Jonathan Fryer

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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The Writers’ Guild Awards

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 19th January, 2016

Russell T DaviesThe Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)was taken over last night by the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain for their annual awards ceremony, when the people who write the scripts of programmes people watch on TV or films or plays or even video games get a chance to step into the limelight. The ALCS, one whose Board I sit, was one of the sponsors. This year’s compere was the raunchy Scottish comedian Susan Calman who got the evening off to a jolly start by informing us how lucky we are to be able to work in our pyjamas. With three nominations in each of 12 categories, from radio drama to first screenplay, there were far too many winners (and losers) to mention in a short blog item, but a few were definitely highlights. Deborah Frances-White (best radio comedy) was funny but touching about the challenges of facing up to one’s adoption, while Timberlake Wertenbaker (best play) added some welcome gravitas. But to my mind the star of the show came right at the end — not an easy slot, when the audience has been sitting in the theatre for over two hours and there is a drinks reception with canapés waiting outside — was Russell T Davies, who was recognised for his Outstanding Contribution to Writing. He gave a bravura performance of self-deprecation mixed with slapstick. As he is immensely tall and Susan Calman distinctly short, they made an amusingly odd couple in the laureates’ line-up.

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London LibDems’ EU Referendum Rally

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 17th January, 2016

Europe HouseThough we don’t yet have an official date yet for Britain’s IN/OUT EU Referendum, the hot money is on 23 June — or at least that is what the attendees at yesterday’s London Liberal Democrats’ EU Referendum Rally were told. That assumes that David Cameron will get what he considers a satisfactory response to his four key demands for EU reform from his 27 EU counterparts, either at the European Council on 18 February or possibly at a special Council meeting later that month. Otherwise the timetable might slip and we would be looking at a referendum in the autumn instead. Personally I hope it is in June, with the London, Scottish, Welsh and local elections out of the way but the weather in principle benign, therefore encouraging people to go out to vote.

Iain GillWe already know the Referendum question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”, to which the alternative answers are “remain” and “leave”. The big challenge for Liberal Democrats, as the political party most enthusiastically in favour of Britain’s EU membership, is to enthuse the “remain” voters, which will mean appealing to their emotions, not just relying on statistics. That is what UKIP does so effectively on the other side of the argument. There was a galaxy of LibDem stars at the rally at Friends House in London yesterday, including Sir Graham Watson (former Leader of the ALDE Party), Catherine Bearder MEP, Baroness Sarah Ludford, London Mayoral candidate Caroline Pidgeon and the man charged with runing the LibDems’ EU Referendum campaign, Iain Gill. But for me, the most fascinating contribution was from Tom Smithard, the party’s Strategy Research guru, who showed detailed results of polling about the referendum and related issues among LibDem members and voters, as well as among Conservative and Labour voters for whom the LibDems would be a second choice. The headline issue was that essentially the electorate is made up of three roughly equal groups: those who are strongly in favour of the EU and therefore are likely to vote to stay in come what may; those who are strongly against who will do the opposite; and a third group of those who are undecided. The pro-business, cross party Stronger in Europe campaign will be targetting the last of those three groups, which means that the LibDems should focus on the first, ensuring that the “remain” voters actually do vote, including as full a polling day operation as possible, just as we do when an ordinary election is taking place, the difference this time being that literally every vote will count.

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Bread Not Bombs for Syria

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 9th January, 2016

I was totally opposed to the recent decision by the UK parliament to bomb Syria, in the absence of a coherent strategy for bringing an end to the civil war in that country, and I was pleased that among the LibDem MPs, at least Norman Lamb and Mark Williams voted that way. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground has got much worse in many places, thanks partly to the Russian support for the murderous Assad regime, which is itself responsible for the vast majority of deaths in Syria, without mentioning the gross human rights abuses that it perpetrates in its prisons and detention centres. Now, there is a new, horrific spectre in the land, in which over 250,000 have died and millions have fled or been displaced. This has been most vividly illustrated by the harrowing images of starving children from Madaya, which has been under siege by regime forces for many weeks, and other places. The images are as awful as the pictures that came out of Bergen-Belsen at the end of the Second World War, and are similarly of the victims of a pattern of extermination. Quite apart from the adults who are dying on these appalling conditions, infants and babies are being fed on boiled leaves, watered-down jam and anything else that distressed parents can lay their hands on. So tell me, am I being unrealistically utopian in wishing that instead of dropping bombs on Syria, the RAF should be dropping food and medical supplies on Madaya and other communities in distress? I don’t think so. It is pain humanity. But that seems to have been lost in the noise of the anti-ISIS narrative. Of course, self-style Islamic State is repulsive and needs to be combatted, but can we really say we are on the side of the angels if that combat means we stand by and let innocents die?

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Return to Sintra

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 8th January, 2016

imageToday I went to Sintra for the first time for 40 years, taking the train from the Rossio station in Lisbon, itself totally transformed from how it looked in the 1970s. The journey itself was different, too, as modern apartment blocks have taken over much of the previous scrubland and only a few of the picturesque single-storey dwellings that I remembered remain. I first went to Sintra when I was researching my biography of Christopher Isherwood, who lived there for a period with his German boyfriend Heinz, before the Second World War. It was not hard to picture it in the 1930s, as most of the grand late-19th and early 20th century villas still stood, as they do today, even if nowadays some have been transformed into guesthouses. I’m glad I went back there in winter now, when the town was largely free of tourists, who I imagine flood the place in summer, which certainly was not the case four decades ago. And this time, because I was not in search of echoes of Isherwood’s past but just enjoying the place for itself, I did go into the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, which I had almost to myself — an extraordinarily atmospheric royal residence, with spiral staircases and sudden views of the valley below and an all-pervading atmosphere of loss, as if the building itself was crying out for the excited voices of young princes, long gone into exile.

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Making Children Bear Arms Is Child Abuse

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 4th January, 2016

IS childThe chilling pictures published by ISIS/Daesh of a small child thought to be British, proudly brandishing a gun, are symptomatic of a worrying trend by political extremists to try to “normalise” the phenomenon of children bearing arms, supposedly in the defence of a particular cause. I’ve seen examples on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict and child soldiers have been a sickening feature of a number of recent civil wars, such as in Uganda, Liberia and Sri Lanka — in some cases with children being forced to kill or else be killed or tortured themselves. You will even find photos of American kids posing with weapons with the encouragement of their gun-loving parents, despite the fact that each year numerous victims, both young and old, get accidentally shot by young children in America. For supporters of the US constitutional right to bear arms, the issue at stake is “freedom”, but I would argue that even in countries where it is legal for adults to own firearms it should be a serious criminal offence to encourage or allow children to handle them. For me, that amounts to child abuse, and a particularly pernicious form of child abuse, for kids often do not have a developed sense of right and wrong, or of the nature of killing and death. I believe that if parents proudly pose with their infants who are brandishing weapons they should be prosecuted for child abuse and sentenced accordingly.

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EU 2016: Dutch at the Helm

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 3rd January, 2016

Dutch EU presidency 2On 1 January the Netherlands took over the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, with pledges to facilitate Europe’s economic growth and competitiveness, to enhance the EU’s role in the world, to promote forward-looking energy and climate policies, to improve cooperation on security as well as migration and asylum, and last but by no means least to empower European citizens by making them more involved in EU decision-making. These are in summary the five pillars agreed for the next 18-month period by the so-called Trio which will be at the helm until 30 June 2017: the Netherlands and their successors Slovakia and Malta. The role of the EU presidency has changed somewhat in recent years with the appointment of a President of the European Council — the gathering of EU Heads of Government — rather than that job being rotated twice a year along with the EU presidency. The incumbent as President of the Council since December 2014 is Donald Tusk, a former Polish Prime Minister. But the country that has the EU rotating presidency can still have a big influence in managing EU affairs, as well as hosting many meetings of the 28 member states. In the case of the Netherlands, well over 100 of these meetings will be held at the Maritime Museum in Amsterdam, underlining the importance of the EU’s being outward-looking.

Cameron Rutte 4The elephant in the room, not specifically mentioned in the Dutch programme of works, is trying to keep Britain as a member of the European Union. At a European Council meeting next month, the UK’s EU partners will respond fully to Prime Minister David Cameron’s four demands for EU reform, which he hopes can be the basis for then recommending that Britons vote to remain in the EU in a referendum that is likely to take place later this year. This could well prove to be the most tricky Council over which Mr Tusk will have to preside, as at least one of Mr Cameron’s demands — considerably extending the period during which EU migrants are unable to access benefits when in another member state than their own — has met great resistance, not least from Poland. Mr Cameron foolishly took the Conservative Party out of the largest European grouping in the EU, the European People’s Party (EPP) several years ago, which meant that he sacrificed a valuable opportunity to lobby and negotiate with EPP leaders, not least the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Yet paradoxically one of his greatest allies is neither in the EPP nor in the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), which the Tories formed with a rag-bag of right-wing parties from a few other countries, but instead with the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte. Mr Rutte leads the more conservative of the Netherlands’ two liberal parties, the VVD, and is therefore part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), to which the British Liberal Democrats belong. But he has an excellent working relationship with Mr Cameron and as the Netherlands now has the EU presidency, 10 Downing Street will doubtless be hoping that the Dutch will facilitate a compromise that will deliver what Mr Cameron wants.

Link: http://english.eu2016.nl/

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Happy New Year, Saudi-style

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 2nd January, 2016

Embedded image permalinkThe Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long had one of the highest levels of capital punishment implementation in the world, but this year it has really excelled itself by welcoming in the New Year by executing 47 individuals today in various parts of the country. The official reason is that these people were convicted of terrorism; having not been present at the trials I cannot comment on the legitimacy of the verdicts, however there are several important points to make about the sentences. The first, of course, is about the death penalty itself. In the European Union, it is not allowed. Indeed, any country aspiring to join the EU must remove capital punishment from their statute books; Turkey, for example, has done this. But the European objection to the death penalty is global in its concern, not regional, which is why governments such as the UK’s should be taking a public stand. They do it against ISIS/Daesh, correctly, and they should do it against that key Western “ally”, Saudi Arabia. David Cameron please note.

Nimr al-NimrSecond, there is the question of the impact of today’s executions, both inside Saudi Arabia and in the wider Middle East. Notably, one of those executed was a prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. This will not only inflame passions among Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority, concentrated in the Eastern Province, but has already brought howls of outrage from the most significant Shia-majority country in the region, Iran. Saudi Arabia and Iran are already fierce rivals in the Middle East (and are supporting opposite sides in the conflict in Yemen) and this latest development will only make things worse. Moreover, it is likely to exacerbate tensions between Sunni and Shia communities across the Gulf and the Middle East. If the government in Riyadh wished to cool passions in the restless Eastern Province they have alas succeeded in doing the opposite.

Cameron Saudi 4Finally, there is the question: should this be our business, or something just for Saudis themselves to comment on? I believe the answer should be an unequivocal “yes, it is our business”. Apart from the objection in principle to the death penalty, discussed above, there is the fact that there are particularly strong ties between the Desert Kingdom and Great Britain, both between the governments and between the two royal families. This relationship is something that should be reviewed. Behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressure has had no effect. The number of executions (many of them public beheadings) went up last year and after today’s executions (some by beheading, others byfiring squads) 2016 looks like being a record year. It is time for Britain and other Western countries to make it clear that we believe that human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, including the extraordinary number of executions, are not acceptable in the 21st century. The Saudi monarchy seems intent on bringing about its own downfall, and if/when that happens, we should not be seen to have failed to take the side of humanity and justice.

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I Still Have Two Great Ambitions

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 31st December, 2015

It’s that time of the year when people take stock of the previous 12 months and formulate resolutions that aim to make them personally or the next year better. I confess to  a lack of originality at this time, as the two great ambitions I have remain the same as in previous years, though at least one of them has got nearer to realisation. That is my ambition to visit every member state of the United Nations and, ideally, to do a piece of work there, be it an article, a radio broadcast or, in a few cases, a book. There are currently 193 UN member states and having recently been in Rwanda gathering material, I have been to 164 of them — so just 29 to go, which should be quite feasible.

The second ambition is to become a member of the European Parliament, something I have been aiming for since a long time, and nearly achieved twice. There won’t be another European election until 2019, but it is never too early to start campaigning, especially as 2016 will probably see an IN/OUT EU Referendum in Britain. I’ll be throwing myself into that whole-heartedly, as it is vital for so many reasons — not just personal — that the UK remains within the EU. Should the referendum go the wrong way, of course, there will be no more Euro-elections in Britain and so one of my ambitions would die. Which would mean I would just have to get some appropriate journalistic or lecturing commission and sail off to all those little Pacific island states I haven’t been to yet.

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