Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Future of UK-China Trade

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd October, 2017

JF addressing Chinese LibDems AGMLiam Fox and other Brexiteers in the UK’s current Conservative government are fond of saying that when we are “free” from the European Union, we will be able to enter into a great new dawn of trading partnerships with other big players around the world, not least China. Actually, it was David Cameron and the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, who really championed the idea of a bright future hand-in-hand with the People’s Republic, though they never imagined that would be something totally separate from EU-China trading relations. Theresa May, interestingly, has been a little more cautious in her embrace of President Xi Jinping, who has been expertly consolidating his authority at the Chinese People’s Congress this week. But despite the bluff reassurances of Liam Fox, David Davis and Boris Johnson, forging an advantageous new trading relationship with China is unlikely to be straightforward, for a number of reasons. First, until Britain formally leaves the EU — in principle on 29 March 2019 — it cannot make any bilateral arrangement with Beijing. Moreover, there are not sufficiently qualified negotiators in Whitehall to handle such a sensitive matter (as the EU has dealt with our trade negotiations for the past four decades) and little Britain, with 60 million inhabitants, is going to be at a distinct disadvantage in taking tough with the colossus of China, unlike the 500-million strong EU, which is still the largest trading bloc in the world. Bilateral trade is already skewed in China’s favour, and is likely to be more so in future, not less. Other factors make prospects mixed. China under Mr Xi is becoming more assertive in global affairs, having largely sat on the sidelines for many years, even within the UN Security Council. Many people in China believe the time has now come for China to reassert its pre-eminence in the world, as was the case prior to 1500 and the rise of European Empires. The four hundred years of European dominance, followed by a century of American hegemony, may in future be seen as a blip in comparison to China’s long supremacy. Then there is the issue of Donald Trump, who is repositioning the United States to be more isolationist (and certainly more self-centred), racheting up conflicts with countries such as Iran and North Korea in a way that risks souring US-China relations. Yet Theresa May aspires to be Mr Trump’s greatest ally, despite disagreeing with him over the Iran nuclear deal. This could prove awkward. In the meantime, the British government has downgraded human rights as a priority in its foreign policy, which is sweet music to Xi Jinping’s ears — though Britain must be careful to ensure that as a future relationship evolves it does not end up dancing to Beijing’s tune.

This is a summary of remarks I made as the guest speaker today in London’s Chinatown at the AGM of Chinese Liberal Democrats:  https://chineselibdems.org.uk/

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Remembering Vietnam

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 20th October, 2017

Vietnam War helicopterRecently I’ve been watching the stupendous 10-part series of one-hour films on the Vietnam War, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, screened on BBC4 but also available through BBCiPlayer. The project took ten years to put together, from contemporary news footage, home videos, interviews with survivors or families of those killed, Vietnamese North and South as well as American. There are also extremely telling tapes of US presidents J F Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon talking to top advisors, hoping to believe that everything was going well, whereas it became increasingly obvious that victory against the Communists — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, against the Vietnamese people — was impossible. Tonight I watched Episode 6, covering the first half of 1968, which had some iconic moments, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in the US as well as the Tet offensive, when tens of thousands of North Vietnamese troops spirited into the South, hoping their assaults on major cities would lead to an uprising by the South Vietnamese, who would overthrow the corrupt regime of Nguyen Van Thieu and welcome them with open arms. That did not happen, though casualties on all sides were horrendous and the old imperial capital of Hue was largely destroyed. US propaganda portrayed the Tet Offensive as a failure for the Communists, arguing that the 510,000 US troops now in South Vietnam fighting alongside the South Vietnamese forces (as well as troops from Australia and South Korea, notably) were sure of victory. But many of the people really in the know, including Robert McNamara, who had recently stepped down as Defense Secretary, were aware that the cause would inevitably be lost, sooner or later. Anti-War protests were by now rampant on both sides of the Atlantic at it was at that moment, in the summer of 1968, that I decided that when I left school after taking the Oxbridge entrance exams, I would head out to Vietnam to see the truth for myself — as recounted in the second half of my childhood memoir, Eccles Cakes.

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Loving Vincent

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th October, 2017

Loving VincentVincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), the Dutch post-Impressionist painter, is today recognised as one of the fathers of Modern Art, though in his day his work was derided by all but a few devoted supporters, including his brother and the subject of one of his finest portraits, Dr Gachet. He sold precisely one of his 800 or so canvases before dying from a gunshot wound to the chest, usually presumed to be self-inflicted. But in the extraordinary hand-painted full-length feature film, Loving Vincent, now on release in the UK< the directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, an alternative explanation of the artist’s demise is the centre of speculation: that he was accidentally shot by a gang of boys who had been tormenting him for some time. But what is truly original in this film is the way that an essentially new genre of hand-painted animated film using actors and backdrops of Van Gogh’s own work has been created. Apparently it took seven years to make, with a hundred painters working on it — a genuine labour of love. It is also a wonderful example of European film cooperation — with Poland in the lead — underlining just how valuable such transnational work within the EU can be. The film is visually seductive, sensitively handled and the provincial English and Irish accents of several of the lead performers give an added flavour of alternative authenticity.

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Happy Birthday, Oscar Wilde

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 16th October, 2017

Oscar Wilde 2Today is the 163rd birthday of Irish playwright Oscar Wilde and as usual on this anniversary occasion the writer and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth brought together an extraordinary band of people to celebrate, this time in the Grosvenor House Hotel in Mayfair, which was frequented by Oscar and his wife Constance at least as late as 1893. Gyles is London’s networker sans pareil; the late socialite, writer and editor Fleur Cowles must be spinning in her grave with envy. Half of the British theatrical royalty were there, including Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi, Simon Callow and Ronnie Hardwood, as well as a whole cricket team of members of the House of Lords, the odd duchess, marchioness and — as Gyles put it cheekily in his witty homily — a bit of rough trade, of which Oscar would have approved. Oscar’s sole grandson, Merlin Holland, loyally put in an appearance. But this evening’s event was special for another reason, this being the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of sexual relations between consenting adult men — the “crime” that had sent Oscar to prison. How fitting, therefore, that one of the speeches of the night should have been from the head of the capital’s police, the Commissioner of the Metropolis, Cressida Dick, who was there with her wife. How things have changed.

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People First

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 13th October, 2017

IMG_0020It’s hard to imagine these days, but when I first came to live in Brussels, in 1974, the Grand-Place was a gigantic car park, except on market days when stalls replaced the vehicles. That unsatisfactory situation ended years ago, but only a very limited area of the city centre was declared off-limits to cars. Returning to Brussels this week after an absence of a year or so, I’m delighted to discover that a whole big section of the centre has now been pedestrianised, including a long stretch of the Boulevard Anspach. The place has basically been given back to the people (plus bicycles), as it would have been centuries ago. This is, of course, healthier, both because people are encouraged to walk more and because the air quality has been improved by a reduction in vehicle fumes. I can imagine there must have been some resistance from a few businesses in the area, but from the crowds strolling in the warmth of a prolonged Indian summer, it would seem that there has not been a significant decrease in footfall. So, when will the same thing be done in London? Pedestrianisation schemes there have been very modest in comparison; Leicester Square and Carnaby Street come to mind. Oxford Street has been crying out for the treatment for decades. So, Mayor Sadiq Khan, over to you! Come to Brussels and see what has been done here and reflect on whether People First could work as a strategy in central London, too.

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Goodbye Christopher Robin

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 8th October, 2017

Goodbye_Christopher_RobinWinnie-the-Pooh played no part in my childhood, unlike that of most British children of my vintage. I only became truly aware of E H Shepard’s wonderful illustrations when I was at university (well, it was Oxford, albeit 20-odd years after the publication of Brideshead Revisited). I still have not read any of the four Pooh volumes penned by A A Milne, though I think of him often when I enjoy the fruit of his generous legacy to the Garrick Club. However, I was aware that A A Milne’s son — the Christopher Robin of the book — found his unwanted fame burdensome and that he was bullied as a result at school. So I was genuinely curious to see how Simon Curtis would handle the story. It is a complex challenge, because the film has to try to balance the brutal effect of the First World War on the author (sensitively portrayed by Domhnall Gleeson) with the fairy-tale quality of the rural idyll to which he and his somewhat disgruntled upper class wife moved with little Christopher Robin, and where the Pooh stories and adventures materialised, as well as the boy’s growing disenchantment with his situation.

Will TilstonGiven that the film has to cater for the millions of Pooh fans in America (most of whom will know the bear of little brain through the Disney animation), there is an occasionally OTT chocolate box representation of England in the 1920s, but much of the Sussex countryside is indeed beautiful and all those who relish seeing period cars and furniture in pristine condition will be happy. The father-son relationship is touchingly presented, in all its ups and downs, as is Christopher Robin’s dependence on his nanny (played by Kelly Macdonald, more convincingly than Margot Robbie as the self-centred mother). But it is the young newcomer Will Tilston, who plays the young Christopher Robin, who steals the show. His is an extraordinarily competent performance, tantrums and all, and I can hear the “aahs” of a myriad cinema-goers as they watch his first entry on screen. So, this is a bit of a curate’s egg of an experience, but when it is good it is very good. And probably now I shall go away and read the Winnie-the-Pooh books at long last.

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The Balfour Declaration, 100 Years On

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 7th October, 2017

Israel PalestineThis year is the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which was contained in a letter from the then British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour,  to a leading member of the country’s Jewish community, Lord Rothschild, and in which the British Government, headed by David Lloyd George, said that it viewed with favour the establishment of a national home for the Jews in Palestine, providing the civil and religious rights of the non-Jewish population there were not compromised. That condition — which has yet to be fully respected — was added at a late stage in the drafting of the declaration partly at the insistence of the one Jewish member of Lloyd George’s Cabinet, Edwin Montagu, who had serious hesitations about the whole Zionist enterprise. To mark the Balfour centenary, the Liberal Democrats passed a motion at last month’s Bournemouth Conference calling for HM Government to recognise the State of Palestine, as a positive contribution towards a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. At the beginning of December, in Amsterdam, I shall be moving a similar motion at the Congress of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). Several EU member states, including Belgium and Sweden, have in fact already done so.

Avi ShlaimBut motions at political conferences are by no means the only activities taking place in this centenary year. Today, at the British Library, Middle East Monitor put on a conference with a glittering array of academic and other speakers, analysing the origins, composition and consequences of the Balfour Declaration. For me, the two highlights of the day were the keynote address by Avi Shlaim, Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, and a film made by Independent Jewish Voices (which will be posted on YouTube from this coming Monday). Dr Shlaim has made himself unpopular among some of his co-religionists by denouncing the reality of the current Israeli occupation of the West Bank as an apartheid state, but growing numbers of Jews, especially the young, are determined to make their voices heard, maintaining that some of the things being done by the Israeli government and Defense Force, should not be considered to be “in their name”. The current British government, alas, is dominated by those Conservatives who are self-declared Friends of Israel, which means that Mrs May and many of her Cabinet colleagues will probably “celebrate” the actual anniversary on 2 November, whereas many of the rest of us will be deploring the fact that the partial implementation of the Balfour Declaration has left the Palestinians dispossessed and increasingly bereft of hope.

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Finland: Identity and Independence

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 4th October, 2017

100 Wishes from FinlandFinland is celebrating the centenary of its independence this year, so the exhibition that opens today at the 12 Star Gallery in Europe House in Smith Square, Westminster — “100 Wishes from Finland” — is timely. It is also very appealing, not least for anyone who has ever been a philatelist at any stage in their lives (probably true of virtually every boy and many girls of my generation). The idea is simple but works beautifully: about 100 blow-ups of colourful Finnish postage stamps are displayed on boards with short, relevant quotes. The stamps are arranged thematically, covering everything from Finnish interior design to sport and  cartoons for children. There is even a stamp showing men in a sauna (though apparently not with a crate of cold beer, which is my usual experience of saunas in Helsinki). There are reputedly more than 2,500 different Finnish postage stamps, meaning anyone tempted to revisit their childhood stamp-collecting will find lots to choose from. More seriously, the stamps reflect the pride Finns have in their identity, for which national independence is of course a crucial component — something now being tested in various parts of the world, from Catalonia to Kurdistan. The 100 Wishes from Finland exhibition runs until 27 September and is open 10am to 6pm, Monday to Friday.

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Dulat Issabekov at 75

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 3rd October, 2017

Dulat IssabekovThe Kazakh writer and playwright Dulat Issabekov is in London at the moment, as several of his works are being performed in the city to coincide with his 75th birthday. Celebrated in Kazakhstan, and well-known in much of the rest of the former Soviet Union, Issabekov is the author of numerous novellas and short stories, though it is probably his plays that have had the greatest resonance. Last night, at a dinner at the House of Lords, organised by Rahima Abduvalieva of the Aitmatov Academy and chaired by Lord (Ian) Wrigglesworth, guests were not only able to meet the playwright but also to hear brief extracts from his work. His themes are universal, dealing with subjects such as love and memory, even if their settings are Central Asian. Kazakhstan — a country I have had the pleasure to visit three times — is physically huge and ethnically diverse, despite its comparatively small population, and Issabekov’s work reflects some of his country’s cultural diversity. Tonight, at the Bridewell Theatre off Fleet Street in London, his play The Actress will be performed by the Korean Theatre of Drama & Music from Almaty (in Korean, with English surtitles), then tomorrow through to Friday, at the same venue, one can see his Song of the Swans, performed in English by London’s own Pajarito Theatre.

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Why Brexit Should Be Stopped

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 1st October, 2017

BrexitMany thousands of people are expected to demonstrate today in Manchester on the StopBrexit! March. I am sad not to be able to be with them, as I am preparing for the new academic year at SOAS that begins tomorrow. However, I am braced for a storm of abuse from Brexiteers, who will doubtless claim that I and other pro-Europeans don’t respect democracy, as last year’s European Referendum delivered an approximately 52:48 vote in favour of leaving the European Union. On the contrary, I do respect democracy, which is why I support wholeheartedly the Liberal Democrat position that when the Conservative government has agreed the terms of an exit deal with our current 27 EU partners this should be put before the British electorate asking them whether this is really what they want. By then the consequences of Brexit will be much clearer than they are now, let alone in the theoretical situation of June 2016.

Keep Calm and Stop BrexitAs it is, the signs are not encouraging. The pound has slumped in value and foreign investment in the UK is falling. Having been one of the fastest-growing economies in the G7 a year ago Britain is now one of the slowest. EU workers have already started leaving the country because of the uncertainty about their future status, causing staffing problems in different sectors of the economy, not least the NHS, farming and the hospitality industry. That situation is bound to get more acute. Banks and companies have started moving some of their operations out of London to Dublin, Paris and Frankfurt, thus diminishing the prime position of the City, which contributes so much to the UK economy.

The situation regarding the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — currently effectively invisible — is intractable, as any restoration of border controls would risk reigniting civil strife. The imposition of customs regulations for goods from the EU at Dover and other UK ports would clog the ports up within days. Currently, the Government is arguing that there needs to be a transition period of perhaps two years after Britain in principle leaves the EU at the end of March 2019, but that will only delay the inevitable cliff-edge. And in the meantime, Britain’s international image and influence are being rapidly diminished. We are a far stronger player on the global stage as a member of the EU than we can ever be outside. Finally, let us remember what the then UKIP Leader, Nigel Farage, said just before the Referendum, namely that a 52:48 result would be “unfinished business”. He was anticipating a 52:48 vote to Remain, of course. But on this one occasion, at least, he was right. The outcome of the Referendum is unfinished business and it is only right and proper that the British electorate should be given the opportunity to decide, probably in 2019, whether they are really happy to see their country sliding downhill as a result of leaving the world’s biggest trading bloc.

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