Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘UK politics’ Category

UK: Bottom of the Class

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 12th August, 2020

UK RecessionThe figures from the Office of National Statistics today are startling. It was widely expected that Britain would be declared to be in a recession (technically two consecutive quarters of negative growth) but no-one expected the April-June performance to show a fall in GDP of 20.4% — the worst among the G7 economies. Twice as bad as Germany and the United States. Even the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, who has been perceived as something of a golden boy in contrast to PM Bumbling Boris, will find it difficult to talk himself out of this disaster. The Conservatives are meant to be good for the economy and good for business, but recent opinion polls suggest that more Brits now think the still fairly new Labour Leader, Sir Keir Starmer, would make a better Prime Minister than Johnson. BoJo meanwhile has certainly lost his mojo; only nine months ago he was crowing about the size of his majority following the general election. But he proved to be ineffective as the coronavirus pandemic hit, indecisive and contradictory. The virus was allowed to get too firm a hold in the population before lockdown was introduced, but then that lockdown was so severe and so prolonged that the economy took a real battering. Despite a welcome uptick in GDP in June as some businesses reopened the worst is far from over. Other firms — not least in the services sector — are continuing to go to the wall. Moreover, Brexit at the end of the year is bound to make things much worse. The sad thing is that Britain, now out of the EU and floundering in the harsh new global reality, is not on top of things but bottom of the class, with much more pain to come.

Posted in UK politics, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Siobhan Benita Stands Aside

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 27th July, 2020

Siobhan Benita Trafalgar SquareMany London Liberal Democrats will have been saddened this morning to receive an email from Mayoral candidate Siobhan Benita saying that she is regretfully standing aside. The election for London Mayor should have happened this May, but was postponed along with votes for the London Assembly and other local and regional elections round the country. The elections have been rescheduled for next May, which would mean another 10 months of campaigning on top of all the time and effort Siobhan has already put in — all unpaid, of course. As I know from my own experience as a serial Euro-candidate, standing for election is a costly business and, contrary to popular opinion, candidates do not usually receive any financial help from their party. Siobhan has been extraordinarily hard-working, supporting local party activities around the capital as well as taking a stand on many issues of concern to Londoners. But it is a sad fact that the messaging of kindness and “Love London Better” just wasn’t cutting through. The regional party is rightly having a serious rethink about what sort of campaign and messages will resonate as we all still struggle with the health and economic effects of COVID-19. When a new candidate is selected, he or she will of course be working alongside a new Party Leader (the result of that contest will be known next month). That is going to be quite an exciting challenge. London is a liberal city (and indeed voted decisively for the Liberal Democrats in last year’s European elections), not least because of its multiculturalism. A dynamic Mayoral campaign with messages that inspire Londoners will be needed if the Party is to capitalise on the city’s liberalism. I believe Siobhan would have been a super Mayor for London had things worked out differently. She deserves an enormous round of applause for everything she has done.

Posted in Liberal Democrats, London, UK politics, Uncategorized | Tagged: | 5 Comments »

In Defence of Experts

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th July, 2020

Anthony Fauci and Donald TrumpIn the run-up to the EU Referendum in June 2016, the then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, declared that “we have had enough of experts”. That argument unfortunately helped carry the day as millions of voters ignored the warnings from economists about the likely negative consequences of Brexit — and will soon have to live with them. The prejudice against experts also featured in the successful campaign by Donald Trump to become the 45th President of the United States. Indeed he took this philistinism up to another level, denying truths and propagating his own “alternative facts”. That willful amateurism may still resonate with much of Trump’s base, but in the age of coronavirus it is increasingly obvious that whereas populists may feel empowered by the conviction that anything they believe in must be true nonetheless scientific fact must take precedence. We see this acted out most starkly in the way that NIAID Director Anthony Fauci has resolutely offered a scientific counter-narrative to the President’s fantastic ramblings about COVID-19. This clearly irritates expert-phobes like Trump and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, but large swaths of the population in the Americas do seem to be preferring facts over fantasies when their own lives are at stake.

Boris Johnson and Dominic CummingsHere in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson — whose own statements about the best way to react to the pandemic have been confusing and at times plain misguided — still enjoys the vocal support of a claque of loyalist Ministers who are regularly trotted out to defend him when he makes a gaffe, or even to promote disinformation. For example, Health Secretary Matt Hancock the other day blithely stated that the coronavirus lockdown in Britain had started on 16 March when it self-evidently began a week later, when Boris Johnson went on TV to announce it. UK opinion polls suggest some of the shine is coming off the Johnson government, but there are still significant numbers of voters who are prepared to swallow his disinformation and outright lies. Moreover, the PM’s eminence grise, Dominic Cummings, is carrying out a frontal assault on the civil service because civil servants do acquire expertise and act on facts rather than ideology. In this ongoing battle, on both sides of the Atlantic, one can only hope that the experts prevail.

Posted in UK politics, Uncategorized, US politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Why I am Backing Layla

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 16th July, 2020

Layla Moran 3Politics in Britain is about to enter the summer silly season, though with coronavirus still lurking in the shadows one should not be surprised is Parliament is suddenly recalled after the current session rises. But for Liberal Democrats there is an added inducement to engage in political debate over the coming weeks as a leadership election is now underway, the outcome of which will be known towards the end of August. Though the Party currently has only 11 MPs (but with a much bigger cohort in the House of Lords), it boasts around 120,000 members, many of whom were galvanised into political action by the 2016 EU Referendum and what has happened with Brexit ever since. So the two leadership candidates — Ed Davey and Layla Moran — have quite a sizable body of people to pitch to. I have known both for a long time, consider them as friends and have great respect for both of them. But as so many people have asked me who I am backing, I thought it worth setting out not just who, but why.

Layla Moran nomination I was one of more than 1,000 Party members who nominated Layla Moran last week because I feel she offers an exciting and engaging radical alternative to Boris Johnson and Kier Starmer. That is not just because she is younger and a woman (though both those characteristics will appeal to sectors of the electorate) but also because whereas most LibDems preach internationalism Layla is an embodiment of internationalism: half Palestinian, partly raised in Jordan and Jamaica and with extensive experience in Europe, including Brussels. Before getting elected as MP for Oxford West and Abingdon in 2017 she worked in teaching, physics and maths being her specialities. She is currently the Party’s Education spokesperson — a crucial portfolio which will be even more important as Britain in the autumn faces up to the challenges to all levels of education in the post-COVID-19 “new normal”. I urged Layla to stand when the leadership was last up for contest, when Vince Cable stood aside, but I recognise that she was right to demur then, to concentrate on making her parliamentary seat secure and to gain more experience in the House of Commons. But I sincerely believe her time is now. She is not just different from the usual ranks of UK politicians, she is full of vim and verve, to rally people to the LibDem cause and to help hold the appalling Boris Johnson-led Conservative government to account.

Posted in Liberal Democrats, UK politics, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Big Lie

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 6th July, 2020

Hitler and GoebbelsOne of the weirdest moments in my childhood was finding an English-language copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf hidden in the bottom of a wardrobe in the nursery of my (adoptive) maternal grandmother’s house in Derbyshire. “Brown Grandma”, as she was always referred to at home because she always wore brown clothes (as opposed to “Black Grandma”, my adoptive father’s mother, who wore widow’s black) had been President of the local Conservative Association but didn’t strike me as a fascist, however I never plucked up the courage to ask her why the book was tucked away under a pile of blankets. However, I did read Adolf Hitler’s work surreptitiously. Much of it was pretty boring, while other bits — such as his hatred of the Jews — were revolting. But one thing which intrigued me and has stayed with me ever since was his theory of The Big Lie — that if a lie is colossal and you keep repeating it, people will believe it as they will feel that no-one would have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. This propaganda technique was perfected and implemented by Hitler’s henchman Joseph Göbbels, who manipulated political discourse and in particular used the medium of radio to feed the German public a steady diet of nourishing lies.

Boris JOhnson and Donald TrumpI am surely not alone in thinking that the Nazis’ use of The Big Lie (mirrored by Josef Stalin and the Soviet Communists, one should note) is enjoying a kind of renaissance today on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2016 here in Britain during the EU Referendum the Leave campaign produced a series of seminal lies, even plastering one of the most effective on the side of a big red bus. The assertion that the NHS could benefit from the £350 million allegedly sent by Britain each week to Brussels was demonstrably untrue. An even bigger whopper was the claim that Turkey was about to join the EU, meaning that 70 million Turks would become eligible to move to the UK. Remainers complained in vain about this distortion of reality, but large swaths of the public were happy to believe what they were told, just as millions of Germans had in the 1930s. Meanwhile, in America, Donald Trump and his team were up to the same tricks, manufacturing and disseminating untruths to great effect. That helped him win the election and he has stuck with the strategy of The Big Lie while in office. So, to a large degree, has British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. I am certainly not arguing that Johnson is a fascist, but the technique of The Big Lie (perhaps promoted by the Prime Minister’s amanuensis, Dominic Cummings) is evident to me. The US presidential election in November will be a litmus test to see if sufficient people still swallow the lies. For the health of democracy both in the United States and here in Britain one cannot only hope that they do not.

Posted in Brexit, UK politics, Uncategorized, US politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Downgrading DFID Is Daft

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 16th June, 2020

UK AidBoris Johnson’s Conservative government has announced its intention to subsume the Department for International Development (DFID) within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). This is a seriously bad idea, not least at a time when much of the developing world is struggling with the Coronavirus pandemic. Even former Prime Minister David Cameron has criticised the plan. It was under the Cameron-led Coalition government of 2010-2015 that the United Kingdom achieved the UN target of devoting 0.7% of its GNP to international development; indeed, that percentage was then enshrined in law. But with an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson may feel that he can overturn that as well if he wishes. If he did, that would be once again singing to former UKIP Leader Nigel Farage’s songsheet. There are indeed a number of Brexiteer Tory MPs who feel, like Farage, that overseas aid is a waste of UK taxpayers’ money and that the funds should be spent at home, while others argue that if aid is to be given it should be linked to the promotion of British goods and services — in effect recycling the money back into the British economy. But one of the main discussion points in the late 1970s, when I was Secretary to the Brussels-based NGO Liaison Committee to the European Communities, was the need to move away from such “tied aid”, instead addressing the real priorities of poorer countries. To reverse that process would be a retrograde step. But so too is bringing DFID back in-house at the FCO, where inevitably it will be seen as an arm of British foreign policy. DFID has won a lot of respect for its work, often targeted at the poorest communities. But downgrading DFID from Ministry status would be taking us back several decades. This is hardly likely to win us many friends in sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, where views of British colonial legacy is often ambivalent, to say the least. That is not exactly a smart thing to do at a time when post-Brexit Britain is looking to improve its reputation outside Europe. In fact, in a word, it’s daft.

Posted in UK politics, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Speak out against Neo-fascists, Boris Johnson!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 13th June, 2020

London demosThere were disgraceful scenes in central London today, as bands of far right demonstrators gathered in a show of defiance. Some physically attacked police, others made Nazi salutes in front of the Cenotaph and one was filmed urinating at the side of the memorial to slain policeman Keith Palmer. Several journalists and other media personnel also came under assault. Britain First leader Paul Golding, who is facing charges under the Terrorism Act, was out among the mob, provocatively wearing a White Lives Matter T-shirt. Surely he should be in custody, or at least forbidden to incite? One poor family quietly picnicking in the park was set upon and spat at by a marauding gang. Ever since the EU Referendum four years ago right-wing forces have been re-energised and although they claim to love Britain in fact they hate everything that Britain is today — diverse, tolerant and creative. Government politicians have been quick to criticise a rowdy minority element among left-wing demonstrators who have taken to the streets recently in the wake of George Floyd’s brutal murder by a policeman in the US. But they need to speak out about the neo-fascists in the streets at least as loudly. Boris Johnson is a bit of pin-up among not just Brexiteers but also far-right groups. It is vital that he condemn the latter before they recruit more people to their ranks. As we have seen in parts of continental Europe, neo-fascism is like coronavirus; if adequate measures, including isolation, are not taken quickly all too easily it can spread.

Posted in UK politics, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Conservatives Are Trashing Britain

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 26th May, 2020

Dominic Cummings in rose gardenWhen prime ministerial advisor Dominic Cummings gave an unprecedented press conference in the rose garden at 10 Downing Street yesterday afternoon he hoped to draw a line under the matter of his allegedly breaking COVID-19 lockdown rules. But the issue is not just going to evaporate. This morning the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Douglas Ross, has resigned in protest over the way Cummings’ behaviour and Boris Johnson’s unfailing support for his right-hand man have undermined official guidance for limiting the spread of the virus. All this at a time when millions of Brits have made great personal sacrifices over the past couple of months because of social distancing. It’s not just Opposition political parties and the media that are going to keep up the pressure on Cummings to be fired, given that he has asserted he is not going to resign. There is a huge amount of discontent among the general public, including members of the Conservative Party. Yet still Ministers such as Michael Gove trot out loyal statements backing Mr Cummings.

Boris Johnson scowlThe affair has already hit Boris Johnson’s personal opinion poll ratings, which have slumped. But perhaps even more worrying is the way that Britain’s reputation has taken a bashing abroad. As if it were not bad enough that the country now has the highest per capita rate of coronavirus deaths in the world, the Cummings fiasco has made us a laughing stock. Much of the foreign press is withering about how the British lion has lost its mojo. What’s more, the UK’s standing has been hit by a double whammy, as Brexit has also seen our position in the world diminished — a situation that can only get worse after the transition period ends. Boris Johnson and his pals conned the British electorate into backing him last December on the grounds that they would make Britain a proud, independent nation again, but the opposite has happened. The Johnson government is trashing the country with its incompetence. And given the way it is alienating the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it could well end up breaking up the United Kingdom as well.

Posted in UK politics, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Boris Johnson’s Theatre of the Absurd

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 24th May, 2020

45810B87-930A-4425-ACB4-08E90C9DDAF3UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has usually avoided appearing at the daily Downing Street COVID-19 press conferences — understandable while he was himself ill with the virus, of course — but today he really had no choice but to appear to face allegations that his special advisor, Dominic Cummings, had undermined the government’s message of staying safe at home to prevent a further spread of the disease. The accusation, backed by strong evidence, was that when Mr. Cummings and his wife felt Coronavirus symptoms coming on they got in their car with their infant son and drove 260 miles to his parents’ farm in County Durham. Other reports claimed that later the couple went on a day trip to a local heritage site and that soon afterwards, having returned to work in London, Mr. Cummings made a second trip to Durham. During the day today there has been a cacophony of calls from politicians of all stripes — including at least half a dozen Conservative MPs, as well as members of the public — for Dominic Cummings to resign. Social media were buzzing with outrage from people who had not been able to visit sick and sometimes dying relatives, or had been obliged to miss saying farewell to loved ones at funerals, because they were abiding by the government’s rules. So Mr. Cummings’ behaviour seemed to be a prima facie contravention of health instructions. Yet a series of Cabinet Ministers went into TV studios as the day went on declaring that Mr. Cummings had done nothing wrong, and had only been acting in the best interests of his young son.

C2D345C4-58FB-42C7-BFA9-4290BCB3468COne might then have expected Boris Johnson, when he appeared this afternoon, to bite the bullet and admit that a gross error of judgment had occurred. But not a bit of it. Instead, at the press conference he came out with the novel argument that Mr. Cummings had acted properly in line with “his instincts”. Does that mean, many viewers wondered, that in future everyone can follow their own instincts in responding to the pandemic? Far from cooling things the Prime Minister has stoked the anger. After he finished speaking, an extraordinary tweet appeared on the UK Civil Service’s twitter account decrying the situation. The tweet was removed and declared “unauthorised” within 10 minutes, but not before screenshots of it had been shared multiple times. If the mandarins find out who was responsible, they will doubtless try to fire or at least demote him or her. Hats off to author J. K. Rowling for saying she would happily pay the culprit a year’s salary!

So has Boris Johnson drawn a line under the Cummings saga? Absolutely not. The chorus of disapproval has got even louder this evening, with even Tory stalwarts denouncing the way that the Prime Minister is seemingly in thrall to his special advisor.  Cummings was of course not elected to any public office but now seems to be calling the shots in 10 Downing Street, with even Boris Johnson dancing to his tune. This was an unpopular situation among many Tory MPs even before the current scandal. That can only get worse. One has almost become weary of Boris Johnson’s bluster and Trumpian lies, but now he is playing fast and furious with the whole nature of government. He may feel he has defended Dominic Cummings but in behaving as he has the Prime Minister has in fact damaged his own standing, as well as undermining public confidence in government. His way of governing has become a theatre of the absurd. But what started out being amusing for some people has now morphed into something about which Britons have the right to be absolutely furious.

Posted in UK politics, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Why Cummings Must Go

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd May, 2020

Dominic Cummings 2Britain is going through a difficult period just now, as we enter the third month of COVID-19 lockdown, with millions of people worried about their future, not only because of the ongoing threat of the virus but also the danger of economic ruin. Many businesses, not least in the hospitality sector, face going under if they cannot soon start trading again and countless freelancers in the creative industries, as I know from my own situation, have seen their earnings plummet. But since last night, the political and media focus has been not so much on the government’s coronavirus strategy as on the behaviour of No 10 Downing’s Street’s unusual Special Advisor, Dominic Cummings. Though unelected, he is said to be the second most powerful man in the government, so strongly does Boris Johnson rely on his advice. Cummings was one of the architects of the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 EU Referendum as well as the Get Brexit Done strategy in last December’s general election. He is unconventional in his dress and manners, and is in favour of blue sky thinking. He it was who called for “misfits and weirdos” to apply for jobs to work alongside him in Number 10.

No 10 Downing Street However, the reason he is all over the news at the moment is because he allegedly broke the COVID-19 isolation and “stay at home” rules in force when he and his wife, both of whom were infected with the virus, drove with their young son 250 miles to Durham to place the boy with his elderly grandparents. There is some dispute about whether he was already ill with coronavirus, or just his wife; either way, their action flew in the face of everything that Health Secretary Matt Hancock and other government Ministers and senior scientific and medical advisers have been saying over the past eight weeks, as well as demonstrating a curious lack of concern for the vulnerability of the grandparents. Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and other senior Conservative figures have been trying to make out that what Cummings did was alright. But for much of the public this looks like a situation of “one rule for the toffs in charge, another for the general population”. It also makes another dent in the Prime Minister’s reputation for allowing this to happen, if he he knew about it in advance.

A number of Tory MPs are understood to be livid about the matter and opposition party figures have been calling for Cummings to go. They are right to do so. Not only has he  apparently taken liberties when it came to the lockdown rules at a time when millions of Britons have been following them assiduously, at considerable personal inconvenience or cost; he also seems to have flouted what I call the Alastair Campbell rule, in honour of Tony Blair’s former Press guru, who realised that when he had become the story rather than the policies Blair’s government was trying to implement, it was time for him to bow out. If Cummings has any sense of decency he will resign. Otherwise, he should be fired.

Posted in UK politics, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »