Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for April, 2019

11th London Diplomat of the Year Awards

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 29th April, 2019

3D20EDF9-8D9B-4C61-AA2A-CFC139A2AFB6The London diplomatic corps was out in force this evening at the Carlton Towers Hotel in Belgravia for the 11th annual Diplomat of the Year Awards, organised by Diplomat magazine. The publication has actually been going for more than 70 years, and I have written for it on occasions in the past, but the awards ceremony has taken it to new levels. The awards, based on voting by diplomats themselves, are an occasion to celebrate the achievements of colleagues. And rather as in international football tournaments, supporters from each region come out in force to cheer the winners. Appropriately this year the new partnership with the charity Football Diplomacy was highlighted. This helps give opportunities for divided or opposing communities to come together through sport to help engender mutual understanding and peace. The main awards tonight, given on a regional basis, were won by the Ambassadors of Afghanistan, Cuba, Finland, Kazakhstan, Rwanda, the UAE and Uruguay. Honourable mention, as always, deservedly, for the doyen of the Diplomatic Corps, Khaled Al-Duwaisan, Ambassador of Kuwait, who has been in post for an astonishing 26 years.

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Iran, Islam and Democracy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 22nd April, 2019

Iran-Islam-and-Democracy--653x1024Contemporary Iran is much maligned and little understood in the West, especially in Washington, where the Trump administration (like several of its predeccessors) views Iran as the devil incarnate. Of course, the Islamic Republic returns the compliment by frequently calling the United States the Great Satan. Each country has good reason to object to some aspects of the society and government found in the other. Yet international relations would be much smoother, and the world safer, if both made a greater effort to work out what makes the other tick. Hence the great value of Ali M. Ansari’s monumental Iran, Islam and Democracy (Gingko, £30/$44.95). Through his close examination of the leadership records of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rouhani in particular, the author presents a penetrating view of the complexities and tensions within Iranian politics, far different from the two-dimensional picture proffered by Donald Trump or Binyamin Netanyahu.

The very name “Islamic Republic” illustrates a contradiction at the heart of the system in Iran. Republics — particularly those influenced by French or indeed American revolutionary thought — are inherently bottom-up societies in the sense that ultimate authority derives from the people. But religious societies in contrast are usually top-down. For much of Iran’s history a patrimonial shah or king was in charge, with a firm hand on the driving wheel, and even after the last shah was overthrown in 1979, a new top-down type of authority was imposed, by the Ayatollah Khomeini and since his death, Ayatollah Khamenei. This new authority has the added status of being in principle God-given and it is significant that the spritual Leader of Iran takes precedence over the elected President, even when the latter has clearly been the Leader’s intellectual superior (not something one could say about Ahmadinejad).

There is an ongoing dialectic between conservatives and reformists within Iranian society and one of the most stimulating parts of this significant book is an extended examination of the record of and expectations regarding the comparatively “liberal” Mohammad Khatami (previously published as a separate volume, now supplemented with addiitional and more recent texts). Just as conservatives in the country’s religious hierarchy sometimes exaggerate the “threat” of reformist politicians and intellectuals — periodicaly leading to the closure of allegedly offensive newspapers and magazines — so the West has often put undue faith in the ability of reformists and in particular the Green Movement to affect rapid change. Things move slowly in Iran, where the ousting of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 still rankles. But even revolutions evolve with time. And it seems clear that if the outside world wants Iran to become more “normal” in its internal and external behaviour, then engagement rather than confonrtation is likely to produce better results.

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Doubles Vies****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 19th April, 2019

440AF66A-7874-437A-949D-6DFFA0D8994EMarriages often go through a mid-life crisis, but in truly Gallic fashion, in Olivier Assayas’s wry drama Doubles Vies, so do spouses’ relationships with their respective lovers too. The setting — apart from a lyrical interlude in the Midi — is the literary scene in Paris, a world in which a book editor (Guillaume Canet) is trying to come to terms with the effect on his industry in a new environment of ebooks, blogs and social media. He turns down the latest manuscript from one of his closest author friends (a very crumpled Vincent Macaigne), unaware that his own wife has been having an affair with him. One feels that one day this will come back to haunt him, as the writer’s novels are blatantly autobiographical, landing him in hot water with some critics. As might be clear by now, this is a very literary film, in which words are as significant as the images and dramatic plot twists barely impinge on the main characters’ inner turmoil. Handsome Canet is paired with beautiful Juliette Binoche, while Macaigne’s other half is a somewhat kooky but political Nora Hamzawi. Some audiences may find the film dialogue-heavy and a little forced in its contemplation of technological change, but having lived in such a literary environment in both Paris and Brussels, I find it rings painfully true.

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Facepalm Sunday

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 14th April, 2019

E310484E-4010-467E-A40B-E1A3E3527BFBI’ve never been into the whole Easter thing, but having lived in Belgium for eight years and subsequently spent a lot of time in Brazil — both countries deeply steeped in Catholicism, despite a significant Protestant and alternative presence — I could hardly ignore the pomp, ceremony and religious fervour of Holy Week, beginning today with Palm Sunday. Of course, to get the real, majestic experience one needs to be in Spain or Italy, but anyway, you get my gist.

This year, however, it is not Palm Sunday that is impressing on my conscience but Facepalm Sunday, as British politics descends into previously unplumbed depths, at least in modern memory, leaving me aghast at the incompetence and divisiveness of it all.  MPs have gone off on their Easter hols, though the most conscientious of them will of course use the time away from Westminster to work hard in their constituencies. Much good may it do them, poor things, as their reputation has sunk below that of my fellow journalists. Please pray for us all.

1D4B2A3B-2C5E-4EE3-BADB-0625A4DB8CFFBut what is striking, and shocking, is that the Brexit process has turned into a total dog’s breakfast, leaving many people on whichever side of the Remain:Leave divide they may be, frustrated and angry. Total nincompoops have become TV stars, freely spouting their lies (not least on the BBC), while Brexiteer figures such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have risen from the political dead. The European elections, now almost inevitably to be held on 23 May, will take place in an unprecedented climate of political chaos, with opinion polls suggesting that the Conservatives are rapidly disappearing down the plug hole. I shall not weep. Theresa May battles on, yet on the global stage she, and Britain, have become figures of ridicule and, worse, pity.

I have argued before that Britain should take the European elections seriously, to indicate that we have not lost our collective marbles and that in principle we would like a People’s Vote to settle once and for all our European destiny. May we use Palm Sunday to reflect on what lies before us — and to remind ourselves that Holy Week  doesn’t end well — until the promise of a new beginning.

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Donald Tusk’s Private Dream

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th April, 2019

247B33FF-BC8A-429B-8D9C-0C7AEBC81444One of the most intriguing aspects of recent weeks in the long-running Brexit saga has been how French President Emmanuel Macron has played “bad cop” to EU Council President Donald Tusk’s “nice cop” in the EU’s dealings with the UK. In a sense, the date of 31 October agreed as the new extension for Article50 was a compromise between the two of them. Macron was willing to make Theresa May stick to the 31 June deadline she asked for, whereas Tusk suggested a year or even slightly more, with the sensible proviso that it should be a “flextension” — in other words, the UK could leave earlier if Mrs May got her Withdrawal Agreement “deal” through Parliament on a fourth attempt, or indeed could decide to revoke Article50 (as Britain is entitled to do unilaterally) and cancel Brexit altogether.

815C2F7A-3BFD-46F2-A7A8-BFC237504913Following the latest rather sad, even slightly humiliating, extraordinary Council meeting in Brussels on Wednesday, when the UK Prime Minister had to plead for an extension, Donald Tusk told Polish journalists that all options should be available, and that his “private dream” was for Britain to stay in the EU. It is a noble stance, given how much time, energy and financial resources have so far been squandered on this absurd Brexit project. Indeed, Mr Tusk is an honourable man, who cut his political teeth as a young activist at the time when the Gdańsk workers were striking against Poland’s Communist government, setting in motion a movement that would bring down Communism in central and Eastern Europe by the end of the 1980s and even in the Soviet Union shortly afterwards. So Donald Tusk is no stranger to working hard to make dreams come true. May he be successful this time, too!

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Theresa of Maidenhead, English Martyr

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 11th April, 2019

1526DD0A-1DD1-4899-BF4F-4A29FF60EBBCTheresa May did not exactly have a brilliant record as Home Secretary, but when David Cameron fell on his sword after losing his foolish EU Referendum — retreating to a custom-made writing shed to concoct his memoirs — Mrs May brushed rivals aside with the ease of someone running through a field of wheat. She became the Mistress of 10 Downing Street, but then carelessly threw away her Parliamentary majority in an unnecessary general election. Undeterred, having been a lukewarm Remainer during the Referendum, in a sort of low-key, Anglican kind of way, she then became a True Believer in Brexit. The European Research Group (ERG) and the Northern Ireland DUP (who gratefully trousered a £1billion bung) we’re delighted. And when anyone impertinently asked, “But what is Brexit?” she majestically declared, “Brexit means Brexit!”

1524FC32-110A-4343-A172-DC9B7F381AC8However, events since then have shown that things aren’t as simple as that. Parliament has rejected a No Deal exit, but has not given much of a steer on anything else. The end of March cliff-edge was avoided, and now the 12 April has been overridden too. Late last night, the EU27 leaders offered a new extension to 31 October. As that is Halloween, someone (probably Emmanuel Macron) has a macabre sense of humour. Waiting outside the conference room, in sackcloth and ashes, Theresa May was told she could like it or lump it, so of course she accepted it. She now returns to London knowing that the ERG have their knives out and both main parties are recoiling at the idea of fighting unexpected European elections on 23 May. On her knees in repentance Theresa may be, but that may not save her from being burnt at the political stake. Watch this space.

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3 Faces*****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 10th April, 2019

CC37924E-8CE2-4F3C-AE9B-D22A028A73CD.jpegI imagine it would come as quite a surprise to the current occupant of the White House to learn that Iran is producing some of the most interesting and challenging films around and has done so for many years. Cowboys and Injuns are probably more his style. But cinephiles have long been championing the work of Iranian directors, both those who continue to live in the country and those who decided (or had decided for them) that they could only be true to their art abroad. Among those directors who have received international recognition is Jafar Panahi, whose latest offering, 3 Faces (shot if Farsi and Azeri, in the wild mountain scenery of north-west Iran, not far from Azerbaijan) wowed critics at Cannes. The storyline is superficially simple: the director (playing himself) is persuaded by the renowned film actress Behnaz Jafari (again a self -portrait) to go in search of a country girl, Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei) who has managed to send indirectly to Ms Jafari a video of herself apparently committing suicide in a grotto because the actress has allegedly ignored her pleas to help her leave her isolated rural community to go to study drama in Tehran. The actress has no idea who the girl is nor whether the story is true, but walks out of her current film shoot in order to find out.

215E2F05-DD9D-4DA3-BB2A-72C747825D0CUnlike most actor-directors, Jaffar Panahi does not thrust himself to the fore. On the contrary, for the first few minutes of the film one does not even see him, though one can hear his voice, as all the attention is focussed on a distressed Behnaz Jafari. Similarly, when the pair reach Marziyeh’s village Behnaz moves in a female domestic sphere, from which Jafar is excluded — symbolically so by having to spend a night sleeping in his car. But there is another  form of alienation which affects both of these sophisticated visitors when they are confronted with the conservative traditions and suspicions of a rural community that has not encountered modernity, even if they recognise Behnaz from film posters or the TV. There are wonderful vignettes of village life and traditional hospitality, not in the least condescending or judgmental. But there are also moments of delicious comedy, as when an old man presents his son’s foreskin (removed at his circumcision, and neatly preserved in a tiny blood red fabric bag) to Behnaz to pass on to some person who can influence his future. I also relished the in-joke about how two creative acquaintances of the two main protagonists wanted to meet, but couldn’t, because one was not allowed to leave Iran and the other was forbidden to return from exile. But best of all for me was the lyricism of this encounter between two contrasting words within one country, with a hesitance on both sides to learn some of the consequent lessons, all against the backdrop of an arid landscape and humble village dwellings.

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Springtime for Brexit

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 8th April, 2019

1D80CB15-BC26-4FA2-851F-A5D6A15752D8During the eight years I was based in Brussels covering the European institutions and European external policy, I had a nice little sideline as a film critic for the weekly English-language glossy magazine, The Bulletin. That meant two films on a Monday morning and two films on a Tuesday morning in distributors’ screening rooms. To catch up with some useful film history, I was also a regular attender at the city’s Musee du Cinema. And it was there that I first saw Mel Brooks’s 1967 movie The Producers; it became one of my all time favourites. In the film, the hero (Zero Mostel) is offered a way out of his financial problems if he can stage a sure-fire flop. This he thinks he has found with Springtime for Hitler, a musical written by a clearly mad neo-Nazi composer with a passion for pigeons. Alas, the musical is so camply outrageous that it is a huge success.

915B53E3-44E5-4CD4-A517-69589C014E53I was put in mind of this at the weekend when I was watching Theresa May’s fireside chat video, explaining to the public and Parliament why Brexit had to happen, otherwise it won’t happen (an easy choice for a Remainer like me). Then there was the sight the other day of the bedraggled remains of Nigel Farage’s March for Brexit. And suddenly I had the idea of a Faragista musical, Springtime for Brexit. It would be staged at the London Palladium, but in contrast to what happened in The Producers, Springtime for Brexit would be a gigantic flop. The dejected cast would go for an after-party at the nearest Wetherspoons, only to find that it had shut down. Oh, what strange day-dreams one has!

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Led by Donkeys

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 7th April, 2019

4F932FA3-85C2-4BB6-8C1B-7887E9A6149DOne of the most pleasing aspects of the otherwise deeply depressing Brexit situation has been the billboard campaign by the pressure group Led by Donkeys. As with many genius ideas, the basic premise is simple: to put up giant posters of tweets by Brexiteers and members of the current Conservative Government which they would rather now forget. For example, there is Theresa May saying she believes that Britain would be better off staying in the EU. And Jacob Rees-Mogg arguing that any EU Referendum should be in two stages. These embarrassing quotes have appeared on giant billboards up and down the country, and when Nigel Farage ordered a Brexit march on London (very poorly attended, with Farage himself only putting in occasional appearances), the group behind the anti-Brexit campaign, Led by Donkeys, imaginatively trolled the marchers by having a giant electronic billboard featuring tweets which kept joining up with them.

C46A7617-A39D-4E59-8E5D-C1F9DBA7A298Even more striking was the SOS message with an EU flag in the background, projected onto the white cliffs of the English South Coast. The name, Led by Donkeys, is itself brilliant, doubling as a slogan. Moreover, it’s a slogan that resonates, as many British people, weary of the protracted Brexit chaos and would agree that we are led by donkeys — except for Prime Minister Theresa May, of course, because she is just stubborn as a mule.

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We Should Embrace European Elections

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 5th April, 2019

European elections 2019Next Wednesday, UK PM Theresa May will go to an emergency EU summit where she is expected to ask for an extension of Article50 beyond the current cut-off date, 12 April. Whereas her personal preference is for just a short delay to Brexit, during which in principle her negotiated deal could get through Parliament on a fourth attempt, in practice it is more likely that the EU will offer a longer extension — possibly flexible — even up to the end of 2020. That would of course mean that Britain would have to take part in European elections on May 23rd (UK elections are usually on a Thursday, whereas much of the Continent votes at the weekend). These direct elections to the European Parliament have happened every five years since 1979. Yet to listen to the Prime Minister — and even more, to Hard Brexiteers — having European elections now, three years after the EU Referendum led to a slim majority for Leave, is an outrage. But one has to ask: why in a democracy is a scheduled election an outrage, especially as it would give the public an opportunity to express their views at this politically charged time?

European elections 2019 1 A major reason the Conservatives are wary of the elections is that they realise they will probably do quite badly. And that is also true for Labour, which was on a high in 2014, winning four out of the eight seats in London, for example. An opinion poll by YouGov published today has the Conservatives on 32%, Labour 31%, Liberal Democrats 12%, UKIP 7%, Brexit Party 5%, Greens 4%. I suspect there will be further polarisation to the strongly pro-Remain and pro-Leave parties as the campaign proceeds, assuming it happens. But that should not put people off, especially those who wish to stay in the European Union. Indeed, we should embrace these European elections (in which EU citizens will also be entitled to vote, providing they have registered) and treat them far more seriously than any before. Turnout has been pretty dismal in previous European elections, but with a strong campaigning effort over an intense short campaign, that could certainly change.

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