Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for January, 2019

Brexit Does My Head In

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 29th January, 2019

depressed-manAccording to a new opinion poll from Channel 5 News and YouGov, one in ten people in Britain say that Brexit has had a large impact on their mental health. I know that is true in my case. Along with many Brits who believe that the country is better off inside the European Union I feel depressed and frustrated that the Conservative government is ploughing on with a course of action that is bound to harm the UK economy. In her desperate attempts to hold her party together, Prime Minister Theresa May is even continuing to flirt with the possibility of a disastrous No Deal Brexit, by which Britain would crash out of the EU on 29 March, with huge risks to the delivery of food and medicines and the supply chain of farming and industry. The Official Opposition is not much better either, as under Jeremy Corbyn Labour has failed to listen to the majority of its members who want an Exit from Brexit, probably through a referendum, dubbed the People’s Vote. Last night, Parliament debated the government’s disgraceful Immigration Bill, which will downgrade the status of EU citizens in this country if it is passed. Until almost the last minute the Labour leadership was saying that their MPs should abstain in the vote on this reading, until a howl of protest led to a partial U-turn, with a decision to oppose, but only on a one-line whip, which meant that not enough Labour MPs were in the chamber to vote it down (though some brave Tory rebels voted against). But if Brits like me have some sleepless nights over Brexit imagine how much worse it must be for EU citizens, many of whom have lived in this country for years and are now being required to apply for settled status so they have the right to stay in their own homes. Moreover, many EU citizens — and other foreigners — have been the butt of unpleasant xenophobic/racist abuse from a small minority of nationalistic bigots who have been empowered by the 2016 EU Referendum to vent their prejudices. Even speaking a language other than English in public is enough for some of these zealots to sound off. No wonder some people are turning to their doctors for prescriptions for anti-depressants. But given that physical exercise is known to alleviate depression, getting out and about campaigning for a People’s Vote is perhaps one route those of us who are feeling down about Brexit can follow.

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Holocaust Memorial Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 27th January, 2019

auschwitz entranceOn this day we remember the six million Jews exterminated by the Nazis in Germany and the occupied territories, along with the Roma, disabled and LGBT people deemed imperfect or undesirable by the Third Reich. I was born five years after the War, but during my childhood the black and white pictures of Auschwitz and other death camps were a shocking reminder of what had happened not that long before. The slogan “Never Again” was popularised and for me came to embrace much more than concentration camps, as I hated the whole idea of war as well — especially the mindless death mill of the Western Front in the First World War and the millions of civilian casualties in the Second, along with the wholesale destruction of historic cities, their art and civilization. That is why I became such a strong supporter of the European Union — the European Project — as it developed, creating a Europe in which Never Again could be a reality, though on the fringes of the EU terrible things did happen, such as the massacre of young Muslims by Serbs at Srebrenica in 1995.

bosnia intenment cmpGenocide has reared its head in many parts of the world, from the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to the machete slaughter of Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda. That is why Holocaust Memorial Day is so important, to remind us constantly of the barbarity that can be part of the human condition unless people are educated and structures put in place to make it impossible. I have often heard people in Britain saying complacently that it could never happen here, but such confidence is misplaced. Had the Nazis occupied mainland Britain I am sure they would have found some people willing to help them with their dirty work. If you don’t believe me, look at the hatred on the faces of some of the far right demonstrators who have taken to the streets in recent months, their intimidation of people they disagree with and the callous attitude to refugees and migrants rising their lives to get into Europe or across the Channel into Britain. “Let them drown!” I have heard people say, their “patriotic” sense of entitlement driving them to repel all boarders, cheered on by the more disgusting elements of the popular Press. For some Brits, “migrants” are not human, and once you start to dehumanise groups of people you have started on the slippery slope that can lead to genocide. The evidence is there; it has happened before.

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Farewell, European Medicines Agency

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 26th January, 2019

ema closingYesterday, staff at the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in Canary Wharf, London, lowered the flags of the 28 EU member states in preparation for their move to the Netherlands. Following the vote for Brexit in the 2016 EU Referendum it was no longer tenable for the EMA to stay in Britain; the Dutch stepped in to help with the offer of temporary accommodation in Amsterdam’s Slotterdijk. That should be up and running by March, when the UK is due to leave the EU, unless Brexit is stopped or delayed. The departure of the EMA is a blow to Britain’s important role in the evaluation and supervision of medicines and is mirrored by the departure (actual or planned) of many commercial companies and financial institutions which also want to keep their headquarters in an EU member state. According to reports earlier this week, 250 companies currently in the UK are in talks with the Dutch authorities, while others are looking to other new locations. This Brexodus was inevitable as a consequence of the massive self-harm of Brexit. Brexiteers dubbed warnings about this “Project Fear”, whereas it is just plain fact. The UK has already lost billions of pounds because of Brexit and things will only get worse if Brexit goes ahead. A “No Deal” Brexit, which is the default position if Theresa May fails to get her deal (amended or otherwise) through Parliament, would be especially catastrophic, as supply chains will inevitably be disrupted. That includes supplies of medicines, many of which come from the continent, which is why some companies are busy stockpiling and the British government has bought a whole load of fridges as part of its contingency plans. No wonder diabetics and others who depend on the regular supply of drugs are worried. And the tragedy is that that this was all so unnecessary. As we wave farewell to the EMA we need to ask ourselves if this severance from the EU with the consequent reduction in benefits is really what the country needs.

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Brexit Briefing

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 24th January, 2019

sarah ludford and william wallaceLast night I was at the Liberal Democrats’ national headquarters for a briefing on Brexit organised by Southwark LibDems and addressed by three of the key party spokespeople in the House of Lords, Dick Newby, William Wallace and Sarah Ludford. Though only the House of Commons has the necessary clout to stop Brexit or significantly alter Theresa May’s “deal”, the Lords have been keeping the whole sorry Brexit saga under intense scrutiny and have been able to draw on the expertise of members with considerable knowledge on the subject, from the architect of Article50, John Kerr, to the former European Commissioner, Chris Patten. Sarah said there had been a noticeable shift in the attitude of many Conservative peers as the full complexity of disentangling the UK from 45 years of economic integration with Europe has become clearer.

dick newbyThe LibDem Lords team work closely with the Party’s MPs, especially Tom Brake, who is the national Brexit spokesperson. Next Tuesday is going to be a very important moment as the Commons will vote on amendments and motions including one from Yvette Cooper and Nick Boles which would, if passed, recommend extending Article 50 till the end of the year. That would in principle give time for any new approach to the Brexit impasse — for example, backing for a Norway-style deal (in which the UK would remain in the single market but have no say in formulating EU rules) or organising a fresh referendum, with an option to Remain. The three peers felt that at the moment there is probably not a clear majority in the House of Commons for what has been dubbed a People’s Vote, but more MPs and even Cabinet Ministers are warming to the idea. If Article 50 were to be extended beyond 2 July — the opening of the new European Parliament — then of course Britain would probably have to organise European elections in May, which would be both a challenge and an opportunity. Dick Newby told me that he thought no real contingency plans for that are in place within government institutions, but watch this space.

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Colette *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 19th January, 2019

coletteFin-de-siecle Paris is often depicted as a decadent playground savoured by the likes of Oscar Wilde, but the period was also one of great technical innovation, from the building of the controversial Eiffel Tower in 1887 to the introduction of electricity in middle class homes. Interestingly, both feature in Wash Westmoreland’s lyrical biopic, Colette, helping to signal the time; as for place, the film is not alone in finding that Budapest today offers more authentically “Parisian” staircases and interiors. The story is at first a portrait of a marriage, between the critic Henri Gauthier-Villars (who wrote under the pen name “Willy” and employed a small stable of impoverished younger authors to ghost his stories, while he enjoyed the literary salons and amorous liaisons of the city) and a pretty, nature-loving young country girl, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Parisian society was at first sneering at this ingénue, who had brought no dowry and who bristled at the extravagant pretensions of le beau monde. But soon the young wife displays not only a free spirit but a creative one as well. Determined not to be constrained to the domestic life of a dutiful wife she starts to write herself, and although at first Willy derides her efforts soon he accepts that she has talent and starts publishing books, in his name, that are essentially her work, with just a few of his own tweaks here and there. A series of effectively autobiographical novels featuring “Claudine” become best-sellers and Colette (as she now calls herself, symbolically reclaiming her maiden name) is no longer satisfied to have Willy take all the credit. She has also become less tolerant of his arrogance and bullying, his endless philandering and profligacy, while herself engaging in affairs with other women, notably the cross-dressing aristocrat Mathilde de Morny, “Missy”. The marriage is doomed but a new literary star is born and and a feminist blow against male chauvinistic piggery has landed with effect. This is indeed a feminist film, albeit directed by a gay man (touchingly dedicated to his recently deceased husband and collaborator Richard Glatzer), but it does not preach. Instead it allows the story to gently unfold against a background of luscious canvases, both rural and urban. Keira Knightley magnificently conveys Colette’s evolution from country girl to creative talent; one so engages with her performance that one accompanies the character along her journey of discovery, empathizing at every twist and turn. Dominic West is also effective as the caddish Willy, a puffed-up peacock who is occasionally shaken by moments of insecurity, self-doubt and pure panic. The story of Colette has been told on film before, but not nearly so well. Westmoreland succeeds brilliantly. not only in the narrative of an amazing life but also in producing a beautiful work of art.

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Britain All at Sea

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 18th January, 2019

britain all at seaOne of the most popular tropes of the colonial era was that Britain rules the waves. But for the country that once boasted that it had an empire on which the sun never set, another metaphor is more apt today: Britain is all at sea. Ever since the shock result of the EU Referendum in June 2016, the UK has been on a downward spiral in terms of international standing, while at the same time riven by increasingly bitter internal divisions. Prime Minister Theresa May called an unnecessary general election in 2017, saying she wanted a healthy mandate with which to negotiate with our 27 EU partners Britain’s orderly departure from the Union. Instead, she lost her parliamentary majority, but she decided to ignore the message of that and instead has ploughed on with her vision of Brexit. This she has continued to do single mindedly ever since, losing several Brexit Ministers along the way. The deal she ended up with pleases nobody, yet she is insisting that the choice now before the country is between that and a catastrophic No Deal crashing out of the EU on 29 March.

leave means leave Parliament blew a giant raspberry at her deal the other day, defeating it by an historic 230 votes, yet she continues to press on with it, like a stubborn ox. The Leader of the Official Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile flaps around like an impotent mynah bird screeching “General election! General election!”, though there is no way the Conservatives and the Northern Irish DUP who prop them up are going to back one. And meanwhile the clock ticks on to Brexit departure day. Just how near to the deadline will it have to come before the Government blinks and either asks for an extension of Article 50 (or, preferably, rescinds it)? Meanwhile, the arch-Brexiteers have gone into full Blitz spirit, savouring the prospect of Britain standing alone, even if life will be more difficult. At a Leave Means Leave rally in central London last night, the more radical Leave supporters celebrated the notion of No Deal. Just show two fingers to the rest of the Europe, they argued,. And to Scotland and Northern Ireland (both of which voted Remain in 2016). And to Remainers. No wonder the rest of the world thinks Britain has gone completely mad, bobbing along in a leaking boat in the mid-Atlantic, singing Rule Britannia, as it risks sinks beneath the waves.

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Stan & Ollie *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 12th January, 2019

stan & ollieLaurel and Hardy were one of the great comic duos of the 20th century, their films huge box office sensations. But Jon S. Baird’s affectionate biopic, Stan & Ollie, covers their twilight months, when they were touring theatres in the British Isles, trying to resuscitate the old magic in a changing world newly enamoured of television. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly were inspired casting for the lead roles, even if Coogan’s accent does occasionally go a bit Alan Partridge. They mimic perfectly some of Laurel and Hardy’s comic song and dance routines, though with a poignant edge of stars on the wane. The period settings are atmospheric and the film’s pacing immaculate, and there are some wonderful cameos such as Rufus Jones as an oleaginous Bernard Delfont and Nina Arianda as Stan’s vampish Russian wife. But the best thing of all is the chemistry between the two central characters, ranging from love through frustration to a certain degree of jealousy. There are some deliciously funny moments, but even more tender scenes that left many a teary eye in the audience I saw the film with, rooted in their seats until the credits were totally over.

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No, a General Election Is Not the Answer

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 10th January, 2019

jeremy corbyn 3The Leader of he Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn has made a speech calling for a general election, arguing that this is the most “practical and democratic” solution to the current Brexit impasse. Quite apart from the fact that almost all recent opinion polls suggest that Labour would not win such an election, however much Mr Corbyn may dream of being Prime Minister, with less than three months to go before EU Departure Day, a general election would be a time-consuming distraction from the matter at hand. Besides, it is hard to see how such an election would be brought about, as most of the Tory rebels who have inflicted a couple of significant defeats on the Government in recent days would not vote for an election, and it needs two thirds of the House of Commons to do so. After Jeremy Corbyn’s speech, Channel 4’s Jon Snow asked a very pertinent question about whether the Labour Leader has given thought to the young people — including those not old enough to vote in the 2016 EU Referendum — who overwhelmingly want to stay in the European Union and who back a People’s Vote. Mr Corbyn’s response was that young people would benefit from the policies of a Labour government, which completely misses the point. The sad fact is that Jeremy is a Brexiteer, despite his half-hearted support for Remain in 2016, and what he wants to try to deliver is a Labour Brexit. This again is cloud cuckoo land fantasy, as the EU has made perfectly clear that there cannot be a new Brexit negotiation. The deal brokered by the Conservative government is the only one on the table. So instead of fantasizing about going to the country in the hope of bringing about a Socialist Britain the Labour Leader should listen to his members and supporters, who by a large majority want to Remain, and back the campaign for a People’s Vote.

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Brexit Is Breaking Britain’s Politics

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 8th January, 2019

anna soubry demonstratorsI’m often on College Green, Westminster, filming TV interviews for Middle Eastern channels, but whereas the atmosphere there used to be rather jolly, things have recently taken a more sinister turn. One had become used to anti-Brexit campaigner Steve Bray photo-bombing shots and couldn’t help but smile when he turned up with an immense pole so that he could hold up his placards even when the BBC installed high gantries in an effort to thwart him. But what has been happening in recent days is of an entirely different nature and that is the aggressive behaviour of far-right Brexiteers — often wearing yellow high-vis jackets — heckling and threatening both politicians and journalists. Anna Soubry, the brave Conservative former Minister who has been calling for a People’s Vote on the Brexit “deal”, was called a Nazi by hecklers and closely followed by them after a TV interview in a most intimidating way. While police were around, they were low-key in their response, apparently unsure how to balance the traditional British attitude to free speech with the right of citizens to be protected against serious abuse, including death threats. Fifty MPs have reportedly urged the Metropolitan Police to be more protective and many of us have in the back of of our minds the dreadful murder of MP Jo Cox in the run-up to the 2016 EU Referendum. The current Brexit Minister, Steve Barclay, has argued that the bad behaviour by the far right is a reason why we should not have a People’s Vote, as public division would become even more strident if we did. But that is a profoundly undemocratic position to take, in my view. One should not give in to intimidation. Meanwhile, things are likely to get worse over the next few days, with a parliamentary vote on Mrs May’s deal scheduled for next Tuesday. If it is defeated — as is highly likely — then the country will enter into uncharted political territory; even the Prime Minister does not seem to have much clue what would happen next. All the more reason, therefore, to curb the activities of extremists who are threatening the peaceful conduct of political debate in this country. They claim they are defending British values (though their Britain is a white, racist construct), whereas in fact they are in danger of destroying them. Brexit is breaking Britain’s politics as well as trashing the country’s international reputation. The voices of reason, backed by the Law, must prevail.

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