Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

GCHQ

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 26th July, 2019

GCHQ. AldrichOn 1 November the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) will be celebrating its centenary. The very fact that it is acknowledging this landmark is a reflection of how things have changed. Much of GCHQ’s work may still be top secret, but in an era of greater transparency, it doesn’t need to pretend it doesn’t exist. Moreover, the distinctive “doughnut” building in Cheltenham that houses most its UK-based staff has become iconic, even if it does not allow in visitors, unlike its US equivalent. Though the doughnut cost a small fortune, it has proved to be too small, thanks to the recent proliferation of hostile actors and threatening activities, from Islamist terrorists to drug cartels and cyber warriors. A cogent exposition of these is one of the most valuable parts of Richard J Aldrich’s updated unofficial history of the organisation, GCHQ (William Collins, £12.99), issued in time for the centenary. In nearly 600 pages, Aldrich (Professor of International Security at Warwick University) provides not just a chronological account of GCHQ’s development and its sometimes fractious relationship with counterparts both in Europe and beyond but also an overview of how dramatically the post-modern world has changed, thanks to technology, not least computers and satellites.

GCHQ doughnutThis would have been unimaginable to most of the people — mainly in the armed forces — who decided after the First World War that it would be useful if Britain had its own unit to develop codes and cyphers as well as to crack those of the enemy. Though the work started relatively modestly, the onset of the Second World War changed all that and Bletchley Park (a mansion astonishingly purchased privately by the man who was determined to see it up and running) became the ultra-secret hub of “sigint” work, home to Alan Turing and other pioneers in the field as well as linguists and code-breakers whose contribution to the war effort was duly acknowledged by Winston Churchill. Peace brought no real let-up to the activity, as the Soviet Union had become the new focus of prime attention and GCHQ became a key partner in Britain’s intelligence community, with outposts in Cyprus and elsewhere.

Subsequently, GCHQ’s reach has gone truly global as well as monitoring groups and persons of interest within the United Kingdom itself. That aspect of surveillance has caused concern among civil libertarians and at times GCHQ’s activities have themselves come under sharp scrutiny from campaigning journalists such as Duncan Campbell. In an age of metadata we are all under various kinds of scrutiny, not just from governments but from giant tech companies as well. This situation raises all sorts of moral questions about the right balance between national security and individual freedoms, and Richard J Aldrich does not shy away from these. But one great value of this book is his fairly dispassionate approach to the subject of GCHQ; he is neither its champion nor its critic, but based on an immense amount of research he has produced a gripping account that leaves one with much food for thought. GCHQ has commissioned its own, official history to mark its centenary, but I doubt whether even in the age of transparency that could be as richly informative as this unofficial one.

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It’s Jo!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 22nd July, 2019

JF Jo Swinson Ed DaveyThe result of the Liberal Democrats leadership election was announced this afternoon, with Jo Swinson notching up a clear win over Sir Ed Davey. That is no reflection on Ed’s talents and experience, nor indeed on his selection campaign, which was robust, engaging and at times masterful. But clearly many of the 72% of LibDem members who voted in the selection (a pretty impressive turnout) felt that as a relatively young woman who has already proved her mettle as Deputy Leader Jo has the qualities and the image that are needed to take the party forward in these excitingly volatile times. That was certainly my logic in voting for her (the first time I have actually backed a winning candidate in a Liberal/Liberal Democrat leadership contest, from the days of John Pardoe onward!) She will be refreshingly different from either Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson, if, as expected, Johnson cruises to victory in the Conservative leadership contest tomorrow. Moreover, she will be able to slap down Boris’s casual, careless sexism, racism and other unpleasant traits that he tries to pass off as jokes. That sort of apologia might work over toasting crumpets in one’s study at Eton but it won’t wash on the floor of the House of Commons if he becomes Prime Minister. I say “if”, because we can expect more resignations by current government ministers in the wake of Sir Alan Duncan’s today. And some Tory MPs might even cross the floor and join the LibDems, destroying the Government’s wafer-thin majority in a flash. Several Cabinet Ministers, most notably the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, have made clear that they would be ready to pull the rug from under Boris rather than allow him to take Britain over the cliff edge of a No Deal Brexit on 31 October. And that is before the Conservatives lose the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election on 1 August, as now seems almost inevitable. So, Jo Swinson is taking over the LibDems at an extraordinary moment, able to build on the healthy legacy of Sir Vince Cable, to deploy her foreign policy experience (all the more important at a time of crisis in the Persian Gulf) and to rally a cross-party legion of sensible politician and voters, most of whom are not only pro-EU but anti-Boris.

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Matthew Sturgis’s “Oscar”

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 21st July, 2019

Oscar SturgisWhen I heard Matthew Sturgis was writing a biography of Oscar Wilde, my initial reaction was “Why?”. Surely everything had already been said? I have two whole bookcases full of books about Wilde and his work and his circle of family and friends, including three volumes of my own. For many years, Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde (1987) in its bright green dust-jacket was seen as definitive, but the meticulous work of scholars over the decades then identified a whole string of errors and omissions. I was very conscious when putting together my little book Wilde for Haus (2005) that Ellmann’s coverage of the writer’s two years of life after his release from prison was relatively concertinaed and, more seriously, more uniformly downbeat than some of the reality recounted in Wilde’s prolific correspondence of the time. Ellmann was himself near death as he struggleded to complete his book (for which he was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize). So, yes, more than 30 years on perhaps it was time for a truly definitive biography of Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde 3Given the immaculate research and elegant text of Matthew Sturgis’s Walter Sickert (2005) I should have been confident that Sturgis was the right man for the job. And indeed with his Oscar (Head of Zeus, £25) so he has proved to be. It is a massive work, full of detail not readily available elsewhere, especially not in a single place. There is illuminating coverage of Wilde’s lecture tours to America, for example, and by resisting the temptation to enter into critical analysis of the plays, poems and essays, Sturgis keeps the focus firmly on the man, his doings and his creative environment. Unlike many books on Wilde, moreover, this is neither hagiography nor a hatchet-job. Wilde’s literary importance as well as his significance as a social former ahead of his time are given due weight, as is Wilde’s championing of the “Uranian” lifestyle and his unbridled pursuit of comely youths after he went into exile. One sees both the light and dark sides of the playwright and watches how his character changes, first with growing arrogance and self-centredness during his heady rise to success and then acquiring a degree of humility and self-awareness through the almost redemptive horrors of prison life. The tumultuous relationship with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas of course figures large, but for all its intensity and disruptiveness, it was only one aspect of a very complex and extremely social life.

The Ballad of Reading GaolSo Sturgis’s book is what is sometimes popularly referred to as a “warts and all” biography. There are moments when Wiled’s emotional cruelty to his wife Constance or unfair criticism of devoted friends such as Robbie Ross make the reader recoil. But Matthew Sturgis avoids much overt moralising about this, instead letting the facts speak for themselves. I have always been a fan of Oscar, but after reading this book I feel I know him much better, seeing his weaknesses more clearly as well as his strengths. Because the book is so hefty I suspect many people will find it challenging to read straight through over a short period of time; I actually deliberately lingered over its reading for months. It was far too big and heavy to carry around so it became the book on the side table in the sitting room that I picked up and got back into whenever I sat in the comfortable armchair at its side. Knowing the main lines of the story pretty intimately, this was not an instance of wanting to know what happens next when reading the book, but rather I savoured each chapter slowly and with relish. Not perhaps what a book reviewer should normally do, but in this case well-justified and thoroughly rewarding. Quite simply this is a magnificent achievement by Matthew Sturgis, a monument to Oscar Wilde fitting to the 21st century. The book now sits in one of my Wilde bookcases and I know it will be consulted frequently as the authoritative source on a unique figure in the modern literary world.

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Midsommar *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 7th July, 2019

MidsommarMidsummer in Sweden is a time to escape the cities and relish the almost midnight sun, in jolly celebrations in which young maidens in ethnic dress and with crowns of flowers on their heads dance daintily as family and friends commune with nature. But what if a community of religious cultists obsessed with reading the runes and practising pagan rituals cut themselves off almost completely from the outside world and every 90 years had a particularly significant ceremony of blackest intent? That is the main scenario of Ari Aster’s new film, Midsommar, which is a brilliantly original piece, though not something for the squeamish. There’s a prologue in America where a very needy young woman (a great performance by Florence Pugh) is driving her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) to distraction, though when her worst fears about her sister’s bipolar condition are realised he rallies round and offers to take her to Sweden along with a fellow young anthropologist friend (William Jackson Harper), and another, rather goofy, college mate (Will Poulter) tags along. One knows as soon as this mismatched quartet pitch up in a superficially idyllic location where little blond children (in real life mainly Hungarian, rather than Swedish, as it happens), run around and the rest of the commune members are engaged in various pastoral and mystical activities that somehow everything is going to turn sour. Indeed, gradually the true nature of the cult begins to emerge and the sinister intentions of its leaders towards the foreign visitors become clear. Clues, like a bear imprisoned in a small wooden cage, are casually laid before the viewer. The rising tension is periodically punctured by some rather good jokes and sexual play. But darker and darker the action gets, despite the bright June light; far from bringing the two lead characters together the Bizarre situation drives them further apart and there are major casualties along the way. Some reviewers have described this a horror movie, but to my mind that is far too simplistic a classification. There are some nasty moments and one empathizes with  the growing anxiety of the American visitors. But it is a far more complex work of art than a mere shocker, making one think about relationships, family and the communal discipline of cults. And the ending is positively operatic as a climax.

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Zurich Isn’t Just for Gnomes

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 1st July, 2019

ZurichAs I hadn’t been to Zurich for at least 30 years I was pleased that the latest ALDE Party Council took place in Switzerland’s financial capital at the weekend. My hazy memory of the earlier visit was of grey skies and rather grey people — it must have been winter — whereas this time Zurich could not have looked more different. Cloudless blue sky, high summer temperatures and an attractive mix of buildings old and new, most in an immaculate state or repair. The lake and waterways are an added charm and the local people naturally were spending a lot of time outdoors, by day and at night. Hundreds of restaurants, bars and cafés have tables outside in summer or are open to the street, yet without any feeling of being crowded or noisy. Of course there are tourists, but not that many.

The city has a brilliant integrated transport system, including a notably efficient and regular tram service. Everything, including the trains, runs on an honour system; I am sure there must be ticket inspectors, though I didn’t see one. The Zurich card (one or three days) that can be bought at the airport or central station allows one unlimited travel, even on the train to and from the airport, as well as entry to a number museums and other attractions. The ALDE Council met at the SIX Convention Point, a well-equipped but totally anodyne purpose-built small conference centre that could have been anywhere and was located on an uninspiring main road. So I was glad I had booked a hotel in the much groovier district of Wiedekon; lots of ethnic restaurants and laid-back bars. Yet also remarkably free of much traffic. I was woken each morning by birdsong more typical of the countryside than a city. And what of those gnomes that are part of Zurich’s stereotype? Bankers is dark suits busy managing other people;s money. Well, they are certainly not the predominant species that you will encounter in the streets, moreover the city seems to have attracted a largely younger crowd of residents, dressed down in shorts and t-shirts and not in the least grim.

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Mark Field: Conduct Unbecoming

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 21st June, 2019

Mark Field Mansion HouseThe Chancellor of the Exchequer’s annual speech to the City of London at the Mansion House last night was interrupted by Climate Emergency protesters. But that demonstration was eclipsed by the extraordinary behaviour of the local MP — and Minister of State at the Foreign Office — Mark Field, who rose from his seat to grab a young woman protestor in a long red dress, slamming her against a pillar and then  frogmarching her out of the Egyptian Hall with his hand round her neck. Other guests at the black tie dinner sat rooted in their places as if they could not quite believe what was happening and when a clip of the incident was shown shortly afterwards on BBC’s Newsnight, presenter Kirsty Wark was visibly shaken. Little surprise, perhaps, that overnight there were calls for Mr Field to resign; this morning he has been suspended as a Minister, pending an inquiry.

What makes the affair all the more remarkable is that in his ministerial role, Mark Field has defended the right of demonstrators in Hong Kong and Myanmar and other places in his Asian ministerial bailiwick to protest peacefully and he has criticised the high-handed tactics of some countries’ security forces. Yet his own behaviour was shockingly aggressive against a woman who posed no physical threat to anyone. This comes at a time when violence and intimidation have become more common in the political arena in Britain. At times there have been ugly scenes outside the Houses of Parliament, when MPs have been jostled or threatened and rhetoric has got ever more extreme in the wake of the 2016 EU Referendum. Last Sunday marked the third anniversary of he assassination of Jo Cox MP, who had worked so hard to bring harmony where there was discord. It is essential that this trend towards intolerance and aggression is reversed if Britain’s democracy is to avoid being permanently tainted. And that means no conduct unbecoming by MPs as well.

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Let’s Calm Gulf Tensions

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 17th June, 2019

oil tanjerThe UK government’s Cabinet has been meeting today to discuss rising tensions in the Persian Gulf. Yesterday the Sunday Times revealed that 100 British marines have been sent to the country’s base in Bahrain to strengthen protection for shipping following recent attacks on tankers. The Trump administration has pinned the blame for these attacks firmly on Iran, which denies the charge. But the reactions in Europe have been more mixed. Britain’s Conservative government, keen to demonstrate its essential loyalty to Washington, has said that the evidence points to Iranian culpability, though this is not yet proven, and Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn argued that a proper investigation was needed before blame is attributed — a line supported by some of the smaller Opposition parties. At the same time there has been a call from across the UK political spectrum to calm tensions before things get out of hand. Donald Trump (egged on by Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, as well as his hawkish officials, Mike Pompeio and John Bolton) has been belligerent in his remarks about Tehran. But the Europeans have absolutely no wish to see a military conflict in the Gulf. They also hope to keep the Iran Nuclear Deal alive, despite the US withdrawal, and growing impatience on the part of Iran. The Iranians are now talking about increasing the amount of enriched uranium they produce which is also inflaming the situation. Meanwhile, oil prices have shot up as fears grow that oil supplies could be hit; it would take very little to close the narrow Straits of Hormuz, through which so much of the world’s hydrocarbons pass. The United Nations has been adding its voice to appeals for calm, but alas the UN is a weakened force on the world stage these days, thanks largely to Washington’s hostility and some of the organisation’s own shortcomings. The European Union needs to exercise its diplomatic clout, though that is itself being undermined by the British government’s pursuit of Brexit.

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No, Not Boris!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 14th June, 2019

Boris Johnson scowlThe first round of the Conservative Party’s leadership contest saw the welcome departure of Esther McVey, among others, but less heartening was the very strong performance by Boris Johnson, who came well out in front. That does not necessarily mean he will win in the end — there is a significant number of Tory MPs who fall into the “anyone but Boris” camp — but he is clearly now the firm favourite. Most of our European partners will be scratching their heads in disbelief, seeing this as proof that Brexit Britain’s disease is not only chronic but terminal. Boris has declared a willingness to press the self-destruct button of crashing out of the EU on 31 October without a deal, even though the economic effect of that is likely to be dire. Of course, when push comes to shove, he might decide not to go for the nuclear option. Consistency is not exactly his strongest characteristic. Bluff, bluster and self-promotion are more his house style. He is arguing that winning two terms as Mayor of London proves he can reach parts of the electorate other Conservative politicians cannot, which may be true up to a point but rather overlooks the fact that his record as Mayor was not brilliant. Remember the tens of millions wasted on the Garden Bridge that never happened, the white elephant of the cross-Thames cable car and the water cannon bought from Germany but never used before being flogged off cheap? His tenure as Foreign Secretary was equally uninspiring, with gaffes galore. There were literally celebrations in the department when he left. As Prime Minister, he would probably be as much of an international liability as Donald Trump, whom he increasingly resembles. Perhaps he even sees the Donald as a role model. But that is absolutely not what Britain need at this juncture. He is the worst of a singularly awful range of leadership contenders, the least bad being Rory Stewart. All of them are bent on pushing through Brexit, but a Boris Brexit would be likely to be the worst of the lot.

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Madam Atatürk

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 6th June, 2019

Madam AtaturkAs father of the modern Turkish nation, Mustafa Kemal posthumously continues to enjoy a super-human status, which in fact he had already acquired during his lifetime. He was a brilliant military commander who played a pivotal role in preventing the further dismemberment of the territory by foreign forces following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and almost single-handedly he shaped his country’s destiny, as a largely secular, Westward-looking land that would be dragged through the process of modernisation. Honoured with the surname Atatürk, Father of the Turks, he obliged his countrymen to take on European-style family names and discouraged the use of Oriental dress. On that latter point he was influenced by someone little acknowledged in the outside world for the significant role she played in Turkey’s evolution, his wife Latife. They were only together for two-and-a-half years, before he dismissed her; though she was devoted to him, she both fascinated and exasperated him. She incurred the wrath of both her husband and his cronies when she tried to curb his drinking and to stop him staying up half the night. Damned by some of her contemporaries after the divorce, Latife was an exceptional force of nature at a time when women were supposed to be obedient and quiet. The daughter of a fabulously wealthy businessman from Smyrna (Izmir), she was educated partly in Europe, was fluent in several languages and intellectually robust. Despite intermittently poor health, she outlived Atatürk by nearly four decades and could doubtless have had a brilliant international career as a speaker and writer had she not been effectively silenced and for a long period forbidden to travel. İpek Çalışlar’s biography Madam Atatürk, now available in a new paperback edition from Saqi Books (£12.99), fills an important lacuna in presenting this remarkable woman in a largely favourable light. As the author laments, some valuable source material remains inaccessible because of the family’s wishes, but she drew heavily on the memoirs of people who knew Latife and her husband intimately, as well as on Western journalists’ accounts of the time. Mustafa Kemal was a notorious womaniser (my own Austro-Hungarian honorary grandmother had to flee Turkey to escape his persistent attentions) and while he largely supported female emancipation he clearly found some of Latife’s admonishments irksome. What is really fascinating about this biography, though, (in spite of sometimes veering perilously towards hagiography) is the vivid image it gives of Izmir in the 1920s and of the hick town of Ankara, which Atatürk had chosen as the infant nation’s new capital. There is a cornucopia of telling detail as well as a different perspective on Mustafa Kemal himself, much of it conveyed between the lines.

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Westminster Shows Its True Colours

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 30th May, 2019

Westminster aerial viewThere has been some very interesting number-crunching going on since the results of the European  elections in Britain were announced late on Sunday night. And one of the most intriguing outcomes relates to the Cities of London and Westminster (CLW), that quintessentially establishment constituency that embraces many of the great institutions of state, Parliament, Buckingham Palace and the Square Mile. It’s actually the first place I lived when I came to London after university, sharing a flat in Pimlico and campaigning for the then Liberal candidate for CLW, Trevor Underwood. It has always been Conservative ever since it was created, but Westminster is also a bastion of Remainers. This was reflected starkly by the votes as tabulated by Chris Hanretty, Professor of Politics at Royal Holloway, University of London. He has done admirable work breaking down the results in every constituency in the country, so here is his tally for CLW:

Liberal Democrats  10537

Brexit Party               4149

Labour                        3894

Conservative             3144

Green                          3126

ChangeUK                  1942

Others                        1301

As British general elections are held under first-past-the-post, that would be an easy win for the LibDems. I have to declare an interest, as I am the LibDem PPC for CLW, but as a keen European I am particularly thrilled to know that the area understands the importance of Britain’s membership of the EU. Had many (non-UK) EU citizens not been turned away from polling stations last Thursday thanks to an administrative cock-up,  I suspect the LibDem vote would have been even higher. But how gratifying that a national opinion poll published this evening by YouGuv for the Times is saying that the LibDems are now are just on top nationally (on 24%). That is an amazing turnaround and a lot of that is down to the fact that the party has a clear message on the biggest issue of the day> Stop Brexit!

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