Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘National Liberal Club’

The Future of Kashmir

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 29th November, 2016

libg-kashmir-seminarThroughout the decades that I have been working as a writer and broadcaster on international affairs, one situation has remained frozen — though maybe “frozen” is not quite the right word, as there have been occasional outbursts of armed conflict and longer periods of civil unrest and its suppression. The situation I am talking about is Kashmir, which was the subject of a seminar hosted by Liberal International British Group (LIBG) last night at the National Liberal, and which I chaired. In a nutshell, at the time of the partition of India in 1947 one major geographical area remained incompletely resolved: Kashmir. Should it be part of Pakistan (given its Muslim majority) or in India (which its local ruler preferred). Or should it become an independent state? The United Nations decreed that there should be a plebiscite so that the people of Kashmir could decide for themselves, but that has never happened. The net result is that “Azad” Kashmir is now treated by the Pakistani government as part of Pakistan, while India occupies Jammu-Kashmir. Three times India and Pakistan have gone to war over the issue, though recently there has just been occasional shooting across the so-called Line of Control. Some people argue that as both the South Asian giants have nuclear weapons that now prevents them going into anoher full-scale war, but others maintain that, on the contrary, the fact that they do have nuclear arsenals means that another war could lead to widespread annihilation.

kashmir-protestLast night’s seminar was addressed by a line-up of diverse speakers coming from different perspectives. Hina Malik (well-known as a LibDem activist in West London) read out a passionate message from a friend in Srinagar (Indian Kashmir) detailing specific cases of human rights abuses. The LibDem peer Lord (Qurban) Hussain spoke about his frustration when trying to get a meaningful response from the UK government about its commitment to putting pressure on the Indian government over the issue. The writer and academic Nitasha Kaul — herself originally from Srinagar — gave a measured analysis of the current situation citing media and academic sources while Jay Iqbal of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) — a political grouping with widespread support among parts of the UK’s huge Kashmiri diaspora — argued strongly for the international community to do what it can to pressure the Indians to implement a plebiscite, which he believed would deliver a vote in favour of independence. Phil Bennion, Chair of LIBG and a former MEP for the West Midlands, spoke about his experience as the ALDE (European Liberal Democrats) spokesman on South Asia during his time of office in the European Parliament, emphasizing what he saw as the need for a negotiated settlement, which would require a degree of give-and-take from both India and Pakistan. Taken as a whole the panel did not have a single approach to recommend, but the evening was nonetheless a valuable contribution to the debate about what Kashmir’s future should be, united or divided. But that debate is likely to continue for some time.

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Brexit: The Commonwealth Has Its Say

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 7th June, 2016

International Liberals Yes To EuropeOne of the favourite arguments of more lucid adherents to the Vote Leave campaign is that a Britain outside the EU would be able to rebuild a special trading relationship with the Commonwealth. However, the evidence does not bear this out. Trade links to the Commonwealth (as well as the nostalgia of Empire Loyalty) was a factor in Britain’s decision not to join the infant European Communities at the beginning, but the situation is very different today. Australia, for example, is much more focussed on China and the rest of East and South East Asia than on the “Mother country”, while Canada is closely tied economically to the United States. Former African colonies have grown and diversified their patterns of trade and relations, beneifitting from a series of aid and trade deals that they have enjoyed through the EU. Moreover, one after another, the leaders of Commonwealth states have been queuing up to declare to Britain: don’t opt for Brexit! One of the reasons we really like you these days is because you are part of the EU and its single market.

PA, KF, JEBut there is an even more important Commonwealth dimension to Britain’s EU Referendum on 23 June. All legally resident Commonwealth citizens in the UK (as well as the Irish) are entitled to vote, so long as they are on the electoral register (for which the cut-off time is midnight tonight). That means that people originally from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria and elsewhere can all have their say. Paradoxically, citizens of other EU member states — who risk being most affected by any vote in favour of Brexit — cannot, unless they happen to be from Cyprus or Malta.Some diplomatic missions, such as the Irish, worried about the impact of Brexit, have been urging their nationals to vote — and ideally for REMAIN. And a number of community groups and NGOs have been organising events, not least in London, to inform and energise their members. Last night, at the National Liberal Club in Westminster, an International Liberals Yes to Europe evening chaiored by Baroness Kishwer Falkner brought speakers from Canada (John English) and Cyprus (Praxoula Antoniadou), as well as a South African MP (Stevens Mokgalapa) via Skype link, all of whom stressed how crucial it is for Britain to be part of the EU if it wishes to remain a powerful player in the world. Otherwise, we attendees were warned, many richer Commonwealth citizens are likely to leave or to pull their money and investments out of Britain. This is not scaremongering. Already, billions of pounds have been withdrawn from Britain overall over the past six months, just because of the fear of Brexit. Praxoula Antoniadou, leader of the Cypriot (Liberal) United Democrats and a sometime Central Banker, warned that Britain after Brexit would see a brain drain, too. Even London would risk no longer being the magnet that it undoubtedly is today. That’s why so many Commonwealth citizens will be voting on 23 June — and they are numerous enough in a tight-run contest to make all the difference.

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Charles Dickens at the NLC

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 15th February, 2016

Jeremy ClarkeDickens groupiesCharles Dickens is often thought of as the quintessential Victorian novelist, though his career began before the young Victoria ascended the throne and he died in 1870. There was thus no way that he could ever have visited that most stylish of late Victorian edifices, Alfred Waterhouse’s National Liberal Club (NLC), which was founded in 1882 (though its magnificent premises on the north bank of the River Thames were not completed until five years later)  and to a degree remains a shrine to William Gladstone. However, the Kettner Lunch club — founded by Peter Boizot 42 years ago, originally at Kettner’s in Soho but latterly at the NLC –.has often doffed its cap in the direction of Dickens, but today it offered a special treat in terms of an illustrated lecture on My Boyhood’s Home: Dickens and North Kent by Dr Jeremy Clarke of the Dickens Museum in Rochester. It must be 20 years since I went down to Rochester specifically to see the Dickens collection at the Guildhall Museum and was pleased to know it is going great guns. Even better news was the revelation that Gad’s Hill, Dickens’s rather grand home at Higham, which has for some time been used as a school, may revert wholly to being a place for Dickens fans to make a pilgrimage. Though my own great literary love, Oscar Wilde, had a poor view of Dickens — thinking him old fashioned and at times mawkish — in fact the two of them were the real godfathers of modernism, at least insofar as we now see literature as much about the writer as about the text. Moreover, both were phenomenal self-promoters who also engaged directly with their public. No wonder Oscar was a little jealous of Charles, though I have to day that one’s admiration is somewhat dimmed by the fact that Dickens treated his wife even more shamefully than Wilde did his.

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Terrorism and the EU

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 8th February, 2016

imageMuch of Europe is on alert following the Paris outrages late last year and London in particular is braced for one sort of attack by radicalised Muslim youths or returnees from service with ISIS/Deash in Syria. Having lived through years of IRA bombings the British public is probably more phlegmatic about terrorism than most, but it was nonetheless reassuring this afternoon to hear at first hand about the anti-terrorism work of Europol from that agency’s Director, Rob Wainwright. He was guest speaker at a Global Strategy Forum event at the National Liberal Club, speaking on the record, so not revealing any deep secrets, but nonetheless presenting a brilliantly cogent exposition of how Europol operates against terrorism through a three-pronged approach relating to radicalisation, migration and cyber crime. The sharing of information between different European police forces as appropriate has helped avert a number of planned attacks and Rob Wainwright says that Europol manages to track a very high percentage of potential terrorists and their international links, not least through monitoring financial transactions and social media. Because of the heightened security threat, the agency is doubling its personnel from 50 to 100 approximately, which is still tiny compared with the challenge, though most of its work is in collaboration with national forces. Currently the EU has no specific competence in this field, but the European Parliament should keep an eye on areas where more formal cooperation would be desirable. When an audience member at today’s forum asked Rob Wainwright if Britain would benefit from the same degree of such cooperation if it left the EU, he replied that he could see no security benefits from Brexit.

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The Commonwealth and Human Rights

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 25th January, 2016

Bourne and ChidgeyThe Commonwealth is a rather odd club, made up of 53 states of wildly different size, most (but not all) of which once formed part of the British Empire. They therefore share an interest in the English language, as well as maintaining ties with the old country and among themselves. There is a Secretariat in London and Dominica-born Baroness Scotland is its latest Secretary General, but the organisation does not have the sort of resources at its disposal of a regional body such as the European Union or even the United Nations. But also unlike the UN the Commonwealth has the advantage of being a club, which means that members who misbehave badly can be suspended or even thrown out. Others choose to withdraw instead when the they see that they are in disgrace. Since the beginning the main reasons for exclusions have usually been human rights violations and a democratic deficit, both of which sadly are still evident in some of the current member states. This evening, as the first event of the National Liberal Club’s new Commonwealth Forum, chaired by Lord (David) Chidgey, the writer and longstanding human rights activist Richard Bourne spoke in particular about the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative with which he has been closely involved, but setting this in a wider context. Developing countries tend to highlight basic human rights such as access to food and housing whereas comparatively wealthy countries like Britain put more emphasis on civil and political rights. The latter can sometimes be extremely sensitive, paradoxically because of colonial era laws which are still on the statute books in many Commonwealth states while Britain has evolved in a different direction. Richard Bourne mentioned LGBT+ rights, for example; whereas same sex marriage is now accepted in many ‘developed’ countries, including Britain, homophobic laws are still acted on in some Commonwealth states, such as Uganda and Malaysia. Similarly, whereas long ago the Commonwealth championed the merits of democracy there has been a worrying tendency for some African states in particular to revert to an older model of presidents for life. Because the Commonwealth works by consensus and pressure is brought to bear on misbehaving governments behind the scenes, unless their behaviour is egregious, it is often hard to see what the Commonwealth actually achieves in promoting human rights and Patricia Scotland has a daunting challenge ahead of her to try to change that. But perhaps the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative can quietly chalk up successes while keeping the Commonwealth on its toes.

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Simon Hughes and Magna Carta

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 25th September, 2015

imageSimon Hughes was Justice Minister in the tail-end of the Coalition government and already we are missing his Liberal voice in that department. Today, however, at the National Liberal Club, members of the Kettner Society and their guests were treated to a fascinating exposition by him on the legacy of the Magna Carta. He wisely avoided dwelling too much on the history of the document itself, apart from enunciating clearly the three elements of it that remain a part of the British constitutional landscape: freedoms for the Church, freedoms for the City of London and boroughs, and, most important, what these days we would call civil liberties, not least the right of people to be tried by their peers (juries). Simon then set out the major milestones of the intervening 800 years, including the Speaker of the House of Commons standing up to Charles I, the Great Reform Act of 1832, the extension of suffrage in the 20th century and the important incorporation of the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act. These latter instruments the Conservatives would, of course, like to replace with a British Bill of Rights, despite the fact that much of the ECHR was largely framed by British jurists and leaving the convention would put the UK in a position not dissimilar to that of Belarus (as indeed the then Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, pointed out three years ago). Simon is nonetheless satisfied with most of the ways Britain’s constitutional framework and civil liberties have developed through history, though he thinks it would be useful to have a written constitution, if only so that schoolchildren would be able to learn the values and principles at the foundation of British society, as their counterparts in France and the United States do.

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Soft Power

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 1st July, 2015

Soft Power 1Gunboat diplomacy was often the way that Britain asserted its presence on the global stage in the 19th Century, and even as late as 2003 in Iraq, thanks to Tony Blair. But the predominant school of thought in London these days is that “soft power” can be a more effective way of winning friends and influencing people. The term was the subject of a presentation this lunchtime for the Global Strategy Forum at the National Liberal Club by Sir Ciarán Devane, Chief Executive of the British Council (that organisation does not have a Director these days, which is an interesting reflection of a change of mentality). In fact, Ciarán Devane does not like the term “soft power”, preferring the much less assertive “cultural relations”, and in his speech he emphasized the aspect of mutuality: the work of the British Council (and by extension, the UK) should be as much about listening as it is about communicating.

soft power 2 Some people have criticised the fact that so much of the emphasis of the Council these days is on English-language teaching, but as Sir Ciarán said, teaching English is a way of enabling people to engage with the world, as English is currently the global language. As someone who has been covering the Middle East and North Africa for the past 25 years, since I was part of the BBC World Service’s 24-hour rolling news coverage of the first Gulf War, I was especially interested to learn of the Young Arab Voices programme that the Council is running, helping to engage younger people (who might be largely ignored by their elders in a society that is still age-hierarchical); they are the likely agents of change, as well as the leaders of tomorrow. In the discussion following Sir Ciarán’s speech, I pointed out that I was surprised to learn about this initiative for the first time today, and wondered whether it is deliberately “below the radar” or something that the Council should be “out and proud” about. The latter, he replied. So let’s shout about it! It sounds a fab idea!

[photo: Sir Ciarán Devane and Acting GSF Chair Lord Howell]

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What Next, Sir Simon?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 13th June, 2015

Simon Hughes 2In 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.

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David Steel’s Golden Orpington Dinner

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 11th March, 2015

Each year the National Liberal Club in Westminster hosts a fundraising dinner for Liberal Democrat by-elections, named after one of the most famous of all: Orpington, seized from the Conservatives by the then Eric Lubbock in 1962. But last night’s over-subscribed David SteelOrpington dinner had a special slant as it marked the 50th anniversary of David Steel’s victory at a by-election in Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles. Steel went on to become Leader of the Liberal Party, a presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament and an active member of the House of Lords. But in the tributes to him in speeches from such luminaries as (Baroness) Shirley Williams and (Lord) Jim Wallace, it was David’s internationalism that was highlighted, including his role in the anti-apartheid struggle. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg used the opportunity to make the most political speech of all, rallying support for the current general election campaign, while stressing the need for Liberalism in a worryingly illiberal world. When David Steel first told the then Liberal Party to “prepare for government” he was much mocked, but Nick was able to say realistically last night “prepare for government — again!”. But for many at the dinner, the most stirring quotation was from the late Alan Paton’s classic South African novel Cry, the Beloved Country: “By Liberalism, I don;t mean the creed of any country. I mean a generosity of spirit, a tolerance of others, an attempt to comprehend otherness, a commitment to the rule of law, a high ideal of the dignity and worth of man, a repugnance of authoritarianism and a love of freedom.”

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Nigel Jones at the NLC

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 15th April, 2014

Nigel JonesTo most Liberal Democrats the name Nigel Jones means the former LibDem MP for Cheltenham and latterly Peer. But this lunchtime, thanks to the Kettner lunch club, another Nigel Jones spoke in the David Lloyd George room: the writer, broadcaster and historian Nigel Jones, who came to talk about his latest book: Peace and War – Britain in 1914 (which I hope to review shortly). The setting was appropriate, as Lloyd George figures prominently in the narrative of the run-up to and beginning of the so-called Great War, even though for a long time he thought war was unlikely, unlike some of his colleagues who had a dimmer view of the Kaiser’s intentions. Nigel Jones — who has recently been honing his performing techniques at literary festivals in Oxford and elsewhere — gave such a polished performance that the professor in the audience who asked the first question declared that it was quite the best lunchtime speech he had heard at the Kettner lunch. As someone who has spoken there myself, I am happy to agree. Nigel and I — who, we realised over lunch, had met previously at a Biographers’ Club event years ago — have largely produced works of biography (including literary biography) and history, both being fascinated by the real world, which can itself be subject to endless interpretations. I thoroughly enjoyed his “Through a Glass Darkly: A Life of Patrick Hamilton” some years ago. He tells me that whle living in Vienna he got the idea of writing a life of the painter Lucian Freud, but as with so many who have contemplated this task came up against something of a brick wall. I count myself lucky that in my case the prickly and litigious Freud merely demanded the withdrawal of the first edition of my book on Soho in the Fifties and Sixties because of an incorrect caption. His brother Clement (a one-time Liberal MP) wouldn’t speak to him, but I never got the chance to check the artist out at first hand.

Link: http://headofzeus.com/books/Peace+and+War:+Britain+In+1914?field_book_type_value_1=Hardback&bid=9781781852538

 

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