Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Nicola Sturgeon’

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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Conference Cancelled

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 12th March, 2020

YorkThe Liberal Democrats’ Federal Board (on which I sit ex officio as Chair of the Federal International Relations Committee, FIRC) last night addressed the awkward question of whether to cancel this weekend’s Spring Conference in York because of the growing fears of spreading coronavirus (COVID19) through large public events. After a lively and thoughtful discussion — which I was able to follow on my phone at a Newroz celebration in the House of Commons — a sizeable majority opted to cancel. As I wrote earlier to the Party President, Mark Pack, it was going to be a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” decision, but I think the Board made the right call. Interestingly, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, today banned gatherings of more than 500 people. No such leadership has been shown in London by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who recently said regarding COVID19 that maybe Britain should just “take it on the chin”. His insouciance has been matched on the other side of the Atlantic by that of his bestie, Donald Trump. Trump did announce a 30-day ban on flights from Europe today, while bizarrely excluding the UK and Ireland. The illogicality of that is mind boggling. Meanwhile, over the Irish Sea, Leo Varadkar has ordered the temporary closure of all schools and nurseries. And the whole of Italy is in lockdown.

Of course, cancelling the York conference is going to be costly for the Liberal Democrats, as well as to the individual members who had signed up to go and to the city’s hospitality industry, which was all geared up for a weekend of bonanza business. As both my train fare and hotel have already been paid (non-refundable), however, I shall still make my way to York and will be happy to meet up with other LibDems who have made the same decision — all keeping ourselves at a respectful distance, of course!

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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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The Leaders Debate

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 3rd April, 2015

Leaders Debate 1I was worried that last night’s leaders debate on ITV would be a fiasco, with seven contending figures, but in fact it held well together under the firm but fair chairmanship of Julie Etchingham. I thought Prime Minister David Cameron looked rather pained for much of the time, but then we all knew he did not really want to be there, though he carried on manfully. Ed Miliband was more persuasive than I have seen him on previous occasions, though he failed really to brush aside the embarrassing legacy of the last Labour government or to rebut the recent accusations about Labour and zero hours contracts. Nick Clegg had none of the novelty he enjoyed in 2010, but robustly differentiated the LibDems from the Conservatives while taking justifiable credit for certain LibDem wins in government. Nigel Farage was like a stuck gramaphone record, blaming everything on the EU and “uncontrolled immigration”, but he knows his corny old tune is popular with a dismayingly significant proportion of the electorate, not least the elderly, who are more likely to vote. However, it was the women who really gave new vigour to the event. Nicola Sturgeon was deeply impressive — even if some of what she said I find alarming, as it shows how far the SNP will be prepared to push should there be a hung parliament in which they are the power-brokers. Natalie Bennett did not wilt, as she had done in earlier car-crash radio interviews, though her great list of idealistic wishes — free education, eye and dental care, care for the elderly, 1% of GDP as overseas aid etc — would bankrupt the country if implemented. Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru was the one politician who was new to me and although she was the weakest of the pack she did get in the one killer remark of the evening, when she rounded on Nigel Farage, who had just said non-UK nationals should not qualify for free anti-HIV treatment, by sternly telling him he should be ashamed of himself, to warm applause from the audience. I wonder how many TV viewers hung in there for all two hours, however; was it just political nerds like me?

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