Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for January, 2018

Brexit Is Bad for Us: Official

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 30th January, 2018

May Juncker 1BuzzFeed News has done the British public a great service by publishing details of a leaked government assessment about the likely impact of Brexit on the British economy. The headline message is that in all three scenarios modelled by civil servants almost all sectors of the British economy and most of the UK regions will take a significant hit. In the case of “no deal” with the other 27 EU member states (as some Conservative right-wingers advocate) the analysts believe economic growth would be reduced by eight per cent over the next 15 years — this at a time when the Eurozone is enjoying a strong recovery. Even if Theresa May succeeds in getting a free trade agreement with the EU, as the Prime Minister hopes, the hit to growth is expected to be five per cent, according to the leaked document. The “least worst” scenario, which would involve the UK staying in the European Economic Area (like Iceland and Norway) so that it can enjoy free access to the single market, would still mean a loss of growth of two per cent. But because freedom of movement of persons — as well as goods, service and capital –is part-and parcel of EEA membership, that is the option least likely to be accepted by both the Tory government and Labour’s Euroscpetic leadership. Not surprisingly, groups campaigning for the UK to remain in the EU, including the Liberal Democrats, have seized on BuzzFeed’s story as proof of what they have been arguing all along: that Brexit is damaging for Britain and should be abandoned (perhaps after a referendum). The timing of the BuzzFeed leak is significant, as the House of Lords is currently engaged in two days of concentrated debate on the so-called EU Withdrawal Bill. A sizable cohort of peers is anti-Brexit and their ranks may well be swelled by others alarmed at the details in the leaked report. It is worth underlining the fact that the report was commissioned from civil servants by the Government and its findings are conclusive. So we can with justification say: “Brexit is bad for us: official”!

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Grilling Vince Cable

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 29th January, 2018

Vince Cable David SelvesSir Vince Cable, Leader of the Liberal Democrats, this lunchtime faced a grilling at the London Grill Club, a group of journalists, broadcasters and businessmen who meet on a regular basis to put probing questions to prominent figures in British life. Other recent invitees have included Alex Salmond, Nigel Farage and Chuka Umunna. Vince dismissed a perhaps predictable early question about his age, arguing that age is just a number and that one is as old as one feels, before moving on to the more solid matter of the state of Britain’s democracy. This he described as being in serious trouble — dysfunctional, in a word. Theresa May appears to be increasingly weakened and there are renewed rumours of a plot among Tory MPs and even Cabinet Ministers to oust her, but Vince thought it unlikely that there would be a general election this year, reminding us of the five-year fixed term under the Parliament Act, unless there is a sufficient majority of MPs voting for it in the House of Commons — something the Conservatives would be unlikely to support. Besides, the government is totally bound up with Brexit, even it seems unable to agree what sort of Brexit it wants. Vince refuted a charge from one person present that it was denying democracy to call for a “second referendum” on Brexit, arguing that this would in fact be a new referendum on the terms of the deal — assuming the government is able to put one together with Brussels — and that that was definitely democratic, as the electorate would decide, not MPs (as some have suggested would be a possible way of stopping Brexit). He had harsh words about Jeremy Corbyn for being frozen in a 1970s mindset of Socialism in One Country, according to which the EU is dismissed as a capitalist club that inhibits nationalisation and certain types of state intervention. But he was also highly critical of the way David Cameron and George Osborne handled the EU Referendum Campaign; Project Fear just did not resonate and actually backfired. Vince defended his own record in the Coalition Government of 2010-2015, saying he had got several good things through and stopped some bad things from happening. But he felt the British public had not really been ready for coalition politics when the situation arose, being too tightly wedded to tribal politics.

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Cross-Party Campaigning against Brexit

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 26th January, 2018

European Movement Question TimeAn impressive line-up of London MEPs and other senior politicians gathered at the Irish Culture Centre in Hammersmith last night at an event organised by the Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea branch of the European Movement. Charles Tannock MEP (Conservative), Mary Honeyball MEP (Labour) and Jean Lambert MEP (Green) were joined by former LibDem MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston, Sarah Olney (standing in for Catherine Bearder MEP, who was in Ireland), at a packed Question Time event moderated by former Labour MP and Europhile, Denis MacShane. Dr Tannock is one of a number of Conservative MEPs who disagree fundamentally with the British government’s policy of pursuing a so-called Hard Brexit, leaving both the European Single Market and the Customs Union. He would prefer Britain to stay within the EU but doesn’t believe Brexit can be stopped, so argues for a Soft Brexit instead. The other speakers were more focussed on how the UK can reverse the outcome of the 2016 EU Referendum; Sarah Olney set out the LibDems’ official line that there would need to be a new referendum when the details of the proposed new EU-UK deal are known, with an option to remain in the EU. Mary Honeyball expressed frustration at the Labour leadership for not campaigning hard enough for Remain in 2016, as well as for its current Hard Brexit stance. Jean Lambert said that whereas the Greens had reservations about some aspects of EU policy, she hoped the European Parliament could play its part in preventing a Hard Brexit. In theory, the Parliament could veto the deal, though that is probably not likely. There were far more questions from the audience than could possibly be addressed, but several people made the point that despite the large turnout — mainly middle-aged, middle-class and overwhelmingly white — the exercise was largely a matter of preaching to the converted. But everyone was urged to go out and campaign, on a cross-party basis and in particular to get the message out to younger people, including through social media. The Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, Stephen Cowan, who was in the audience along with local MP Andy Slaughter, got a warm round of applause when he announced that his Council had declared itself pro-Remain — an initiative that some other London boroughs could perhaps be encouraged to follow.

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The Limehouse Declaration Dinner

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 24th January, 2018

THLDs Limehouse DinnerLast night a lively crowd of Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats and friends gathered at The Narrow in Limehouse for a dinner to celebrate the Limehouse Declaration, which was really the launching pad for the short-lived SDP (Social Democratic Party). Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams were the “Gang of Four” who led the breakaway from Labour, caused mainly because of the Labour Party’s drift to the left under Michael Foot’s leadership, its espousal of unilateral nuclear disarmament and a policy of withdrawing from the European Union. The Declaration was issued to the media from David Owen’s house further along Narrow Street from the gastropub where we gathered. Lord Owen was not present at our dinner (he opposed merger between the SDP and the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats and now sits as a Crosssbech — i.e. Independent — peer, though rarely attends debates). But the other David, Lord Steel, was a keynote speaker at our dinner and was keen to point out that despite the rather cruel caricature of him on the popular TV programme, Spitting Image, tiny and in David Owen’s top pocket, the two men got on well together most of the time — especially if Dr Owen’s wife, Deborah, was present. Lord Steel drew inevitable comparisons between the state of the Labour Party today under Jeremy Corbyn, underwriting the Conservatives’ Brexit, to the situation 37 years ago. But it was the other guest speaker, Baroness (Sally) Hamwee who focussed her remarks on the future. Brexit is dominating parliamentary business at present and with only two days scheduled for the next Lord’s Debate on the European Union Withdrawal Bill, peers will have to be concise, though many are highly qualified to deconstruct the whole thing in great detail — far more qualified than most of Theresa May’s Cabinet, indeed. As Sally was talking I was reminded that in the European Parliament, MEPs are limited to one minute in Plenary speeches, which is a good recipe for conciseness — a bit like a tweet, as I said to her, not that she uses twitter herself. Like many local parties, Tower Hamlets Borough Liberal Democrats has benefitted from a great surge in membership since the EU Referendum and with nearly 30,000 citizens of the other EU member states resident in the borough, will be particularly reaching out to them in the run-up to May’s London local elections.

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Engaging with Readers

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 23rd January, 2018

Eccles Cakes Eccles LibraryYesterday, together with several other Memoir Writers, I took part in my first Facebook event, which was an opportunity for us to talk about our books and for people to ask questions. Each of us who had signed up to the event had an average of an hour to be the focus of attention, while Brenda Mohammed (a prolific autobiographer living in Trinidad and Tobago) moderated. You can catch up with the discussion here: https://t.co/iZr2mhtP6Q

Writing can be a lonely business, as by necessity one needs to spend large amounts of time undisturbed at one’s desk (or wherever one writes most fluently) day after day for months or even years on end. When I first started publishing books, the only contact I had with readers was the occasional letter that someone would write, sent to me via the publisher. Book signings — which I did for three of my books: George Fox and the Children of the Light Soho in the Fifties and Sixties and my childhood memoir Eccles Cakes — were an opportunity to meet some readers face-to-face, though inevitably those encounters were brief and superficial. However, with the development of new communication tools and people’s changing expectations, readers are often no longer satisfied just to be passive consumers, but instead want to engage more meaningfully with authors.

JF writing FortalezaThe proliferation of literary festivals in Britain is one manifestation of this. Festivals have sprung up like mushrooms across the country and some of the most established, such as Hay and Cheltenham, attract capacity audiences. Often these events give readers the opportunity to ask writers searching questions, and from the author’s point of view, they can boost sales. Thanks partly to pressure from the Society of Authors (the UK writers’ union), writers at festivals are increasingly paid a fee, as we should be. People are paying to hear us, after all, and time away from actually writing is something of a sacrifice.

All authors, whether self-published or not, are encouraged to do their own promotion these days, by going on book tours and badgering local or even national media to cover one’s new book. And growing numbers of us have blogs (like this one) or Facebook pages. In fact, I have several Facebook pages: a more personal one, for friends and followers, a political one, a writer’s one and most recently one for Eccles Cakes. I was a bit sceptical about creating a page for a specific book, but in fact it makes a lot of sense. People who like that page get updates whenever I post anything on it relating (however tangentially) to the book. They can ask questions or make comments, and of course there is a button enabling people to buy the book if they don’t already have it. Take a look, and see what you think! — https://www.facebook.com/eccles.cakes.2016/

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The Post *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 21st January, 2018

The PostThe Pentagon Papers (at least some of them) were published by the New York Times and Washington Post in the summer of 1971, just before I set off — for the second time — for Vietnam, to cover President Nguyen Van Thieu’s re-election (he was the only candidate; he won). Though the explosion caused by the publication of details of how successive US Presidents had lied to the American people about the “success” of the War was not quite as huge in Britain as it was over the other side of the Atlantic, it meant that Saigon was a pretty febrile place by the time I got there. Steven Spielberg’s new film, The Post, opens with scenes of US soldiers in Vietnam — very much as I remembered them — but most of the movie’s action takes place in Washington, in the Washington Post’s editorial office and at the printing presses, as well as the mansion of proprietor Katherine Graham and grand residences of her friends, including the former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (for whom actor Bruce Greenwood is made up to be a disconcertingly spitting image). As the title of the film suggests, it is essentially about the newspaper and the way that Kay Graham learned fast how to behave as its owner and to guarantee its bright future in the face of legal challenges launched by the Nixon administration. Authenticity is added by the detailed recreation of the atmosphere of early 1970s newsrooms and the workings of linotype printing, as well as some key realtime tape recordings of Richard Nixon talking to Henry Kissinger and others over the phone from the Oval Office. Meryl Streep is such a consummate actor that one expects her to be brilliant, and she does not disappoint. But the real star, without a doubt, is Tom Hanks, who just is the Post’s editor Ben Bradlee — utterly convincing both in his professional and domestic personae. Not all Spielberg’s films are unalloyed triumphs, but this one undoubtedly is. I can almost hear it hooverng up the Oscars already…

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Just Say Goodbye *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 19th January, 2018

Just Say GoodbyeJesse is a skinny but artistic 16-year-old living in a suburb of a small town in Massachusetts, bullied at high school and largely ignored by his handsome but sometimes violent alcoholic father. As a small boy, he found his mother’s body, dead in bed from taking an overdose of pills. No wonder the kid is introspective. But Jesse has a devoted school-friend, Sarah, to whom he confesses his determination to commit suicide himself, at midnight on his next birthday. All her efforts to dissuade him are in vain. This might sound like the makings of a really heavy movie, but in fact Just Say Goodbye, directed by the young Matt Walting, is an often lyrical piece of great sensitivity and profound psychological insight. Though shot on a minuscule budget, raised from a range of donors, the film is anything but amateurish, fortified by a powerful script by Layla O’Shea and an extraordinarily self-assured performance by Max MacKenzie as Jesse; his voice is mesmerising and his steely determination to put an end to his largely unsatisfactory life gripping. Given the subject, the film could so easily have been maudlin, whereas in fact it is just the opposite: unsentimental and dignified, with an unusually perceptive insight into a troubled adolescent’s mind.

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Cities of London and Westminster

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 17th January, 2018

City of LondonTheresa May is hanging onto power with all the tenacity of a terrier refusing to let anyone take its bone away. But there is always a possibility that the Conservative Government — only in office because of an arrangement in the House of Commons with 10 Ulster Protestants from the Democratic Unionist Party — could fall some time this year, as the complexities of Brexit become clearer. If so, the Liberal Democrats are well-prepared, with prospective parliamentary candidates in place in most seats. In my case, I have been selected for the Cities of London and Westminster, which includes the City, London’s prime business and banking area, as well as the southern half of Westminster borough, including the Houses of Parliament and much of the West End.

Houses of ParliamentIt’s a good fit, as although I live just over the eastern boundary in Tower Hamlets, I spend much of my working week in the area. It’s also a bit of a homecoming, as the constituency was the one in which I was able to vote for the first time, in February 1974, when I lived in Pimlico. I had just started working at Reuters News Agency, so unsurprisingly was drafted to help with the media relations for the then PPC, Trevor Underwood. A highlight was going canvassing in Buckingham Palace — not the Queen, of course, as she cannot vote, but a number of her domestic staff, some of whom were very sympathetic. This time, as prospective candidate, I’ll be focussing on the financial and business communities in particular, as they are naturally concerned about the possible effects of Brexit. That also fits in well with my ongoing role as the Liberal Democrats’ Brexit spokesperson for London. Otherwise, I’ll be pitching in to help the Westminster local party get its first Councillors elected this May. It’s certainly about time!

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Truth in Politics

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 14th January, 2018

post-Truth politicsMany people are put off politics because they don’t trust what politicians say. Alas, that situation has got worse over the past year or so, with the election of Donald Trump to the White House and the chaotic Brexit discourse in the UK. Of course, with Trump one can never be sure whether he is deliberately lying or simply does not know the facts. What is certain, though, is that in this new era of post-Truth, if you don’t like the facts just make up your own, and trumpet them as if they are valid. In Britain, Nigel Farage and the arch-Brexiteers are masters of that black art, proclaiming “alternative facts” such as Turkey being about to join the EU and there being 29 million Romanians and Bulgarians just waiting to flood into the country. The Daily Express newspaper is a daily catalogue of lies and distortion, but the Daily Mail, the Sun and even the Daily Telegraph are often as bad. Even the Government twists the truth. This week Mrs May was boasting that the government had got rid of unfair credit card charges, whereas in fact this was as a result of EU action. The Conservatives regularly claim credit for things that have proved popular (such as the raised tax threshold and same-sex marriage) even though these were Liberal Democrat initiatives. Now the Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has got in on the act. This morning, on Peston on Sunday, he repeated the false claim that in order to be in the European Single Market one has to be a member of the EU, even though he has been told Norway and Switzerland, for example, are evidence to the contrary. I used to have a lot of respect for Corbyn, having worked with him on human rights issues relating to the Palestinians and the Kurds. But he has squandered that respect by becoming a cheerleader for Mrs May’s Hard Brexit, despite the pro-EU  leabings of a majority of Labour Party members. Moreover, he has joined in the delivery of lies and half-truths to try to destroy Britain’s European vocation.

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In Another Life *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th January, 2018

In Another Life 1In another life, Adnan (Elie Haddad) was a teacher in Syria, but he and his wife Bana (Toyah Frantzen) had to flee as their home city, Aleppo, was destroyed around them. Their flight took them through Turkey to Lesbos in Greece, then braving hostile security guards and dogs in Hungary before arriving in Calais. Bana was successfully smuggled away to England, but Adnan had to face the law of the Jungle — the informal camp where refugees from the Middle East, Afghanistan, Eritrea and other parts of Africa risked their lives trying to board trucks or trains to the UK, harassed by French police, prey to unscrupulous people traffickers, but supportive of each other and grateful for gestures of kindness from people who came from England and elsewhere to help. Though Adnan is the main focus of Jason Wingard’s powerful and at times gut-wrenching film, In Another Life, he is a 21st Century refugee Everyman, his plight one of a million personal dramas and tragedies. He finds solace in friendship, even though his closest friend, Yousef (Yousef Hayyan Joubeh) turns out to be living in a fantasy world in which his parents’ long-distant support is nought but a fantasy. Much of the film takes place in the Calais Jungle — real and constructed — shot in black and white in documentary style, gritty and immediate. Occasionally, there are insights into Adnan’s dreams, including an imagined attempt to swim the Channel, and despite all the setbacks, sordidness and inhumanity around him, hope and his love for Bana drive him on. The acting is powerful, so that at times one forgets that this is not a fly-on-the-wall biopic, and there are moments of real beauty to alleviate the greyness and gloom. The film — largely crowd-funded — was made on a shoestring, but the use of hand-held cameras and drone footage adds effectively to its impact. Doubtless some people will criticise In Another Life for being “political”, maybe even “left wing”, but in fact it is a brilliant portrait of the human condition in our time, in the tradition of Honoré de Balzac and Charles Dickens, depicting those who find themselves at the very bottom of the pile in their contemporary world; as Oscar Wilde put it, in the gutter, but with their eyes firmly fixed on the stars.

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