Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for May, 2018

Celebrating Christo

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 30th May, 2018

Celebrating Christo 1I first became aware of the Bulgarian-born artist Christo when he shrouded the Bundestag in Berlin in 1995. There was quite a heated debate among German MPs at the time, about whether this was a good idea, but in hindsight it was a blessing that Art won through. Christo (he habitually calls himself only by hist forename) left Communist Bulgaria for Prague in 1956 and managed to defect to Vienna by bribing a customs official to let him through in a sealed waggon on a train, eventually settling in New York with his French wife, Jeanne-Claude. Even now, they are a formidable team, as creators and business people; his most spectacular work costs millions of dollars to construct, all of it raised by themselves, interestingly.

Flotaing PiersBut what of the man? Now we know, thanks to a fascinating documentary, The Frontier of Our Dreams, directed by Georgi Balabanov and being screened tomorrow evening at 7.30pm in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. I caught it at a Press preview at the Bulgarian Cultural Institute today. It is actually a film about Christo and one of his two brothers, Anani, who would have loved to have been an artist himself but was essentially forbidden by the Communist autorities (as the son of a former industrialist, sent to prison on a trumped-up chare of sabotage). Instead Anani became an actor, hidebound by the strict political orthodoxy of that most pro-Soviet of Eastern European regimes. Though he did get the chance to travel abroad sometimes, he never followed his brother’s example by defecting (for which Christo was denounced as a traitor by the regime in Sofia). In the film, Anani wonders whether he made the wrong decision, whether in fact he wasted half his life, not envying his brother’s huge commercial success as such but rather missing the opportunity to be his real self. This gives a wonderful poignancy to Balabanov’s film, which is accompanied tomorrow by Evgenia Atanasova-Teneva’s more reverential documentary, Bridge to Christo, about his 2016 installation in Italy, Floating Piers. Huge crowds went to enjoy that piece, bringing considerable benefit to the local economy, as well as giving visitors the unusual sensation of walking on water. Though the V&A showing is a one-off, the two films deserve wider circulation, not least Balabanov’s.

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Why Lewisham East Matters

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 28th May, 2018

Lewisham EastParliamentary by-elections are the cup-cakes of political nerds and I have followed them closely since my early teens. I cut my political teeth as an 18-year-old sub-agent in the Birmingham Ladywood by-election in 1969 (which Wallace Lawler won for the then Liberal Party) and I have lost count of all the by-election campaigns I’ve helped in since. So naturally I’ve been heading down to Lewisham East ever since a by-election was called there, following the resignation of Labour MP Heidi Alexander to take up a job as a Deputy Mayor for London. Based on the 2017 figures one might imagine that Labour will walk it in the by-election, though the Liberal Democrats came a very strong second in 2010. But this is no normal by-election. As Leaving the EU Day (March 2019) looms, this is being seen as a Brexit litmus test, with the LibDems rallying Remainers behind the talented local candidate, Lucy Salek, in what was an overwhelmingly Remain constituency in the 2016 EU Referendum. More specifically, it is an opportunity for voters in Lewisham East to pass their verdict on Labour’s policy on Brexit. Despite repeated opinion polls showing that a majority of Labour members believe leaving the EU is a mistake, Jeremy Corbyn stubbornly persists in underwriting the Conservative government’s Brexit. Ideally there will be a People’s Vote on the final deal Mrs May and her team reach with Brussels, but in the meantime the Lewisham East by-election is the best opportunity to send a message to Mr Corbyn, as well as to the Prime Minister. That’s why so many of us, including party leader, Vince Cable, have been heading there often. Labour called the by-election quickly, with polling on 14 June; the Brent East by-election 15 years ago showed them that having a long campaign allows the LibDems to build up steam. They lost Brent East and if enough of a momentum builds up over the next fortnight in Lewisham East, they could get a shock there too.

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When Will Labour Face Truth on Brexit?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 24th May, 2018

Keir StarmerFor many continental Europeans one of the most puzzling things about Britain’s stumbling towards the Brexit door has been the way that the opposition Labour Party has been effectively cheering the government on the way. Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn called for Article 50 to be invoked almost as soon as the EU Referendum result waas announced and he has continued to pursue what he calls a Jobs First Brexit, making it work for the many not the few, whereas all the indicators are that all normal households are going to be worse off. In fact, Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, has said that households are already £900 worse off than forecast and Brexit hasn’t happened yet. There will be a divorce bill of £39billion to pay before trade talks with the EU can start and if the government opts for the “Max Fac” new technology approach to dealing with customs procedures, as favoured by right-wing Tory MPs, that is going to cost British businesses £20billion a year, so the head of the HMRC tells us. So why is Labour still going along with Brexit, instead of denouncing it for the gross act of self-harm that it is?

Baroness HayterI put that question today to the Shadow Brexit Spokesperson n the House of Lords, Baroness Hayter — a highly intelligent and articulate woman — who admitted that it is all a nightmare. But both she and her House of Commons counterpart are Keir Starmer are holding to the line that the British people voted for Brexit, and therefore Labour’s task is to make it less painful. She dismissed the notion of a People’s Vote on the final deal (which in principle is meant to be ready by October, though that seems incresihngly unlikely), saying there was no appetite for it. People just want the government to get on with Brexit (which is, of course, also Prime Minister Theresa May’s mantra). But surely it is the duty of the Opposition to oppose, especially when the Labour Party is meant to defend the interests of the poorest and weakest in society? Perhaos onyl a seismic by-election shock in Lewisham East (unlikely, given the campaign has deliberately been kept to just one month) would wake Labour from its complacency. But meanwhile, the party leadership trots behind the Conservative government as it sleepwalks through the Brexit door towards the unknown.

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China in Africa

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 22nd May, 2018

China in AfricaIn the 1880s, the European powers divided up Africa into their mutually recognised colonial spheres and the borders of most African states still reflect the lines drawn on the map then. In the 20th Century, two new big players became involved in Africa: the United States and the Soviet Union, sometimes facing each other off in proxy wars and militarising much of the continent in the process. In comparison, China was a late entrant into the evolving scramble for Africa, these days as much about access to markets as control of raw materials.

China in Africa ForumAs Shao Zheng, Counsellor at the Chinese Embassy in London, last night reminded a forum on China in Africa put on by Liberal International British Group (LIBG), African votes in the UN General Assembly helped the People’s Republic get its seat in the United Nations in 1971. But the People’s Republic’s relations with African states and their populations has not always been smooth since then. When I was working in Kenya and Tanzania in 1976 many Africans complained to me that the Chinese who came to Africa — for example, to build the TanZam railway, that linked the Zambian copper belt to the port of Dar Es Salaam —  did not mix with the locals and looked down on them, which was a complaint echoed by African students in China. Since then matters have improved when it comes to community engagement, but according to other panelists at last night’s event — such as Noel Mbala, former Minister of Transport of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rebecca Tinsley of the charity Network for Africa — the Chinese tend to deal only with elites and many of the big infrastructure projects they are supporting bring little benefit to the poor. Professor Paul Reynolds  gave an interesting brief case study of how the Chinese in Djibouti have flexed their geopolitical muscles and clearly Beijing’s interest in Africa is not just about trade. Indeed, as China asserts its global presence more under the guidance of Xi Jinping, we can expect to see an increasing Chinese footprint in Africa as well as more Chinese, ranging from engineers to hawkers. At the end of last night’s meeting, when Shao Zheng was asked whether he was bothered by the criticisms leveled at China during the previous two hours, he replied that these were due to “misunderstandings”. What is doubtless true is that China and the West do often see things differently, not just with regard to Africa.

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A Very British Scandal

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 21st May, 2018

A Very British ScandalI watched the first episode of Stephen Frears’ three-part TV bio-pic about the Thorpe Affair, A Very British Scandal, with a degree of trepidation. Despite the director’s esteemed back catalogue and the stellar cast, could it be anything else but a travesty of the truth? I knew Jeremy Thorpe from the time he came to speak at the Oxford University Liberal Club (of which I was then Secretary) in about 1970 right up until his death in 2014, so well over 40 years, and like most of his numerous friends I was very fond of him. He was one of the most charismatic politicians I have ever encountered — witty, charming and urbane to such a degree that most of us failed to perceive a darker side to his character. Right to the end, he denied having plotted Norman Scott’s murder, and indeed a court found him not guilty of that charge. So I think he would have been shocked — probably to the point of litigation, for which he did have a bent — by the dramatic assertion at the end of episode 1 of A Very British Scandal that he effectively commissioned Peter Bessell to have Norman bumped off. Bessell was of course an extremely dodgy character himself (beautifully played by Alex Jennings, very much as I remember Bessell), who moved to America and was an unreliable witness, to put it mildly. I never encountered Norman Joliffe/Scott, who was much less attractive in real life than the super-talented and winsome Ben Whishaw, but Whishaw absolutely nails the element of helplessness about Norman which Jeremy did find immensely appealing, sexually stimulating even, until things started to turn terribly sour. So what about Hugh Grant as Jeremy? He accurately mimics some of Thorpe’s mannerisms, though the voice wasn’t quite that Edward-Fox-plummy, and naturally the Edwardian-style clothes that Jeremy favoured are down to a T. But I think the audience needed to see more of Thorpe’s undeniable charm and splendidly theatrical showmanship before the storm clouds gathered and the murder plot was allegedly hatched. Frears shows he is still very much the master of his art. Indeed, as a TV mini-series this promises to be outstanding entertainment. But is it really true or fair? And will it be that it manages in later episodes to show why talented and successful people like Jeremy Thorpe (or, indeed, at an intellectually and creatively higher level, Oscar Wilde) dice with danger for the thrill of the risk and a fatal curiosity about what it would be like to be found out?

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House of Lords Lobby Fodder

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 18th May, 2018

Eric PicklesAs widely expected, the Government has announced the appointment of 10 new Conservative peers (subject to approval), as well as one for the DUP. This is despite the fact that the Conservative group in the upper chamber is already larger than any other, and the move is clearly designed to try to avoid more Brexit-related defeats, of which there have been quite a rash recently. If Mrs May hoped that by announcing the appointments on the eve of the Royal Wedding they might pass unseen she must be sorely disappointed by the storm of protest on twitter. Not so much condemnation from some people in the Labour Party, though, as Jeremy Corbyn has been given the sweetener of three peers for his own team. But the media focus is inevitably on the 10 Tories. Though some like Catherine Meyer may on account of their special expertise or experience have a decent claim to the privilege — and it is a privilege, albeit an anchronistic one — most of the others are former government retreads, incuding Sir Eric Pickles and Peter Lilley. Dubtless all ten have been instructed to support the Government loyally on Brexit (and perhaps more). But I can’t help wondering whether some of the current members of the Lords will feel a little peeved about having this lobby fodder casually thrown in, which might mean some more of them may be in a mood to “rebel”. The Upper House has done some sterling work scrutinising and amendings parts of the EU Withdrawal Bill and it is a sad reflection of the state of politics in Britain today that having failed to win the argument in debates in the Lords, Mrs May is indulging in behaviour more characteristic of a century ago.

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Nuls Points for Israel on Naqba Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 15th May, 2018

Gaza protestsSome Israelis may still be celebrating their Eurovision Song Contest win at the weekend, but as Palestinians today mark the 70th anniversary of the Naqba or Catastrophe that sent an estimated 700,000 people fleeing from their ancestral homes, the mood should be one of respectful mourning on both sides of the Gaza border fence. Dozens of Palestinians have been killed and many hundreds wounded as Israeli forces have fired live ammunition at Palestinian protesters. Arab youths who see little hope for their future living in the blockaded Gaza Strip have been mown down in their prime with a callousness that demonstrates just what little value the Israeli Defense Force and government put on Palestinian lives. One can criticise Hamas for encouraging action along the heavily fortified border — indeed, the British government has done just that — but the real blame for the ongoing massacre rests firmly with the Israeli state. Tensions have been inflamed by President Trump’s disastrous decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, adding insult to injury for those Palestinians living under occupation in the eastern part of the city by sending his daughter Ivanka to do the honours at the temporary embassy compound yesterday, as if she were opening a garden fete. The final status of Jerusalem is something that still has to be settled, but by unilaterally declaring the city to be Israel’s undivided capital, Binyamin Netanyahu has guaranteed the anger, even hatred, of hundreds of millions of Muslims (and many Christians, as well as liberal Jews) around the world. Israel is celebrating the 70th anniversary of its creation now, but for Palestinians the legacy of their dispossession is a bitter one. Today in London and in many other cities there will be demonstrations and vigils to mark Naqba Day. These should be matched not just by words of condemnation for the disproportionate Israeli actions (as is happening) but also with sanctions of some kind. Israel is literally getting away with murder, and in doing so undermines its own legitimacy as a self-styled Western nation in the heart of the Middle East..

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Mr Erdoğan Comes to Town

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 14th May, 2018

Erdogan in London.jpgThe Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is in London at the moment, partly, he says, to thank Britain for being a steadfast supporter in the wake of the 2016 failed coup. A possible post-Brexit trade deal also featured in his official talks, with some media reporting that Ankara hopes to extract a commitment from the Conservative government to allow free movement of people between our two countries — not exactly something most Leave voters in the EU Referendum were expecting. However, last night, at the Turken Foundation UK dinner that I attended at the Intercontinental Hotel in Mayfair, Mr Erdoğan addressed most of his remarks to the (predominantly Turkish) students in the room; the Turken Foundation provides cheap accommodation and other support for hundreds of them. He declared that his government will stand resolute against terrorists, in which category he lumped Da’esh, Al Qaida, the PKK and the Gülen movement all together — as well as promising that he will defend Muslim values. He lambasted European countries for doing so little to help Syrian refugees, of whom Turkey has taken in 3.5 million, and the West in general for allegedly tolerating racism and Islamophobia. Though Turkey as a modern state has been in existence less than a century, Mr Erdoğan claimed the legitimacy of the Ottoman Empire and its footprint in three continents, in which people of different ethnicities, faiths and languages lived side by side, in particular citing how Jews fleeing persecution in parts of Europe had been taken in. Armenians and Kurds would probably have had something to say about some of that, of course, just as elements of the Turkish media would take the President to task over recent arrests and curbs on freedom of expression. But last night was not the occasion for that. Indeed, the latter part of the President’s speech was a clear election pitch for the vote that has been brought forward to next month. In that regard, the message was clear: if you want more of the prosperity and stability that I have brought, you know whose party you should support!

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Have We Reached Peak London?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 10th May, 2018

City of LOndonLondon likes to present itself — with some justification — as the world’s premier global city. But it may be falling off its pedestal. Whereas until 2016 people flocked to London to find jobs in everything from banking to being a barista, these days the movement is more towards the exit door, as applications for NHS jobs from EU27 nationals plummet and European academics here search for pastures new. There is no doubt that Brexit (and the associated, barely concealed xenophobia manifest among certain sections of the British population). is the main reason for London losing some of its shine. Yes, Far Eastern investors are still buying property in London, but that’s mainly because the sharp fall in the value of the pound sterling has made even high-end property a good deal for them. Of course, cities go up and down. London was a comparative dump in the 1970s, with a shrinking population, whereas Paris was where it was at. But Paris subsequently lost it.

Steve Norris small At a fascinating seminar on Making London Succeed for Everyone post-Brexit, hosted by the international law firm Eversheds Sutherland in the City this evening, Steve Norris — former Conservative MP and onetime London mayoral hopeful — declared that he thought we are maybe are at Peak London; actually, I think that we are already on the way down from that peak — and given the shambolic way that Theresa May’s government is mismanaging Brexit, that descent could accelerate. Paris, Frankfurt and Dublin are salivating at the exodus of financial services and other economic actors from London, while meanwhile cities like Berlin and Lisbon are asserting themselves as cutting edge cultural and high-tech centres, as Cool Britannia’s image fades. Steve Norris was probably right when he said that Cool Britannia was actually Cool London, but how much longer will that be the case? Research suggests that the high Leave vote in many of the English provinces reflected a Sod London feeling (as well as Sod David Cameron), but being an overwhelmingly Remain city may not save London’s skin. Obviously, from my perspective I hope Brexit doesn’t happen and that the plug is pulled before further damage is done. But I cannot be wildly optimistic. Britain risks becoming a not-particularly-important offshore island and London will struggle not to be pulled down with it.

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Europe Day 2018

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 9th May, 2018

Europe Day 2018In recent years I have always celebrated Europe Day (9 May) at a concert in St John’s, Smith Square. But this year was different. London4Europe, the London branch of the European Movement, put on a celebratory occasion this evening, which I would have loved to attend, but I felt I ought to be at the post-Council election wash-up and planning meeting of the London Liberal Democrats at Party HQ — not least because a parliamentary by-election has been triggered by the resignation today of the Labour MP for Lewisham East, Heidi Alexander, so she can take up the position of Deputy Mayor of London with special responsibility for Transport. Ms Alexander is on the more sensible end of the Labour Party, at a time when far-left Momentum has tightened its grip, and has been sound on Europe. So it will be very interesting to see who Labour chooses to stand as a candidate for the seat. According to a friend in the Labour Party, Momentum have the selection sewn up, so watch this space. This by-election, by its very timing, will inevitably feature Brexit prominently; Lewisham was strongly pro-Remain in the 2016 EU Referendum and that situation is not likely to have changed. So a strong pro-European campaign — calling for a People’s Vote on the proposed deal between Britain and the EU27 — is a natural position for the Liberal Democrats to adopt. It’s all being called very quickly, with voting on 14 June — so just five weeks to send a message, not only to Theresa May in 10 Downing Street but also to Eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn too.

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