in new recruits. In the meantime, David Cameron has to try to keep a lid on his Cabinet Ministers who favour withdrawal as they will now feel free to campaign for OUT full steam. In my opinion, if they do that, thereby undermining the government’s policy, then he should bite the bullet and sack them..

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David Cameron’s D-Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 18th February, 2016

Cameron EU 1The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, is in Brussels today for the most important European Council meeting of his time in office. He has to persuade the other 27 EU Heads of Government that an acceptable compromise on his demands for EU reform has been reached, enabling him to return to London to campaign for a “Remain” vote in the forthcoming IN/OUT EU Referendum. It is known that several central and eastern European countries, including Poland, are still unhappy about the key British request that the UK be allowed to deny in-work benefits to EU migrants for a period of four years after their arrival in the country. Yet the President of the EU Council, Donald Tusk — himself a former Polish Prime Minister — declared late yesterday that EU leaders have ‘no choice’ but to do a deal on Mr Cameron’s demands. The prospect of Brexit — the UK’s withdrawal following a ‘Leave’ victory in the Referendum — is seen in Brussels as almost too horrible to contemplate. This is not just because most other member states genuinely value British membership and the way Anglo-Saxon values and working practices contribute to the EU mix but even more importantly because there is a fear that were Britain to leave other member states would start to make difficult demands and the whole European project could start to unravel. The discussions on the proposed British reforms will begin at 1645 today and I know from my own past experience covering EU Council meetings for Reuters that these could go on well into the night. If the leaders still have not reached a satisfactory compromise then, they will begin again over breakfast tomorrow morning. But even if Mr Cameron is able to claim victory when he returns to London (which is still not guaranteed) his battles are not over. Within the ruling Conservative Party, and indeed even within the Cabinet, there is deep hostility to the European Union and as soon as the Prime Minister is back in Downing Street those Tory EU opponents will join the campaign for Brexit with all guns blazing.

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Charles Dickens at the NLC

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 15th February, 2016

Jeremy ClarkeDickens groupiesCharles Dickens is often thought of as the quintessential Victorian novelist, though his career began before the young Victoria ascended the throne and he died in 1870. There was thus no way that he could ever have visited that most stylish of late Victorian edifices, Alfred Waterhouse’s National Liberal Club (NLC), which was founded in 1882 (though its magnificent premises on the north bank of the River Thames were not completed until five years later)  and to a degree remains a shrine to William Gladstone. However, the Kettner Lunch club — founded by Peter Boizot 42 years ago, originally at Kettner’s in Soho but latterly at the NLC –.has often doffed its cap in the direction of Dickens, but today it offered a special treat in terms of an illustrated lecture on My Boyhood’s Home: Dickens and North Kent by Dr Jeremy Clarke of the Dickens Museum in Rochester. It must be 20 years since I went down to Rochester specifically to see the Dickens collection at the Guildhall Museum and was pleased to know it is going great guns. Even better news was the revelation that Gad’s Hill, Dickens’s rather grand home at Higham, which has for some time been used as a school, may revert wholly to being a place for Dickens fans to make a pilgrimage. Though my own great literary love, Oscar Wilde, had a poor view of Dickens — thinking him old fashioned and at times mawkish — in fact the two of them were the real godfathers of modernism, at least insofar as we now see literature as much about the writer as about the text. Moreover, both were phenomenal self-promoters who also engaged directly with their public. No wonder Oscar was a little jealous of Charles, though I have to day that one’s admiration is somewhat dimmed by the fact that Dickens treated his wife even more shamefully than Wilde did his.

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Remembering Eric Avebury

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 14th February, 2016

Eric AveburyLord Avebury, who died earlier today at the age of 87, was better known to many in politics by the name he had before inheriting a peerage: Eric Lubbock. In 1962, Eric won for the Liberal Party one of the most famous by-elections of modern times in the suburban seat of Orpington, just down the road from that of the Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, hastening Macmillan’s political demise. By chance, Orpington was a favourite dormitory town for Fleet Street journalists as well as printers, because of the excellent commuter train service, and they really went to town by identifying a new breed of voter: Orpington man. People tend to forget that Eric hung on to the seat at the next two general elections before succumbing to the Tory tide that swept in Ted Heath in 1970. This defeat was given sweet recompense by the timely inheritance of his peerage (which would have forced him to resign from the House of Commons, had it happened earlier — or else try to imitate Tony Benn in trying to renounce  it). Though the Lubbock family was well-known in north-west Kent, Eric was not a natural member of the still rather fusty House of Lords, but both he and the Liberal Party realised that he could use new position as a platform to promote Liberal causes. Over the years, he would increasingly focus on human rights internationally. He and I often found ourselves at the same events not just because I stood for Orpington in the 1987 general election but also because increasingly our human rights issues were the same. We took a perverse delight in the fact that both of us had been banned from Bahrain because we highlighted some of the excessive actions of the Sunni monarchy against predominantly Shia dissidents. Eric’s own religious beliefs were essentially Buddhist and he provoked a degree of derision in the tabloid Press when he suggested he should leave his body to be recycled as animal food. In several ways he was ascetic, and in the timeworn phrase of obituarists, he did not suffer fools gladly. But he was a man of immense humanity, driven by a thirst for justice, and he will be much missed.

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