Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for March, 2020

Hungary’s Assault on Democracy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 31st March, 2020

Viktor OrbánYesterday Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, which has a comfortable outright majority within parliament, voted to grant Prime Minister Viktor Orbán the right to rule by decree  (with no time limit set) and to bring in a state of emergency. The pretext is the Coronavirus crisis but the move is but the latest chapter in the country’s assault on pluralist democracy. The parliament in Budapest will suspend its activities and there will be no by-elections or referendums during the emergency. The next parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2022, but unless there is a major shift among the voting population, Fidesz will be returned to power then. In the meantime, under the new emergency powers, anyone deemed guilty of spreading “false information” may be liable to a prison term of between one and five years. The government will of course define what is “false”. Much of Hungary’s media has already been muzzled and human rights groups are worried that this is another step in the direction of dictatorship. Opposition groups fear the government will use the new provisions to silence all critics.

Viktor Orbán’s own political trajectory has been extraordinary. As a young man rebelling against the then Communist regime he was essentially a Liberal, and indeed was in close contact with David Steel and the British Liberal Party. Fidesz, his party, even joined the European Liberal grouping, ELDR (the precursor of ALDE), and was notable for its radical young activists. But since then, Mr Orbán and the party have drifted ever rightwards. They shifted European allegiance to the centre-right European Peoples Party (EPP), to which they still belong, though several other EPP members find their presence increasingly uncomfortable. The EPP is an overtly pro-Europe grouping (which is why David Cameron took the UK Conservatives out), but Mr Orbán has been increasingly at odds with the rest of the European Union, in matters such as dealing with Muslim refugees or the Rule of Law. This is giving the EU an enormous headache, at a time when COVID19 is preoccupying all the member states and the UK government is insisting progress be made on post-Brexit trade talks. Relations between Budapest and Brussels are now so bad that some people fear Hungary could threaten the integrity of the EU itself. Former Italian Prime Minster Matteo Renzi believes the choice for Brussels now is either to force Mr Orbán to change his mind or else to “drive Hungary out of the Union”.

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Remembering Derek Honeygold

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 29th March, 2020

Derek HoneygoldMany of us are going to have to get used to friends dying from COVID19 over the coming weeks, but this does not lessen the sense of loss. In my case, the first to go is Derek Honeygold, lifelong Liberal/Liberal Democrat and ardent pro-European, who passed away at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow yesterday, after developing pneumonia, at the age of 83. He lived for most of his life in Northwood Hills, in what is now the London borough of Hillingdon, He was a pupil at Pinner County Grammar School, where he excelled in athletics, before doing his National Service in the Royal Air Force, mainly in East Anglia. His twin interests in economics and European matters were by then already forming. He was frustrated that Britain did not join the nascent EEC, so his political gravitation towards the Europhile Jo Grimond as leader of the Liberal Party was a natural trajectory. Britain pulling out of the EU only a few weeks ago must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

As a mature student, Derek took a BSc degree in Economics at Brunel University in Uxbridge, later becoming a lecturer at the same institution. This was the beginning of a long and successful academic career, teaching at the European Business School (now Regent’s University in London) and Thames Valley University, before getting the post of Senior Lecturer in International and European Economics at the University of Hertfordshire. His most important academic publication was a textbook on International Financial Markets. During the tumultuous Spring of 1989, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Derek spent several months in Budapest, after which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office took him on as a consultant and he spent two happy years training Hungarian and other central European dissidents and aspiring leaders on aspects of European economics and democratic government. He also had a spell in Berlin, as a management accountant for the airline BEA.

Though Derek did serve a period as a local Councillor in Hillingdon, and was made a magistrate (JP), his main activity with the Liberal Party and later the Liberal Democrats was within their European and international associated organisations, latterly the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG) and Liberal International British Group (LIBG), serving many years as Treasurer of the latter. Although obliged to retire from university teaching he continued his own research into international economic theory and he was a robust participant in policy debates in that field, including at Chatham House, where he was a fixture for several decades. In recent years he had difficulty walking, but his mind remained as alert as ever. In the hackneyed phrase of Times obituaries, he did not suffer fools gladly. But there was also a more gentle, artistic side to his personality of which most people who came into contact with him were probably unaware. Music was a passion. For nearly 20 years, up till 1990, he was Principal of Derek Honeygold Concert Management, through which he promoted more than 250 classical music concerts throughout the United Kingdom, Austria and West Germany.


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A Leadership Election Postponed

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th March, 2020

Libera; Democrats balloonsEarlier this week, the Federal Board of the Liberal Democrats (on which I sit ex officio, as Chair of the Federal International Relations Committee) took the decision to postpone the party’s leadership election until May next year. The vacancy came about, of course, because former leader Jo Swinson unfortunately lost her seat in December’s general election. Since then, her deputy, Ed Davey, and the new Party President, Mark Pack, have been standing in as joint interim leaders, and the intention was to hold a leadership election — in which all party members can vote — immediately after this May’s local elections. Those elections have been postponed for a year because of the Coronavirus crisis and it is also because of COVID19 that the Federal Board took the decision (by an overwhelming majority) to delay the party leadership contest for a year as well. It was felt that the public would have little sympathy for a party that that was prioritising an internal contest when people are facing huge challenges, not least within the National Health Service (NHS). Indeed, many Liberal Democrat local authorities are on the frontline in delivering services in dramatically changed conditions and thousands of individual party members are involved in community support and other voluntary efforts up and down the country, so a leadership contest in the short term could be an unwelcome distraction.

Naturally it is frustrating for the five MPs who had indicated that they were interested in running for the leadership, some of whom already had teams in place. And there has been some grumbling on social media by party members who felt the Federal Board took the wrong decision. I don’t agree, as I think the party has shown a mature sense of responsibility at this difficult and still very uncertain time. COVID19 has profoundly affected all our lives, whether we catch the virus or not, with most work and indeed politics going virtual, online. Our society and the way we normally conduct business are being fundamentally challenged. So let’s see how that pans out and then focus on the massively important Scottish, Welsh, London and local elections in May 2021 before choosing who will have the task of steering the party forward after that.

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Stay at Home

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 24th March, 2020

Stay at HomeLast night, in a televised address, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson did what he should have done at least a week ago by telling people to stay at home in an effort to curb the spread of the Coronavirus. For once it was not the joking Boris boasting about how we were going to “send the virus packing” within 12 weeks, or how the production of new ventilators would prove to be “the last gasp”. Instead he delivered rather a sombre and measured commentary on the current challenges and the new measures that have been brought in to confront them. And unlike Donald Trump on the other side of the Atlantic, he did not diverge from his script. Advice about social distancing had been transformed into instructions, following a sunny weekend in which hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Brits had shamefully ignored the warnings and gone out to enjoy the parks or the seaside en masse. Now, people — not just in London, which is the epicentre of the UK’s COVID19 cases — are told to stay at home except when they need to go to supermarkets or pharmacies to stock up on food or medicines. But they can also go out for one daily burst of exercise, such as a jog in the park, as long as they keep well away from others. Gatherings of more than two people are banned, except among members of the same household. The police will in principle have the power to order home and even fine transgressors, though it is unlikely that this power will be used as rigorously as it is being in France. Boris Johnson himself, as a libertarian, must be uncomfortable about these restrictions on people’s daily lives, which the newspaper of which he has been a star columnist, the Daily Telegraph, headlined as “End of freedom”. That is a grotesque and potentially counter-productive thing to trumpet. Instead, they could legitimately have asked: why did it take the British government a week to ten days to really learn the lessons from Italy and then act? And how many more lives have been put at risk because they didn’t?

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The Plight of Many UK Pensioners Abroad

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd March, 2020

UK pensioners abroadThe British government has rightly asked people to be aware of the vulnerability of older people to COVID19, especially those with underlying health conditions. But I wonder if their concern stretches to British OAPs who live abroad and who have the added challenge that their state pension is frozen at the level it was when they emigrated. This is the situation for those British OAPS who do not live in a country in the European Economic Area (EEA) or with a social security agreement with the United Kingdom. The basic British state pension is only a fraction of that of many EU member states, as it is. It is due to rise in April, from £168.50 to £175.20 per week, though that is barely enough to live on. But imagine what things are like for overseas pensioners whose pension has shrunk way below that, despite the fact that they paid in their National Insurance contributions during their working life. The Guardian recently highlighted the case of former Royal Navy serviceman, Robert Haley, who retired to Australia. His pension has remained frozen at £46.90. And his case is just one among many thousands. An estimated half a million British pensioners live abroad, some in countries where medical treatment is not free, making the fear of Conavirus even more daunting. The cost of unfreezing pensions for the men and women affected has been estimated at £600 million, which sounds a lot until one compares that with the figures that Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been brandishing this week. Moreover, the humanitarian imperative cannot be over-stressed. Liberal Democrats Abroad, which brings together several thousand Party members around the world, is adopting this issue as a major campaign and is asking co-Leader Ed Davey to take the matter up urgently with the government in London.

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My End Is My Beginning

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 19th March, 2020

Moris FarhiThe late Moris Farhi was a great hugger. Bearded, short in stature, barrel-chested, he wore his heart on his sleeve and spent much of the time when he wasn’t at his desk campaigning against injustice and for the freedom of imprisoned fellow writers. A Ladino-speaking Turkish Jew who fled to England from his hometown of Istanbul at the age of 19 because of growing anti-Semitism, Moris was known as Musa — Moses — to his closest friends, and there was something of an Old Testament prophet about him, exiled from his homeland and gifted with a global vision, sometimes darkened by awareness of the cruelty inherent in so much of life. He also revelled in fantasy and the prospect of time travel. Many years ago he was commissioned to write two scripts for Dr Who in the early days of that cult TV serial. Although neither made it on to the screen, they were later published. One featured the Doctor meeting Alexander the Great. Another was set on a planet called Fragrance. For Moris/Musa, the real world and imaginary worlds seamlessly co-existed, as in the Arabian Nights. It might seem odd to start a book review with such a lengthy introduction to its author. But in many ways, the posthumously-published My End Is My Beginning (Saqi Books, £11.99) is Farhi’s Last Testament.

My End Is My BeginningHis alter ego in the novel is Oric, a self-doubting orphan who rebels against the oppressive rule of Numen, not a divinity as the Latin word suggests but its antithesis: a ruthless dictator so familiar to the peoples of the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. Numen is one half of a duumvirate, the other being an Islamic Grand Mufti who is based on a Russian-made aircraft carrier. Religion and autocracy go hand-in-hand in the unnamed land, where only a few brave souls risk raising their necks above the parapet to challenge the ruler and his aggressive minions, knowing that imprisonment, torture and death may be their lot for such disobedience. However, Oric has a kindred spirit and lover, a fellow orphan called Belkis, who we learn right at the start of the novel has been killed by the “Saviours”, i.e. Numen and his ilk. Yet she lives beyond death and literally flies in and out of Oric’s presence as he recounts human rights missions they have taken part in around the world, in solidarity with the Mothers of the Disappeared or the protesters trying to save Gezi Park in Istanbul and so on. The novel may be fantasy, but the contemporary incidents and situations that are interspersed in the text are very real, from the Chinese cultural suppression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang to the abuse of South Asian domestic servants in the Gulf. Past, present and future all merge, as do the real and the imagined, in a kaleidoscope of concerns that troubled the novelist’s mind.

Dystopian fiction always seems so much more gripping than its Utopian counterpart. Think George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four over Samuel Butler’s Erewhon. But such is Farhi’s compassion for the world that even after cataloguing all the horrors of nightmare reality he opts for a hopeful ending. On the last page of My End Is MyBeginning Oric wails, “Conflicts never end. Peace never comes. Hatred always survives. The end of one horror always spawns the beginning of another. Can we defeat hatred — ever?” Belkis responds, “Yes, my Oric. We can. Believe me.” And he does. This climax made me want to start the book all over again, aware that I may have missed the significance of so many signs and symbols along the way — including Oric’s “Moses basket”. Trust me, whether you like fables and fantasy or not, by the end of this novel you will know Moris Farhi.


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London Braces Itself for Lockdown

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 19th March, 2020

school closureThe Coronavirus stakes for Britain moved up a significant notch today [Wednesday] as the total number of deaths exceeded 100 and the government announced plans to close schools for all but certain groups of children as from Friday. During the day rumours had been circulating that because the epidemic is particularly severe in the capital, London may face lockdown within a few days. It has been announced that the Waterloo & City line of the Underground will close on Friday and one can expect others soon to follow suit, or at least reduce the level of service. I’ve also lost count of the number of emails I have received today from restaurant chains saying that they are closing their doors with immediate effect. Even my local Costa Coffee will only have a take-away service. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been urging vulnerable people to self-isolate and for the rest of the population to adopt various measures of social distancing, but the authorities believe not enough people are taking this seriously. A few days ago it would have seemed unthinkable that London could undergo the level of shutdown that has happened across Italy and in the French capital, Paris. But this is now no longer such an unlikely scenario. In Paris people who violate in what is in effect a 24/7 curfew (unless they are going to essential work or to buy food) face a hefty fine. Will such measures be needed here too? There were also rumours today that the army might be deployed on the streets to help confront the COVID19 threat, but the government was quick to insist that the estimated 20,000 troops and other military staff being put on standby would be restricted to ancillary duties such as delivering supplies. We shall see. But brace yourselves, folks, London lockdown is likely to be coming and probably soon.

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Washing One’s Hands

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 15th March, 2020

washing handsWhile Italy is in lockdown and a number of European countries, including France and Belgium, have closed bars and restaurants, as well as cancelling public events, in an effort to curb the spread of Coronavirus, the UK has been urging people to wash their hands frequently. This all chimes with the Keep Calm and Carry On brand of British phlegmatism, largely thought to have blossomed during the Blitz — though that hasn’t stopped panic-driven hoarders descending on supermarkets like a swarm of locusts, even fighting over jumbo packs of loo roll. Lots of normal activity, such as football matches and university lectures have ceased, but that’s because the relevant institutions took that decision, not because the government told them to. Indeed, the government has given very little advice to the public, other than washing one’s hands and sneezing into a tissue, rather than into one’s hands. Yet insidiously Ministers (usually anonymously) have been leaking information to chosen journalists, the most startling example being Robert Peston being told that at some unspecified moment in the near future all people over 70 will be instructed to isolate themselves for four months. Yes, four months. That’s quite a quantum leap from washing one’s hands for 20 seconds. Moreover, this measure — if it happens — is extraordinarily arbitrary and ageist, assuming that all over-70s are vulnerable, rather than just those whose health is already compromised. I’m 69, so does that mean I’m still OK, whereas someone a few months older isn’t? Meanwhile, the government has been floating the concept of “herd immunity”: let most people contract the virus so they build up their immunity, though only a small percentage of them will die. Tough luck for that small percentage. No wonder anxiety rates in Britain are spiking, and not just among the elderly. But, hey, there’s always hand-washing as an act of reassurance — though astonishingly, a recent opinion poll revealed that only a little over a quarter of the population does so. Now, that really is mass stupidity.

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Conference Cancelled

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 12th March, 2020

YorkThe Liberal Democrats’ Federal Board (on which I sit ex officio as Chair of the Federal International Relations Committee, FIRC) last night addressed the awkward question of whether to cancel this weekend’s Spring Conference in York because of the growing fears of spreading coronavirus (COVID19) through large public events. After a lively and thoughtful discussion — which I was able to follow on my phone at a Newroz celebration in the House of Commons — a sizeable majority opted to cancel. As I wrote earlier to the Party President, Mark Pack, it was going to be a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” decision, but I think the Board made the right call. Interestingly, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, today banned gatherings of more than 500 people. No such leadership has been shown in London by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who recently said regarding COVID19 that maybe Britain should just “take it on the chin”. His insouciance has been matched on the other side of the Atlantic by that of his bestie, Donald Trump. Trump did announce a 30-day ban on flights from Europe today, while bizarrely excluding the UK and Ireland. The illogicality of that is mind boggling. Meanwhile, over the Irish Sea, Leo Varadkar has ordered the temporary closure of all schools and nurseries. And the whole of Italy is in lockdown.

Of course, cancelling the York conference is going to be costly for the Liberal Democrats, as well as to the individual members who had signed up to go and to the city’s hospitality industry, which was all geared up for a weekend of bonanza business. As both my train fare and hotel have already been paid (non-refundable), however, I shall still make my way to York and will be happy to meet up with other LibDems who have made the same decision — all keeping ourselves at a respectful distance, of course!

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Democracy in Decline

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 5th March, 2020

Freedom House report 2019In the 1980s and 1990s there was reason to celebrate, as military dictatorships in Latin America came to an end and Communism collapsed in Europe. But in the 21st. Century democratisation has gone into reverse. According to the latest annual report from the Washington-based NGO Freedom House, democracy is under assault in many parts of the world, including the United States itself. “Dictators are toiling to stamp out the last vestiges of domestic dissent and spread their harmful influence to new corners of the world,” the report laments. China comes in for intense criticism for its “totalitarian offensive” against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, as well as its “relentless campaign to replace existing international norms with its own authoritarian vision.” Russia is lambasted for last year’s “stage-managed” elections, from which genuine opposition was largely excluded, while Iran used live ammunition against demonstrators last autumn, reportedly killing hundreds.

But it is not only the usual suspects who come under Freedom House’s critical gaze. The 2019 Report highlights how democracy and associated freedoms are in retreat across much of the supposedly democratic world. “Many freely elected leaders are dramatically narrowing their concerns to a blinkered interpretation of the national interest,” the report says. “In fact, such leaders — including the chief executives of the United States and India, the world’s two largest democracies — are increasingly willing to break down institutional safeguards and disregard the rights of critics and minorities as they pursue their populist agendas.” Donald Trump comes under fire for exerting pressure on electoral integrity, judicial independence and safeguards against corruption. Moreover numerous foreign governments have mimicked Trump’s attacks on “fake news media”, developing policies or legislation that have criminalized or suppressed free speech in their countries. More than half the world’s democracies have declined in political terms over the past 14 years, Freedom House opines, the worst example being India, which under Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi has registered “alarming departures from democratic norms”. Boris Johnson’s government in the UK is too new to figure in the report, but signs here in Britain are troubling too.

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