Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

The LibDems are Right to be Happy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 4th May, 2018

Kingston LibDemsWhen it comes to results, local elections in England can be frustrating as it often takes a long time for the details to come through and the early returns from super-keen places like Sunderland are not necessarily representative. But now that all but one Council has declared, the pattern is clear. UKIP has had an utterly disastrous election, losing all but three seats (-123). This undoubtedly helped the Conservatives, who picked up many former UKIP seats, but they still finished down (-31). Labour are up 59, but that is well short of what they were hoping for. Indeed, in London — which many Momentum supporters hoped was still infected by Corbynmania — Labour got nowhere near winning any of its key targets of Barnet, Wandsworth and Westminster. Indeed, in Barnet, as a result of the fallout of the allegations of anti-Semitism against some Labour activists, Labour fell back badly.  However, the real news of the election is the LibDem bounce-back: the party had a net gain of 75 seats, and gained control of four councils, including spectacular victories in Richmond and Kingston in south-west London. Of course, the LibDem successes have not been uniform, but significantly the party also advanced in northern cities such as Hull, Sheffield and Manchester, whereas the Tories are nowhere to be seen there. The overall LibDem vote nationwide was around 16 per cent, well below its level in pre-Coalition days, but still substantially better than the national opinion polls. In Richmond, interestingly, they entered into a sort of pact with the Greens, which meant that four Greens have been able to savour the delighted of ousting the Conservatives, though not every part of the country would be prepared to go along with such arrangements.

Tower Hamlets town hallSo, what of the one Council that has still to declare? No prizes for guessing which, as, yes, it is my home borough of Tower Hamlets, which is near as London politics comes to a basket case. The previous (ex-Labour) Independent Mayor was forbidden to stand again for public office because of various alleged malpratcices, but several of his former pals did. In fact, four of the Mayoral candidates had previously been Labour councillors, including the Tory! It was shocking but typical to hear on election day itself that some presiding officers were turning EU27 voters away from polling stations, not letting them cast their ballot, on the grounds of ineligibility, whereas in fact they are barred only from voting in general elections — an elementary bit of electoral law that even the most junior official should have known. But having lived in Tower Hamlets for 30 years, nothing surprises me anymore when it comes to elections, from harassment of voters to illicit acquisition of postal votes. I’m waiting for the day when it is reported that the total number of votes cast exceeds the size of the electorate. In the meantime, we await this year’s council results, including in my home ward of Mile End. But I shan’t stay up, as on past experience it might be tomorrow — or next week — before we know.

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Amber to Red for the Tories

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 30th April, 2018

5F9ED72A-789F-44CA-92C7-2238321154A8British Home Secretary (Interior Minister) Amber Rudd has fallen on her sword; her position had indeed become untenable over the weekend with revelations about how much she encouraged the “hostile environment” to “illegal” immigrants and approved of the policy of deportation before appeal, despite having tried to distance herself publicly from it all. The inhuman treatment of the so-called Windrush generation, who had their right to remain in the UK questioned and in some cases refused, was a particularly egregious example of this. Perhaps the final blow to her reputation came with the revelation that the Home Office had refused visas to 100 Indian doctors recruited by the National Health Service (NHS). Under Rudd’s watch, the Home Office has indeed become unfit for purpose. But one could argue that it became so under her predecessor, none other than the now Prime Minister, Theresa May. I can’t help feeling that Mrs May has sacrificed Amber Rudd in the hope of saving her own skin, because frankly it is time for her to acknowledge that old political adage “the buck stops here”. Theresa May was catapulted into the top job when David Cameron resigned after the disastrous outcome of the EU Referendum (which he called largely to try to silence Eurosceptic headbangers on the right of the Conservative Party). But far from proving to be a safe pair of hands, Mrs May has shown herself ready to give ideology precedence over common sense. This shows itself in two, related aspects: immigration and Brexit. The government persists in trying to reach its unrealistic target of getting net immigration down to below 100,000 a year, despite the fact that this is harming not just the NHS but other sectors of the economy too. And despite being a Remainer in the EU Referendum campaign, Mrs May has been pressing ahead with Brexit — again to appease the Tory right — in a most damaging way. The incompetence of the three Brexit Ministers — David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson — would be comic were this all not so serious. Britain’s international reputation has been trashed, not only among our 27 current EU partners but around the world. Moreover, from being the best performing economy among the OECD nations, the UK has crashed to the bottom. Growth was just 0.1% in the last quarter, with the real prospect of recession looming. And we haven’t even left the EU yet! Theresa May is lucky in that she lacks a credible Opposition in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, but that should not let her off the hook. The amber light of  Rudd’s resignation should turn to a red light for the PM herself.

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ALDE’s Balkan Serenade

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th April, 2018

A198F168-1FAA-4223-9CE5-D5648356448FThe Sofia ALDE (Alliance of Liberal Democrats for Europe) Council finished this evening with a dinner reception in the Lozenets Residence, a nostalgic monument to Communist grandeur; once an officers’ club it now serves as a government entertainment venue, with live music, rather good food and decor that took me back to 1960s Eastern Europe: square marble faced pillars with faux Doric capitals, symmetrical carpets and chandeliers about half the size that would look right. The hospitality was most generous, in true Balkans fashion; I am often embarrassed by how mean Northern European sometimes are in comparison. Though this was an ALDE event, Juli Minoves, President of Liberal International, gave a Liberal medal for sterling service to Sir Graham Watson, former leader of the ALDE Group in the European Parliament and later President of the ALDE Party. He recalled that he has been attending international Liberal events since the LI Congress in Ottawa, which I believe was my first entry into the circuit as well. Graham enjoys crafting eloquent speeches and his gracious acceptance of the award was no exception. But of course for all Brits present this was a bitter-sweet occasion, as our participation in ALDE will inevitably diminish if Brexit goes ahead, as seems likely (though not inevitable). It is paradoxical that the Brits (including the Conservatives) were the most enthusiastic of the EU member states in welcoming formerly Communist countries such as Bulgaria into the fold, but are now trying to remove the UK from the 28-member body. For the Bulgarians there is the added resonance that the late 19th Century, Liberal statesman William Gladstone was a great champion of Bulgarian Rights in Ottoman times — there is even a street in central Sofia names after him. So they ate particularly saddened by Brexit. At least the UK LibDems will be able to remain part of ALDE whatever happens over the next year or so, and in the Council meeting earlier today, a plea was made for continental parties to encourage their nationals resident in the UK (an estimated 3 million) to vote next Thursday for us to help to try to stop Brexit.

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Remembering George Dunk

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 27th April, 2018

7492AFE3-A1C8-478F-B94B-952DD4262BA5It was perhaps fitting that the news of George Dunk’s death came through while we European Liberal Democrats (ALDE, previously ELDR) were gathering for tomorrow’s Council meeting in Sofia, Bulgaria, as George devoted so much of his time and energy to causes European. A former Chair of the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG), he was hugely supportive of my efforts to get into the European Parliament  (I twice almost made it!) but he was also a genuine internationalist. South Africa was a country of particular concern and he had a wonderfully close marriage with his South African spouse, Sandra, who worked for years in party HQ, and who died far too young. George also mucked in with the Southwark Liberal Democrats, not only in supporting Simon Hughes, election after election, but also in his home Rotherhithe ward. He was the ultimate backroom boy, working hard to get other people elected, while staying out of the limelight himself. He must have loved the fact that if you google his name the only photos that come up are of lithe black American basketball players. Inevitably, because George was so physically huge (he would laugh at my choice of that term), he had mobility problems, especially in recent years, when he walked with a stick, though that did not prevent him attending many ALDE Councils all over Europe. Many of us worried about the strain that all that extra weight must be putting on his heart, let alone his knees. And there is a certain irony in the fact that he reportedly lost 30kg while in hospital during his recent incapacitation. That still did not save him. But George was one of those people who was very philosophical about life. He did so much for the Party, as well as for the European project, that one cannot grieve his passing but rather should celebrate what he achieved and the steadfastness of his belief. Yes, he was larger than life. And yes, sometimes he put people’s backs up with his forthright views about how things should be done. But he now deserves the most almighty of wakes. He won’t rest in peace, however, because he will be urging those angels to get off their backsides and fly off to deliver a few thousand leaflets.

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Tata Diplomat Awards 2018

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 24th April, 2018

Diplomat awards 2018Last night I was at the Jumeirah Carlton Towers in Knightsbridge for the annual Diplomat Awards, arranged by Diplomat magazine — for which I have sometimes written — and sponsored by the Tata group (among others). This is the opportunity London’s sizable diplomatic community has to recognise outstanding members within its own ranks. Laureates are chosen within geographical regions and last night’s winners were the Ambassadors or High Commissioners of Algeria, Austria, Belarus, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Malawi and Papua New Guinea, with special awards for the wife of the Cypriot High Commissioner, a young diplomat award for the Press and Culture secretary of the Italian Embassy and an institutional award for the International Maritime Organisation (IMO — the only UN agency based in London). I became involved with the diplomatic community when I was the Honorary Consul of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania to the Court of St. James’s (1991-2000) and as a writer and broadcaster focusing mainly on the Middle East and North Africa I find diplomatic gatherings invaluable for picking up information and making contacts. Diplomats based in London are having a particularly busy time at present, trying to interpret Brexit and its likely consequences, though it is no secret that most believe Britain’s leaving the European Union is an act of folly.

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Pay No Heed to the Rockets

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 23rd April, 2018

Pay No Heed to the RocketsFor such a small territory, Palestine has generated a disproportionate amount of books; I have several shelves-full in my library. But most of those works are about history, war and the search for peace. Literature rarely gets a look in. So Marcello Di Cintio’s journey among Palestinian writers in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, Pay No Heed to the Rockets (Saqi, £8.99, officially published next month) is both refreshing and informative. The writers the Canadian author encounters physically or through texts range from the dead and famous, such as poet Mahmoud Darwish, to brave young literary activists (some feminist, one gay) mainly working in cafés in Ramallah, Gaza City and Haifa. Each has a unique story, all in some way affected by the dispossession and dislocation caused by 1948 and/or 1967, but to very different degrees. Marcello di Cintio says he was prompted to embark on this project — part travelogue, part lyrical tribute to the craft of writing — by a picture of a young girl joyfully retrieving her rather battered books from the rubble of her home after an Israeli attack on Gaza. The author managed to track her down, as well as some of the writers who have been harassed at times by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. One of the most moving passages in the book recounts a visit he made to a venerable family library in Jerusalem’s Old City which has successfully fought off expropriation by Israel and encroachment by so-called settlers. As usual when Palestine and the Occupation are being examined, there is much to make one angry or depressed, but one of the great strengths of Di Cintio’s book is that he does not become emotionally partisan, nor does he lose his critical faculties while hearing the stories of those he meets along the way. They emerge from the text as recognisable individuals, with their strengths and their foibles, and one gets a clear sense of the environments in which they live and work. All in all, this is one of the best books I have ever read about Palestine and it should prompt people to get to know some of the work by the Palestinian writers themselves.

(Marcello Di Cintio will be visiting the UK 15-20 May)

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UK Should Not Be a Hostile Environment

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd April, 2018

Home Office billboardsIt’s hard to be optimistic about the state of Britain these days, not just because the country’s economic growth rate has sunk from the top of the OECD countries to the bottom as Brexit looms but also because of the tensions now evident in society. The EU Referendum result left the UK deeply divided, and those divisions have got worse, not better, as the months have gone by. Moreover, there has been a surge in xenophobic and racist incidents as an unpleasant minority within the British public has felt emboldened by the Brexit vote to tell foreigners to “go home” or to stop speaking languages other than English. Such actions should be recognised as hate crimes and dealt with accordingly.

May RuddBut what I find even more disturbing is the way that the Conservative government has encouraged such attitudes — cheered on by the more obnoxious elements of the mainstream Press. The latest shocking revelations about the way some members of the so-called Windrush Generation and their children (immigrants who were invited to come to Britain after the Second World War, to help rebuild the country and run essential services) have had their right to remain questioned by the Home Office, leading to some losing their jobs or their homes and being denied free medical care, while others have been put in detention centres or been deported, after living here for half a century. It is now clear that much of the blame for this rests on the shoulders of Theresa May, currently Prime Minister but previously Home Secretary. It was under her watch that the infamous vans went round telling “illegal” immigrants to go home, before they were withdrawn after a public outcry. And it is both Mrs May and the current Home Secretary Amber Rudd who have pursued a policy of promoting a “hostile environment” to people who allegedly should not be here.

Even some Labour Home Secretaries, such as the jovial Alan Johnson, used that terrible phrase sometimes. And it is hardly surprising that it has been embraced by those who dislike the multicultural reality of much of Britain today. But it is not only people of colour who are feeling the impact. Even EU citizens have been the brunt of attacks and nasty comments. No wonder some have left and that many others (some married to UK partners) are worried about their future. Mrs May and her ghastly government have failed to tackle this problem head on. Indeed, both by their words and their actions, they have encouraged it. That is why on 3 May those who live in an area holding elections use their vote to send a clear message to 10 Downing Street: this is not the Britain we believe in.

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BBC Arabic Festival 2018

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 21st April, 2018

BBC Arabic Festival 2018 openingLast night I was at the Radio Theatre at Broadcasting House in London for the opening ceremony of the 2018 BBC Arabic Festival. Now an annual event, this celebrates the output of young and independent filmmakers producing work that reflects the changing Arab world of today. That includes some full length feature films, but most of the films screened are non-fiction shorts or documentaries, inevitably focusing predominantly on conflict, occupation and exile. There is an added reason for celebration this year as it is the 80th anniversary of the BBC Arabic language radio service (which used to broadcast a lot of my current affairs talks in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was based at Bush House). Last night’s programme featured a live interview with Gazan film director Mohamed Jabaly, winner of the 2017 festival’s Young Journalist Award, who introduced and showed nine minutes of his latest work in progress, Stateless, about a diverse group of young Arab asylum seekers sharing a flat in northern Norway. Also screened were Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf’s Mare Nostrum, about a Syrian father’s attempt to get his six-year-old daughter safely across the Mediterranean to Europe, and Fate, Wherever It Takes Us, an experimental autobiographical short by a Syrian woman, Kadar Fayyad, who has found sanctuary in Amman, Jordan. The festival runs at the Radio Theatre until 26 April; entry is free but tickets must be booked online via the site linked below:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/showsandtours/shows/bbc_arabic_festival_2018

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Isle of Dogs ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th April, 2018

Isle of DogsWes Anderson’s quirky imagination and deep love of film guarantee that anything he directs will give cinephiles much food for thought as well as entertainment, and in his latest stop-motion animation offering, Isle of Dogs, there is so much content that at times it is hard to digest. The basic plot is simple, however, like any good fantasy or fairy tale: a cat-loving despotic mayor in a dystopian future Japanese city banishes all dogs to an island used as a giant garbage dump. But his 12-year-old ward is distraught at the loss of his guard-dog, Spots, and sets off to find him. Meanwhile the dogs have started to organise themselves and a plan is put into place to turn the tables on wicked Mayor Kobayashi, with the aid of a feisty American girl exchange student in a blond fright wig. However, this simple tale is framed in settings of immense complexity, stuffed full of cultural and cinematic references. There is a distinct irony in this, as so much classical Japanese theatre uses almost no scenery, leaving the audience to imagine the location from the context of the words and action, whereas in Anderson’s film there is so much visual detail that at times one’s mind is totally consumed by taking it all in, to the extent that one’s concentration drifts away from the story. All the classic Japanese stereotype scenes are there, from sushi preparation to sumo wrestling and falling cherry blossoms, much to a soundtrack of dramatic taiko drums. But other references are more nuanced, including not only homage to Japanese art and architecture but also Japanese cinema, from Kurosawa to anime. Much of the dialogue is in Japanese, only some of which is translated, which may sound a bit strange yet works effectively in intensifying a sense of mystery; the dogs have difficulty understanding much of what the humans are saying. The dogs all talk American English, voiced by well-known actors such as Bryan Cranston and Scarlett Johansson, For me that was the only really jarring thing about the film, playing into a subconscious Hollywood narrative of a plucky American kid helping dogs overcome a monstrous adult. Otherwise, the film could not do more to celebrate Japan and things Japanese, though some people might feel at times it veers towards cultural appropriation. I don’t think that is the case. Having studied in Japan as a young man, I revelled in a lot of the references as well as in the jokes. There is a clever balance between humour and seriousness throughout. But I do think Anderson tried to cram too much in — which probably means one needs to see the film more than once to get anything like a full appreciation.

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Last Chance for EU Citizens?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 17th April, 2018

EU citizens register to voteToday, Tuesday 17 April, is the last chance for people to register to vote in the local elections on 3 May, if they are not already on the electoral roll. This is particularly important for citizens of EU countries other than the UK, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta, as it is unlikely that they will retain their voting rights after Brexit, so this may be the last opportunity they have to make their voice heard. The franchise in all UK elections is currently given to all legally resident Commonwealth and Irish citizens, but other EU nationals don’t have the right to vote in the national parliament elections. However, everyone will lose their vote for the European elections, which are due in June next year, as the UK will no longer have the right to send MEPs to Brussels/Strasbourg. In London, which has all-out elections in all 32 boroughs, there are a large number of EU citizens; in some wards, one or two thousand, which means that their participation in next month’s elections could swing the result. That’s why a number of community NGOs, as well as several political parties, are urging them to register and to vote, to send a strong anti-Brexit message to 10 Downing Street (and to Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, for that matter). A strong performance by anti-Brexit parties, including the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, will help boost the campaign for a People’s Vote on the final deal agreed between the UK government and the EU. And as public dissatisfaction over looming Brexit realities (as opposed to Brexit fantasies) grows, there is even an outside chance we could pull back from the brink.

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