Jonathan Fryer

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Writers in Parliament

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 7th December, 2016

simon-rendell-and-valerie-amosYesterday the House of Commons terrace hosted the Winter Reception of the All Party Writers Group, sponsored by the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), on whose Board I sit. These events seem to grow each year, which is a good reflection of a growing awareness in both the Commons and the Lords about the challenges facing writers today. The creative industries contribute at least £70 billion a year to the UK economy and writers are a vital part of that production, yet writers’ incomes have in general fallen drastically in recent years. The J. K. Rowlings of this world are the exception, as the average professional writer these days earns only about £12,000 a year, which is barely enough to subsist on. Moreover, tough challenges are coming down the line, not least Brexit and the advance of the digital age. This means a lot of uncertainty lies ahead, which is why it is so important that writers have allies in Parliament to intervene as appropriate when relevant legislation is being discussed, from the digital economy bill to EU copyright directives. In recent months a new body, UKWriters, on whose steering group I sit, has been coordinating some of the lobbying work and priority-setting by writers’ organisations, including ALCS and the Society of Authors.

andy-mcnabSeveral of the MPs and peers present at yesterday’s receptions are authors themselves (and therefore beneficiaries of secondary royalties from ALCS, as well as Public Lending Right (PLR). It was good to see, among others, Tim Clement-Jones, Valerie Amos and Richard Balfe. However, the peer most in people’s minds was the late Ruth Rendell, in whose name an award was created, to recognise the work of someone who has promoted literacy brilliantly. I was honoured to be the ALCS representative on the judging panel and delighted that the first winner was Andy McNab whose back-story as a writer and brave exploits in “unsafe spaces” for literature (such as factories and prisons) richly merited the accolade. He was alas unable to be present to accept the award from Ruth Rendell’s son, the psychiatric social worker, Simon, as he was yomping somewhere far-flung. But Simon had come over from Colorado, where he lives, and Andy McNab was represented by a witty and impressive recorded message redolent of the sort of originality and quirkiness that makes him so special.

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A Taste of Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 6th December, 2016

bulgarian-eveningLast night Kingston Liberal Democrats hosted a very successful Bulgarian evening at the Bulgarian House restaurant in Surbiton. This is one of a whole series of social events initiated by former MP Ed Davey to celebrate different member states of the European Union. Those of us who felt bruised by the outcome of the EU Referendum welcome such opportunities to savour European diversity, and what better way than through sharing food? It is interesting to note that according to opinion polls the popularity of the EU has gone up in the UK since June 23rd; perhaps people are beginning to realise just what we seem to be about to throw away. It’s a pity more was not done to celebrate EU membership before the Referendum; successive governments failed to make the case, instead lazily falling into the habit of blaming Brussels for anything that went wrong while claiming full national credit for anything that went right. It is telling that on the morning after the Referendum the most common google search in the UK was reportedly “What Is the EU?” If only more people had taken the trouble to find out before they voted! As the UK will remain a member of the EU for at least another two-and-a-half years, however, it is not too late to make up for lost time, not just celebrating the cuisine and cultures of our 27 partners but championing the cause of Europe as well. At the very least we should stay in the Singe Market, but of course, if we do that, we might as well stay in the EU as well. This should be an option in any future referendum that might occur after Brexit negotiations have produced a putative deal.

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Seizing the Agenda of Hope

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 3rd December, 2016

img_1750One of the most enjoyable sessions so far at the ALDE Congress in Warsaw was last night’s panel discussion on Brexit and the Politics of Fear. Ever since the EU Referendum in June we British Liberal Democrats have been greeted by our continental counterparts with a degree of compassionate sympathy normally reserved for bereavements. And indeed for many of us losing the referendum did trigger a period of grieving. Winning the Richmond Park & North Kingston by-election on Thursday of course did give us a fillip, and we will continue to campaign to stay in the EU (at best) or to avoid a hard Brexit (at worst). At yesterday’s panel discussion, the leader of the Scottish LibDems, Willie Rennie, stressed how in the new political climate we need to express our liberal values in clear, simple messages. In a short statement from the audience I pointed out that although we on the Remain side of the Brexit debate perceive the nationalism that is on the rise in Britain and other member states as being part of the Politics of Fear, the Brexiteers framed their message as the Politics of Hope — a false hope, based on distortions and lies, to be sure, but it resonated with much of the public. Accordingly, I argued, we need to seize the agenda of hope and articulate it in our own terms, so that we enthuse voters as well as defending the European project.

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The Future of Kashmir

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 29th November, 2016

libg-kashmir-seminarThroughout the decades that I have been working as a writer and broadcaster on international affairs, one situation has remained frozen — though maybe “frozen” is not quite the right word, as there have been occasional outbursts of armed conflict and longer periods of civil unrest and its suppression. The situation I am talking about is Kashmir, which was the subject of a seminar hosted by Liberal International British Group (LIBG) last night at the National Liberal, and which I chaired. In a nutshell, at the time of the partition of India in 1947 one major geographical area remained incompletely resolved: Kashmir. Should it be part of Pakistan (given its Muslim majority) or in India (which its local ruler preferred). Or should it become an independent state? The United Nations decreed that there should be a plebiscite so that the people of Kashmir could decide for themselves, but that has never happened. The net result is that “Azad” Kashmir is now treated by the Pakistani government as part of Pakistan, while India occupies Jammu-Kashmir. Three times India and Pakistan have gone to war over the issue, though recently there has just been occasional shooting across the so-called Line of Control. Some people argue that as both the South Asian giants have nuclear weapons that now prevents them going into anoher full-scale war, but others maintain that, on the contrary, the fact that they do have nuclear arsenals means that another war could lead to widespread annihilation.

kashmir-protestLast night’s seminar was addressed by a line-up of diverse speakers coming from different perspectives. Hina Malik (well-known as a LibDem activist in West London) read out a passionate message from a friend in Srinagar (Indian Kashmir) detailing specific cases of human rights abuses. The LibDem peer Lord (Qurban) Hussain spoke about his frustration when trying to get a meaningful response from the UK government about its commitment to putting pressure on the Indian government over the issue. The writer and academic Nitasha Kaul — herself originally from Srinagar — gave a measured analysis of the current situation citing media and academic sources while Jay Iqbal of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) — a political grouping with widespread support among parts of the UK’s huge Kashmiri diaspora — argued strongly for the international community to do what it can to pressure the Indians to implement a plebiscite, which he believed would deliver a vote in favour of independence. Phil Bennion, Chair of LIBG and a former MEP for the West Midlands, spoke about his experience as the ALDE (European Liberal Democrats) spokesman on South Asia during his time of office in the European Parliament, emphasizing what he saw as the need for a negotiated settlement, which would require a degree of give-and-take from both India and Pakistan. Taken as a whole the panel did not have a single approach to recommend, but the evening was nonetheless a valuable contribution to the debate about what Kashmir’s future should be, united or divided. But that debate is likely to continue for some time.

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Fidel Castro’s Legacy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 26th November, 2016

fidel-castroFidel Castro, who died yesterday at the age of 90, was one of the political giants of the 20th century. That does not mean that I revered him — his record on human rights and curtailing freedoms precluded that — but I did admire the way that he stood up to pressure from successive US Presidents, some of whom wanted to have him assassinated. For decades the island of Cuba was under a strict trade embargo operated not just by the United States but also by many other countries, under pressure from Washington. The Cuban revolution of 1959 led to some truly fine achievements, such as free health care and universal education, putting Cuba way ahead of its regional neighbours in terms of basic services. But that was at a high price in terms of political control, as the system mutated from homegrown socialism to outright Communism as part of the Soviet bloc, and the Argentinian Che Guevara moved to South America to try to foment revolution there. Cuba actually did very well out of a barter deal that it had with the Soviet Union, exchanging sugar for subsidised oil, but the island’s agriculture suffered badly under collectivisation. When the Soviet Union collapsed its aid to Cuba dried up and Cubans went through several extremely difficult years. Though there was so starvation as such there was widespread malnutrition; the state ration of basic products was just about enough to keep people alive but most Cubans literally shrank in size and few earned more than the equivalent of US$10 a month.

che-and-castro When I first went to the island in 1994, flying in from Venezuela, there were power cuts for most of the time, only a few buses were running and I used to smuggle food out of my hotel to give to people loitering outside. I went back six times during the 1990s, culminating in my making a radio documentary for the BBC in 1999, marking the 40th anniversary of the revolution. Many people still felt great affection for Fidel Castro, but for others, especially the young, the socialist utopia had gone sour and they only dreamed of getting away. The cases of political prisoners started to get wider coverage and as the number of European tourists increased so did a greater awareness abroad of the shortages and constraints suffered by ordinary Cubans who did not have relatives overseas sending hem dollars or who did not work in the tourist sector. The first tentative steps towards opening up the economy were made, such as allowing people to run tiny private restaurants in their homes, but often the steps forward were soon countermanded, reportedly at Fiel’s behest, even after his younger brother Raul took over. It is of course grotesque that the top leadership of a so-called Communist state should be in the hands of one family and paradoxically the Castros have almost ensured the overthrow of the system when Raul Castro dies as they failed to train and encourage a new generation of competent politicians. Cuba won’t change immediately now that Fidel Castro is dead, but it is bound to change quite soon and fast, especially after Cuban exiles based in Florida return to the island. They will not be kind about Castro’s legacy, but much of the world will doubtless continue to regard him as a charismatic even unique figure who helped shape the geopolitical landscape of the 20th century, warts and all.

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The ALCS AGM

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 25th November, 2016

alcs-new-logoDespite its rather cumbersome name — the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society — ALCS could perhaps claim to be the writer’s best friend. As was announced at its AGM at the Royal Society in London yesterday, over the past 39 years it has handed out nearly £500 million pounds to writers for use of their work by broadcasters and institutions such as universities and the National Health Service, not only in the UK but in a growing number of countries abroad. In recent years the rate of distribution has been running at over £30 million a year. Any published writer can register to be a member of the scheme for a one-off fee of £36 (deducted from their first payment) and most will then continue to receive some money every year from then on. Sounds too good to be true? No wonder one gentleman among the members present at the AGM said that when he told a friend about it they thought it must be a scam! But it is absolutely bona fide and great care is taken to ensure the administrative cost (“commission”) is kept low — currently under 9%. Professionally it is run as an efficient company, but several writers, elected by the ALCS membership, sit on the Board. I have done so for the past three years and am now standing for election for a second three-year term.

alcs-agmAt the AGM, the outgoing Chair, Adam Singer, handed ver to his successor, Tony Bradman, their two speeches highlighting their difference of style. Adam oversaw a period of transition and change, including moving ALCS into modern premises shared with the Publishers Licensing Society (PLS) and the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA); the latter is the source of the bulk of revenues that are channeled to writers through ALCS. That might appear to be a confusing alphabet soup of acronyms but the work done is immensely worthwhile and for the bulk of writers who earn on average £12,000 a year (and falling), every little helps. It is important that ALCS keep abreast of new developments and for many people yesterday the highlight of the AGM was a lively panel discussion on Writing in the Digital Age: New Ways Writers are Monetising Their Work, with Tom Chatfield, Rebecca Fenton and Joanna Penn. Having just for the first time self-published a book (the childhood memoir Eccles Cakes), rather than go down the traditional publishing route as I did with my previous 14 books, I was really encouraged by what the three had to say about monetising self-published works through intelligent use of social media and other Internet possibilities. One of the reasons I am restanding for the ALCS Board (one can only have two consecutive terms) is because I want to help steer the company through the challenges not only of the digital age but also the choppy waters of Brexit, however that may pan out. I have hugely enjoyed being part of ALCS’s participation in lobbying work, recently through UKWriters; writers’ rights need to be protected as well as their work being properly remunerated.

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Liberal Democrats: One Member One Vote

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 19th November, 2016

liberal-democrats-logoThe Liberal Democrats ensured by recent changes to their rules of governance that they can now claim to be the most democratic of the mainstream British political parties. Although there is a Federal Policy Committee, which debates policy areas and frames some of the motions for debate at conference, the party conference (a weekend in March and a longer session in September) is sovereign. What Conference agrees becomes party policy (though as we saw during the 2010-2015 Coalition government that may have to be nuanced when in a power-sharing situation). Moreover, as of this year, every single party member who registers for Conference can vote, ensuring that no-one feels disenfanchised or relegated to a second-class position, as was the case when there was a distinction between voting local party representatives and the rest. Moreover, for the first time ever, elections to Party committees — which will take place starting next week — will also be among an electorate of the entire membership. Members will be receiving an email over the next few days outlining the process, the roles of the different committees and the manifestos of the candidates. Although that might seem a little daunting for some, especially the “newbies” who have joined since last year’s general election, and who therefore might be not so familiar with some of the people standing, this is One Member One Vote (OMOV) in action. The minority of members who are not on email or have not given the Party their email address will nonetheless be catered for. I was pleased to be a member of the Federal Executive (FE) which oversaw these changes, but I am not standing for the new Federal Board, which effectively replaces the FE, but with enhanced responsibilities. However, I am standing for re-election to the Party’s International Relations Committee and the ALDE Council delegation. International Affairs have always been my prime political passion, not least relating to the European Union and its external relations. And even if Theresa May and her government seem bent on Brexit, there will still be an important role for British Liberal Democrats to play within ALDE (the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), whose reach stretches way beyond the EU’s borders. Not surprisingly, I still hold out a small hope that Britain won’t actually leave the EU, but even if it does it is essential that we have a good working as well as trading relationships with our EU neighbours.liberal-democrat-conference

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Liberal International’s African Reach

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 16th November, 2016

hakima-el-haite-and-juli-minovesWhen Liberal International was founded in Oxford nearly 70 years ago it was very much a European affair. With the noble exception of Canada, Liberal parties and values were largely confined to northern Europe, but since then the picture has changed dramatically. As we in Britain lick our wounds from the double whammy of the Brexit vote and the triumph of Donald Trump in the United States let us take comfort from the fact that the Liberal family is growing worldwide. This was dramatically illustrated by the Liberal International (LI) Executive in Marrakesh, at which five new African parties – from Burkina Faso, Ghana, Madagascar, Senegal and Somalia – were welcomed into membership last weekend, which means that LI now has almost 50 member parties from Africa alone.

The Marrakesh gathering was timed to coincide with COP22, the latest in a series of global conferences following up on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. So it was hardly surprising that environmental issues figured prominently in LI’s discussions this time. Indeed, one of the keynote speakers was Morocco’s Minister for the Environment, Hakima el Haite, who belongs to the Moroccan party that was one of our hosts, le Mouvement Populaire. Human rights were also very much on the agenda; to a large degree they are LI’s USP, as none of the other political internationals address them sufficiently seriously. Helen Zille, Premier of the Western Cape in South Africa (which LI member party, the Democratic Alliance, controls) gave a particularly inspiring address relating to gender equality.

For much of 2016 a working group has been writing a Liberal Manifesto which aims to be a campaigning tool for Liberal parties worldwide. This was also discussed at Marrakesh and a final version should be ready in time for the organisation’s 70th anniversary next year. 2017 will see crucial elections in both France and Germany, in particular, and as the forces of illiberalism rally to fight those it is vital that the Liberal International’s member parties, including the Liberal Democrats, are in fine fettle to take them on.

[photo: Hakima el Haite and Juli Minoves at COP22]

This article was first published on the Liberal Democrat Voice website

 

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Why Is the BBC Normalising Extemism?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 13th November, 2016

Today, Remembrance Sunday, the BBC screened an interview with France’s far right leader, Marine Le Pen. Doubtless Andrew Marr and his producer are feeling proud of themselves with this journalistic “coup” that has caused such a storm on twitter, but they should be ashamed of themselves. Not only did this choice of interviewee dishonour the memory of people who died in the last century as victims of fascism and Hitler’s, Mussolini’s and Franco’s wars but it also gave a powerful platform to extremism. This came on top of the blanket coverage given to Nigel Farage and UKIP (which Le Pen’s Front National recognises as a sister party) over the past few years, especially in the run-up to the EU Referendum. BBC boffins would doubtless justify Farage’s being their most frequent Question Time guest on the grounds that he is entertaining, but there is nothing entertaining about the core values of Farage or Le Pen or Donald Trump, who also got massive coverage on the BBC. Lord Reith must be spinning in his grave. Farage and Le Pen are both part of the Trump-Putin axis that is speedily developing — an alliance that holds liberal European values in contempt. In case anyone doubts this in the British context, just watch when Farage leads what he hopes will be 100,000 UKIP, BNP and EDL Brexiteers to intimidate the Supreme Court when it convenes to review the recent High Court ruling on Article 50. Britain is heading into dangerous waters and instead of sounding the warning bells the BBC is becoming the extremists’ megaphone..

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Now We Need EU More Than Ever

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 9th November, 2016

March for Europe LibDems 12016 is proving to be the year of false assumptions. First there was the belief (shared by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron) that Britons would vote to stay in the European Union. Then there was the widespread conviction that Americans could not be crazy enough to elect Donald Trump as President. Both assumptions proved horribly wrong. So what comes next? The Front National’s Marine Le Pen as President of France? If I were a more traditional Christian I’d be tempted to think that Satan was at work, sweeping aside the liberal consensus that has prevailed in much of the West since the Second World War and opening the way for nationalism, hatred and conflict. But it is human beings who are responsible for what has been happening and human beings who will have to confront the consequences. In January 2017 we will see Trump in the White House, Putin in the Kremlin and an ever stronger Xi Jinping in Beijing’s Firbudden City. This is not a prospect Europeans should relish. But before we all admit defeat and emigrate to Canada, let us make a stand for European liberal values and the rule of law. We need a stronger, more united European Union to be a force for peace and reason in this turbulent new global reality, and Britain should be in there helping that to be the case. This is absolutely not the moment for the UK to pack up and leave the EU, to face the harsh realities of the new world order in isolation.

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