Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for April, 2017

Proud to be a Saboteur

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 25th April, 2017

JFIn the weeks since Theresa May invoked Article 50 and Britain started heading down the slippery slope to exit from the European Union, whole swaths of the Tory Brexit Press has gone into hysterical overdrive in its futile attempt to try to silence those of us who believe passionately that we are better off inside the EU. On social media, too, the Brexiteers have been ridiculing “Remoaners”, accusing us of being against democracy, whereas we Liberal Democrats, in particular, are the champions of democracy by insisting that not only Parliament but the British electorate should have the chance of saying yes or no to whatever deal with the EU27 Theresa May and her team come up with in 2019. But it’s the intolerant nature of much of the right-wing media comment that is disturbing, at times verging on the fascistic. The High Court judges who gave a ruling that displeased the Brexiteers were denounced as traitors and enemies of the people, whereas in reality the independent judiciary is an essential safeguard of our democratic society. Gina Miller, who has courageously used the courts to challenge blind Brexit, has been vilified and threatened. The latest epithet coined by the Brexit Press to describe Remainers is “saboteurs”, as the Daily Mail, Express and others parrot the line that we are trying to thwart the will of the British people. I am not convinced that a majority of the electorate actually wants the sort of hard Brexit that Mrs May is pursuing — which entails leaving the European single market and customs union, as well as many European agencies. But just as early members of the Religious Society of Friends proudly accepted their detractors’ insult, “Quakers”, and made it their own, so I and many others are proud to adopt the term “Saboteur”. because to sabotage the government’s plan for national suicide is a noble cause. So I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with highlighted Saboteurs such as Ken Clarke (Conservative), Peter Mandelson (Labour), Caroline Lucas (Green) as well as, of course, Tim Farron and virtually the entire Liberal Democrat Party.

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LibDems Surge Past 100,000

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 24th April, 2017

LibDems EU Simon HughesTwo years ago, following a disastrous general election, many pundits were writing the Liberal Democrats off as a serious political force. But how things have changed! The party has now pushed UKIP down into fourth place in the opinion polls and has notched up an impressive series of local council by-election wins over the past year, not to mention Sarah Olney’s great triumph in Richmond Park & North Kingston. Moreover, despite the crushing disappointment (for Remainers) of last June’s EU Referendum, the LibDems have emerged stronger as the one sizable national party that has a clear line on Brexit: we believe Britain is better off inside the European Union, but if the Conservative government, with the active support of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, is intent on pressing ahead with a hard Brexit, removing Britain from the European single market and common customs area, then we will do everything to try to mitigate the damage. It would have been nice to have Labour singing from the same hymn-sheet, as former Prime Minister Tony Blair and some forthright MPs such as David Lammy have done, but nothing can hide the fact that Labour is deeply divided on the issue and is still trying to out-UKIP UKIP and the Tories in much of northern England. Sad. But the good news from the LibDems’ point of view is that a surge of people have joined the party since the Referendum, accelerating since Theresa May broke her promise and called a snap general election, in an egregious example of political opportunism.

LibDems 100,000So, today, Tim Farron was able to announce that party membership has topped 100,000 and it is still rising. That was a heartening message to deliver at his London general election launch, held in Vauxhall, where arch-Brexiteer Kate Hoey is re-standing as an MP (despite the fact that Lambeth had a phenomenally high Remain vote last June) and indeed has been endorsed by UKIP’s Paul Nuttall. So Vauxhall, previously way down the LibDem target hit-list, has now suddenly become very interesting for prospective parliamentary candidate, George Turner. It will be vital for London LibDems that we hold Richmond Park, as well as Tom Brake’s seat, Carshalton & Wallington, but there should be a good chance of recapturing places such as Old Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), Twickenham (Vince Cable) and Kingston & Surbiton (Ed Davey), to name but three. I’ll be flying the flag in Dagenham and Rainham, but also doing as much as I can to boost our chances in target areas.

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France: Fingers Crossed for Macron

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 23rd April, 2017

emmanuel-macronVoters in France go to the polls today in the first round of presidential elections. If the opinion polls are right, none of the 11 candidates is likely to garner as much as a quarter of the votes, but what is crucial under the French voting system is which two come first and second — even if there are only a few votes between second and third — as there will be a run-off between the two front runners in a second round of voting in two weeks’ time. Pundits on both sides of the Channel are agreed that what one might call “traditional” party’s candidates are unlikely to make the grade. More probable is that the centrist former investment banker and civil servant, Emmanuel Macron, who has never held elected office, will go head-to-head with Marine Le Pen of the far-right Front National dynasty. One has to note that the leftist Socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon has been surging in the polls recently and it’s not impossible that the conservative Francois Fillon, recently accused of nepotism, might rally. So all is still to play for as voters make up their minds. Indeed, in the turbulent Western politics post-Brexit and Trump it maybe rash to even try to predict the outcome. What may be crucial is the turn-out; voting in France is not compulsory and some disillusioned voters may decide to stay at home. Even if Le Pen’s supporters may be more highly motivated (especially after the recent shooting of a policeman by a Frenchman of North African origin), which could mean she might just sneak into first place, most commentators believe she would be trashed in the second round. That is what happened to her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, when Jacques Chirac wiped the floor with him in the second round in 2002 (though I suspect Marine could poll better than her father’s final tally of just under 18%). The question therefore is: who is best placed to beat Marine, even if in principle any of the leading contenders should be able to? I believe the answer to that is Emmanuel Macron, not just because he is new, looks good and is clearly intelligent, but for two other reasons related to policy. The first is that he is a keen European (unlike Marine, who argues for a “Frexit”, and is unsurprisingly chummy with Russia’s Vladimir Putin). The other reason is that Macron understands that if France is to compete effectively it has to reform its attitude to work, deregulation and so on. The economy needs a shake-up, which would benefit not only France but help strengthen the eurozone. That’s important for Britain’s trading future, too, whatever form of Brexit emerges from the May government’s current quagmire.

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Why Europe Matters

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 19th April, 2017

IMG_2269One of the most depressing things about the whole Brexit business is the way that the UK’s Conservative government is turning its back on Europe. It’s not just Theresa May’s apparent desire to lead the country out of the European Single Market — though the potential hit to the economy from that is enormous — or the rejection, on the basis of the 52% Leave vote in last June’s EU Referendum, of the European project in political terms, even though that is something I continue to believe in passionately. No, the worst thing is many Brexiteers’ pretence that Britain is not part of Europe, as if somehow the English Channel were a thousand miles wide. Not only do such British (though in truth, English) nationalists show an extraordinary lack of knowledge of history but they don’t seem to realise that the bulk of the UK’s population is a hybrid mix of different European origin (prior to the post-War injection of new blood from the Commonwealth). Culturally, we Britons are most definitely European; Bach and Goya and all the thousands of other creative talents, past and present, contributed to a body of culture that is extraordinarily rich and diverse, and shared by Europeans. In Rome this week, walking among the antiquities  or viewing the magnificent exhibition of portraits by Giovanni Boldini, I am struck as ever by the sense that this is our heritage, our Europe. The idea that we might in future have to apply for visas to come to the Continent, or that visas will be necessary for EU citizens to visit Britain, if the worst outcome of the Brexit process occurs, is horrible to contemplate. All that explains why I hope that much of the snap UK election that Mrs May has called will be about Europe, and why Europe matters, and why we are Europe and Europe is us. At least the Liberal Democrats get the message.

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Let’s Call Theresa’s Bluff!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 18th April, 2017

IMG_2267UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, has called a snap general election for 8 June. Doubtless she hopes to capitalise on Labour’s continuing melt-down and were she to win handsomely, she would claim that is a ringing endorsement for her red, white and blue Brexit policy. And that is exactly why she must not win handsomely. She and the Three Brexiteers — Davis, Fox and Johnson — have handled the whole Brexit process disastrously so far, being in serious danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water. That is why we need to deliver a giant raspberry to her and her team, by voting for anti-Brexit parties; in England, especially, that means the Liberal Democrats, who have been performing astonishingly well in local by-elections since last June’s EU Referendum. Ok, I am biased, as a long-standing member of the Party and serial Euro-candidate, but I do believe that this is the most important general election since 1945, in which people can take a stand against narrow nationalism and oppose the Tories’ destructive policies, not only on Brexit but on the NHS and public services generally, as well as the environment and so much more. I shall be flying the LibDem flag in Dagenham & Rainham, as well as helping the national campaign. This is our chance to say loud and clear, “No, Theresa, we are NOT united behind you, and today’s Consevative government does NOT represent the best of Britain!”

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Turkey Enters Uncharted Waters

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 17th April, 2017

Turkey referendumWith over 99% of votes in Turkey’s constitutional referendum now counted, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is celebrating what he has described as his “clear win” — a mandate to change the nature of the presidency from a theoretically largely ceremonial role to an executive one. In fact, since assuming the presidency following a decade in power as Prime Minister, Mr Erdogan has already been acting as Turkey’s kingpin. The difference now is that he will be able do so constitutionally. But just how clear is his victory? On the basis of almost complete official figures, yesterday’s referendum vote gave 51.36% for “Yes” and 48.64% for “No”, which is an even narrower margin than the “Leave” vote’s win in Britain’s EU Referendum in June last year (which Prime Minister Theresa May nonetheless claims gives her to press ahead with her “red, white and blue” hard Brexit). But there is an important difference between the two referenda outcomes: in the UK, Remainers accepted the result as valid, even if many are still resisting its consequences, whereas in Turkey already the result is being contested. There have been accusations of irregularities, one of which was the decision by the electoral authorities to allow ballot papers lacking the official stamp to be counted. Some people have claimed they were intimidated. But most seriously, media that would have supported a “no” vote was largely muzzled. Over 10,000 people have been taken into custody since last year’s failed coup in Turkey, among them many journalists, broadcasters and media company executives. At least 100,000 people have been fired from their jobs, because of alleged links to Fethullah Gulen’s movement which Mr Erdogan asserted was behind the coup (which US-based Mr Gulen strongly denies). Turkey’s opposition parties will doubtless now protest about the growing power of Turkey’s “New Sultan”, as Mr Erdogan has been dubbed by his critics, though they may find it difficult to make their voices heard over the celebratory cheers of the ruling AKP. However, the President cannot be complacent. The constitutional referendum has highlighted just how far the country is split down the middle, even if his side has a slight upper hand. Predictably, the predominantly Kurdish areas of south-eastern Turkey voted heavily “No”, but so too did the three main cities, Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir, while the more conservative rural areas of Anatolia largely voted “Yes”. Again echoes of Britain’s Brexit vote! And just as in Britain the losing side has organised marches and kept up a storm of critical comment on twitter and other social media, so we can expect demonstrations in Turkey, which may not be as peacefully handled as their British counterparts.

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Letters from Baghdad

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th April, 2017

Gertrude Bell 1A century ago, the shape of the modern Middle East was formed out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. The behind-the-scenes power play by Britain and France that resulted in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement led to the boundaries of their respective zones of influence. But also significant was the work done by the British explorer, archaeologist and spy, Gertrude Bell, who drew the borders of the modern state of Iraq. A contemporary of T. E. Lawrence, with whom she had a friendship spiced by intense personal rivalry, Bell left her mark in more ways than one, including founding the Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad and chivying, not always successfully, the British government to, run its Middle Eastern League of Nations mandates according to her priorities. There have been several books about Gertrude Bell, but none gives such a vivid picture of her as the new documentary film by Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum, Letters from Baghdad. Their approach is quite daring, reflecting its subject’s forthright personality, as it largely comprises archive footage that the film-makers found in 25 separate locations, as well as black-and-white photos taken by Bell herself. The streets of Baghdad, Aleppo, Cairo and other places 100 years ago are so successfully brought alive that one is transported back in time, as well as place.

Letters from Baghdad still

The commentary is drawn from the subject’s letters and diaries, supplemented by those of some of the people who encountered her. The actor Tilda Swinton provides Bell’s voice, while other actors impersonate key characters, filmed as if giving live interviews. This is truly history reincarnated before our eyes. The film does not hide the complexities, even difficulties, in Gertrude Bell’s character. She was driven by what she believed to be right, and she could be both churlish and offensive towards those who disagreed with her, or struck her as superficial. She was as brave as any man, and the Arabs treated her respectfully as if she were one, yet she also had a colossal wardrobe of clothes, one reason for T. E. Lawrence’s sneering disapproval. She would not have been an easy woman to have as a friend, but one would have had to admire her energy, even if she herself became increasingly disillusioned with life by the end, dying from an overdose (accidental or otherwise) of sleeping pills. This film does her an immense service, as well as underlining Britain’s role in shaping, for better or for worse, the modern, conflict-riven Middle East. It’s a “must see” for anyone with even the slightest interest in the region, but it should appeal also to anyone who relishes accounts of extraordinary individuals.

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The Weirdness of Dreams

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 15th April, 2017

dreamsIn the early hours of this morning I had a very weird dream. I was on a passenger aircraft returning from Asia to London (Club Class, so obviously somebody else was paying for it!) when the person sitting next to me was suddenly taken ill. After the plane landed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, I helped steer him out into the waiting arms of a groundforce medical team. I hung around for a while, to make sure he was alright, but then I noticed that the plane, which had meanwhile turned into a passenger liner, had sailed away. I was alarmed because I didn’t have a Saudi visa and feared that I wouldn’t even be able to check into a hotel as a result, and so started to walk along Jeddah’s corniche in the hope that some kind soul would stop in his car and take me home for the night. At that point, I woke up, metaphorically scratching my head and wondering, “what was that all about?”.

I know I dream a lot. In fact, most of us probably do, though the bulk of those dreams pass into oblivion. Sometimes in the morning I have a sense of loss; even if I can’t quite remember what I dreamt about, I know that it was good, enjoyable, in some ways better than daily reality. But as a journalist and a writer of non-fiction, I deal with reality and its various interpretations, rather than the stuff of dreams — which I imagine nonetheless provide sustenance to some novelists. I suppose therefore I rather distrust dreams, as a distortion of reality. Yet there is something appealing about Eleanor Roosevelt’s maxim, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

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Let’s Cool It over Korea!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 14th April, 2017

Kim Jong-Un nukesJapan has reportedly drawn up contingency plans to evacuate 60,000 of its citizens who live in South Korea. This follows more sabre-rattling (or should one say, ballistic missile rattling) by North Korean hereditary despot Kim Jong-Un and the Americans diverting a naval force towards the Korean peninsula. President Donald Trump has said bluntly that he will “deal with” North Korea himself if he has to. Such bravado doubtless goes down well among Trump supporters, but not necessarily in either South Korea or Japan. They both have reason to worry about the unpredictable nature of the leadership in Pyongyang, though they have come to understand that Mr Kim’s bark is usually worse than his bite; indeed, part of his grand-standing and repeated insistence that his country is in mortal danger from foreign forces is a familiar ploy to try to keep his people behind him. Those that in any way oppose him, incidentally, risk imprisonment, torture and death. But as the war of words between Pyongyang and Washington rages, voices in Seoul have been advising caution. Indeed, the lead candidate in the presidential election called to find a replacement for ousted Ms Park, has used this tense time to urge dialogue with the North. China, meanwhile, has called for tension over North Korea to be halted before what it calls an “irreversible” stage. It would appear than in East Asia these days, Churchill’s old maxim tat jaw-jaw is better than war-war has fans. US Vice-President Mike Pence is off to Seoul on Sunday, so let’s hope he can cool things down, too.

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The Kingdom of Women

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 12th April, 2017

The Kingdom of WomenFor most of history and in most of the world, men have ruled the roost. All sorts of explanations have been put forward for that, ranging from men’s physical strength to women’s traditional obligations to bear and raise children. In the post-modern age, with its emphasis on gender equality, such “justifications” for patriarchal systems have been fundamentally challenged. But there have always been a few societies that rejected the norm and developed matriarchal structures and/or matrilineal patterns of inheritance One such ethnicity is the Mosuo people of Yunnan province in south-west China, where a woman is head of the household and decides which male partner (single or plural) she will relate to, on a short- or long-term basis. In the matriarch’s house, ideally, each girl will have a room of her own (so important for independent action and thought, as Virginia Woolf understood!). Not surprisingly Mosuo women have a marked self-confidence from an early age — most unusual in patriarchal China — and that was one of the things that appealed to Singaporean Choo Waihong when she first visited remote Mosuo country, with its beautiful mountains and lake. Dissatisfied with aspects of life in ultra-modern Singapore and emerging from an unsatisfactory marriage, she became enamoured of the place and built a second home there. Out of that experience over several years came material for a book, The Kingdom of Women (I. B. Tauris, £17.99), which recounts both the author’s experiences and what she learned about the customs of her new neighbours and friends. Engagingly written, the book will be of interest to both sociologists and armchair travellers alike, as well as to self-confessed feminists who believe that women can and should control their own lives. But there is also an air of sadness towards the end of the book as the twin threats of modernity and tourism (most of the latter from Han Chinese) inevitably are leading to change.

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