Jonathan Fryer

Archive for May, 2016

Oscance: Toasting Oscar and Constance Wilde

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 30th May, 2016

Oscar Wilde married Constance Lloyd on 29 May 1884 at St. James’s Church, Paddington, a short walk from the bride’s grandfather’s house in Lancaster Gate. For the past dozen years or so, that event has been commemorated at the church with an afternoon ceremony called Oscance, with readings, interviews and performances. But yesterday’s commemoration was special, as it centred on the unveiling by their only grandson, Merlin Holland, of a beautiful memorial to the couple, made by he young letter-cutter, Thomas Sergeant. As one of the Patrons of the Oscar Wilde Society, I was then asked asked to propose a toast (with prosecco), which I did as follows:

Wilde plaqueEvery time I come to St. James’s, I can feel the presence of Oscar Wilde. Spooky, as Dame Edna Everage would say, though spooky in a most pleasant way. He’s up there somewhere, among the rafters, looking down on us. But he’s not alone, because half concealed behind one of the pillars — not hiding, but watching the proceedings with a wry smile on her face — is Constance. As was mentioned in the reading from Franny Moyle’s biography, Constance was a strong character in her own right — for example, being an active member of the Chelsea Women’s Liberal Association — though the drama of Oscar’s later life left her overshadowed. I sometimes wonder how things would have been if the couple had lived a hundred years later, in our own, more liberal age. But maybe there would not have been this more liberal age had it not been for the lesson of the downfall of Oscar Wilde. It is most fitting now that all the planning and commissioning and the tooling of the memorial are complete that Oscar and Constance in the form of the beautiful plaque will now greet everyone who comes into this church and will bid us farewell this afternoon. I therefore ask you to raise your glasses: to Oscar and Constance!

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Should EU Migrants Fear Brexit?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 25th May, 2016

The American novelist Mark Twain was fond of saying that there are three types of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. And with both the Remain and Leave sides in Britain’s EU Referendum campaign sharing sometimes completely contradictory statistics in the run-up to the vote on 23 June, it’s no wonder people are confused.

How do EU citizens in the UK feel?

There are an estimated 2.2 million EU migrants who live and work in the UK, having taken advantage of the European Single Market’s freedom of movement of people, goods and services. How do they feel about the possibility of Britons voting to leave the EU?

Unsurprisingly, 87% of the 1,000 continental EU citizens living in the UK surveyed by totaljobs in May 2016 said they are concerned about Brexit. There is no guarantee that they could stay in Britain post-Brexit, though 75% of respondents said they would try to do so. That might mean they would have to apply for a work visa, which may not be guaranteed.

If they were pushed out of Britain after Brexit – perhaps passing thousands of expatriate Brits returning home from their lives in mainland Europe because of a reciprocal withdrawal of rights – many say they would go back to their home country. But slightly more would look for work in another EU member state, the survey uncovered. Wage differentials certainly make that worthwhile for people coming from low-wage economies.

Some British tabloids have claimed that EU migrants, especially from formerly communist states of central and eastern Europe such as Romania and Bulgaria, came to Britain essentially to take advantage of the country’s relatively generous, non-contributory benefits system, but the totaljobs survey findings do not support the idea of such a powerful ‘pull factor’.

Europeans-and-Brexit-2

Working in the UK

Fewer than half of respondents cited better benefits when asked how working in the UK had affected their career, whereas two thirds mentioned higher earnings. Notably, a majority of the European migrants surveyed were earning less than the average British salary of £26,000 a year. Career progression and a healthier work-life balance also figured prominently in their responses.

For a clear majority of respondents, coming to Britain was all about work: Better job opportunities and higher salaries than those available back home. By far the biggest group represented among the EU migrants in Britain are people aged between 25 and 44 – a prime stage of life for developing their careers.

Others cited educational opportunities, including the chance to improve their English, which is recognised as the number 1 language in the EU and in the wider world.

Some came to Britain for personal reasons, being married to or in a relationship with a Brit, or else joining family already living here. Yet others simply wanted to experience another culture, with many settling in London, which is currently enjoying a particularly vibrant period culturally and economically.

Employers in both the manufacturing and agricultural sectors in the UK often say they like to have workers from the continent because they have a good work ethic. In some cases, employers find it difficult to recruit suitable British workers to do the job.

Similarly, while some Brits argue that competition from EU migrants pushes down wages, a recent study by the London School of Economics maintains that is in fact not the case.

How many Europeans are in the UK?

EU migrants probably make up no more than 5% of the total labour force in Britain. The Poles are by far the largest single group of (non-Irish) EU migrants in the UK, and made up a fifth of the totaljobs survey respondents.

In 2004, when Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus joined the EU, Britain, unlike most other existing member states, did not impose transitional arrangements that would have stopped migrants from the accession states moving in for a number of years.

Inevitably Britain was something of a magnet, though not all those who came in the first wave stayed very long, particularly after the financial crisis of 2008. Incidentally, the government considers those who stay for less than a year to be ‘short term migrants’ and does not include them in the headline immigration statistics.

That largely explains why considerably more EU migrants were given National Insurance numbers than show up in the official immigration figures provided by the Home Office. Yet these statistics may only tell some of the story; although the British border force monitors people coming into the country, it does not check those leaving, so no one can be completely sure how many continental EU citizens are living here at any given moment.

Also notable, each year the EU migrants arriving in Britain are outnumbered by immigrants from other parts of the world, a higher proportion of whom are hoping to settle permanently.

Europeans-and-Brexit-1

Do EU citizens think it’s worth staying?

Well over half of the migrants polled said they were satisfied with the experience of working in Britain and that they felt more comfortable in the work culture of Britain than they did back home. Yet not all were comfortable in the current political climate as the EU Referendum approaches.

A third of respondents, notably those who had been in the UK for less than five years, said they would feel discriminated against if they were looking for a job now. They also worried about possible political developments in the country after a potential Brexit.

One option for some would be to protect themselves by applying for UK nationality. Half of the 1,000 survey respondents said they had indeed considered it and nearly 10% were in the process of doing so. Yet in contrast, a significant proportion of the total believed they would leave Britain within the next two years.

The British government says it called the Brexit referendum in response to public demand; the last such vote, to confirm Britain’s membership of the then-European Economic Community, occurred back in 1975.

The decision to hold this referendum has affected many migrants’ opinion of Britain negatively, especially among those aged 34 or younger. Perhaps they belong to a generation that takes the realities of the European single market for granted and are especially unhappy that freedom of movement might be curtailed.

Job security is the top concern, with younger migrants in particular fearing they will be kicked out of the country. Some also worry about a possible rise in xenophobia and possible discrimiation.

Other preoccupations are primarily financial. Currency fluctuations could mean that the pounds migrants earn by working in Britain would be worth less back home post-Brexit, while air fares – important for those who return to their home country regularly to visit family and friends – might rise substantially.

The information and speculation about the consequences of Brexit available are so inconsistent that it is hard for people to judge what the likely impact really would be. To make matters worse, according to the survey, 60% of the EU migrants questioned said the HR departments of the firms where they worked had not kept them informed about the potential work policy changes caused by Brexit.

That may appear shocking, until you realise that the HR people probably have no idea themselves.

More questions than answers

The truth is, no one knows exactly what the consequences of Britain leaving the EU would be, or indeed what sort of future relationship the UK would have with Europe. A Norwegian or Swiss model – both of which have been suggested – would mean that freedom of movement for EU workers would continue, whereas a Canadian model would see that right ended.

What does seem certain is that it would take several years of negotiation and legislative changes for Britain to disentangle itself from the EU, which means that a vote in favour of Brexit would not be the end of a process, but just its beginning.

[This article was first published by Totaljobs Group: http://www.totaljobs.com/insidejob/impact-brexit-europeans-working-uk/   ]

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Liberal International Executive in Georgia

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd May, 2016

imageLiberal international held its first-ever Executive Committee in the South Caucasus republic of Georgia this week, fortuitously coinciding with the 38th anniversary celebrations for our host party, the Republican Party of Georgia. Security issues were at the fore outside of the purely administrative session, including a trip to the “separation line” — where Geirgian troops face encroaching Russians, who have taken over South Ossetia and occasionally push forward their barbed wire barrier, separating Georgian farmers from their land and cutting them off from friends and family on the other side. On Friday night a fading party came over and killed one young Geirgian man. The Georgian Defence Minister, Tinatin Khidasheli, was a keynote speaker. Slovenia’s former Defence Minister, Roman Jakic — recently one of LI’s Treasurers — made the point that NATO cannot say it has an open door policy and then turn people away, which offers a potentially challenging situation with regard to both Georgia and Ukraine.

imageLooking further afield, there was a debate on whether the world can unite successfully in its fight against ISIS/Daesh. But I was especially interested in a session on the implications of the nuclear deal with Iran. Former Belgian junior Foreign Minister, Annemie Neyts, echoed my feelings by arguing that we need to engage with the Iranians and to recognise their historical importance, while not keeping our eyes off the security ball, whereas Dan Kucawka from Argentina took a much more hawkish position, basically asking how we can trust a country whose forces are helping Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. All in all, the world seems a more troubled place than it did a decade ago, though one of the positive developments has been the expansion of Liberal International to take in new member parties, not least from Africa.

 

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INtogether Action Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 15th May, 2016

INtogether NewhamAcross Britain yesterday, hundreds of local Liberal Democrat parties organised street stalls promoting a Remain vote in the Euro-Referendum. I briefly manned the one outside Stratford Station in Newham and although inevitably many people rushed past without stopping, anxious to catch their train or to do their Saturday shopping, it was encouraging just how many people did engage, voluntarily approaching the stall (where we had about 10 activists from across the capital) to take literature and ask questions. Newham is an ethnically very diverse area, but there was just as much interest among Asian and Afro-Caribbean passers-by as among the whites. What was very striking, though, was the difference of attitude according to age. Many older white women in particular said “I’m voting OUT!”, whereas younger people were almost all in favour of Remain. The keenest of all were 15- and 16-year-olds, not least black girls, though of course they cannot vote. If Mr Cameron had thought about things more deeply he should have tried to get the franchise reduced to 16, as happened in Scotland’s independence referendum. After all, it is the young people whose future will be most affected by the decision to stay or go. Moreover, older people tend to vote more regularly than the young, that could skew the result. Doubtless that is what UKIP and Tory Outers like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove hope. Nonetheless, I feel that a narrow vote in favour of Remain is the most likely outcome, especially now that the Governor of the Bank of England and other authoritative non-politicians are weighing into the argument. Depressingly, the Brexit camp is still putting out lies, the two most common being that Britain pays £350 million into the EU every week and that the accounts of the Union have never been approved. That’s why it is so important to be out in the streets and knocking on doors putting the INtogether case.

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Palestine’s Nakba Continues

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 11th May, 2016

Manuel HassasianAcross the world, Palestinians this week are commemorating the Nakba or “Catastrophe” — the 1948 flow of more than 700,000 Palestinian refugees from territory that had been declared as the new state of Israel. Many Palestinian villages were destroyed and countless people had to leave their homes at a moment’s notice, never to return. The memory is a wound that never heals, even among second and third generation Palestinians of refuge families who were born in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and elsewhere. Many remain stateless, thereby denied full freedom of movement. Last night, following a joint initiative by the SNP Friends of Palestine and the London-based Palestine Return Centre (PRC), there was a large gathering at the House of Commons, addressed by Manuel Hassassian (Palestinian Ambassador to the UK), Tommy Sheppard MP (SNP), Sameh Habeb (PRC), Karma Nabulsi (Palestinian academic and human rights campaigner, based at my old college, St. Edmund Hall, Oxford), Caroline Lucas MP (Greens) and myself (as Chair of Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine). In the audience were Muslims, Jews, Christians and others, united in their concern to bring an end to the Israeli Occupation.

Palestinian refugee campsAmbassador Hassassian made a blistering attack on the Conservative government for its hypocrisy in saying that it is in favour of international law and human rights while doing nothing for the Palestinian cause; indeed, David Cameron and several other Ministers have stated openly that they are great supporters of Israel. Caroline Lucas particularly focussed on the arms trade and the fact that British arms manufacturers are selling some of the weapons used in the Israeli occupation. I urged people to look forward, as well as backwards to the start of the Nakba, pointing out that public opinion has shifted dramatically in the UK in favour of addressing the injustices of the current situation. I called on the British government to follow Sweden’s lead in recognising Palestine, without pre-conditions, and asked that people stop referring to Israeli “settlers” in the West Bank, instead acknowledging that they are “occupiers”. “Colonisers!”, Ambassador Hassassian chimed in. All the Palestinian speakers were doubtful that a two-state solution is now possible because of the fact that there is no contiguous unoccupied Palestinian territory that would be a viable core. However, Palestinians will within five years outnumber the Jewish population in Israel-Palestine, so it is urgent that a different kind of road map is drawn up for the future. Perhaps I am an incurable optimist, but I said that I felt that the fact the pro-Israeli lobby is trying to damn anyone standing up for Palestinian rights as “anti-Semitic” is actually a sign of weakness, not of strength. The Israeli government is beginning to understand that its narrative of victimhood — perfectly understandable historically — in 2016 no longer washes among many people in this country because of the Occupation and the daily injustices and humiliations inflicted on Palestinians. Furthermore, Britain, as the mandatory power over Palestine between the two world wars, has a historical responsibility to put pressure on Binyamin Netanyahu and his colleagues to change their policies radically. The Israeli government says it will only listen to the United States, where millions of Christian Zionists are blind supporters of Israel because they believe in the biblical prophecy that after Armageddon there will be a second coming of the Messiah. But it would be precisely to stop Armageddon in the region that Britain, in concert with other EU member states, should take the lead in trying to bring the Occupation to an end. International Law must prevail and the Nakba must end, so that both Palestinians and Israelis can live in a secure peace and in growing prosperity.

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Europe in Concert

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 9th May, 2016

Europe DayThis evening the annual Europe Day concert in St John’s Smith Square — sponsored by the Netherlands EU presidency and the London office of the European Commission — featured music by Lully, Hellendaal, Handel, Vivaldi and van Wassenaer, performed by the European Union Baroque Orchestra and three singers from the European Opera Centre — two organisations that promote young musicians and singers from across the continent. It has always struck me as significant that for centuries, music united Europeans, long before the political concept of the European Union was born. Even many Brexiters acknowledge the richness of Europe’s shared cultural heritage; indeed, the Chairman of the Leave campaign, Lord Lawson, lives mainly in France and Nigel Farage has a German wife. But the mood in the church tonight was one of EU solidarity, including the now traditional rendition at the end of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy,  the unofficial EU “anthem”. I have always felt that to be a particularly stirring piece of music, redolent of the optimism that was also present among the EU’s founding fathers. Europe Day itself, always 9 May, is the anniversary of the Schuman Declaration of 1950, in which the French Foreign Minister, Robert Schuman, proposed the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, arguing that this would make it impossible for its members — notably France and Germany — to go to war again. One can argue until the cows come home whether it was NATO or what is now called the European Union was more responsible for underpinning peace in Europe. If we are honest, it was a bit of both, but even more there was a feeling after the horrors of World War II: Never Again. But this evening there was a different edge to the Europe Day Concert. As the Head of the Commission’s London Office, Jacqueline Minor, expressed it (I paraphrase): “Well, we hope to see you here again next year!” That can only be a hope, because if the UK electorate votes to leave the EU on 23 June that will be an end to Britain’s participation in the still evolving European Project. We will have turned our back on our neighbours and walked away. There is nothing noble or wise in that course, I believe.

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Kathmandu

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 7th May, 2016

KathmanduLate last month people across Nepal commemorated 2015’s fearsome earthquake. That disaster shattered communities as well as buildings, yet the Nepalese have been pulling themselves together and rebuilding. Some of the old houses and temples in the Kathmandu valley will probably never be restored, but as Thomas Bell points out in his riveting account of Kathmandu and its surrounds, Kathmandu (Haus, £17.99), the city has been used to change and regeneration for decades, even centuries. The place I knew as a student back in 1969 later grew exponentially, ugly concrete blocks spreading out over the fields and replacing some of the brick and timber buildings that were falling down or were torn down in the interests of progress. We travellers in the Swinging Sixties saw Kathmandu as a Himalayan Shangri-la, and it was rather special, despite the evident poverty and the excesses of the more drug-fueled hippies. Most of them had gone by the time Tom Bell arrived, fresh from Oxford, three decades later, trying to carve a freelance journalistic career for himself. But there was enough of the old magic around to enchant him; moreover, with the rise of the Maoist insurgency he had a real news story with which to keep his journalistic strings occupied.

In the book, he recounts visiting Maoist groups in more remote parts of Nepal, as well as his experiences coming to terms with life in a culture so different to that back home. But Kathmandu is so much more than just memoir or conflict reporting, as its text is a rich and sometimes complex weave of reportage, history, speculation and gossip, as well as the retrieved impressions of European travellers and officials who managed to penetrate the country before it opened itself up to the outside world in 1951. At first the author is seduced by Kathmandu’s exotic appeal, but gradually his tone changes, as he begins to understand the ramifications and injustices of the country’s intricate caste system as well as the extent of the corruption that pervades almost every level of society. As a personable young Western journalist he was able to mix with high and low, observing acutely but sceptical about much of what he was being told. He met his future Nepalese wife there, which is presumably the main reason he returned to Kathmandu after a stint as a South East  Asia newspaper correspondent, but Nepal itself had got under his skin warts and all. This book therefore swings in mood as it does between subjects, at times comical, at others quite the opposite, the richness of its texture, the words interspersed with dozens of small black and white photographs that are as serendipitous as many of the book’s themes.

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