Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘UK politics’ Category

Boris and the “Burka Ban”

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 8th August, 2018

NiqabThe former Foreign Secretary and Tory bad-boy, Boris Johnson, has well and truly put the cat among the pigeons with his Daily Telegraph column in which he likened Muslim women who wear the “burka” to letter boxes and bank robbers. I am sure he well knows that what he is talking about is the niqab (face veil) rather than the burka, but he is happy to chime with the populist riff in which “burka ban” has a satisfyingly alliterative resonance. This is more than a storm in a tea-cup, as several important issues are at stake. First, we live in a liberal, multicultural democracy in Britain, in which everyone should be free to wear whatever he or she wishes. Many white British may find the niqab unattractive or disturbing, but similarly many Muslims find topless bathers at least as offensive. As for the burka, while I saw lots of these in Afghanistan, and know that they have appeared in parts of north-west Pakistan, I have never seen one in England, though some of the many hundreds of people who have responded to a tweet of mine earlier today about the burka affair have assured me that  they have seen some in Ilford and Leicester. Anyway, the point is that it is not for us to tell people what they should wear, otherwise we become like some of the authoritarian societies which we rightly criticise.

burkaBut of course, there is a more important political point, namely that Boris Johnson has refused to apologise for his offensive remarks, despite being urged to by the Chairman of the Conservative Party, Brandon Lewis, and, more weakly, by the Prime Minister. By refusing to agree, Boris Johnson is essentially showing two fingers to Theresa May, knowing she is too weak to sack him (he resigned as Foreign Secretary, remember; he was not sacked, though he should have been). I agree with Lord Sheikh, founder of the Conservative Muslim Forum, that Boris Johnson should have the Conservative whip withdrawn if he stubbornly refuses to back down. Islamophobia is a problem within the Conservative Party, and whereas I do not believe Boris Johnson is personally Islamophobic (indeed, part of his pedigree is Turkish), I do believe that he is shamelessly pandering to the more disgusting of right-wing prejudices. He appears to be modelling himself on Donald Trump, saying the most outrageous things, knowing that he will carry a certain amount of the population with him. But Britain does not need such populism, nor should be tolerate it. We said “No!” in the 1930s, and we should say “No!” now.

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Devaluation of Political Discourse

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 25th July, 2018

Donald Trump 5Last night I did one of my occasional slots on the one-and-a-half hour (Bangladeshi) Channel S TV current affairs show, Let’s Talk. It was sweltering in the studio — the air conditioning was too noisy to be left on during live transmission — and all three of us (me, the host and another studio guest) were roasting in suits and ties. Moreover, the topic for discussion was a heated one: reactions to Donald Trump’s recent visit to the UK and the effect of Trumpism on politics globally. A caller for Oxford bemoaned the fact that Trump has encouraged people to follow his example to use coarse words (as well as bending the truth, of course), which enabled me to talk about what I see as the davaluation of political discourse. Rational debate has often given way to shouty confrontation, and “alternative facts” are seen as equally valid as the truth, providing you believe in them. I am all in favour of satire at appropriate moments — and indeed quite often poke fun at the more absurd arguments of Brexiteers on twitter. But it is clear that social media have encouraged the decline in respect for logic and evidence-based judgments. Mr Trump is partly to blame for this, as some people, on both sides of the Atlantic, feel that if the Tweeter-in-Chief can blast off like an angry child in a playground, so can they. The mainstream media has aided and abetted this lowering of standards. As I said on the programme last night, it was disgraceful that a newspaper such as the Daily Telegraph should pose the question whether Theresa May is a “traitor” because of her Chequers Soft Brexit plan. The gutter Press, not least the Express and the Mail, have continued their obnoxious Brexiteer tirades; do you remember that awful headline about Supreme Court judges being “enemies of the people”? Brexit and Trump are two sides of the same coin, and just as Trump’s rhetoric encourages white Americans to turn against immigrants, Muslims and Mexicans, so the Brexiteer narrative, personified by Nigel Farage, has turned a section of the British public against East Europeans, other ethnic minorities and Islam — fuelling support for anti-hero “Tommy Robinson” and the English Defence League. The BBC, for which I worked almost full-time for 20 years, is itself guilty in giving undue oxygen to extremists; Farage has appeared on Question Time more than any other guest. Meanwhile, both in the United States and here in Britain, society is polarising to such a degree that it is no longer fanciful to draw parallels with the 1930s. We all know what the devaluation of political discourse led to then. It is in everyone’s true interest to ensure that doesn’t happen again.

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A Summer of Discontent

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th July, 2018

The Summer of Our DiscontentWere the likely effects of Brexit not so serious, the shambolic way the Government is handling matters would be laughable. At a weekend Cabinet gathering at Chequers earlier this month, Theresa May put forward her version of a Soft Brexit plan. All the Cabinet supported it at the time, but within days, David Davis and Boris Johnson had both resigned and the latter was extremely rude about the proposed deal, which he said would make Britain a colony of the EU. I’d been saying for months that Mrs May should sack Boris before he had the chance to resign, but in the event, both have been weakened by the way things have happened. In the meantime, several other (junior) Ministers have resigned, as well as other Conservative party luminaries, most of whom one had never heard of. But the debates about related bills in the House of Commons this week have taken the whole Brexit saga down to a new low. Mrs May caved in to the demands of Jacob Rees-Mogg and his euphemistically-named European Research Group and made her Soft Brexit a little harder. A dozen Tory rebels nobly voted to keep the UK within EU medicines regime, but on other issues the Government saw off amendments, with the help of the Labour Brexiteer Gang of Four, Kate Hoey. Frank Field, John  Mann and Grahame Stringer. The Government hoped to prorogue Parliament tomorrow, five days early, to limit inconvenient debate, but dropped that idea when it became clear that the suggestion was dead in the water. The problem is, Mrs May’s Soft Brexit is dead in the water, too; a country can’t effectively be within the Single Market for some things and outside it for others. The EU, rightly, will not compromise on the four freedoms, so Mrs May is just wasting time pursuing pipe dreams. In the meantime, Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn is failing pathetically to stand up to this government nonsense — mainly because he has always been hostile to the EU. And even though a majority of Labour MPs were Remainers (and most probably still are), they are frightened to stick their heads too far above the parapet, with noble exceptions such as Chuka Umunna, David Lammy and Ben Bradshaw. Doubtless the Prime Minister will be hoping that things go quiet over the recess, but I woudn’t count on that. With both the Brexiteers and the anti-Brexiteers angry about the current mess, it is likely to be a long, hot summer of discontent.

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Bye-bye BoJo

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 10th July, 2018

Boris Johnson and John McKendrickYesterday there was a collective sigh of relief within the Westminster village when Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson finally resigned. His sudden departure from one of the four great offices of state had been looming for months; the only question was: would Prime Minister Theresa May sack him or would he quit? It was probably quite shrewd of Mrs May to leave the initiative up to him, therefore making herself theoretically blameless, though the drama of his leaving was anyway upstaged by Brexit Secretary David Davis jumping ship first. As ever not a gentleman, BoJo sent the PM a particularly unpleasant letter of resignation, effectively calling her compromise deal on Britain’s strategy for the Brexit negotiations (which he had in principle endorsed at the weekend Cabinet gathering at Chequers) a betrayal of Leave voters, as well as claiming Britain will become a “colony” of the EU as a result. However, the general feeling around Westminster is that Johnson has weakened, not strengthened, his own political position (the only thing that ever really concerned him) and that he is therefore further away from his goal of becoming Prime Minister. Several of his erstwhile colleagues in government have been quite uncomplimentary about him, but the prize for unfond farewells must go to the Attorney General of Anguilla, John McKendrick QC, who tweeted the photo shown here with the caption: “Meeting the worst Foreign Secretary we’ve ever had amongst the destruction of Hurricane Irma in Anguilla. Disinterested and out of his depth he cared nothing for our situation. Good riddance.” Touché!

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Make Votes Matter

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 30th June, 2018

Make Votes MatterBritain’s democracy is at a crisis point, with the Prime Minister shackled by the need to appease about 60 hardline Brexiteers in her parliamentary party as well as the whims of the 10 right-wing DUP members from Northern Ireland, whose support she bought with a bung of a billion pounds. Meanwhile, the Opposition Labour Party, which should be on the crest of a wave given the government’s incompetence and distress, is actually behind in the opinion polls, thanks to Jeremy Corbyn’s endorsement of Hard Brexit and fears among the middle ground of UK voters that the party wants to turn Britain into a kind of socialist utopia. The voices of the Liberal Democrats and Greens, meanwhile, are muted by the fact that their parliamentary representation is disproportionately small — just one MP in the Greens’ case. This is a direct result of the country’s antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system, which means that many electors vote not for the party whose policies they agree with, but for the lesser of two evils — or who don’t bother voting at all, “because my vote won’t make any difference”. Some people might argue that the current system obliges both the Conservatives and Labour to be “broad churches”, to be able to have a chance of forming a working majority, but the Brexit situation has underlined the fact that there are deep splits within both parties, making it difficult for either of them to hold a coherent line. For these and other reasons, pressure is building for a reform of the electoral system to some form of proportional representation — which already exists in Scotland and Northern Ireland and was used in the European elections nationwide. The Single Transferable Vote (STV) system used in Ireland is probably the most effective in producing results that largely reflect the electorate’s wishes, and which give the voter the opportunity to differentiate between their feelings about different candidates or parties. So today, when  there is a national day of action in favour of fairer votes — proportional representation — don’t be surprised to see or hear a lot about STV. No electoral system is perfect, but STV gives more power to the voter, and would avoid the most grotesque distortion as of the current system, in which sometimes a party can win fewer votes but more seats.

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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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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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Amber to Red for the Tories

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 30th April, 2018

5F9ED72A-789F-44CA-92C7-2238321154A8British Home Secretary (Interior Minister) Amber Rudd has fallen on her sword; her position had indeed become untenable over the weekend with revelations about how much she encouraged the “hostile environment” to “illegal” immigrants and approved of the policy of deportation before appeal, despite having tried to distance herself publicly from it all. The inhuman treatment of the so-called Windrush generation, who had their right to remain in the UK questioned and in some cases refused, was a particularly egregious example of this. Perhaps the final blow to her reputation came with the revelation that the Home Office had refused visas to 100 Indian doctors recruited by the National Health Service (NHS). Under Rudd’s watch, the Home Office has indeed become unfit for purpose. But one could argue that it became so under her predecessor, none other than the now Prime Minister, Theresa May. I can’t help feeling that Mrs May has sacrificed Amber Rudd in the hope of saving her own skin, because frankly it is time for her to acknowledge that old political adage “the buck stops here”. Theresa May was catapulted into the top job when David Cameron resigned after the disastrous outcome of the EU Referendum (which he called largely to try to silence Eurosceptic headbangers on the right of the Conservative Party). But far from proving to be a safe pair of hands, Mrs May has shown herself ready to give ideology precedence over common sense. This shows itself in two, related aspects: immigration and Brexit. The government persists in trying to reach its unrealistic target of getting net immigration down to below 100,000 a year, despite the fact that this is harming not just the NHS but other sectors of the economy too. And despite being a Remainer in the EU Referendum campaign, Mrs May has been pressing ahead with Brexit — again to appease the Tory right — in a most damaging way. The incompetence of the three Brexit Ministers — David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson — would be comic were this all not so serious. Britain’s international reputation has been trashed, not only among our 27 current EU partners but around the world. Moreover, from being the best performing economy among the OECD nations, the UK has crashed to the bottom. Growth was just 0.1% in the last quarter, with the real prospect of recession looming. And we haven’t even left the EU yet! Theresa May is lucky in that she lacks a credible Opposition in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, but that should not let her off the hook. The amber light of  Rudd’s resignation should turn to a red light for the PM herself.

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UK Should Not Be a Hostile Environment

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd April, 2018

Home Office billboardsIt’s hard to be optimistic about the state of Britain these days, not just because the country’s economic growth rate has sunk from the top of the OECD countries to the bottom as Brexit looms but also because of the tensions now evident in society. The EU Referendum result left the UK deeply divided, and those divisions have got worse, not better, as the months have gone by. Moreover, there has been a surge in xenophobic and racist incidents as an unpleasant minority within the British public has felt emboldened by the Brexit vote to tell foreigners to “go home” or to stop speaking languages other than English. Such actions should be recognised as hate crimes and dealt with accordingly.

May RuddBut what I find even more disturbing is the way that the Conservative government has encouraged such attitudes — cheered on by the more obnoxious elements of the mainstream Press. The latest shocking revelations about the way some members of the so-called Windrush Generation and their children (immigrants who were invited to come to Britain after the Second World War, to help rebuild the country and run essential services) have had their right to remain questioned by the Home Office, leading to some losing their jobs or their homes and being denied free medical care, while others have been put in detention centres or been deported, after living here for half a century. It is now clear that much of the blame for this rests on the shoulders of Theresa May, currently Prime Minister but previously Home Secretary. It was under her watch that the infamous vans went round telling “illegal” immigrants to go home, before they were withdrawn after a public outcry. And it is both Mrs May and the current Home Secretary Amber Rudd who have pursued a policy of promoting a “hostile environment” to people who allegedly should not be here.

Even some Labour Home Secretaries, such as the jovial Alan Johnson, used that terrible phrase sometimes. And it is hardly surprising that it has been embraced by those who dislike the multicultural reality of much of Britain today. But it is not only people of colour who are feeling the impact. Even EU citizens have been the brunt of attacks and nasty comments. No wonder some have left and that many others (some married to UK partners) are worried about their future. Mrs May and her ghastly government have failed to tackle this problem head on. Indeed, both by their words and their actions, they have encouraged it. That is why on 3 May those who live in an area holding elections use their vote to send a clear message to 10 Downing Street: this is not the Britain we believe in.

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