Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for November, 2017

1917: Why the Russian Revolution Matters ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 26th November, 2017

1917 why the russian revolution mattersDuring this centenary year of the two Russian Revolutions there has been a tsunami of books, articles and documentary films, most accepting that the birth of Soviet Communism was a catastrophe which distorted the political development of much of the world for the rest of the century. So there is certainly room for a counter-narrative. That appears to be the purpose of 1917: Why the Russian Revolution Matters, directed by WorldWrite’s Ceri Dingle. I caught a screening at the rather wonderful Castle Cinema in Homerton this afternoon and it was clear that most of the audience concurred with the left-wing sentiments of the film’s interviewees (non of them Russian, due to financial constraints). The interview clips are interspersed with archive footage — always the most captivating part of historical documentaries — garnered from newsreels of the time and early Soviet propaganda films, as well as some shots of modern St Petersburg. Kerensky’s liberal administration, which followed the February Revolution, gets short shrift in the film, while Lenin and the October Revolution are hailed as the real breakthrough, one interviewee defining the Dictatorship of the Proletariat as real democracy. It is true that the early Soviet years saw a blossoming of artistic creativity, as well as real advances in both individual and collective freedoms. But before long things started to go horribly sour, the blame for which cannot all be placed at the feet of the White Terror in the Russian Civil War, aided and abetted by Western powers. The biggest question that the film leaves hanging, however, is: if Bolshevism was at first a genuinely progressive and humane endeavour, what on earth went wrong? It would be simplistic to reply, “Lenin good, Stalin bad”, though some on the far left of European politics might argue the case. No, the reality is much more complex than that, and at least by offering a different perspective. this film makes a challenging contribution to the debate.


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Paddington 2 *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 25th November, 2017

Paddington 2I am usually wary of films with the number “2” in their title, as sequels rarely live up to brilliant originals. But Paddington 2 will not disappoint those who loved its predecessor. Paddington Bear is neither as twee as Disney’s Winnie the Pooh nor as gross as Ted (especially in Ted 2). Instead, he is endearingly clumsy and charmingly naive, so that audiences of any age will be rooting for him as he faces new and dangerous challenges. Not least of these are the machinations of the fiendish and self-obsessed former star of the stage, Phoenix Buchanan, now reduced to doing dog food commercials, a la Clement Freud. Buchanan is played with relish by Hugh Grant, devious and smarmy to the nth degree and as fated for failure as any pantomime villain. Hugh Bonneville as Mr Brown is the somewhat clueless paterfamilias in a very British household whose other members, including the children, fortunately have much more nous. There’s a nice little cameo by Joanna Lumley, effectively sending up herself, and a number of cinematographic references that will amuse genuine film buffs, from a scene that could be straight out of Murder on the Orient Express to Paddington running across train carriage roofs like Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. The chase scenes are fast paced, but some of the most effective comedy is often from gags in which Paddington is on his own, for example pretending to be a rubbish bin in Paddington Station or catastrophically attempting to work as a window-cleaner. It is all jolly fun, with Ben Whishaw giving Paddington an earnest, innocant little voice that matches his moral propriety. Perfect stuff in the run-up to Christmas, and I can’t help feeling that the recently-deceased creator of the Paddington books, Michael Bond, would have loved it.

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No More UK European Capitals of Culture

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 23rd November, 2017

E9C44B9C-B12A-4DDC-877A-B56FD48CE0D1The EU programme of designating cities as European Capitals of Culture has brought new life, the Arts and increased tourism to places throughout Europe, including in Britain. Liverpool was a notable beneficiary, transforming the run-down port city into a vibrant cultural centre. Three UK cities were in the running to be chosen for the accolade in 2023 — Dundee, Leeds and Nottingham — but the European Commission announced today that as Britain is due to quit the EU in March 2019, their bids will now be shelved. There have been predictable protests from the Brexiteer media claiming that the EU is “punishing” Britain by stopping further UK European Capitals of Culture. But the situation could not be clearer: if you resign your membership of a Club you forfeit your right to benefit from its facilities. Brexit is not only going to harm the UK economy (that is already happening, though we’re still in the EU); it will also deprive British citizens of advantages of EU membership in cultural and educational ways, too. Did the people in Dundee, Leeds and Nottingham who voted Leave realise that they were shooting their cities in the foot? Scotland, like London and Manchester and university cities such as Bath, Cambridge and Oxford, voted strongly Remain but they will all be hit by Brexit, too. I have blogged before about the devastating effect on universities from EU academics leaving, as well as from the fall of student applications from other EU member states. So far, the opinion polls don’t really reflect a clear public awareness of what is at stake, however. Many people voted Labour in June’s general election because they did not want to give an endorsement to Theresa May’s Hard Brexit strategy, yet it is increasingly obvious that in its own way, Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit will be just as bad. It will probably be well into 2018 before the realisation sinks in, but the longer it takes, the more difficult it will be for Britain to step back from the cliff edge.

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How I’ve Come to Love Manchester

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 23rd November, 2017

8619AE8C-F0AC-4C09-990D-BE3BBA7078DBI spent the first 18 years of my life in Manchester, the last eight of which involved a one-hour term-time daily commute from the (adopted family’s) house in which I grew up in Eccles right across the city to school. Hating both “home” and the school (as described in my childhood memoir Eccles Cakes), I endured a very dark period in my life, so seized the opportunity of leaving school early and heading off to Asia to find a different world. Some years later, after I had emptied the house in Eccles and driven the last van load of furniture down to London, I bid Manchester farewell for the last time — or so I thought. Quite apart from the bad personal memories I had of the place, the city at that time was suffering from serious post-industrial depression, the buildings were black and whole districts of back-to-back houses, Coronation Street style, were physically decaying or being knocked down. I vowed never to return. But fate had other plans. The school, with which I had had absolutely no contact since I walked out of the door in March 1969, suddenly wrote to me asking if I would speak to the sixth form about Politics and this coincided with the extraordinary reunion with my birth family, as recounted in an episode of BBc2’s Family Finders. So I started coming back to the city from time to time and found what has become a favourite hotel, where I am now staying. Manchester has changed to an extraordinary degree over the last 50 years, fundamentally for the better. Not only is it cleaner and blessed with an excellent public transport system these days but it is also vibrant. The huge student population has ensured that there is a lively club scene and without a doubt people are friendlier than down south. Of course it still rains a lot — though today there is a brilliant blue sky, as I prepare for the AGM of the Authors Licensing and ollecting Society (ALCS) that will be taking place in the Midland Hotel this afternoon — but whereas I used to wander the streets in gloom now I savour the vistas of grand 19th century buildings as I walk with a spring in my step. I don’t regret the fact that I now live in cosmopolitan London, but it is a wonderful feeling to have come to love my home town.

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Brexodus Has Begun

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 21st November, 2017

BrexodusWhen a slim majority of the UK electorate voted in June last year in favour of leaving the European Union it became inevitable that Britain would lose the two European agencies that it has been hosting, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Banking Agency (EBA). Sure enough, yesterday it was announced that the EMA will move to Amsterdam and the EBA to Paris. The number of staff involved are 900 for the EMA and 150 for the EBA, but the knock-on effect of the departure of well-paid employees on service industries in London will be significant. This is only the start of Brexodus — the departure of institutions and staff who are in Britain (notably London) because it is currently an EU member state, a situation that is scheduled to end in March 2019. Already banks in particular have been making preparations to shift operations to Frankfurt, Paris, Dublin, Luxembourg and so on. That change is likely to accelerate now that Michel Barnier has confirmed that if Britain leaves the single market (as both the Tory and Labour leadership are determined will happen) then banks and financial institutions will lose their passporting rights to operate throughout the EU. This is a catastrophic blow to the City of London; over a comparatively short period London is now likely to lose its status as the unmatched financial capital of Europe. And it is not only the fnancial sector that is going to suffer. Universities currently employ a lot of other EU nationals, but many of them have started to make plans to leave. Similarly, the NHS depends quite heavily on EU migrant labour, but applications from other EU countries to work in the NHS have fallen by 96%. Farmers are sounding alarm bells about rotting food because of the likely shortfall in EU migrant workers to harvest the crops. Theresa May argues that this is what the British public voted for, but as Brexodus speeds up during 2018 and the negative effects of a looming Brexit are exacerbated, surely then the British electorate should be asked “Is this really what you want?” Shamefully, the Prime Minister and her Brexiteer Cabinet Ministers currently will not even countenance the proposition, and equally shamefully the Labour “Opposition” under Jeremy Corbyn is just going along with the madness, which can only lead to a shrinking economy and diminished political importance for Britain. So much for “taking back control”.

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Mrs May’s Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th November, 2017

may-johnson-davis-foxYesterday it was revealed that the government is recruiting Poles and other EU migrants to help in the forthcoming registration of EU citizens resident in the UK because there aren’t enough qualified and willing British workers to do it. The whole Brexit fiasco gets more surreal by the week. Far from saving Britain money and cutting red tape, as the Leave campaign promised, exactly the opposite is proving to be the case. The bureaucracy and expensive delays that will ensue from bringing back customs controls for trade in goods from the EU are mind boggling. But meanwhile the Prime Minister, Theresa May, charges on with her red, white and blue Brexit, with all the crazed energy and delusions of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. David Davis, meanwhile, has taken on the role of the Mad Hatter, with his stupid little grin and evident lack of understanding of how the EU works or even how to negotiate. He was rumoured to be threatening to resign at the weekend (maybe because a top civil servant had vetoed his plan to requisition an RAF plane to fly him round Europe on his Brexit mission?). While that prospect is superficially appealing it is Brexit itself that needs to be done away with, not the nincompoop Ministers dealing with it. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and even the Daily Telegraph have been continuing their disgraceful and often vitriolic attacks on anti-Brexit politicians and the Courts. Remainer Tory MPs such as Anna Soubry have received death-threats and much of the traffic on twitter is poisonous. The newspapers I have just mentioned are guilty of whipping up hatred and inciting violence and should be reined in by the Press Complaints Commission or else prosecuted. What we are witnessing is not the exercise of free speech but the normalisation of hate sppech and a slide down the slippery slope to totalitarianism.

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The Decline of Language

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 19th November, 2017

ADF70ED2-F316-486C-A270-23CEF9E9D6A5We live in an Information Age, in which there has never been so much and such easy communication. Yet parallel to technological advances, the quality and precision of languaage have declined. Some people blame this on the “vocabulary” of text-speech; the demands of an SMS encourage us to abbreviate and to have recourse to stock neologisms and sets of initials, such as LOL, ROFL, WTF! But at least some of the blame lies with our educational system in England, which has been dumbing down content to the extent that many students now reach university barely able to express an argument, let alone a counter-argument, in clear, understandable terms. Grammar has gone with the wind, and much punctuation has been replaced by the ubiquitous polyfiller word “like”. The media are also culpable, or at least those organs such as the Sun and most talk radio programmes. English is one of the richest languages on earth when it comes to words, but only a fraction are employed in popular media — and then sometimes incorrectly — which means that young people growing up are exposed to an impoverished language and become correspondingly inarticulate themselves. This malaise has even infected the BBC (with the noble exception of most of the output on Radio4). The late Lord Reith defined the BBC’s mission as being to inform, educate and entertain, but these days entertainment has become the prime function, as the Corporation tries to fend off competition from independent channels. I fear Brexit will make things worse. So much of the Brexit debate on Twitter is illiterate, as well as distorting language. I am an ardent Remainer, but I want our rich and precise English language back!

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The AEJ and “Dark Power”

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 18th November, 2017

2A98F1CF-39A9-47FE-9C77-5A3CA5DEE397Soft power has become an important concept in international relations since the end of the Second World War — namely, the way states use cultural diplomacy and other forms of non-military action to spread their influence. But recently a new phenomenon has been identified: “dark power” — the way some countries, especially Russia, use broadcasting and social media, in particular, to influence or interfere in the affairs of other states. This is something that particularly concerns the three Baltic States and other former parts of the Soviet Union, such as Ukraine and Georgia. The latter two have of course also experienced military interventions by Russia, but all have seen their communications and democracy come under various forms of dark power assault, from cyber-War against Estonia to Russian bots engaging in election and referendum campaigns, including the 2016 EU Referendum in Britain and the US presidential election. No wonder both NATO and the EU are concerned and have been looking at ways of countering this hostile intervention, including running facilities in the Baltic States.

Lithuania, located between Belarus and the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, is particularly concerned and the theme naturally dominated much of the Congress of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ), which has been taking place in Vilnius over the past couple of days. For many Western journalists present it was quite shocking to learn about some of the methods being used to distort the narratives of a Post-Truth world, as well of examples of harassment of journalists and broadcasters through twitter and other platforms.

54C3857F-D37D-4E0D-AD4B-3A61F398D92CBut it is not only Russians who are involved. President Trump has shown himself to be a master of the dark arts of disinformation and the dissemination of fake news. One of the strongest presentations at the AEJ Congress was from Mikko Salo of Faktabaari, Finland, who outlined the escalation of Post-Truth in the region and how this can be countered by rigorous fact-checking and counter-assertions. This is an issue of which all media professionals need to be aware, as well as students and others who are operating in a world in which language is being twisted, alternative “facts” published and negative ideologies propagated by forces hostile to the nature of open and tolerant European democratic societies.

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Talking about the NHS

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 15th November, 2017

NHS Channel S debateLast night I was on Channel S TV’s “Let’s Talk” live debate show, hosted by my old friend Ajmal Masroor, discussing the state of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS). The NHS will celebrate the 70th anniversary of its foundation next year, but there is a widespread belief that it is showing its age, not in a complimentary way. The peg for the show was a BBC report suggesting that 280,000 more routine operations could be carried out in NHS hospitals each year if the theatres were managed more efficiently. The way that Croydon has improved its performance was cited as a template which others might follow. Of course, all sorts of factors come into play in efficiency in operatingtheatres, not just timetabling. A percentage of patients cancel, sometimes at the last moment, or even without informing the hospital. And a shortage of beds can aggravate the situation. But of course the TV debate — whose other participants were a retired GP from Newham, a solicitor specialising in clinical negligence cases and a Labour Party politician — ranged more widely over the state of the NHS. Everyone agreed that there is a funding shortfall; the Liberal Democrats, of course, included in our manifesto for June’s general election a pledge to inject a further £6bn into the NHS, paid for by raising income tax by 1p in the pound. A great idea which was theoretically popular, but did not actually encourage many voters to back LibDem candidates. In my remarks during the one-and-a-half hour programme, I highlighted the way that Brexit is hitting the NHS. In the UK we rely quite heavily on medical staff from other EU member states, but since last year’s EU Referendum, applications for nursing jobs from other EU states has fallen by 96%. To respond to that shortfall, nurses and being recruited from outside the EU, not least Asia, but the NHS has to pay £1000 each for their working visa, therefore costing the cash-strapped service many millions of pounds it can ill afford. There is also uncertainty over how tightly the UK’s research facilities will be able to stay plugged into EU-wide endeavours if we leave not only the EU but also Euratom. However, I did point out that not all is gloomy about the NHS. Technology continues to advance (though it is ever more costly) and mental health now receives much more serious attention (thanks largely to the work of Norman Lamb and other Liberal Democrat Ministers and MPs during the 2010-2015 Coalition government). Similarly, there is a greater awareness of the need to integrate the health and social care services. So, as the NHS prepares to turn 70, there is still much to praise, not least the dedication and quality of so many NHS staff, at all levels.

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Is the GCC Unravelling?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th November, 2017

C0F4FE57-2826-47BC-B8AE-6C6F8B4B45BCThe Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, more commonly known by its previous name, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has been in existence since 1981 and aims at a degree of economic integration between Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman as well as cooperation in other fields, but some of its more ambitious plans have been quietly shelved. Following the launch of the euro there was talk of moving towards a single GCC currency, to be called the khaleeji (Gulfi), but Oman said it would need to opt out and enthusiasm waned elsewhere. Then at the time of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, tentative moves were made to bring two other Arab monarchies, Jordan and Morocco, into the fold, despite neither being in the Gulf. However, the one obvious geographical absentee absentee is Iraq, which overthrew it’s short-lived monarchy in 1958, was never a serious contender while Saddam Hussein was in power and has been equally unpalatable to the Sunni Arab monarchs since Shia-dominated governments have been in charge in Baghdad following the 2003 US-led invasion. When there was stronger than usual unrest among Bahrain’s majority Shi’i population in 2011, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent in troops to help the Al Khalifa monarchy quash it. Since then, Iran has been the focus of much of the GCC’s animosity, notably from Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as Tehran’s rival for regional hegemony. But since this summer, another deeply complicating factor has emerged: the embargo of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, mainly because of the activities of the Doha-based TV channel, Al Jazeera, and Qatar’s alleged cosying up to Iran (with which it shares a gigantic gas field). Kuwait has been trying to mediate, while the wily ruler of Oman, Sultan Qaboos, is keeping well out of it. The Saudi Foreign Minister the other day downplayed the importance of the row, but it has inevitably made the facade of GCC unity crumble. And if the standoff continues for long, the GCC would be in real danger of unravelling.

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