Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘EU Referendum’

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 »

We Haven’t Left Europe!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 5th May, 2020

Council of Europe accessionIn common with many Remainers I am still in a state of shock following the EU Referendum of June 2016, though Brexit pain has been slightly assuaged by the fact that although formally Britain left the EU on 31 January we are in a transition period scheduled to last until the end of the year, during which many of the advantages, as well as the rules and regulations, of the EU are still in place. I have, of course, supported calls for an extension of that transition period, ideally for two years, not because I am trying to hold onto the EU by my fingertips but because the double whammy of COVID-19 and Brexit might be more than this country can handle. But on one thing I agree with the Brexiteers, namely that although we have left the EU we haven’t left Europe. Geographically that is obvious, however much the Trump-loving coterie of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Co. might wish to drag us into the mid-Atlantic. However, for me a far more important reason why we haven’t left Europe is that we are still a member of the Council of Europe, which has been celebrating its Europe Day today.

European flagIndeed, Britain was a founder member of the Council of Europe and British lawyers were instrumental in framing many of its statutes and purposes. Founded in 1949 — like a phoenix rising from the ashes from the Second World War — its stated aim is to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe. All European states except Belarus and Kosovo are members — that’s 20 more members than the current EU. Based in Strasbourg, symbolically near the Franco-German border in Alsace, the Council of Europe shaped the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), including the abolition of the death penalty. It has a parliamentary assembly, whose members are appointed by national parliaments (MPs and Peers in Britain’s case). My old friend, the late Russell Johnston, was its President for several years, executing the office with panache. Though older and bigger than the EU, the Council of Europe has nonetheless been the Cinderella of European institutions, which is maybe something Britain should now try to remedy. So, yes, let us celebrate the Council of Europe’s Europe Day — and also the EU’s Europe Day four days later on 9 May. They may not share the same date, but the two institutions share the same European flag and indeed the same anthem, based on Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. So let us Europhiles indeed be joyful and celebrate Europe Day twice this year and reassure ourselves that we haven’t completely left, nor should we ever!

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Turkey’s COVID-19 Aid

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th April, 2020

COVID19 - Turkey aidIt was probably a surprise to many people in Britain that Turkey has sent a significant consignment of medical supplies — predominantly personal protection equipment (PPE) — to Britain, though presumably a welcome surprise. Actually, this is not the first time this has happened, as 10 days ago another such shipment arrived at RAF Brize Norton. China’s offer of COVID-19 assistance to many countries, including Britain, has received a lot of media attention, as has Cuba’s despatch of doctors and nurses, to predominantly developing countries hit by the pandemic. But Turkey’s efforts have had less press coverage, at least until now. But in fact Ankara has received requests for help from 88 different countries and has so far been able to spring into action for more than 30. This is despite the fact that Turkey itself has the highest rate of coronavirus infection in the Middle East. However, the Turkish government is proud of the fact that it closed schools and universities just one day after the first confirmed case was identified. Subsequently it has implemented weekend curfews (the first rather hurriedly, prompting a spate of panic buying) while urging people to maintain social distancing at all other times. Some cynics might argue that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is engaging in this COVID-diplomacy, like the Chinese, as an exercise in soft power. But Ankara insists that the motivation is in fact entirely humanitarian, as, it would say, has been its sheltering of over three-and-a-half million Syrian refugees.

RumiThough Turkey has officially been a secular state since the time of Kemal Atatürk, Islamic beliefs, including charity and compassion, are at the heart of the ruling AK Party’s ideology, or so it would argue. In a nice touch, the virus aid consignments to Britain as well as being branded with the UK and Turkish flags also bore a well-known saying by the 13th century poet Jalaluddin Rumi: “There is hope after despair and many suns after darkness”. With Ramadan approaching later this week, we can expect more of this kind of diplomatic discourse. There is of course an irony in the current situation regarding Turkish aid to the UK as during the EU Referendum some of the Leave campaign, including Dominic Cummings, raised the (completely fabricated) “threat” of 70 million Turks arriving in this country as a result of Turkey’s supposed imminent membership of the EU. I don’t recall Boris Johnson objecting to that. Yet of course part of his family lineage is Turkish. Anyway, the government in London has thanked Turkey appropriately for its assistance at this time of need and in Britain’s post-Brexit reality doubtless both sides will be keen to see a distinct warming in relations..

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Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 8th April, 2020

Should Auld Acquaintance Be ForgotReferendums are famously divisive, as Britain discovered in 2016 when the UK’s continued membership of the EU was put to a public vote. The Scots could be forgiven for being cynical about all the angst south of the border, not just because they had voted decisively to Remain but also because they had had their own referendum two years earlier regarding Scottish Independence. On that occasion people living in Scotland declined to break away from a Union that had lasted three centuries by a margin of 55:45. But it is not just the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) — which has the lion’s share of Scottish MPs at Westminster, thanks to the UK Parliament’s distorting first-past-the-post electoral system — which is now asking whether a new independence referendum would deliver a different result. Not that one is likely any time soon. This is the context for journalist and author John Lloyd’s new book Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot (Polity, £20), which argues that Scots are better off within the UK. Mr Lloyd was a self-confessed reluctant Remainer in the EU Referendum, but his heart is much more engaged in our islands’ Union. And he believes Britain could learn a lot from the experience in Canada with regard to Quebec separatism. His arguments are various, and not least economic (as one might expect from the Contributing Editor for the Financial Times). The Nationalists long maintained that North Sea oil should be Scotland’s saviour, but that oil is no longer as plentiful as it was, and the price of crude is a fraction of what it was at the height of the boom. Moreover, while Scotland does rather well out of the financial settlement known as the Barnett Formula, that subsidy from central government would doubtless evaporate on independence.

John LloydLike many Englishmen with no roots in Scotland, but a deep affection for the country, I have always thought that the Union is preferable than a break-up of the United Kingdom, but that really it is for the people of Scotland to decide. Mr Lloyd argues that the rest of the UK should have a vote in any future referendum, though I suspect that might actually swing the result towards independence on the “If they want to leave, let ’em” principle. The SNP does not have an entirely unblemished reputation for governing the devolved nation — Lloyd rightly castigates them over a decline in school education, for example — but it has to be admitted that the party has been fortunate in having had two charismatic leaders in Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon (the former’s reputation somewhat restored since his recent acquittal on all sexual misdemeanour charges). A few months ago in the Scottish Parliament I witnessed Ms Sturgeon handling First Minister’s question with considerable aplomb. Not that politics is the only factor in Scottish nationalism. A growing sense of national and cultural identity and pride has been noticeable for several decades. Paradoxically, for me the most enjoyable parts of John Lloyd’s book are where he discusses the non-political aspects, from memories of his childhood in East Fife to a very lengthy and fascinating (if tangential) section on Scottish literature, in both Scots and English, from the anglophobe poet Hugh MacDiarmid to novelists as varied as John Buchan, Alexander McCall Smith and Val McDermid. Yes, there are vibrant Scots voices — a myriad of them — that are completely different from English ones. The only question is whether they will flourish better within the Union or on their own.

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Sir John Curtice at the NLC

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 16th January, 2020

25673522-9B64-4F9A-9BF4-2D07A7BB582EI was pleased to have a last-minute opportunity to attend a presentation last night at the National Liberal Club by academic and TV election pundit Sir John Curtice (a long-standing member of the Club) on The 2019 Election: A Tale of Hope and Disappointment. One might correctly guess from the title that the talk was particularly focussed on the Liberal Democrats’ less than optimal performance last month. Far from taking off during the campaign — which was the case in several previous general elections, thanks largely to a higher media profile — the LibDems actually lost nearly half of their opinion poll percentage as the weeks went by. Certainly some of the Remain-leaning Conservatives who lent the LibDems their vote in May’s European elections, not least in Greater London, went running back to Boris Johnson, despite Brexit, out of (unnecessary) fear of a possible Jeremy Corbyn government. Many commentators at the time also attributed the fall in LibDem support to (1) Jo Swinson’s call to Revoke Article 50, rather than pitching wholeheartedly for a second EU Referendum, and (2) her claim to be a potential PM in waiting, despite the modest number of LibDem MPs (albeit supplemented by both Labour and Conservative defections). However, Professor Curtice said polling, notably from YouGov, did not support that assumption. Instead, he highlighted three conclusions about the election result based on his research:

1) It was not clear that the decision to back revoking Article 50 without a referendum was electorally costly;

2) Jo Swinson failed to make a favourable impression on voters and thus provide a point of attraction in contrast to Jeremy Corbyn;

3) The Party failed to communicate what a “brighter future” for Britain might entail.

Other points from John Curtice’s brilliant presentation which particularly struck me were that the Liberal Democrats drew most of their support from the educated middle class, but unlike the other parties had an almost equal level of support across all age groups.

Posted in Brexit, Liberal Democrats, UK politics, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

AEJ Visit to the Scottish Parliament

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 27th September, 2019

73B96ADC-F1D2-481E-BD85-4F885053502FThe UK section of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) made a timely visit to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh this week — my first direct experience of that institution. It is housed in a beautiful modern complex, full of light and symbolic detail. The architect unfortunately died before everything was up and running, so a few of the secrets of that symbolism went to the grave with him. We were given a very detailed and entertaining tour by a Portuguese guide. The number of EU workers in the capital is high, including all the hospitality staff at the hotel where the AEJ group was staying. So it was no surprise to hear from the three MSPs (SNP, Labour and Conservative) who addressed us over a sandwich lunch that the removal of freedom of movement if Brexit goes ahead is one of Scotland’s major concerns about the near future. The indigenous population, as in so much of the UK, has a demographic lopsided to older people. Scotland, in contrast to England and Wales, voted strongly to remain in the 2016 EU Referendum, and all three MSPs had voted Remain themselves, though the Conservative was true to his party line, saying that we must now “respect the vote of the British people”.

We also sat in on First Minister’s Question Time in the main chamber, which admirably is a hemicycle, rather similar to many continental parliaments, rather than the adversarial set-up at Westminster. But there were some lively exchanges, as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made repeated references to tentative plans for a further Scottish independence referendum. The Conservatives were also trying unsuccessfully to get her to commit to “full life” sentences for the most heinous crimes; her riposte was that judges are always free to impose sentences that are longer than the culprit’s expected life span. It was good to see the spectators gallery full — including a large party of school children — and the contemporary, airy environment was far more welcoming than the sometimes intimidating surroundings of the Palace of Westminster. The message (moreover stated in print in admirably concise and well-designed leaflets) was clear: this is your Parliament and we are working for you.

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Brexit without the Bullshit

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 23rd September, 2019

Gavin EslerThe day after Britain’s EU Referendum in June 2016 the most common google search term in the UK reportedly was “What is the EU?” Of course, many of those asking the question would not have voted in the Referendum and just wanted to know what all the fuss was about when the shock result (52:48 in favour of leaving) was announced. But the searchers would also have included people who did vote without really knowing what the EU is or does, or what Britain gets out of membership. No recent British government, including that of Europhile Tony Blair, ever bothered to explain to the public why we were members of the EU, preferring to bash Brussels when anything unpopular was happening or claiming all the credit for themselves when there were positive developments. For ordinary citizens the positive aspects included the right to travel, live, work and retire in any of the other now 27 EU member states, an end to mobile phone roaming charges and the EHIC card, guaranteeing free health cover on a reciprocal basis throughout the EU, to mention but three.

Brexit without the BullshitAll those, and many more, are now at risk as Boris Johnson determinedly presses on with his plan to take Britain out of the EU on 31 October. Parliament may have succeeded in postponing such an exit — the next few weeks should clarify that situation — but meanwhile the country is bitterly divided between Leavers and Remainers. Those wishing to stay in the EU claim with justification that the Vote Leave side lied shamelessly during the Referendum campaign (for example, that the NHS would benefit to the tune of £350 million a week when we left or that Turkey was about to join the EU, meaning Turks could flood into the UK), but they also have to admit hat the Remain campaign was lousy. The dire warnings of the economic cost of leaving were branded Project Fear by the Leave side and backfired badly. Three years on, the Government’s own warnings about the implications of crashing out on 31 October without a deal with the EU (outlined in the Operation Yellowhammer report that 10 Downing Street tried to suppress) are pretty disturbing, notably with regard to the continuity of medicine and food supplies. And the political debate rages on within an increasingly polarised electorate.

Cue the arrival of a sober, sane analysis of what Brexit is all about and what the likely consequences will be, namely Gavin Esler’s handy paperback, Brexit without the Bullshit (Canbury Press, £8.99). Many readers will know Mr Esler from the time he presented BBC 2’s Newsnight, but he also stood (unsuccessfully) as the lead candidate in London for ChangeUK in this May’s European elections. So there is no surprise about where his sympathies lie. However, his account of the EU and matters relating to Brexit is factual and buttressed by interviews he carried out with people up and down the country. The style and tone remind me of the 1980 Brandt Report of the Independent Commission into International Development: outlining the challenges and the dangers in clear terms without indulging in polemic. It is a reasonable book for reasonable people and therefore will be welcomed by many Remainers as a useful tool to help frame their own arguments. But in the heated atmosphere of today I fear other people may not be in the mood to listen to clearly articulated, reasonable arguments but will prefer to stick to their emotion-based discourse of alternative facts and fake news.


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Brexit Is Now a Religious Cult

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 9th August, 2019

Brexit Deal No DealWhen the British electorate voted in an advisory referendum three years ago about whether they would prefer to remain in the European Union or leave, the Conservative government foolishly declared that it would implement the “decision”. In the event, the result was very close (approximately 52:48) and although no mature democracy had ever proceeded with such a drastic constitutional change on a slim simple majority, the Government then began the complex divorce proceedings from our 27 European partners, with the opposition Labour Party nodding approvingly from the sidelines. Theresa May, who had taken over as Prime Minister following David Cameron’s resignation and flight from frontline politics, oversaw the negotiation of a withdrawal agreement (designed to precede detailed plans for a future relationship between the UK and the EU), but that was then rejected by Parliament — three times. Mrs May subsequently also fell on her sword and Boris Johnson — who since childhood has aimed to be “World King” — took over, proclaiming that he will lead the country out of the EU on 31 October, “do or die”, deal or No Deal. Meanwhile, the pound sterling has tanked and the economy is heading for recession, yet warnings about the probably dire consequences of a No Deal have fallen on deaf ears.

Dominic Cummings 1In this era of post-Truth and alternative facts Hard Brexiteers just don’t want to listen to anything that does not chime with their own fantastic vision of a post-European Britain as a land of milk and honey, unicorns and fewer foreigners. And significant numbers of them are becoming increasingly strident in their antagonism towards people who don’t agree. Remainers are often denounced as traitors and in the most extreme cases, some supporters of the EU (including MPs) have received death threats. In the meantime, a significant part of the mainstream media has become evangelical in its championing of Brexit. Indeed, the whole Brexit phenomenon has taken on a quasi-religious tone. Fundamentalist, even. I am not saying everyone who voted Leave or who still/now believes Brexit is the right course of action is a fundamentalist, but a hard core are and they seem to have the upper hand. They are prepared to sacrifice not only other people’s well-being in their dogmatic propagation of their faith but also many aspects of our British democracy. Installing Dominic Cummings in a key position in 10 Downing Street was a deeply undemocratic and retrograde move and similarly Boris Johnson’s veiled threats of proroguing Parliament or otherwise bypassing MPs’ control as October 31 looms is deeply sinister. Boris Johnson has surrounded himself with a Cabinet of Hard Brexiteers who increasingly resemble a cult. Far from uniting the country as the Prime Minister brazenly claims he will do, he is leading it along a dangerous and divisive path. The fundamentalists now argue that No Deal is the logical outcome of the 2016 referendum, but that possibility absolutely was not on the ballot paper, which is why a new public vote is needed to see what people really want/ No wonder most of the outside world is aghast.

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

The Putney and Wandsworth Euro-Hustings

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 15th May, 2019

Wandsworth hustingsThough this month’s European elections were organised in great haste in the UK (and through gritted teeth by the Conservative government), an admirable number of public hustings has been taking place round London, including one last night at St. Anne’s Church in Wandsworth, in which I took part. It was set up by the Putney and Wandsworth Societies and attracted about 100 members of the public, which was encouraging given the short notice. In fact there is far more interest in this set of European elections than ever before (and I can say that having stood in all but one of them!), to an extent becoming a sort of new referendum on whether Brits want to stay in the EU of not. Recent opinion polls confirm what I have been finding on the doorstep, namely that the electorate is polarising towards either Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party or to the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats (and to a lesser extent the Greens).

There was no Brexit candidate at last night’s hustings, bizarrely, though they were invited; maybe they knew they would get a frosty reception in such a pro-Remain part of the capital. However, UKIP was represented by Freddy Vachha, one of the more politely eccentric members of his party; he caused the biggest laugh of the evening by describing the Conservatives as neo-Marxist! The Conservatives had Scott Pattenden from Bromley, who had to counter some quite pointed questioning about Theresa May, David Cameron and the Brexit mess. The Greens were represented by Gulnar Hasnain, who adopted the line that the Greens are the largest pro-EU UK party in the outgoing European Parliament (true for 2014-2019, though that is unlikely to be the case after 23 May). ChangeUK’s candidate was Hasseeb Ur-Rehman, who essentially read a quite detailed policy paper in his allotted four minutes. Labour, naughtily sent not a Euro-candidate but the PPC for Putney, Fleur Anderson, which earned a rebuke from a Labour Party member in the audience. Fleur maintained that Labour is a Remain Party because the two leading MEP candidates are, but the audience wasn’t going to let that pass without adverse comment about Jeremy Corbyn and Lexit. I had a fairly easy ride as a LibDem, though inevitably came under fire from the small number of UKIP or Brexit Party supporters in the church, demanding to know why I was neither Liberal nor a Democrat by calling for a People’s Vote when there had already been a referendum in 2016. It was clear from the majority voices in the room, however, that a People’s Vote was a popular option for this audience, with a heavy preponderance of Remain.

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The UK Local Elections Verdict

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 4th May, 2019

F5FF8AE5-5C6A-4797-B8A2-8AE9528248B4Now that the dust has settled on this week’s local elections In England — the biggest set of such elections since 2015, though not including London and various other cities and counties — the spin doctors of both the Conservative and Labour parties are in overdrive, bizarrely both pitching the same message that the massive gains by the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats and substantial wins for the equally anti-Brexit Greens are somehow a sign that the public just wants the government to “get on” with Brexit — an aim shared by the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, despite the fact that Labour has registered a net loss of nearly 100 seats at a time when the worst government in living memory is staggering from one crisis and embarrassment to the next. Some noble Conservative and Labour MPs have bravely defied their masters and declared that this is tosh — some in far more rigorous terms than that. Others have parroted the official line.

30B377CD-DEBD-4E9C-856D-7A48E234FC92Nonetheless, as I tweeted earlier, this is an Orwellian misrepresentation of facts more reminiscent of the former Soviet Union than of a mature parliamentary democracy.  Such is the sorry state of political discourse in Britain since the 2016 EU Referendum. In that Referendum, tainted by some very dodgy campaigning and funding, Leave beat Remain by about 52:48. But the latest opinion poll out suggests that were such a referendum to be held today, Remain would get 61%. In the meantime the country is bitterly divided and Nigel Farage and his new Brexit Party will ensure that the political temperature is kept at boiling point. However, European elections loom on 23 May, and although Mr Farage will probably mop up previous UKIP voters and numerous right-wing Tories, both the Conservatives and Labour are likely to lose seats to pro-Remain parties. Will Mrs May and Mr Corbyn listen then? We must make them listen!

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