Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Charles Kennedy’

Images of Iraq

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 26th July, 2020

Baghdad Al Rasheed StreetWatching the superb and at times harrowing five-part BBC documentary series Once upon a Time in Iraq this week has aroused many memories and emotions in me, as the country has repeatedly been a feature of my life for the past half century. Iraq was the first Arab country I visited, in the late summer of 1969, on my way back overland from the Vietnam War (as recounted in my childhood memoir, Eccles Cakes). I arrived on an overnight bus from Tehran, wandered through the collonades of Al Rasheed Street, smiled at the red London double decker buses and slept on the roof along with everyone else escaping the heat. By the time Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait, in 1990-1991, I was working at BBC World Service radio at Bush House and for weeks did night shifts, putting together packages for the various language services based on material sent in by correspondents in the field.

Baghdad Al Rasheed HotelI was inspired by Charles Kennedy’s principled stand against the Iraq War and took part in the million person march in London against Tony Blair’s decision to go with George W Bush into War in 2003, though I was actually in Casablanca at a Liberal International event when the bombing of Baghdad started in earnest. Young Moroccans in the street were angry about it, and so was I, watching it all unfurl on CNN. I didn’t get back to the country itself until ten years later, however, when I was invited to Baghdad for an Arab League event on Palestine. It was eerie sitting in one of the main rooms of what had been Saddam Hussein’s palace under a rather kitsch ceiling painting of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Like most Western journalists I was put up in the Al Rasheed Hotel in the Green Zone, a soulless modern edifice whose vast grounds featured a frustratingly empty swimming pool.

MosulLater I had the chance to travel in Iraqi Kurdistan, too, to savour the historic splendour of the old citadel of Erbil but also to visit the chamber of horrors that was the Red House, the Mukhabarat security service’s interrogation centre and prison in Sulaymaniyah, as well as the scene of Saddam’s chemical attack on Kurdish civilians in Halabja. There is graphic footage of the brutality of the Ba’athist regime in Once upon a Time in Iraq, but in many ways what happened after the Americans overthrew him turned out to be much worse, through sectarian civil war and then the rise and fall of first Al Qaeda in Iraq and subsequently Islamic State. Some of the testimonies in the documentary series are likely to stay in my mind for the rest of my life; so much suffering and sadness, but also remarkable bravery. At times there was a jolt of recognition as shots showed places I remembered, though many, like Al Rasheed Street, were comprehensively trashed in fighting. The major ISIS stronghold Mosul, which still contained significant elements of Ottoman heritage when they took over, was literally obliterated in the fight to crush them. Yet still peace and security are elusive in Iraq, no longer what it was or what it might have been.

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Boris Bounces but LibDem Trounces

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 2nd August, 2019

Brecon by-electionIn the 10 days or so since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, the Conservatives have risen in the opinion polls. This is almost entirely because some traditional Tory voters who had defected to the Brexit Party have drifted back because of Johnson’s Brexit pledge — though Jeremy Corbyn’s terminal uselessness as Leader of the Labour Opposition has also played a part. Nonetheless, yesterday the Liberal Democrats were able to seize the parliamentary seat of Brecon and Radnorshire in a by-election, with the Welsh LibDem Leader, Jane Dodds, achieving a majority of over 1,000. Inevitably some Conservatives are now wondering whether it was wise to readopt Chris Davies as their candidate in the by-election, as he had been the subject of a successful recall petition  because of dodgy expense returns. But the real problem for Boris Johnson is that his technical parliamentary majority (even with DUP support) is now down to just one. And several pro-Remain Conservative MPs who are horrified by the prospect of a No Deal Brexit on 31 October, as the Prime Minister has threatened, are poised to defect or else maybe even to bring the government down. Today the psephological guru, Sir John Curtice, was predicting that the LibDems could win as many as 50 seats if there were a snap general election this autumn or next spring, which would bring the party back to the sort of level it was at under Charles Kennedy and Nick Clegg. A heady prospect for new Leader, Jo Swinson. It will be interesting to watch the national opinion polls following the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election. Those of us with long enough political memories will recall that on several occasions in the past by-election triumphs led to a period of resurgence for the LibDems (and previously, the Liberals). So whereas Boris may indeed be enjoying a bounce in the polls, the Liberal Democrats could end up bouncing higher, especially if the Remain Alliance that worked so well in Brecon is maintained.

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Winning Here

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 10th April, 2018

0BC563C7-00F1-4254-A995-6EFB48B87F6DFor more than two decades, Chris Rennard was the Liberal Democrats’ campaign guru, masterminding successive by-election wins and astounding many media professionals by being able to predict results with uncanny accuracy (sometimes winning himself some useful cash with judiciously-placed bets at the same time). But as his memoir Winning Here (Biteback, £25) makes clear, he was something of a political anorak when he was barely out of short pants (and an orphan), cutting his teeth in the not always friendly environments of Liverpool and Leicester. His talents were soon recognised at the HQ in London, where he graduated from being a one-man campaign band to be the head of a team of 20. Ah, those were the days. Under his stewardship (later with the starring role of Chief Executive) he nurtured the growth of the Party until it won 62 seats in the 2005 general election, post-Iraq War, with Charles Kennedy as party leader. Willie Rennie’s by-election win soon after was the cherry on the top, taking the LibDems to an unrivalled 63 in the House of Coomons (and a hefty contingent in the House of Lords, too, including Chris Rennard himself).  But the wheels we’re beginning to come off the LibDem bandwagon, with Charles’s imminent resignation because of unchecked alcoholism, Simon Hughes’s sexual orientation confusion and Mark Oaten’s walk on the wild side. The book ends there, on a note of triumph, but with storm clouds gathering. But I am sure I cannot be alone in being a little perturbed by the fact that the cover says this is Memoirs Volume 1. Given the rumpus over Chris’s alleged inappropriate behaviour (unproven, a subsequent inquiry decided), maybe it would be wiser to call it a day here. As it is, for a longstanding campaigner and serial candidate such as myself, this book is a treasure trove of memories and anecdotes. I know/knew virtually everyone mentioned, and campaigned with many of them. Interestingly, the European elections get only scant coverage, confirming my suspicion that Chris (and some others in HQ) saw them as a somewhat irritating sideshow. The parliamentary by-elections were the things that kept him motivated — often working grotesquely long hours, detrimental to his personal health — and we can gloriously relive them all here and remember when for Liberal Democrats, the good times really were good.

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London’s March for Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 10th September, 2017

March for Europe 9 September 2017Yesterday, tens of thousands of us marched through central London, from Hyde Park Corner to Parliament Square, chanting the slogan “Exit Brexit!”. I don’t think the turnout was quite as big as last March, but the atmosphere was just as festive, under the warm, late summer sun, and there was a sea of flags — especially the EU flag, but also the Union flag and those of the UK’s four nations, as well as several EU member states and even some English counties. Before we all set off, Vince Cable, new Leader of the Liberal Democrats, gave a speech by the statue of the Duke of Wellington — a symbolic location, given the Iron Duke’s battles against the French, in an era when European states fought each other. “The Liberal Democrats continue to demand that the public should have a choice when the final outcome and the facts are clear,” Vince said. “Do we want to rush ahead off the cliff, or do we want an exit from Brexit? That choice, that option, has got to remain.”

BresistanceAt Parliament Square there was a rally, with more speeches by politicians and personalities, though sadly this being a weekend, there were no other MPs around at the Houses of Parliament to witness what was going on. At least some of the TV channels and mainstream media were there, though coverage was slight. I know from my own experience of BBC editorial meetings over the years that demonstrations are not considered to be “news” unless they are humongous, like the million people who turned out to try to dissuade Tony Blair from going to war in Iraq in 2003. Charles Kennedy led a huge phalanx of Liberal Democrats on that occasion and it was good yesterday to see a large contingent of LibDems on the March for Europe as well. One thing did concern me, however. Last March many drivers coming down the other side of the road honked their horns and people on the top of tourist buses cheered, whereas there was very little reaction from the public yesterday. Are they now resigned to going over the cliff edge of Brexit, or just too bewildered about what is happening under the Conservative government’s chaotic handling of the matter? Either way, this left me feeling uneasy. So it was cheering in the evening to watch on TV part of the Last Night of the Proms concert from Albert Hall, which was a sea of EU flags as well as British ones. An enterprising team of Remainers had handed out thousands to people going in and they were received with enthusiasm.

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The Yawning Centre Ground

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 27th December, 2015

Jeremy CorbynCameron EU 1With Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn widely being predicted to purge his Shadow Cabinet of several right-wingers and Britain’s Conservative government rapidly becoming the most intolerant and anti-progressive since the dark days of Mrs Thatcher, there is a yawning centre ground in British politics. In principle, this offers an ideal opportunity to the Liberal Democrats as a third force. But to occupy that ground successfully won’t just happen; it has to be engineered. The way NOT to do it was illustrated in the final stages of May’s disastrous general election campaign, when a party political broadcast was aired showing a woman driving a car (while not wearing a safety belt, as thousands of TV viewers noted with disapproval) wondering whether to turn left or turn right but in the end deciding to go straight ahead. A neat idea from a PR firm’s point of view, perhaps, but as a political message totally vacuous. The LibDems were suddenly neither one thing nor the other, and nothing in particular; no wonder many of our wavering supporters went elsewhere.

Tim FarronThe late, lamented Charles Kennedy understood that the Party must not be seen as the soggy centre, and was good at articulating a narrative of being “actively forward”. That is something Tim Farron needs to emulate. Tim has rightly seized on human rights as a core Liberal principle, highlighting in particular the humanitarian crisis relating to refugees and migrants on the one hand and the disgraceful record of Saudi Arabia and some other badly performing countries on the other. But human rights — and indeed wider civil liberties — are always going to be a minority discourse, so the LibDems need to craft a “radical forward” political platform that draws more people away from left-leaning Labour and right-leaning Tories. With the Green Party wilting, environmental issues can be reclaimed by the Party. And so must the issue of fairness, often talked about in LibDem literature but as yet not turned into a campaigning message — one that is passionate, one that is angry about the growing inequalities within British society and one that challenges the Conservative head-on. The Tories may have been our Coalition partners between 2010 and 2015, but there is no doubt that they are our political opponents now.

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Tim Farron and the HIGNFY Challenge

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 21st November, 2015

Tim FarronThe much missed late, great leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, was routinely mocked by political opponents as “Chatshow Charlie”, because of his readiness to go on popular TV programmes, including and especially the BBC’s Have I Got News for You (HIGNFY). But as with schoolboys, this mocking often masked jealousy on the others’ part, as Charles was such a warm and witty person who remained so utterly himself on camera that he endeared audiences, even those who normally have no time for politicians. And although Charles’s principled stance over the Iraq War (for which he was viciously heckled by MPs on both sides of the House of Commons) was certainly the major reason the LibDems did so well in 2005, winning 62 seats, another explanation was Charles Kennedy’s humanity. The excuse for bringing this up now is that next Friday, 27 November, the current LibDem leader, Tim Farron, will be occupying one of those HIGNFY hot-seats. Sir Humphrey Appleby would doubtless have dubbed this a “bold” move and it is indeed quite brave. Some politicians have ended up looking right plonkers on HIGNFY, particularly if they try to be “clever”. My advice to Tim is this: be prepared for some rigorous ribbing (de rigueur for any politician on the show), including and especially for your religious beliefs and the smallness of the LibDems’ cohort in the House of Commons. Do your homework on what are the sort of subjects likely to come up in the questions. But above all, be yourf usual relaxed, even cheeky self. Don’t try to be anything else but but Tim Farron, the lad from Preston who made good, and maybe, one day, when viewers see you on TV they’ll say, “Oh, there’s that Tim from Have I Got News for You”, in the way that they hailed Charles and learned to love him.

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Tim and Norman Put on the Spot

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 30th June, 2015

EMLD hustingsTim Farron and Norman Lamb had to face what was probably the most difficult hustings of their LibDem leadership contest so far tonight at an event put on by Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats (EMLD) at the Draper Hall in Southwark. The meeting was chaired by Simon Wooley of Operation Black Vote, who had some pretty penetrating questions of his own about how the Liberal Democrats have failed to resonate with so much of the BaME community over the past five years — in contrast to the groundswell of support from Muslims in particular when Charles Kennedy bravely opposed the Iraq War. Both candidates acknowledged that the Party is currently in an unfortunate pace, in which there are only eight MPs, all of whom are white men. That means there are gender issues to be confronted. too. But it is the striking way that the LibDems fail to reflect the ethnic diversity of modern Britain at all levels, including membership, that needs to be tackled most urgently. Prominent LibDem politicians such as Nick Clegg and Simon Hughes have often referred to the problem, yet it self-evidently has not been solved (though Simon did establish an excellent relationship with the large African community in his constituency over the 32 years that he represented it). Indeed, it has got worse.

EMLD logo The great irony is that actually Liberal core values of inclusiveness, equality and respect for the individual should all chime in with a multicultural reality. Moreover, the Party has often taken stances on issues such as immigration and the rights of asylum seekers that are more progressive than those of either the Conservatives or Labour. But the predominantly BaME audience at the EMLD hustings was not ready to give either Tim or Norman an easy ride. They were both chided for not doing enough while the Party was in government to prevent the slashing of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s budget (and therefore its staff). Several members expressed frustration that sometimes they feel they are token ethnic members, useful for photographs, but often handicapped when it came to achieving political office. Interestingly, both Tim and Norman, when pressed, came out in favour of positive discrimination as a temporary measure to ensure that some BaME LibDems do get elected, though not all the EMLD members present favoured that. Both men pledged to reach out to diverse communities if they do become Leader, and Norman was able to point to relevant work he had done with regard to mental health and discrimination against ethnic minorities when he was Minister for Health and Social Care. Tim strongest personal narrative is that he does not fit the standard Westminster white male MP’s profile in having been brought up in relative poverty in Lancashire by a determined single mother, which gives him a certain natural empathy for the marginalised of society. Despite the quite rough ride that the two candidates had tonight, both came across as sincere and passionate and determined that whichever one of them wins, racial equality issues, including police stop-and-search and discrimination in the provision of public services, will be one of their prime concerns. Simon Wooley, resolutely non-partisan, acknowledged that and reiterated what many people in this country think: that Britain needs a principled Liberal party and that the Liberal Democrats need to fit for purpose to meet that challenge.

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History Will Be Kinder to Nick Clegg

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 24th June, 2015

Nick Clegg 6There’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.

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Charles Kennedy, the UK and Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 4th April, 2013

Former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, President of the European Movement UK, sets out why it’s important for Britain to have a confident and active future in the EU. Well worth reading. Originally published in the European Movement’s euroblog.

by Charles Kennedy MP
Charles KennedyThe Prime Minister’s speech at the end of January has created a sense of uncertainty and insecurity among those that believe in Britain’s membership of the EU. Many, both within the UK but also among our European and global partners, have expressed concern about the possibility of Britain exiting the EU, as the PM raised it in his speech. But irrespectively of the reasons behind the PM’s attitude towards the EU and his ability to deliver what he promised in January, his speech has focused public attention and forced front-line politicians and business with pro-European sentiments to come out and join organisations like the European Movement in defending Britain’s membership of the EU.
The public’s attitude is also changing. After decades of anti-EU bias in the political discourse and across the tabloid press, the British people only had the opportunity to listen to the euromyth-infused anti-EU arguments. As a result their perception of the EU membership is one-dimensional. But as the coalition in favour of EU membership enlarges and the advantages of membership are finally articulated, public opinion is shifting. There is still a lot to play for of course, but with mainstream politicians, business, the trade unions, the US, global investors and Britain’s European partners advising against EU exit, public opinion is finally acquainted with what it really means to be a member of the EU and what are the dangers of a potential exit. It is imperative that pro-Europeans in the UK explain what the real benefits of EU membership are, in an effort to counter-balance the negative image projected by the tabloid press, UKIP and some Conservative MPs and even Ministers. At the same time we must build bridges with other EU states and ensure they do not allow Britain to slide towards the EU exit. An organisation like the European Movement, which as part of a wide, pan-European network of organisations, has played a pivotal role in the process of European integration in the past 60 years, has an important role to play in this sense. In my contact with politicians across the EU I can see first-hand that Britain still commands respect among European nations. So a British government, which is prepared to constructively engage with its EU partners and work towards strengthening the Union, deepening the Single Market, improving the way it works and enhancing the EU’s global reach, will be able to help shape the future of the European Union.
What is important to understand is that the process of European integration is not a zero-sum game, where nations compete against each other for the preservation of the national interest. On the contrary, the EU is a consensus-based organisation, founded on the principle of compromise and the pursuit of the common interest. A British government which is prepared to engage in those terms will find it much easier to promote its own priorities, which are intimately linked to the interests of the European Union as a whole. The creation of the Single Market and the enlargement process are two prime examples of Britain working with its EU partners and succeeding in materialising two of the most ambitious and successful undertakings in the EU’s history.
UK EUIt is easy to detract why a British exit from the EU will have undesirable consequences. Britain will lose massively in economic terms. With over 40% of our trade going to the EU and about 50% of FDI emanating from our continental neighbours, leaving the EU will have negative effects on the country’s economic well-being. Britain’s ability to be part of big trade deals will also be reduced. Negotiating as a member of a 500 million strong market, an economy worth €12 trillion, offers all member states a competitive advantage; collective bargaining strengthens our hand. The same applies to other global agreements, not least on environmental and climate change negotiations. Furthermore, Britain and its EU partners increase their reach in foreign policy terms when speaking with one voice, enhancing their ability to promote European values across the world, especially in places that suffer under the rule of dictators with sinister intentions. Also, EU membership offers economies of scale when it comes to defence expenditure at a time of austerity, when defence budgets are under pressure. We can share the burden of security by working together, like in the case of fighting piracy off the east coast of Africa, where the EU mission has been successful in protecting the lives of EU citizens and European commercial interests.
Leaving the EU will not enhance Britain’s sovereignty. It will shrink it. At an age of continent-sized powers, with global ambitions, European nations are better off working together, pooling resources, joining forces in the pursuit of common interests. Britain alone, adrift in the Atlantic, squeezed between the US, the EU, China, Brazil, India and other global powers will be relegated to a bystander of world events, unable to shape history and influence its own destiny. Now more than even membership of a strong, confident, effective, outward looking European Union should be an absolute priority for all European nations. Playing games with something so important is dangerous and short-sighted.

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Brighton Rock and a Hard Place

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 21st September, 2012

Britain’s Liberal Democrats start gathering for their autumn conference in Brighton tomorrow in what could prove to be a far livelier — in both the good and bad senses of that word — gathering than the somewhat pedestrian official agenda suggests. It is hardly good news to go into a conference with the latest opinion poll putting the LibDems on 8%, level-pegging with UKIP, though that is nearly twice what the party achieved in the London Mayoral and GLA elections in May. Of course, much of the media pack will be asking just one question: will the party dump Nick Clegg as leader, as it did Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell? I can answer that one immediately, to save them the trouble asking: no. I say that not because I think Nick has ‘saved’ himself with his tuition fees apology video (considerably jollier in its sung version. by the way) but rather because this is absolutely not the moment for a leadership challenge. Nick can be proud of the fact that he took the party into government and there have been some (not many) important LibDem wins. What is absolutely not in doubt is that the Conservatives on their own would have been far worse, though that is not a particularly easy message to sell on the doorstep. Being in coalition is not easy, however, as both partners have been discovering. And certainly there is going to be a lot of pressure from activists at Brighton for the LibDems to differentiate ourselves from the Tories. But here the party is caught between a rock and hard place. It can’t undermine the coalition too much by criticising Cameron and other Conservative Ministers harshly, and yet it can’t seem to be propping the Conservatives up (a phraseology now being pushed by the Labour opposition). Well, I will opt for the rock in Brighton, appropriately, by which I mean we have to be proud of what we have achieved but also we must push for a mid-term review which gives more clarity to our different principles and priorities. This is a working partnership, not a political marriage (though right at the beginning, in the Rose Garden at No 10, it did seem a bit like the latter). Perhaps the most urgent task is for LibDems to explain to the British electorate what coalition government is all about and to show how and why we will be fgihting on different issues from those of our current partners in 2015, and even more so in the European elections in 2014.

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