Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Boris Johnson’

In Defence of Experts

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th July, 2020

Anthony Fauci and Donald TrumpIn the run-up to the EU Referendum in June 2016, the then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, declared that “we have had enough of experts”. That argument unfortunately helped carry the day as millions of voters ignored the warnings from economists about the likely negative consequences of Brexit — and will soon have to live with them. The prejudice against experts also featured in the successful campaign by Donald Trump to become the 45th President of the United States. Indeed he took this philistinism up to another level, denying truths and propagating his own “alternative facts”. That willful amateurism may still resonate with much of Trump’s base, but in the age of coronavirus it is increasingly obvious that whereas populists may feel empowered by the conviction that anything they believe in must be true nonetheless scientific fact must take precedence. We see this acted out most starkly in the way that NIAID Director Anthony Fauci has resolutely offered a scientific counter-narrative to the President’s fantastic ramblings about COVID-19. This clearly irritates expert-phobes like Trump and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, but large swaths of the population in the Americas do seem to be preferring facts over fantasies when their own lives are at stake.

Boris Johnson and Dominic CummingsHere in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson — whose own statements about the best way to react to the pandemic have been confusing and at times plain misguided — still enjoys the vocal support of a claque of loyalist Ministers who are regularly trotted out to defend him when he makes a gaffe, or even to promote disinformation. For example, Health Secretary Matt Hancock the other day blithely stated that the coronavirus lockdown in Britain had started on 16 March when it self-evidently began a week later, when Boris Johnson went on TV to announce it. UK opinion polls suggest some of the shine is coming off the Johnson government, but there are still significant numbers of voters who are prepared to swallow his disinformation and outright lies. Moreover, the PM’s eminence grise, Dominic Cummings, is carrying out a frontal assault on the civil service because civil servants do acquire expertise and act on facts rather than ideology. In this ongoing battle, on both sides of the Atlantic, one can only hope that the experts prevail.

Posted in UK politics, Uncategorized, US politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Why I am Backing Layla

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 16th July, 2020

Layla Moran 3Politics in Britain is about to enter the summer silly season, though with coronavirus still lurking in the shadows one should not be surprised is Parliament is suddenly recalled after the current session rises. But for Liberal Democrats there is an added inducement to engage in political debate over the coming weeks as a leadership election is now underway, the outcome of which will be known towards the end of August. Though the Party currently has only 11 MPs (but with a much bigger cohort in the House of Lords), it boasts around 120,000 members, many of whom were galvanised into political action by the 2016 EU Referendum and what has happened with Brexit ever since. So the two leadership candidates — Ed Davey and Layla Moran — have quite a sizable body of people to pitch to. I have known both for a long time, consider them as friends and have great respect for both of them. But as so many people have asked me who I am backing, I thought it worth setting out not just who, but why.

Layla Moran nomination I was one of more than 1,000 Party members who nominated Layla Moran last week because I feel she offers an exciting and engaging radical alternative to Boris Johnson and Kier Starmer. That is not just because she is younger and a woman (though both those characteristics will appeal to sectors of the electorate) but also because whereas most LibDems preach internationalism Layla is an embodiment of internationalism: half Palestinian, partly raised in Jordan and Jamaica and with extensive experience in Europe, including Brussels. Before getting elected as MP for Oxford West and Abingdon in 2017 she worked in teaching, physics and maths being her specialities. She is currently the Party’s Education spokesperson — a crucial portfolio which will be even more important as Britain in the autumn faces up to the challenges to all levels of education in the post-COVID-19 “new normal”. I urged Layla to stand when the leadership was last up for contest, when Vince Cable stood aside, but I recognise that she was right to demur then, to concentrate on making her parliamentary seat secure and to gain more experience in the House of Commons. But I sincerely believe her time is now. She is not just different from the usual ranks of UK politicians, she is full of vim and verve, to rally people to the LibDem cause and to help hold the appalling Boris Johnson-led Conservative government to account.

Posted in Liberal Democrats, UK politics, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Big Lie

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 6th July, 2020

Hitler and GoebbelsOne of the weirdest moments in my childhood was finding an English-language copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf hidden in the bottom of a wardrobe in the nursery of my (adoptive) maternal grandmother’s house in Derbyshire. “Brown Grandma”, as she was always referred to at home because she always wore brown clothes (as opposed to “Black Grandma”, my adoptive father’s mother, who wore widow’s black) had been President of the local Conservative Association but didn’t strike me as a fascist, however I never plucked up the courage to ask her why the book was tucked away under a pile of blankets. However, I did read Adolf Hitler’s work surreptitiously. Much of it was pretty boring, while other bits — such as his hatred of the Jews — were revolting. But one thing which intrigued me and has stayed with me ever since was his theory of The Big Lie — that if a lie is colossal and you keep repeating it, people will believe it as they will feel that no-one would have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. This propaganda technique was perfected and implemented by Hitler’s henchman Joseph Göbbels, who manipulated political discourse and in particular used the medium of radio to feed the German public a steady diet of nourishing lies.

Boris JOhnson and Donald TrumpI am surely not alone in thinking that the Nazis’ use of The Big Lie (mirrored by Josef Stalin and the Soviet Communists, one should note) is enjoying a kind of renaissance today on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2016 here in Britain during the EU Referendum the Leave campaign produced a series of seminal lies, even plastering one of the most effective on the side of a big red bus. The assertion that the NHS could benefit from the £350 million allegedly sent by Britain each week to Brussels was demonstrably untrue. An even bigger whopper was the claim that Turkey was about to join the EU, meaning that 70 million Turks would become eligible to move to the UK. Remainers complained in vain about this distortion of reality, but large swaths of the public were happy to believe what they were told, just as millions of Germans had in the 1930s. Meanwhile, in America, Donald Trump and his team were up to the same tricks, manufacturing and disseminating untruths to great effect. That helped him win the election and he has stuck with the strategy of The Big Lie while in office. So, to a large degree, has British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. I am certainly not arguing that Johnson is a fascist, but the technique of The Big Lie (perhaps promoted by the Prime Minister’s amanuensis, Dominic Cummings) is evident to me. The US presidential election in November will be a litmus test to see if sufficient people still swallow the lies. For the health of democracy both in the United States and here in Britain one cannot only hope that they do not.

Posted in Brexit, UK politics, Uncategorized, US politics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

COVID-19: UK Consistently Shambolic

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 23rd June, 2020

pub gardenMany pub landlords and restaurateurs in England will be heaving a huge sigh of relief this evening following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement that they should be open for business again from 4 July, as long as various social distancing measures are deployed. But as has been the case throughout the Conservative government’s handling of the virus, the measure is full of inconsistencies and loopholes. Whereas it might be reasonable for anyone wanting to book a table at a restaurant to provide contact information the idea that everyone who goes into a pub or a restaurant will have to register will seem to many people concerned with civil liberties — including me — as a bridge too far. How will such data be stored, for how long and who will have access to it? Moreover, as no-one will be asked to provide an ID, it is reported, we can expect that there will quite a lot of Mickey Mouses and Bruce Lee’s turning up at their locals. But that is not the only problem with Boris Johnson’s new guidelines. Scotland does not yet think it is safe to give the green light to the hospitality sector; that is likely to come on 15 July instead. So why next week will it be safe to go out for a meal in England, but not in Scotland? Will some people just be tempted to cross the border (as used to happen when pubs were closed on Sundays in Wales?

Boris Johnson at Downing Street press conferenceThe social distancing modifications are a bit perplexing as well. Mr Johnson indicated in his briefing at 10 Downing Street that the 2 metre safe distance limit will be reduced to “one metre plus” from 4 July. Most people will assume that in practice that means one metre, and in fact if my local neighbourhood is anything to go by, people have decided for themselves that that is alright now. I understand that the hospitality sector needed sufficient notice to make necessary adjustments to their properties so they can reopen on 4 July, but many people will just decide that if one metre is alright from Friday next week it should be alright now. The whole way this is being handled is typical of the shambolic way the Johnson government has dealt with the pandemic. Lockdown was introduced far too late, meaning that maybe as many as 20,000 people died unnecessarily. And there has been no proper coordination with the devolved governments of the nations. Now the daily press conferences are going to be discontinued. I know they have become deadly dull, as there is no opportunity for really probing questioning of Ministers. But inevitably some people will wonder whether the scientists who used to be trotted out had got fed up with being used as shields to protect the government from its own incompetence.

Posted in COVID19, Uncategorized | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Downgrading DFID Is Daft

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 16th June, 2020

UK AidBoris Johnson’s Conservative government has announced its intention to subsume the Department for International Development (DFID) within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). This is a seriously bad idea, not least at a time when much of the developing world is struggling with the Coronavirus pandemic. Even former Prime Minister David Cameron has criticised the plan. It was under the Cameron-led Coalition government of 2010-2015 that the United Kingdom achieved the UN target of devoting 0.7% of its GNP to international development; indeed, that percentage was then enshrined in law. But with an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson may feel that he can overturn that as well if he wishes. If he did, that would be once again singing to former UKIP Leader Nigel Farage’s songsheet. There are indeed a number of Brexiteer Tory MPs who feel, like Farage, that overseas aid is a waste of UK taxpayers’ money and that the funds should be spent at home, while others argue that if aid is to be given it should be linked to the promotion of British goods and services — in effect recycling the money back into the British economy. But one of the main discussion points in the late 1970s, when I was Secretary to the Brussels-based NGO Liaison Committee to the European Communities, was the need to move away from such “tied aid”, instead addressing the real priorities of poorer countries. To reverse that process would be a retrograde step. But so too is bringing DFID back in-house at the FCO, where inevitably it will be seen as an arm of British foreign policy. DFID has won a lot of respect for its work, often targeted at the poorest communities. But downgrading DFID from Ministry status would be taking us back several decades. This is hardly likely to win us many friends in sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, where views of British colonial legacy is often ambivalent, to say the least. That is not exactly a smart thing to do at a time when post-Brexit Britain is looking to improve its reputation outside Europe. In fact, in a word, it’s daft.

Posted in UK politics, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

A New Cold War?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 31st May, 2020

UyghursIn recent weeks, both houses of the US Congress almost unanimously passed a Bill calling on the Trump administration to enact sanctions against China for its human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region. Republicans expect the President soon to sign this into law. The main individual target is Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party’s regional secretary, whom the Bill accuses of gross human rights violations against the local Muslim population, many hundreds of thousands of whom have been detained in re-education camps in what some international human rights groups have termed cultural genocide. This is not the first time that China’s Han-dominated regime has tried to eradicate the religious beliefs and cultural norms of a minority ethnicity, of course; the military occupation of Tibet in 1959 caused a flood of refugees over the Himalayas to Nepal and India, while those who remained behind witnessed their heritage being largely destroyed, especially during China’s Cultural Revolution.

Josep BorrellIn the case of the Uyghurs another disturbing element has been the use of forced labour in detention centres and in factories across the country, with several major Western companies in fields such as fashion and electronics complicit in this abuse through their supply chains. The US Bill specifically calls on US companies and individuals working in the region to cut ties that involve forced labour in Xinjiang. This move in Washington coincides with the stated determination of the European Union to be more “robust” in its dealings with China. At a virtual meeting of the bloc’s Foreign Ministers on Friday, the EU in particular expressed its “grave concern” over China’s new security law relating to Hong Kong, which it said was not in line with Beijing’s international commitments. However, the EU — whose member states are divided about how strongly they want to stand up against China — stopped short of approving any sanctions against China.

Hong Kong demosThe issue of Hong Kong is particularly sensitive in Britain, the former colonial power. Now the UK is no longer a member of the EU it has to decide its own line on disagreements with Beijing. But in London, too, there are divided opinions, for example regarding the wisdom of letting the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei be integrated into the country’s 5G network. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is close to US President Trump, however, and the latter has become increasingly strident in his criticism of China, whom he particularly blames for the COVID-19 pandemic and for allegedly manipulating the WHO. Other Western governments have also increasingly expressed concern about what they see as China’s projection of disinformation since Xi Jinping consolidated his hold on power — a tactic previously mainly associated with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This does all lead me to wonder whether a new Cold War is in the offing. The last one, between Washington plus its allies against Moscow plus theirs, ended with the collapse of Communism in Europe and the break-up of the Soviet Union. But the new one would be between Washington and Beijing, with a disparate group of nations lining up on either side. But whereas the US could with justification claim to have “won” the last Cold War, its chances this time are perhaps not so bright. Despite Donald Trump’s bluster about Making America Great Again, he has presided over his country’s decline on the international stage, while China, despite recent economic setbacks, partly related to COVID19, remains on the ascendant.

Posted in China, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Conservatives Are Trashing Britain

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 26th May, 2020

Dominic Cummings in rose gardenWhen prime ministerial advisor Dominic Cummings gave an unprecedented press conference in the rose garden at 10 Downing Street yesterday afternoon he hoped to draw a line under the matter of his allegedly breaking COVID-19 lockdown rules. But the issue is not just going to evaporate. This morning the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Douglas Ross, has resigned in protest over the way Cummings’ behaviour and Boris Johnson’s unfailing support for his right-hand man have undermined official guidance for limiting the spread of the virus. All this at a time when millions of Brits have made great personal sacrifices over the past couple of months because of social distancing. It’s not just Opposition political parties and the media that are going to keep up the pressure on Cummings to be fired, given that he has asserted he is not going to resign. There is a huge amount of discontent among the general public, including members of the Conservative Party. Yet still Ministers such as Michael Gove trot out loyal statements backing Mr Cummings.

Boris Johnson scowlThe affair has already hit Boris Johnson’s personal opinion poll ratings, which have slumped. But perhaps even more worrying is the way that Britain’s reputation has taken a bashing abroad. As if it were not bad enough that the country now has the highest per capita rate of coronavirus deaths in the world, the Cummings fiasco has made us a laughing stock. Much of the foreign press is withering about how the British lion has lost its mojo. What’s more, the UK’s standing has been hit by a double whammy, as Brexit has also seen our position in the world diminished — a situation that can only get worse after the transition period ends. Boris Johnson and his pals conned the British electorate into backing him last December on the grounds that they would make Britain a proud, independent nation again, but the opposite has happened. The Johnson government is trashing the country with its incompetence. And given the way it is alienating the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it could well end up breaking up the United Kingdom as well.

Posted in UK politics, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Boris Johnson’s Theatre of the Absurd

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 24th May, 2020

45810B87-930A-4425-ACB4-08E90C9DDAF3UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has usually avoided appearing at the daily Downing Street COVID-19 press conferences — understandable while he was himself ill with the virus, of course — but today he really had no choice but to appear to face allegations that his special advisor, Dominic Cummings, had undermined the government’s message of staying safe at home to prevent a further spread of the disease. The accusation, backed by strong evidence, was that when Mr. Cummings and his wife felt Coronavirus symptoms coming on they got in their car with their infant son and drove 260 miles to his parents’ farm in County Durham. Other reports claimed that later the couple went on a day trip to a local heritage site and that soon afterwards, having returned to work in London, Mr. Cummings made a second trip to Durham. During the day today there has been a cacophony of calls from politicians of all stripes — including at least half a dozen Conservative MPs, as well as members of the public — for Dominic Cummings to resign. Social media were buzzing with outrage from people who had not been able to visit sick and sometimes dying relatives, or had been obliged to miss saying farewell to loved ones at funerals, because they were abiding by the government’s rules. So Mr. Cummings’ behaviour seemed to be a prima facie contravention of health instructions. Yet a series of Cabinet Ministers went into TV studios as the day went on declaring that Mr. Cummings had done nothing wrong, and had only been acting in the best interests of his young son.

C2D345C4-58FB-42C7-BFA9-4290BCB3468COne might then have expected Boris Johnson, when he appeared this afternoon, to bite the bullet and admit that a gross error of judgment had occurred. But not a bit of it. Instead, at the press conference he came out with the novel argument that Mr. Cummings had acted properly in line with “his instincts”. Does that mean, many viewers wondered, that in future everyone can follow their own instincts in responding to the pandemic? Far from cooling things the Prime Minister has stoked the anger. After he finished speaking, an extraordinary tweet appeared on the UK Civil Service’s twitter account decrying the situation. The tweet was removed and declared “unauthorised” within 10 minutes, but not before screenshots of it had been shared multiple times. If the mandarins find out who was responsible, they will doubtless try to fire or at least demote him or her. Hats off to author J. K. Rowling for saying she would happily pay the culprit a year’s salary!

So has Boris Johnson drawn a line under the Cummings saga? Absolutely not. The chorus of disapproval has got even louder this evening, with even Tory stalwarts denouncing the way that the Prime Minister is seemingly in thrall to his special advisor.  Cummings was of course not elected to any public office but now seems to be calling the shots in 10 Downing Street, with even Boris Johnson dancing to his tune. This was an unpopular situation among many Tory MPs even before the current scandal. That can only get worse. One has almost become weary of Boris Johnson’s bluster and Trumpian lies, but now he is playing fast and furious with the whole nature of government. He may feel he has defended Dominic Cummings but in behaving as he has the Prime Minister has in fact damaged his own standing, as well as undermining public confidence in government. His way of governing has become a theatre of the absurd. But what started out being amusing for some people has now morphed into something about which Britons have the right to be absolutely furious.

Posted in UK politics, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Why Cummings Must Go

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd May, 2020

Dominic Cummings 2Britain is going through a difficult period just now, as we enter the third month of COVID-19 lockdown, with millions of people worried about their future, not only because of the ongoing threat of the virus but also the danger of economic ruin. Many businesses, not least in the hospitality sector, face going under if they cannot soon start trading again and countless freelancers in the creative industries, as I know from my own situation, have seen their earnings plummet. But since last night, the political and media focus has been not so much on the government’s coronavirus strategy as on the behaviour of No 10 Downing’s Street’s unusual Special Advisor, Dominic Cummings. Though unelected, he is said to be the second most powerful man in the government, so strongly does Boris Johnson rely on his advice. Cummings was one of the architects of the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 EU Referendum as well as the Get Brexit Done strategy in last December’s general election. He is unconventional in his dress and manners, and is in favour of blue sky thinking. He it was who called for “misfits and weirdos” to apply for jobs to work alongside him in Number 10.

No 10 Downing Street However, the reason he is all over the news at the moment is because he allegedly broke the COVID-19 isolation and “stay at home” rules in force when he and his wife, both of whom were infected with the virus, drove with their young son 250 miles to Durham to place the boy with his elderly grandparents. There is some dispute about whether he was already ill with coronavirus, or just his wife; either way, their action flew in the face of everything that Health Secretary Matt Hancock and other government Ministers and senior scientific and medical advisers have been saying over the past eight weeks, as well as demonstrating a curious lack of concern for the vulnerability of the grandparents. Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and other senior Conservative figures have been trying to make out that what Cummings did was alright. But for much of the public this looks like a situation of “one rule for the toffs in charge, another for the general population”. It also makes another dent in the Prime Minister’s reputation for allowing this to happen, if he he knew about it in advance.

A number of Tory MPs are understood to be livid about the matter and opposition party figures have been calling for Cummings to go. They are right to do so. Not only has he  apparently taken liberties when it came to the lockdown rules at a time when millions of Britons have been following them assiduously, at considerable personal inconvenience or cost; he also seems to have flouted what I call the Alastair Campbell rule, in honour of Tony Blair’s former Press guru, who realised that when he had become the story rather than the policies Blair’s government was trying to implement, it was time for him to bow out. If Cummings has any sense of decency he will resign. Otherwise, he should be fired.

Posted in UK politics, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

A Different Europe Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 9th May, 2020

Europe Day 2020In recent years on Europe Day, 9 May, I have usually been attending a concert at St. John’s Smith Square, sponsored by the European Commission office which occupied the former Conservative Party headquarters opposite. These days the latter building houses the EU delegation to the UK, because Britain left the European Union on 31 January, in keeping with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s determination to Get Brexit Done. Because of COVID-19 there could not have been a Europe Day concert and reception this week, anyway, as all such public events are potentially dangerous and in fact prohibited under the “new normal”. But millions of Brits who, like myself, bitterly regret the EU’s uncoupling from our 27 European friends and neighbours — though “resent” would be a more accurate verb in my case — still like to see ourselves as Europeans and cherish the values at the heart of the European project, many of which are under assault not only from distant rulers including Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping but also from within, notably from Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. Those values and the peace that our continent has enjoyed for the past 75 years need to be resolutely championed. And even if I shan’t have my spirits raised by the traditional rendering of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as the finale of a Europe Day concert this year I shall celebrate my European heritage and future with a suitably sourced Mediterranean lunch washed down by a fine bottle of pinot noir.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »