Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

The European Liberal Family (ALDE)

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 3rd November, 2019

12836C57-4082-48C4-B8C6-5EA2ED7AF71AFor most of last week I was in Athens, the cradle of democracy, for the ALDE Party Congress, which brought together dozens of Liberal parties from across Europe, not just the EU. I’ve been on the ALDE’s elected Council as a UK Liberal Democrats’ representative for many years and am currently standing for re-election to that role (all LibDem members can vote). As ever, one of the highlights of the Congress was the welcoming into membership of new parties, the details of which can be found on the ALDE website*. But inevitably a lot of the political discussion, especially outside the plenary sessions, was about Brexit. It was good to be able to confirm that the UK would not be leaving the EU on 31 October after all, despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s do-or-die pledge. The British delegation worked hard to strengthen the resolve of our Continental counterparts (the Irish are well on board!) to support our efforts to Remain. When Luxembourg Prime Minister, Xavier Bettel, declared in his plenary speech that he regretted the UK’s departure, he was rightly heckled by London MEP Irina von Wiese, “We’re not Leaving,”

5D6E7B66-4657-4764-A539-A4A387F6AD9BSubsequently, after the Congress, a 3-month extension to Article50 was granted by the EU27 and a general election was called in Britain for 12 December, in which Brexit will inevitably be a major issue. However, the ALDE Congress agenda was much broader than that and there was a range of interesting fringe meetings, including an event put on by (the worldwide) Liberal International on fighting Fake News and Alternative Facts.

ALDE itself is a very broad church, embracing social liberals, like the UK LibDems and D66 from the Netherlands, as well as more economically conservative parties, such as the German and Swiss FDPs. But there are many strongly shared values, not least on human rights (including LGBTi matters) and environmental protection. In the European Parliament, ALDE parties are together in the Renew Europe Group with Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche from France, and with 108 MEPs — a sharp rise from 2014 — constitute the third largest grouping, with considerable influence. But one of the healthy things about the ALDE Congress is to remind us all that Europe is far wider than just the EU and that all of us have a shared European heritage, despite our glorious diversity.

*link: https://www.aldeparty.eu

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The People’s Vote March

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 19th October, 2019

Peoples Vote March 19 October 2019The sun was shining on the People’s Vote March in London today as several hundred thousand demonstrators manifested their wish to stay in the EU. As ever at such events, the mood was like a carnival and a cheer arose when it became known that the House of Commons — sitting on a Saturday for the first time since the Falklands War — had thwarted Boris Johnson’s attempt to get his Brexit deal passed today. Instead, an amendment by Oliver Letwin basically kicked the matter into next week, declaring that the deal cannot go through before all the necessary legislation is in place — and effectively obliging the Prime Minister to send a letter to the EU before midnight tonight requesting an extension to Article 50. Johnson was defiant in the House, insisting that he is still going to get Brexit done and dusted by 31 October but that is looking increasingly unlikely. If the EU has any sense it will provide a long extension which would enable the UK to sort out the current impasse through a confirmatory referendum on Boris’s deal or through a general election. Whatever happens the next few days are likely to be extremely fractious, which why it was so nice to have such a warm atmosphere on the march today. It was literally a gathering of all the generations and people from different political parties mingled convivially — a contrast to the raucous tensions in the House. There, the Speaker, John Bercow, had to limit speakers to three minutes each after a while, which graphically illustrated how outrageous the Prime Minister was in trying to get the deal with all its ramifications through in a single sitting.Many people may be heartily sick of Brexit by now, but the saga is far from over.

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Farmageddon ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 18th October, 2019

SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE FARMAGEDDONI have long been a huge Aardman fan; I must have seen all the Wallace & Gromit films a dozen times. And Shaun the Sheep (2015) was a work of genius. In that, young Shaun and his motley little flock of helpers set out on an adventure into the city to rescue their farmer. But in Farmageddon, which opened in cinemas today, a much broader canvas is backdrop to some of the action: the universe. A young extraterrestrial alien girl mischievously goes for a ride in her parents flying saucer, crash-landing not far from Mossy Bottom Farm. Shaun soon becomes her bosom friend, once he has got over the shock of her being able to mimic any animal sound or noise. Mayhem ensues, as the iron maiden head of the Ministry of Alien Detection turns up with her team of assistants and robots, thrilled at the prospect of nabbing her first specimen. The farmer meanwhile has the idea of capitalising on all the local media stories about UFOs to turn his run-down property into a UFO theme park: Farmageddon. The only character who actually says anything is the little girl alien (slightly too Disneyesque for my liking), and one quickly learns the alien words for Mummy and Daddy. But this is far from a silent movie. The noises are a big part of the fun. And this movie is fun, from beginning to end, skillfully providing fodder for toddlers alongside cheeky asides to mature Dr Who fans and film references galore. The pace is breathless; in fact, the gags come so thick and fast one can easily miss some of them, but even adolescents with a short attention span are unlikely to get bored. I was sad that almost all the songs that accompany the film are American as Shaun the Sheep, like Wallace & Grommit, is quintessentially British, but I guess Aardman had to have an eye on the lucrative North American market. Nonetheless, the film is a joy and just what’s needed as Brexit enters its endgame — or not.

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The Day Shall Come **

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 14th October, 2019

The Day Shall ComeWhen a delusional young black pseudo-religious leader in Miami called Moses is intent on fomenting revolution against white capitalist society — with the aid of just four disciples, a horse and a battered old yellow school bus — he attracts the interest of the local chapter of the FBI, who have had little success in unearthing potential Islamist terrorist cells. Their dastardly plan is to frame him, with the assistance of various hapless characters, including a long-haired Persian paedophile and a fake neo-Nazi redneck group. The idea is that he should think he is going to earn $100,000 by trading what he is led to believe is uranium, so at last he will be able to pay the overdue rent on the tatty little farmstead where he lives with his wife and daughter. But Moses is so monumentally inept, as well as torn by moral doubts, that he manages to sabotage almost everything he does. The FBI agents meanwhile dig themselves ever deeper into a hole of their own making, leading to a catastrophic showdown in a roadside diner. In the meantime just about every politically incorrect remark has been made. The scandalous sentiments and behaviour are played strictly for laughs under the direction of Chris Morris, despite a few bitter twists. To a degree this is slapstick with a subversive political undertone, which many audiences may find riotously funny, but which left me pretty cold because most of the characters are such caricatures. The only saving grace is the very fine performance by the actor who plays Moses, Marchánt Davis; he conveys the sense that half-crazed Moses really believes in himself and his fantasies, so therefore the viewer can too.

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The London LibDem Conference

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 13th October, 2019

London LibDems conference 2019Yesterday London Liberal Democrats packed the congregational church in Kentish Town for an autumn conference that was a mixture of celebration and determination. The celebration was largely because of the brilliant European election results in May, when the party topped the polls in London, sending three MEPs to Brussels.Moreover, the region’s membership at 24,000 is three times what it was a decade ago — and many new faces were at the conference. These included Luciana Berger MP, formerly Labour but who will be standing for the LibDems in Finchley and Golders Green when the election comes around. She gave a short speech recounting this political journey and was clearly pleased to have found a welcoming new home. Luisa Porritt, a Camden councillor who was elected an MEP in May and who is now Deputy Leader of the 16-strong LibDem group in the European Parliament, briefed the meeting on what she and her colleagues are doing to encourage continental counterparts to help keep Britain in the EU.

London LibDems conference 2019 1Deputy Leader Ed Davey, MP for Kingston and Surbiton, highlighted the work that the parliamentary party is doing to stop Brexit and urged everyone to go on the People’s Vote march next Saturday — and to bring along family and friends. For me, one of the most striking parts of the conference, however, was the impressive line-up of women PPCs who are standing in what are now winnable seats in heavily Remain parts of the capital: Rabina Khan, Humaira Ali, Hina Bokhari, Munira Wilson and Sarah Olney. There was a time not that long ago when the party’s MPs were embarrassingly uniformly male and white but these days the LibDems reflect the make up of multi-cultural London much more and that should be clearer still after the general election. That is likely to be the next challenge on the electoral horizon, but the conference was also focussed on the London Assembly and Mayoral elections next May. Caroline Pidgeon spoke of her work on the GLA, notably regarding transport, and mayoral candidate Siobhan Benita gave an inspirational keynote speech outlining her main priorities, ranging from a preventive approach to knife rime to the decriminalisation of cannabis.

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Eurocapitales 2019

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 7th October, 2019

JF speaking at Eurocapitales 2019I spent the latter half of last week in Paris attending the 2019 gathering of Eurocapitales, an association of individuals and groups mainly linked to the European Movement, celebrating some of the great cities of Europe while discussing topical subjects. Paris currently operates as the organisational hub as well, thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of Jean-Paul Doguet, though there are plans to set up a European not-for-profit body under Belgian law in Brussels. The four countries represented at the 2019 encounter were Finland, France, Greece and the United Kingdom, and the French provided generous and memorable hospitality at a couple of Paris’s notable restaurants as well as a closing dinner in the Salon Napoleon at the French Senate in the Palais de Luxembourg.

The discussion programme was in two halves, covering Brexit and Artificial Intelligence. I was one of the morning speakers outlining the current state of Brexit — less easy than that might at first sound, as the position changes almost daily and no-one — not even Prime Minister Boris Johnson, for all his bluster — knows exactly what will happen between now and October 31 (the theoretical UK departure day), let alone beyond. It was interesting to note that some of the French participants seemed to assume that Brexit will indeed happen, with or without a deal, whereas both I and fellow Brit, Mark Paterson, thought it may well not, particularly if there is a second referendum. In my speech I focussed particularly on the post-Truth nature of modern British political discourse and the media, Trumpian in its outlandish lies, of which Boris Johnson is a prime culprit. One thing everyone did agree on was that Brexit would be bad for the EU and even worse for Britain, though paradoxically the whole Brexit debacle has actually raised the positive understanding of the European project, on both sides of the Channel.

One might have thought that AI would prove to be a less heated subject, but not a bit of it. I was particularly interested in the contributions relating to Smart Cities and the increasing participation of AI in so many aspects of urban life today — which can only increase in the future. But serious concerns were raised about moral and ethical issues relating to AI, from driverless cars to critical non-human decision-making, which I suspect will indeed preoccupy many of us as what has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution is rolled out.

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Eurasian Culture Week

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 3rd October, 2019

Chinghiz Aitmatov 1Last night I gave a talk about Oscar Wilde and the Central Asian writer Chinghiz Aitmatov, reprising a theme I focussed on in two presentations last December at two universities in Kazakhstan. Aitmatov (1928-2008) is revered in his home country of Kyrgyzstan and managed to assert his literary presence in Moscow during Soviet tomes despite the fact that his father had been purged as an Enemy of the People. He was thus an “outside insider”, just as Oscar Wilde, who came from Ireland, was able to conquer literary and social London before his downfall. Though the two writers were very different in many ways they both had a social mission and wrote about strong women and ambiguous aspects of human relationships, rejecting the white/black good/bad moral compass of both Victorian London and the USSR. Aitmatov’s writings are still not very widely known in Britain — with perhaps the sole exception of his story Jamila — though he was widely recognised in Germany, where he died. There is sure to be a big celebration when his centenary comes round in 2028.

AbaiAt the Eurasian Culture Week where I appeared, held in the Premiere cinema in the Mercury Centre in Romford, the main subject for literary attention was the Kazakh poet Abai Qunanbaiuly, with whom certain parallels have been drawn with the German master Goethe. Goethe himself, of course, was highly influenced by the Persian poet Hafiz, giving rise to his West-Eastern Divan. Such cross-cultural links have long intrigued me. The Eurasian Culture Week, organised by Marat Akhmedjanov and the Eurasian Creative Guild, also featured an exhibition of paintings by artists from Central Asia and displays of books and presentations by authors from the region. Earlier this year there was an Eurasian Film Festival, also at the Premiere cinema, so the cultural significance of the vast steppes is beginning to get its due notice, not just the hydrocarbon riches of the area.

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Murder in Istanbul

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th September, 2019

Murder in IstanbulExactly a year ago, on the last Saturday of September in 2018, at a Palestine conference organised by Middle East Monitor, I met the Saudi journalist and former Saudi royal family intimate, Jamal Khashoggi. He seemed a little distracted, which I put down partly to the cold he was trying to fight off and anticipation for his upcoming marriage to a younger Turkish woman. He was due to fly to Istanbul on the Monday, but the day after that he was dead, apparently interrogated, tortured and then murdered inside the Saudi Arabian consulate building, while his fiancée waited outside. Through a series of leaks and a lot of speculation the story of what had happened gradually emerged, though anyone who did not follow things closely over the coming months — including a not inconsiderable number of red herrings — could be forgiven for not knowing all the details. That makes Owen Wilson’s book Murder in Istanbul (Gibson Square, £9.99) all the more useful, as well as timely. It painstakingly analyses the evidence, as revealed by the Turkish authorities and various media outlets, on both sides of the Atlantic, including the United Nations, as well as background information that makes the affair more understandable, if not forgivable. The author’s career as a journalist with the Financial Ties and as a writer of books on crime gives him just the right sort of experience and voice for the task. The British sigint agency, GCHQ, had, it appears, picked up traffic suggesting that Jamal Khashoggi (who was by this stage mainly resident in the United States and contributing to the Washington Post, critical of the regime in his home country and calling for media freedom across the Arab world) was at risk of being kidnapped and rendered to Riyadh from Britain; the logical assumption is that the British (perhaps also informing the Americans) made it clear through appropriate channels that that would be totally unacceptable.

Jamal Khashoggi Sadly, he was less safe in Istanbul, where he had just purchased an apartment for himself and his future wife, though one of the most intriguing aspects of this book is the discussion of what the Turkish intelligence service MIT (and indeed, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) really knew and when. There were all sorts of fantastic stories, worthy of a latter-day James Bond novel, regarding alleged recordings of Jamal being dismembered while still alive, supposedly transmitted via his Apple watch to the iPhone he had left with his fiancée. Wilson rightly dismisses the more preposterous reports and theories, but inevitably the conclusion was drawn that the assault on Khashoggi had been sanctioned at the highest level in Riyadh. Indeed, just this week the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, accepted ultimate responsibility “because it happened on my watch”. So there will need to be a postscript to the book at some stage to analyse “So, what now?” — though if US President Donald Trump is anything to go by then the desert kingdom with its immense oil-derived wealth is just too rich to fall out with.

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AEJ Visit to the Scottish Parliament

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 27th September, 2019

73B96ADC-F1D2-481E-BD85-4F885053502FThe UK section of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) made a timely visit to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh this week — my first direct experience of that institution. It is housed in a beautiful modern complex, full of light and symbolic detail. The architect unfortunately died before everything was up and running, so a few of the secrets of that symbolism went to the grave with him. We were given a very detailed and entertaining tour by a Portuguese guide. The number of EU workers in the capital is high, including all the hospitality staff at the hotel where the AEJ group was staying. So it was no surprise to hear from the three MSPs (SNP, Labour and Conservative) who addressed us over a sandwich lunch that the removal of freedom of movement if Brexit goes ahead is one of Scotland’s major concerns about the near future. The indigenous population, as in so much of the UK, has a demographic lopsided to older people. Scotland, in contrast to England and Wales, voted strongly to remain in the 2016 EU Referendum, and all three MSPs had voted Remain themselves, though the Conservative was true to his party line, saying that we must now “respect the vote of the British people”.

We also sat in on First Minister’s Question Time in the main chamber, which admirably is a hemicycle, rather similar to many continental parliaments, rather than the adversarial set-up at Westminster. But there were some lively exchanges, as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made repeated references to tentative plans for a further Scottish independence referendum. The Conservatives were also trying unsuccessfully to get her to commit to “full life” sentences for the most heinous crimes; her riposte was that judges are always free to impose sentences that are longer than the culprit’s expected life span. It was good to see the spectators gallery full — including a large party of school children — and the contemporary, airy environment was far more welcoming than the sometimes intimidating surroundings of the Palace of Westminster. The message (moreover stated in print in admirably concise and well-designed leaflets) was clear: this is your Parliament and we are working for you.

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The Truly Supreme Court

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 25th September, 2019

Baroness-HaleThe UK’s Supreme Court may only be a decade old but it represents centuries of judicial independence. Yesterday, it delivered an historic decision when it declared unanimously that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advice to the Queen which led to the prorogation of Parliament was “unlawful, void and of no effect”. The five week closure, effectively preventing MPs from debating Brexit until mid-October — only two weeks before Mr Johnson wishes to take the country out of the EU — was therefore deemed illicit. The Speaker, John Bercow, grinning like a Cheshire cat on College Green, was swift to announce that the House of Commons would therefore reconvene at 1130 this morning and the Prime Minister had to cut short his visit to New York where he was speaking at the United Nations General Assembly. What happens now, as with so much regarding the Brexit chaos, is anyone’s guess. In normal circumstances one would have expected the Prime Minister to resign, but these are not circumstances and Boris Johnson is not a normal Prime Minister. He is likely to try to hang on and the Labour Opposition is reluctant to call for a vote of no confidence as there is no guarantee it would be won. However, the Government is in principle bound to ask for an extension to Article 50 because of a move by MPs before the prorogation and Mr Johnson might be loathe yo try to circumvent that illegally despite his bluster. Meanwhile, the President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale, delivering the Court’s verdict while dressed in black with a large silver spider brooch on her chest, has become on overnight heroine to Remainers and a demon to Hard Brexiteers. But the important thing is that the Rule of Law has been defended and the principle upheld that no-one is above it, not even Boris.

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