There’s a poignant piece in tomorrow’s Guardian revealing that Nick Clegg seriously contemplated resigning as Leader of the Liberal Democrats following last year’s disastrous European and local election results as he feared he had become a liability. Reportedly he was told by senior colleagues that he had to hang on in there until this May’s equally disastrous General Election, when the number of LibDem MPs was slashed from 56 to just 8. I understand the angst he went through and can only applaud the vivacity with which he bounced back after May 2014. It was true that he had become toxic on the doorstep in many Labour-facing areas, thanks to the tuition fees shambles, but I think that history will be a lot kinder to him than the electorate has been. He was undoubtedly right to take the LibDems into Coalition in 2010 (despite what my dear, late friend Charles Kennedy thought), though a bit less of a bromance with David Cameron in the Rose Garden would have been a good idea. I wonder if Nick really realised just how brutal the Conservatives (including Cameron) can be, as witnessed by their tactics re the AV referendum and the 2015 General Election. Whoever wins the current LibDem leadership election (and as I have said I will be happy to serve under either, as I admire both, though I will give Norman Lamb my first preference) is going to have to rebrand the Party on the basis of its core values. Having known Nick Clegg for many years, I do not doubt his sincerely held belief in those values. But the European elections and the General Election were not really fought on those values, and had some very iffy messaging. I said at the time that I thought the slogan “We’re the Party of IN!” for the Euros was misguided; it should have been “We’re IN it to Fix It!”. Similarly, the bizarre late leitmotif of “neither left nor right” in the General Elections was unlikely to inspire anyone other than someone whose job it is to paint those white lines in the middle of the highway. There is currently a profound review of the General Election taking place, and I hope that as a (new) member of the Party’s Federal Executive I can have some useful input into that. But one thing I am certain is that Nick should not be the token fall-guy. Yes, he was party Leader and had to fall on his sword after 7 May. But he will be seen by historians as a man of decency and of courage.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 24th June, 2015
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 19th June, 2015
It’s three years since the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was detained and although so far he has only received 50 of the 1,000 lashes to which he was condemned, his health is of great concern. Raif’s “crime” was to suggest that it is possible to be Both Saudi and liberal — to have free thoughts and express them. To the duopoly of the conservative Saudi monarchy and the country’s antideluvian Wahabbi religious hierarchy, this was both heresy and political incitement. Many NGOs and human rights campaigners around the world have taken up Raif’s case, including English PEN, which has been holding weekly demonstrations outside the Saudi Embassy in London. Some Western political leaders have mentioned the case when in discussion with the Saudi royal family, who frankly ignore such approaches as they are not backed with even a hint if any sanction. I’m ashamed that Britain is one of the prime offenders when it comes to appeasing the Saudis, because of arms sales, oil and other strategic interests. How can the UK claim the moral high ground when it turns a blind eye to the ongoing human fights abuses in the desert kingdom, including regular public beheadings? I fear that one day in the not too distant future Saudi Arabia’s rulers will be overthrown in a bloody revolution, but imprisoning and mistreating liberal nationals like Raif Badawi makes that prospect more likely, not less. King Salman is ushering in a new generation of Saudi royals, but that should be the prelude to far more radical political reforms.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 17th June, 2015
Nearly 1,200 Liberal Democrat members (many of them newbies) gathered in the Institute of Education’s Logan Hall in Bloomsbury this evening for the London regional party’s hustings for the party leadership, compered by Party President (Baroness) Sal Brinton. Having had quite a lot of contact with both candidates over the years, and being aware of their very different characters and styles, I was curious to see how they would go down. It was all very gentlemanly, of course — not least because Tim Farron admitted right at the beginning that Norman Lamb had been his mentor when he first entered Parliament. Both have dug themselves in impressively in their respective constituencies of Westmoreland & Lonsdale and Norfolk North and thus did not get swept away by last month’s tsumani, which removed five of London’s six sitting MPs (only one of whom, Lynne Featherstone, appeared to be present this evening). Intriguingly, given that Tim is seen as being on the “left” of the Party, famously voting against tuition fees and not having any role in the Coalition Government, he was the one who paid the most fulsome tribute to Nick Clegg and the LibDem wins in government 2010-2015. But both men stressed the need for a reassertion of Liberal values. Tim has the advantage of being a born communicator and a bit of a cheeky chappie, whereas Norman has the gravitas not only of having had ministerial responsibility but also having thought through very deeply issues relating to significant subjects, not least mental health. If one asks the question, “Which one would make the more convincing Prime Minister?”, Norman would win hands down. But if the Party is currently basically looking for someone who can boost morale and rebuild the party from the bottom up, then Tim has the edge. Tim has also been doing the rubber chicken circuit for several years, as probably the most energetic Party President we have ever seen. This means that although I personally shall opt for gravitas, I will be extremely happy to work with whichever one of them wins the all-member vote and I can only be thankful that given that the Liberal Democrats have only eight MPs left — all men, alas — it’s tremendous that we have two such talented but different candidates to choose from. And I do believe the contest will help enthuse our recent intake of 16,000+ new members.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 15th June, 2015
As someone who is on TV often as interviewer or commentator (mainly for Middle Eastern channels these days) it was an odd experience to be the subject of a television documentary this morning, “Family Finders” on BBC1. I was impressed with the professionalism and sensitivity of the crew from Ricochet Productions who did the filming over two days in Manchester earlier this Spring and I was more than happy with the end product. It has been quite an emotional roller coaster these past nine months, since my elder sister Denise wrote to me, thereby re-establishing contact for the first time since our mother gave me up for adoption, which was completed when I was nearly 18 months old. It was a great surprise (to both of us!) to discover that I had a half-sister Jillian as well, and it was wonderful that she flew over from her home in Spain to meet meet last Autumn. Quite apart from the physical resemblance (especially with Denise), it was extraordinary how close we have felt despite six decades of separation. Blood is indeed thicker than water. Sadly, I had a very unsatisfactory adoption. somewhat alleviated by a lovely older adoptive sister, who unfortunately went off to boarding school when I was of an age to really understand what was going on in the house. That is the subject of a book I am currently trying to finish. In the meantime, if you missed the TV programme on BBC1 today, it is being rebroadcast on BBC2 tomorrow morning at 0730 BST, and is available on BBS iPlayer: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b05ztps6/family-finders-episode-6
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 13th June, 2015
In general I don’t really favour titles and honours, but I can’t help but feel pleased by the award of a knighthood to Simon Hughes. It’s a tribute to the way he served the people of Bermondsey and the surrounding area for 32 years. I well remember an evening meeting of the old Liberal Party’s Europe committee, held at the National Liberal Club, a few years before his first election, when Simon announced that he was leaving the committee to go south of the river, at the urging of our mutual friend and mentor David Rebak, to try to convert the corrupt Labour borough of Southwark to Liberalism. Indeed, off he went and in he dug, and when the controversial parliamentary by-election came up in 1983, he won it with a huge majority — and then held the seat (despite various boundary and name changes) for over three decades. He was the ultimate constituency MP, tireless in his handling of case-work. Canvassing for him in various elections was a pleasure because local people clearly loved him and were grateful for what he had done for them. Alas, he was swept away in last month’s electoral tsunami, helped partly by the rapid turnover of population in that gentrifying part of London. Simon previously stood unsuccessfully for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats and as London’s Mayor; I supported him strongly in both instances, and I hope he won’t take those failures (or his recent parliamentary defeat) as a sign that he should give up. He still has a great deal to offer the Party, London and the country. So when he has had time over the summer to recover and relax and start making decisions and his future, I hope we will find him bouncing back in the quest of some new role.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th June, 2015
At 4.30 this morning, one of the most controversial periods in the chequered history of Tower Hamlets politics came to an end. The designated successor to ousted Mayor Lutfur Rahaman, Rabina Khan — standing as an Independent, as the Election Court that convicted Mr Rahman had also banned his party “Tower Hamlets First” — failed in her attempt to win the mayoralty, which instead went to the longstanding local Labour politician (and London East member of the Greater London Assembly) John Biggs. The Conservatives vote share stayed steady, both the Greens and UKIP were down and the Liberal Democrats slightly up, while a variety of other non-mainstream candidates also attracted some votes. Alongside the mayoral poll yesterday there was a by-election in Stepney Green ward, where a close associate of Mr Rahman’s had also been forced to stand down; in that by-election, Labour gained the seat. This gives them a single seat majority in the Council, which together with Mr Biggs’ win means the era of Tower Hamlets First has come to an end. I shan’t rehearse the arguments put forward by the election court to condemn what went on in the Borough since 2010, but would add the caveat that some of it was undoubtedly sensationalised by some of the Tory Press and certain things such as schools performance (doubtless aided by the LibDems’ pupil premium) improved during his tenure. Nonetheless, there is a huge sense of relief among many of us residents in Tower Hamlets that maybe now we will have a return to more normal politics that is perceived to be less skewed towards the priorities of a particular section of the population. It was interesting that Bengali voters did not turn out to vote in droves to enable Ms Khan’s succession and indeed the overall turnout was a rather measly 37% — well down on 2014. And given past history, with Councillors swapping sides unusually frequently, we cannot be certain that stability has been restored. We can but hope. And now it will be up to all the other parties — including Cllr Khan and her “independent” colleagues — to hold John Biggs and Labour to account.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 8th June, 2015
“Closet queen” was a somewhat derogatory term much in vogue in Britain after the Second World War to describe homosexuals who kept their sexual orientation secret, not least politicians and other men in public life. The need for secrecy was obvious, as until 1967 male homosexuality was illegal (unlike lesbianism) but many politicians, in particular, remained in the closet long after that, fearing that revealing their true nature would jeopardise their careers. Some, such as the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, nonetheless continued to satisfy their instincts, even recklessly. According to Thorpe’s biographer Michael Bloch, who has now published a new book, Closet Queens (Little Brown, £25), the danger of illicit encounters explained much of their attraction, even though exposure sometimes led to men’s downfall, blackmail or even suicide. Inevitably, a book that involves a romp through more than a century of British political history means that some of the characters who appear in it get cursory coverage, while others get their due. Though stories about outrageous figures such as Tom Driberg will be familiar to many, other elements, such as the intense friendship between Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland will not. The thing that really holds the book together is the thread of changing public attitudes (fortified by legislation) which led to a situation in which the current House of Commons has over 30 “out” gay and lesbian MPs. However, one shortcoming for me is that the book brings together a motley cast, many of whom I would not consider to have been closet queens at all, either because they were open about their sexuality (like the pioneering Chris Smith) or because they were genuinely bisexual. Though the book is an enjoyable and often amusing read, largely avoiding prurience, Bloch never really comes to terms with the reality and complexities of bisexuality, which in my opinion is our age’s “love that dare not speak its name”.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 7th June, 2015
Turks are going to the polls today in what are probably the most important parliamentary elections the country has seen in a generation. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while not a candidate himself, is hoping his AKParty will obtain a two- thirds majority, which would enable a constitutional change bringing in a powerful executive presidency, in which he would have sweeping new powers. Given the way Mr Erdoğan has already exceeded normal authority, first during his decade as Prime Minister and lately as President, this possibility is viewed by most foreign onservers, including friends of Turkey such as myself, with alarm. Curbs on political dissent, reduced media freedom and the flagrant misuse of courts to harass or punish the president’s critics have grown exponentially. Mr Erdoğan still enjoys a lot of support, notably from the rural poor, as he has presided over a period of unprecedented economic growth, though some of the new infrastructure projects (including his enormous new presidential palace) are grotesquely grandiose. The problem is that the main opposition party has been unable to offer a leader or a package of policies that offer a persuasive alternative. Instead, oddly, the best hope for a brake on Mr Erdoğan’s ambitions comes from the predominantly Kurdish HDP and its attractive leader, Selahattin Demirtas. It is touch and go whether the HDP will manage to cross the 10% threshold now needed to win representation in the Turkish parliament, but many Turkish liberals will be voting HDP in the hope that they do. Otherwise I fear Mr Erdoğan will get his mandate as Turkey’s Sultan, ever more remote from reality and European political norms.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 6th June, 2015
Technology is driving the European recovery, but if the EU is to remain globally competitive it needs to educate more of its labour force in relevant skills or allow in talent from elsewhere. A million jobs in Europe are unfilled because of a lack of people with the necessary IT skills, or so a seminar organised by the European Liberal ALDE Party in Brussels was informed yesterday. One of a series of ALDE events under the title Reclaiming Liberalism the seminar heard presentations from representatives of Microsoft (our hosts in their Brussels office), Deloitte and AT&T as well as comments from the German FDP politician Markus Loening. A useful case study of e-governance in Estonia — which I witnessed for myself on a Press trip to Tallinn a few years ago — was also included. Markus in particular focused on some of the politico-moral challenges, such as finding the balance between risks and opportunities offered by the digital revolution and it was agreed that care needs to be taken to ensure that we do not have a situation in which a privileged few gain great wealth from technological development whereas the masses remain poor, accentuating the already serious levels of inequality in the post-modern world. The sheer scale and speed of new technology development are mind-blowing, especially as we enter an era of computers and robots with cognitive abilities. While welcoming many of the new possibilities it is essential that there is a degree of regulation, as well as adequate controls over their use and misuse by governments, intelligence services and commercial companies.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 2nd June, 2015
Few politicians inspire as much warmth as Charles Kennedy generated during his time as leader of the Liberal Democrats. But then few politicians are as engaging, witty and profoundly human — in their strengths and their weaknesses — as Charles was. He was a joy to work with, even if you couldn’t always rely on him turning up on time, and although he came to the Alliance from the SDP he was Liberal to his core. He inspired huge loyalty among people he worked with — the main reason people tried to cover up his drinking problem — and he also connected with the general public to a remarkable degree. Political opponents sometimes derided him as Chatshow Charlie, but in reality they usually fell under his spell as well, as witnessed by the tributes that have been pouring in all morning from across the political spectrum. Charles Kennedy was also a brave politician, as shown when he stood his ground in opposition to the Iraq War, despite odious vilification from both Labour and Conservative MPs in the House of Commons. The abuse and the heckling deeply upset him, as he was in many ways a sensitive man, but he never wavered. I have never felt so proud of a party leader as when he joined a million of us on the London march against the War and spoke so passionately about it. His inevitable fall from the leadership and the breakdown of his marriage were twin tragedies that wounded him deeply; losing his parliamentary seat in last month’s SNP tsunami was a final cruel blow. It was obvious from his last appearance on Question Time that he was a diminished man, yet he was someone we continued to love. I considered it a privilege to work with him when I was on the party’s Federal Policy Committee and later through our involvement with the European Movement, of which he was President. When I received an SMS early this morning telling me Charles had been found dead it was if I had been punched in the gut. We have lost a great Liberal Democrat, a great Scotsman, a British politician of unique talents, a true European and above all a wonderful human being.