Jonathan Fryer

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National Libraries Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 6th February, 2016

Today is the day for officially celebrating libraries, but in truth we should celebrate them every day of the year. When I was a child, growing up in a house where few books were read, let alone discussed, the public library in Eccles was both a refuge and a literary wonderland. For many years, after moving to London, I belonged to the London Library until they put up their subscription massively and I could no longer afford it; at least the British Library is free — and it has everything! When I am travelling I love to visit historic libraries, the last being the Biblioteca Palafoxiana in Puebla in Mexico. The Spanish and Portuguese did many terrible things during their colonisation of Central and South America, but libraries — some attached to monasteries, others to civil institutions such as universities — are a valuable legacy. Not surprisingly, some of the finest are in the Iberian peninsula itself; Coimbra University’s comes immediately to mind. But libraries don’t need to be ancient or architecturally striking — historic or modern — to be important. Libraries — or “idea stores” as my home borough, Tower Hamlets, calls them — should be living organisms at the heart of their communities, offering not just books and DVDs and so on but ideally events that draw people in and get them engaged. Sadly, in too many local authorities in the UK libraries have borne the brunt of spending cuts, though in some cases volunteer-run alternatives have popped up to try to fill the lacuna. But we should be doing more, not less, to promote library use as an integral part of lifelong learning as well as community cohesion. I was greatly inspired by the “lighthouse” libraries I saw in Curitiba in southern Brazil, where each neighbourhood had its own little library (including computer terminals for free usage) and the buildings themselves had a light at the top of a tower, just like a lighthouse, shining brilliantly round the immediate area, making it a safe place for people to go after dark, but also symbolising the fact that libraries illuminate lives, singly and collectively.

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Standing up for Syria

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 4th February, 2016

Syria war damageOn the first day of the Syria conference currently taking place in London billions of dollars have been pledged to help Syrian refugees, including $1.7bn from Britain. That’s the good news and the UK Conservative government, which rarely gets praise from me, deserves it in this case. However, the bad news is that the Syria peace talks that were being held in Geneva earlier this week were suspended yesterday while fighting on the ground in Syria has intensified. It is of course essential that the millions of refugees who have fled their homeland, notably to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, be given help, but such assistance can only be a form of band-aid relief rather than a solution so long as the civil war goes on. Moreover, yet more refugees will be created in the meantime; Turkey estimates that another 70,000 are fleeing the current Syrian government and Russian assault on rebel-held areas in and around Aleppo. The only solution as such can come from an internationally-agreed and implemented peace settlement and associated ceasefire. I opposed British airstrikes in Syria because there was no comprehensive peace agreement on the table and I do not believe that simply bombing necessarily helps. Of course, I despise ISIS/Daesh, but the situation in Syria is much more complex than just an attempt to curb self-styled Islamic State. Similarly, I dislike the Assad regime in Damascus, which has been responsible for egregious human rights abuses, both in its notorious prisons and in its use of cluster bombs and other weaponry against its own civilian population. Only through a proper peace settlement, at Geneva or wherever, can a way forward be mapped, which would include an end to hostilities and a transitional political arrangement leading to free and fair elections with sufficient international supervision.

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The Need for Grassroots IN

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 3rd February, 2016

Haringey in EuropeI was pleased to see that a local campaign for an IN vote in the forthcoming EU Referendum has got off the ground in the London borough of Haringey and hope that other local authority areas across the country will follow suit. Though people who really care one way or the other about Britain’s remaining in the EU or leaving, there is about a third of the electorate that is not really engaged — and the only way they are likely to become so is if they are contacted in their local communities and preferably told the facts about how EU membership benefits their area. In my home patch of Tower Hamlets, for example, there are numerous examples of projects from EU structural funds that have helped create jobs and boost the local economy. The OUT campaign is already quite well organised at a local level, especially in those areas where UKIP is active, and hopes to attract a lot of Tory voters and others to its cause.

Peter Bone, MP, wore an OUT campaign tie in Parliament today for Prime Minister Cameron’s statement on his attempts at EU renegotiation. I was pleased to see that it was a particularly hideous design, but it made me thing that the IN side needs to start wearing our colours too. There have long been some attractive and discreet lapel badges that figure both the British and EU flags, and which in my experience often generate questions or comment. But we also need to be organising street stalls and writing more letters to local newspapers. Some areas are already doing that, but most are not. We may not have all that much time to make a difference unless we get our finger out soon. Though Mr Cameron is still remaining coy about the date of the EU Referendum, he seemed to be hinting today that if he gets a deal he thinks he can sell to the British public, then the date will be the bookies favourite: 23 June, despite pleas from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to hold further away from May’s elections.

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Bernie Sanders’ Fatal Flaw

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 31st January, 2016

Bernie SandersI am not an American citizen and never will be, so I will never have the chance to vote in a US presidential election. But that does not stop me — like so much of the British political class — following US presidential contests with fascination. Or fascinated horror, might be more truthful. The horror is partly because of the obscene amount of money spent in these quadrennial campaigns; I see nothing to celebrate in the fact that 2016 will probably see the first US$2 billion dollar contest. Even worse is the quality of the rival candidates and their political discourse. Not surprisingly, I lean towards the Democrats rather than towards the Republicans (though northern liberal Democrats, rather than die-hard southern ones, I should stress). Nothing in the world would persuade me to back that chump Trump, or indeed any of his rivals for the Republican nomination. But the Democrats’ choice this year fails to inspire me. I was quite taken with Bernie Sanders and have loved the way that he has blown apart age-related prejudice. He’s radical on many issues and quite international in many ways. But he is so American, and so very, very wrong (in my view) when it comes to gun control, which he reportedly largely opposes. Poor President Obama has done his best to awaken the US public to the inherent dangers of adhering to the constitutional right to bear arms, but with as little success as a drugs counselor trying to get a heroin addict off his fixes. Sanders isn’t even trying. Which I suppose makes Hillary Clinton a preferable choice, though her pledge to be an even greater friend to the State of Israel, despite its egregious violation of human rights and international law in Occupied Palestine, makes her pretty hard to stomach, too. So, in short I probably couldn’t vote for either of them. And I’m just glad that as a European, I don’t need to. Some say that because of globalisation, everyone around the world is becoming the same. But I feel that on the contrary, the Atlantic divide between the United States and Europe is getting ever wider, and it’s probably best that it stays that way.

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Global Day of Support for Palestinian Rights

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 30th January, 2016

Middle East Monitor seminarToday is the first of what is expected to be an annual event: the Global Day of Support for Palestinian Rights. In London, this was marked by a seminar this afternoon at the P21 Gallery in Camden, “Targeting Dissent: Israel’s Crackdown on Palestinian Citizens”, organised by Middle East Monitor. The plight of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is increasingly well-known in Europe, including Britain, but less familiar is the situation of Palestinian Arabs living in Israel. They make up about 20 per cent of the population but only own about 3 per cent of the land, and although they can vote and enjoy many other civil rights they are not completely equal citizens of the Jewish state, particularly when it comes to property and treatment in the Courts. At this afternoon’s event we heard from an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset, Yousef Jabareen, who said that Ministers of Israel’s ruling coalition are rarely in the chamber when Arab members speak and attempts over the years to get the concept of equality enshrined in the basic law of human rights have been rebuffed. The law professor, Durgham Saif, highlighted the situation of Bedouin in the Negev desert, and pointed out that while Palestinians have no right of return to their historic homeland Israel has let in hundreds of thousands of Russians, many of whom are not even Jews. The journalist Ben White cited a litany of ways that Israel has suppressed Palestinian rights over he decades, while the NUS’s Black Students Office Malia Bouattia spoke of the way that pro-Palestinian activists in this country sometimes get caught up in police and security services’ operations against radicalisation. The event was chaired by LibDem peer, Baroness (Meral) Hussein-Ece.

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Holocaust Memorial Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 27th January, 2016

Auschwitz BerkenauMore than 70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the lessons of the Holocaust are still highly relevant. Over the past year there has been a disturbing rise in anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other instances of ethnic and religious discrimination, not least in Europe, and Holocaust Memorial Day is a stark reminder of just how terribly wrong things can go when prejudice and discriminatory behaviour are considered acceptable and reach extremes. The refugee and migrant crisis of the past year has given rise to some splendid spontaneous acts of generosity but it has also provoked negative reactions in some quarters. Hearing the British Prime Minister David Cameron in the House of Commons today refer dismissively to “a bunch of migrants” I found chilling, as well as reflecting a disturbing element of entitlement within the current Conservative government. Even worse has been the shameful proposition from the government in Denmark to seize valuables from asylum seekers. Don’t the Danes realise what dreadful echoes of the not-so-distant past that provokes? Europe is undeniably under pressure at the moment but the way forward is to cooperate with compassion, not to scapegoat vulnerable communities and incomers. Even among our indigenous populations in Europe there are growing numbers of marginalised and dispossessed people, including homeless in our cities, not least London. We should not fall into the trap of looking down on people, including those sleeping in the streets, because that is the start of a slippery slope.

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The Commonwealth and Human Rights

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 25th January, 2016

Bourne and ChidgeyThe Commonwealth is a rather odd club, made up of 53 states of wildly different size, most (but not all) of which once formed part of the British Empire. They therefore share an interest in the English language, as well as maintaining ties with the old country and among themselves. There is a Secretariat in London and Dominica-born Baroness Scotland is its latest Secretary General, but the organisation does not have the sort of resources at its disposal of a regional body such as the European Union or even the United Nations. But also unlike the UN the Commonwealth has the advantage of being a club, which means that members who misbehave badly can be suspended or even thrown out. Others choose to withdraw instead when the they see that they are in disgrace. Since the beginning the main reasons for exclusions have usually been human rights violations and a democratic deficit, both of which sadly are still evident in some of the current member states. This evening, as the first event of the National Liberal Club’s new Commonwealth Forum, chaired by Lord (David) Chidgey, the writer and longstanding human rights activist Richard Bourne spoke in particular about the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative with which he has been closely involved, but setting this in a wider context. Developing countries tend to highlight basic human rights such as access to food and housing whereas comparatively wealthy countries like Britain put more emphasis on civil and political rights. The latter can sometimes be extremely sensitive, paradoxically because of colonial era laws which are still on the statute books in many Commonwealth states while Britain has evolved in a different direction. Richard Bourne mentioned LGBT+ rights, for example; whereas same sex marriage is now accepted in many ‘developed’ countries, including Britain, homophobic laws are still acted on in some Commonwealth states, such as Uganda and Malaysia. Similarly, whereas long ago the Commonwealth championed the merits of democracy there has been a worrying tendency for some African states in particular to revert to an older model of presidents for life. Because the Commonwealth works by consensus and pressure is brought to bear on misbehaving governments behind the scenes, unless their behaviour is egregious, it is often hard to see what the Commonwealth actually achieves in promoting human rights and Patricia Scotland has a daunting challenge ahead of her to try to change that. But perhaps the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative can quietly chalk up successes while keeping the Commonwealth on its toes.

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Burns Night, Lewisham Style

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 24th January, 2016

JF at Burns Night supperFor several years now, I have been celebrating Burns Night with Lewisham Liberal Democrats at the home of two hospitable members in Honor Oak Park. To the best of my knowledge I do not have any Scottish links, nor is any of the participants at these jolly occasions usually a Scot, but that does not stop us entering into the spirit of the evening with gusto. We follow the set pattern of speeches, which usually includes me addressing the haggis, in a mangling of Scots that might make Rabbie Burns spin in his grave. But I hope it would amuse him too. It is surely good that even Sassenachs — and a few other ethnicities here in multicultural London — gather to commemorate Scotland’s bard. I believe that as Liberal Democrats, as indeed for the British public in general, we should celebrate diversity, and that means the cultural diversity within Britain as well as abroad. Moreover, theme nights are a great way of bringing party members together, new and old, for socialising that helps bonding inside political teams. Campaigning is the core activity of political parties, but a team is more likely to be happy and gel if the campaigning work is leavened by social occasions. Moreover, in the run-up to the EU Referendum, which may or may not take place later this year, there will be countless opportunities for country-themed evenings, which can also be useful fundraisers as well. There are 27 other EU member states to choose from, not to mention some of their constituent parts. Anyone up for Hungarian goulash or a Paella Party?

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The Limehouse Declaration Anniversary Dinner

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 22nd January, 2016

Vince Cable at Limehouse dinnerThirty-five years ago, Labour’s “Gang of Four” — Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rogers — met at Dr Owen’s home in Narrow Street, Limehouse, where they signed the Limehouse Declaration, which would soon lead to the formation of the Social Democrat Party, the SDP. Last night, just a few doors down the road from Dr Owen’s House, Liberal Democrats gathered to celebrate that anniversary and to give the City and London East GLA campaign a hefty boost. Though none of the three surviving Gang of Four was present, there was a stellar line-up of speakers, starting with Vince Cable, who had started his political life as a Labour councillor in Glasgow before joining the SDP and eventually getting elected as Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham. He noted the parallels between the situation in the Labour Party in 1981 and that today under the respective leaderships of Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn, and said that many moderate Labour MPs now are running round like headless chickens, alarmed by the way things have developed within the party but unable to decide what to do about it. Moreover, in 2016 the dissidents lack figures of the gravitas of the Gang of Four who could be capable of organising a break-away. The fate of the SDP under Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system was also a dire warning. As Lord (Dick) Newby reminded us in his speech last night, although the SDP-Liberal Alliance polled 25.4% of the vote, compared with Labour’s 27.6%, the Alliance only bagged 23 parliamentary seats as opposed to Labour’s 209. Only five of the SDP MPs who had defected from Labour hung on to their seats and the party’s only gain was Charles Kennedy.

SDP logoTom Brake — London’s sole-surviving Liberal Democrat MP — warned that we must not assume that the Party will just bounce back in 2020 and that it is vital that we consolidate our hold on the eight seats we still have, as well as building in the targets. The compere for the evening, Dr Mark Pack, gave his own thoughtful commentary on the rise and fall of the SDP as well as providing some colourful memorabilia, which did indeed bring back memories among those of us old enough to remember the heady days of 1982, when the Alliance was leading in the opinion polls, only to have our hopes dashed on the rocks of the Falklands War, which saved Mrs Thatcher’s political skin. Interestingly, many of the guests at the Limehouse Declaration anniversary dinner were too young to have such memories, including the GLA constituency candidate Elaine Bagshaw who rounded off the evening and highlighted the remarkable rise in membership and activities in the local parties of Tower Hamlets, Newham and Barking & Dagenham.

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Your Liberal Britain

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 20th January, 2016

Your Liberal Britain 1Last night around two dozen Liberal Democrats from City and London East gathered at the View Tube in Stratford’s Olympic Park for a pilot event of Your Liberal Britain — a new format of relatively informal get-togethers at which party members, old and new, can thrash out how they would see a truly Liberal Britain, as well as identifying how the UK currently falls short of those ideals. Four speakers — Elaine Bagshaw, Mark Pack, Emily Tester and myself — were asked to prepare five minute presentations highlighting one particular issue or perspective, with questions and discussion following each. Everyone was then invited to fill in a pro forma sheet identifying their own priorities. Preceded by good food from the View Tube café, for those who wanted it, it was a lively and enjoyable occasion and the organisers will be at the Liberal Democrat Spring conference in York encouraging other local parties to try the model for themselves, with the end results contributing to an ongoing policy review.
Your Liberal Britain 2In my presentation, I focussed on Celebrating Diversity, arguing that Britain needed to move beyond tolerating different groups (ethnic, religious, sexual or whatever) to active engagement. In Tower Hamlets, where I live, and 40 per cent of the electorate is Bangladeshi, how many local none-Bangladeshis have bothered to learn even a few words of Bengali, for example? I also said that we need to widen our concept of diversity to include issues such as age and class; too often we socialise in a comfort zone of people just like ourselves. Liberals have long championed the claim that if you are Liberal you are International and the Liberal Democrats, like the Liberal Party before, have a fine record in inernatinalism and in support of Britain’s membership of the European Union. The EU itself officially celebrates diversity as one of its core principles — unsurprisingly fo a grouping of 28 countries, most of which have their own distinct language(s) and culture — but here in Britain we need to turn that aspiration into reality.

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