Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘William Hague’

My House in Damascus

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 30th April, 2014

My House in DamascusBait BaroudiDiana Darke is one of those splendid British Arabists, in the tradition of Gertrude Bell, who combines a passion for Syria and the rest of the Middle East with an admirably Anglo-Saxon cool head, which has enabled her to work for many years as a translator, consultant and writer of Bradt travel guides on the region. Unlike Ms Bell, however, she is not al-Khatun, a Lady of the Court, with one dog-like ear and eye open to pick up on anything that could be of use to the powers that be — despite at one stage in her life being a diplomatic wife. Indeed, it is hard to imagine her hand-in-hand with either William Hague or the family and entourage of President Bashar al-Assad, who is hanging on in there in Damascus while his country proceeds fast down the road to perdition. Such was Diana Darke’s enchantment with the old walled city of Damascus that she day-dreamed of owning one of the Ottoman courtyard houses in its heart, and once that idea had been seeded, it germinated and led to her acquiring Bait Baroudi, and then embarking on a painstaking process of restoration, not to make something pristine and thus suitable for a high-end boutique hotel, but rather as a place of beauty that would wear its heritage with subtle pride, with the aid of some fine pieces of antique stone and artefacts picked up on expeditions round the sellers of the banished contents of disintegrating ancestral homes. Having created this oasis of tranquility — sometimes generously lent out to travelling friends — she then thought of writing a book about the house and its project, but events overtook her. From the moment some teenage idealists in the town of Dera’a wrote anti-government slogans on walls in March 2011, unleashing a crackdown, Syria entered the vortex of the most vicious and unpredictable of all the so-called Arab spring revolutions. 140,000+ dead later, not to mention the millions of refugees and internally displaced, the situation seems as intractable as ever. Diana Darke can no longer visit Syria to spend time in her Arab home, but it now houses its own band of around 30 refugees, including some of those people who had worked with her on the house. So the book she originally envisaged became unviable, unpublishable even, in the current gloomy political climate. And so it transmuted into a really very special volume, My House in Damascus (Haus Publishing, £14.99), which weaves an enchanting tapestry not just of Bait Baroudi, but of Damascus and Greater Syria, drawing on the author’s own youthful studies of Arabic at the old MECAS institute at Shemlan in Lebanon, cleverly threading the weft of her personal story through the warp of Arab culture, past and present, skilfully moving back and forth between the years without losing the reader on the way. The result is a gem that will delight those already familiar with Damascus and be a revelation to those who aren’t. But I suspect all will finish reading it with a sense of deep sadness for the way Syria is being torn apart. Diana Darke determinedly hopes that one day, somehow, it will all turn out all right, and that it will be possible to walk across the hills of the Levant, carefree, before returning home to the gentle charm of Bait Baroudi. I wish I could sincerely believe that she is right.

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BBC World Service at 80

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 2nd March, 2012

The courtyard at Bush House in London was transformed tonight thanks to a very high-tech marquee and a full-on operation by an Events Management team, complete with atmospheric coloured lighting, bars with chilled cabinets full of beers and white wine, and a modern pop music band playing well, but too loud for an event which should all have been about networking. The excuse for a party was the BBC World Service’s 80th anniversary, but this was also a funeral reception, as this month sees the beginning of the physical move of the iconic BBC World Service brand out of Bush House into “state-of-the-art” facilities in the new expanded Broadcasting House off Portland Place. Mark Thompson, BBC Director General, was predictably upbeat about the change, eulogising the integration of news and current affairs output, though as someone who worked at Bush House for almost 20 years, I was as sanguine as many of my former colleagues present about this (and also wondered how someone could have reached the pinnacle of a broadcasting career while uttering so many umms and errs when he speaks). Actually, this evening was the first of two parties: tonight targetted the great, the good and the has-beens. Current World Service staff were, by-and-large, channeled towards a ballot for tickets for a second event, to be held in the marquee tomorrow. (Former World Service head an all-round good egg, John Tusa, boycotted this evening’s reception in protest at this segregation, and the failure to invite all staff.) Yet it was still an impressive crowd tonight. Apart from diplomats and members of the House of Lords, who were there in profusion, we were graced by the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, who has truly found his niche, having previously bombed so tragically as Conservative Party Leader. He praised the work that the World Service has done over the past 80 years, and pointed out that just the other day London hosted a major international conference on Somalia, which is one country where disparate groups tune in religiously to the BBC to find out what is going on in their own country. Lord Williams of Baglan (my former BBC colleague and later UN official, Michael Williams, standing in for Chris Patten, Chairman of the BBC Trust, who had to be at a House of Lords debate on BBC funding) was reassuring as he presented himself as the man on the BBC Trust who has a particular brief regarding international services. Moreover, there were some living legends present at the party, such as Hugh Lunghi, interpreter for Winston Churchill at the Yalta Conference in February 1945. Yet this evening’s bash did feel like the curtain call for a wonderful institution and the people who worked in it. A goody-bag for guests contained a brochure which boasted that the BBC broadcasts in 27 languages; when I first started working in Bush House in 1983, this was over 40. Yes, there has been a welcome boost to the Arabic and Persian services in particular in recent years, not least in TV output. But much else has been lost. Not least of the losses is the unique Bush House ethos: that wonderful combination of expertise and truth-seeking. And as we guests were chased out of the marquee at 8.40, after the bars stopped serving drink (how different from the bacchinalean 70th event in 2002!), I couldn’t help thinking that I had been at not so much a celebration as a wake.

Link: www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice

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Syria Unity Forum

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 29th February, 2012

This evening I was one of the speakers at a solidarity event for the people of Syria organised at the London Muslim Centre at the East London Mosque in Whitechapel. Since the beginning of the uprising last spring, maybe as many as 8,000 people have been slaughtered in Syria by the despotic regime in Damascus, which seems determined to carry on the killings, disappearances, torture and harrassment in a desperate attempt to hang on to power. In 1982, an estimated 38,000 people were killed in a devastating onslaught on the city of Hama, the centre of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood. But little news of this filtered out to the outside world at the time, despite the valiant efforts of journalists such as Robert Fisk. Today, the murderous Assad government cannot act unseen. Even if most foreign journalists are banned — and those who are allowed in officially are strictly controlled — new media and social networks mean we get up-to-the-minute reports on what is going on from people on the spot, even in Homs, the city currently effectively under siege. Indeed, there was a direct link to a Free Syria activist in Homs at this evening’s event. Other speakers physically present at the meeting included Walid Saffour of the Syrian Human Rights Committee, Wael Aleji, a (Christian) member of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, and the human rights lawyer Toby Cadman. I spoke of the urgent need to get medical and other humanitarian supplies into beleagured communities, as well as for increased international pressure to get the Syrian authorities to stop their assault on the people, and finally supporting moves by other Arab states to oust the regime. When Bashar al-Assad inherited power from his father in 2000, there were widespread hopes in the West that he would introduce reforms. Some economic reforms did indeed take place and he opened Syria up to tourism. However, when the waves of the New Arab Awakening (aka Arab Spring) started to sweep across North Africa and the rest of the Arab world, prompting street demonstrations beginning in the southern town of Deraa, he adopted an iron-fist approach, with the aide of his brother Maher, the head of the security forces. Both will one day, I hope, be arraigned before the International Criminal Court (ICC). But in the meantime, everything needs to be done to express support for those brave people in Syria who are resisting oppression. British MPs should sign the Early Day Motion demanding the expulsion of the Syrian Ambassador from London and more should be done to publicise the fact that the British government, through William Hague, has acknowledged the oppposition Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. After nearly three hours of presentations, videos and pra7yers, the East London Mosque evening ended with a collection from people present for emergency relief for Syria, which raised several thousand pounds.

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London’s New Europe House

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 7th December, 2010

I managed to squeeze 20 minutes in at the official opening of the new London offices of the European Commission and European Parliament at 32 Smith Square last night, before having to rush off to chair the Executive of London Liberal Democrats at Cowley Street just a short walk away. Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the Commission, had originally been billed to appear, but in fact was detained by business in Brussels, presumably helping save various EU members from bankruptcy, including his native Portugal. However, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague, did attend, despite being urged to stay away by Conservative bloggers such as Jonathan Isaby. Mr Hague — who brought a portrait of Winston Churchill to grace the room in the refurbished building that will be named after the war-time Prime Minister, who spoke up for European union before deciding to distance Britain from the nascent institutions that would eventually become the EU. The fact that William Hague was there is a tribute to the way that the Liberal Democrat partners in the Coalition government in London  have softened the Tories Euro-scepticism. Nonetheless, Mr Hague did have a stern message of belt-tightening for the Eurocrats and MEPs present: ‘Just as this Government is bringing excessive spending under control here in Britain  — control that has required some very difficult decisions — so we look to all EU institutions to join us in effective and rigorous control of spending.’ The irony was not lost on those present that 32 Smith Square used to be the Conservative Party headquarters and is perhaps most famous as being the backdrop for Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 victory celebrations. As one mischievous wag commented, ‘Lady Thatcher would turn in her grave, were she dead.’

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Tom Brake Outlines the Deal

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 14th May, 2010

About a hundred Liberal Democrats from across South East London gathered at the St John’s Church Hall in Downham (Lewisham) this evening, to hear and ask questions about the agreement the party has made to enter into government with the Conservatives. Originally, Simon Hughes was scheduled to speak, but he was reportedly asked onto the BBC’s Any Questions programme at short notice, so his fellow MP Tom Brake ably took his place. I was expecting some unhappy voices among party members and activists, but actually the tone of the discussion was very positive and Tom’s argument that a full deal with the Conservatives was really the only viable option, particularly given Labour’s lack of genuine interest in a deal, was persuasive. One questioner expressed dismay at the appointment of Theresa May as Home Secretary, given her record on equality issues, but I was able to share today’s news that LibDem Lynne Featherstone has been appointed Minister of State at the Home Office, with special responsiblity for Equalities, which is a much more reassuring prospect. The big question, really, is how William Hague will behave as Foreign Secretary, but even on Europe, it looks as though the Tories have been tamed somewhat by the LibDems. There are issues (such as Trident replacement) on which there was no agreement between the two sides, so LibDem MPs will have to abstain on any related vote, but Tom Brake assured us that that won’t stop us arguing the case against, both in parliament and in the country.

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The UK Election and Brussels

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 24th March, 2010

Yesterday lunchtime I took part in a debate in Brussels (hosted by LutherPendragon) on what the next UK government will mean for the EU and the various interest groups who lobby there. My fellow panelists were Jessica Asato, Director of the Labour magazine Progress, and Jonathan Isaby, formerly of the Daily Telegraph and now co-editor of ConservativeHome. The audience were a mixture of lobbyists, diplomats and Euro-parliamentary staffers, plus a couple of Tory MEPs (including the somewhat Euro-sceptic Roger Helmer). I stressed that the answer to the debate question depended totally on the outcome of the election (stating the obvious), but that the Liberal Democrats would be pressing for a far more constructive engagement with our European partners. It will be particularly important to try to moderate the Conservatives’ semi-detached approach to the EU, whether there is any formal arrangement between them and the LibDems or not. Personally, I suspect that David Cameron will be more pragmatic over Europe if he does indeed become Prime Minister than he and William Hague have been stating recently — presumably to try to counter the attraction of UKIP. It is interesting to remember that it was Conservative leaders who took Britain into what is now the EU, facilitated the single market and approved the Maastricht Treaty. But such has been their drift away from pro-European position in recent years that most of their pro-European MEPs left, were deselected or else joined the Liberal Democrats.

[photo: Oliver Kaye]

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Are the Tories Falling Apart?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 7th March, 2010

The British general election campaign hasn’t even started yet, but already the wheels seem to be coming off the Conservative campaign. They’d hoped to swing voters in marginal seats by pouring in lots of money, much of it donated by Lord Ashcroft. But the protracted revelations about the peer’s nom-dom tax status and his relations with Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague have now made him more of a liability than an asset. The party has also got unwisely close to the Young Britons’ Foundation, whose head espouses US neo-con views about the ‘disaster’ of the NHS and people’s right to carry a gun. Meanwhile, Lord Tebbit has said that Tory activists should be free to vote and even campaign for UKIP’s Nigel Farage, who is standing against the Speaker, John Bercow. And one of David Cameron’s neighbouring MPs has made the claim (now furiously denied) that Samantha Cameron may have voted for Tony Blair. Any one of these things might not be too damaging, but as the gaffes and indiscretions come thick and fast, the party is being made to look undisciplined and foolish. And we still don’t know what David Cameron stands for, other than vague ‘change’.

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Thank You, Vaclav Klaus

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 4th November, 2009

Vaclav KlausI’ve never been a great fan of the Czech President, Vaclav Klaus, who has none of the breadth of intellectual and human experience and understanding of his predecessor Vaclav Havel. But all true Europeans should feel nonetheless grateful to Mr Klaus for recognising that it would be quite wrong for him as an individual to try to stop the ‘train’ of the Lisbon Treaty when even his own country’s government wants to see it brought into force. Thus by signing the Treaty he has ensured that the last remaining hurdle was removed. not only for the ratification of the Treaty by all 27 member states but also for the European Union to move forward with the reforms that are contained within the Treaty, which will make the Union more democratic and more accountable, as well as more efficient.

David Cameron 5The other great aspect of President Klaus’s decision is that David Cameron has now been given an exit strategy from the corner into which he and his Shadow Foreign Affairs spokesman William Hague had painted the Tory party, rather like schoolboys in the playground taunting the rest of the class that they would reject and overturn what everybody else wanted by holding a referendum on Lisbon and campaigning against it. If we take Mr Cameron’s recent statement on the matter at face value, then that will not happen after all. Bravo. Eurosceptics will fume and some Tory voters may switch to UKIP, but so be it. Having a more reasonable policy towards the EU makes the Conservative Party more sensible, indeed more electable, and it gives pro-Europeans in the Liberal Democrats a good opportunity to put further pressure on the Tories to make sure that if they do become the next government in the UK, or the biggest single party in parliament, then they must engage constructivey with our European partners and ensure that Britain is at the heart of the onging European project, not sniping from the sidelines.

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Move over Glenys, Chris Bryant Is the New Attack Dog!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 12th October, 2009

Chris BryantGlenys Kinnock 1Former MEP Glenys Kinnock has been relieved of her responsibility as Minister for Europe and has been shunted sideways — some might say downwards — to look after Africa. Chris Bryant, MP for the Rhondda, will take her place. Though doubtless some of the tabloid press will snigger, given the unfortunate affair of Mr Bryant’s publicly-displayed Y-fronts some years back, the move is a good one. The Labour Party has identified, rightly, that Europe is the Tories’ Achilles heel and they intend to bang on about it from now up to the general election. Chris Bryant is a firm pro-European who can argue the case strongly, most importantly in the House of Commons. Baroness Kinnock (twice a lady, being the wife of former Labour leader, Lord [Neil] Kinnock, as well as having been made a peer in her own right, in order to take on ministerial responsiblity) would have found it much more difficult to land blows on William Hague and his shadow Foreign Office team from the other end of the parliamentary corridor. Standing up against Tory Euro-scepticism is the right thing to do, and interestingly it is not as unpopular move as some might think. In an opinion poll taken during the smmer, the Tories scored lower than Labour on only one area of policy: Europe.

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David Miliband Is Right to Berate William Hague

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 11th October, 2009

David Miliband 2British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has a right old go in The Observer today at the Tories — and especially his shadow opposite number, William Hague — for their alliance with Michal Kominski, of Poland’s innocuous-sounding Law and Justice Party (PiS) and Robert Zile of the Latvian For Fatherland and Freedom party, both of which have dodgy records on issues such as anti-semitism and homophobia, not to mention a general far-right past. Quite right too. Far from beng party political point scoring, this is a necessary move to show just what disgusting people the Conservatives have got into bed with in the European Parliament. They were even parading them at their party conference in Manchester the other day. It was depressing to see Stephen Pollard of the Jewish Chronicle coming out in Kaminski’s defence earlier this week. Zionists often accuse those who defend Palestinian rights as being ‘self-hating Jews’, but how self-hating can you get when you stand up and defend someone who refuses to apologise for the massacre of Jews at Jedwabne in Poland in 1941, as Kominski has refused to do?

Michal KominskiBut William Hague, far from admitting that the Conservatives have made a huge tactical error in their leaving the mainstream European People’s Party (EPP) to join up with these East European fruitcakes in the new  ‘European Conservatives and Reformists’ Group (ECR), has been stubbornly arguing that right is on the Tories’ side. Just look what happened to former Tory MEP Edward McMillan-Scott. He revolted at the prospect of supporting Michal Kominski as a Vice-President of the European Parliament, because of the Pole’s ‘anti-semitic, homophobic and racist past’ — and not only stood against him, but won. His punishment for this principled stand was to have the Tory whip wirthdrawn, then to be expelled from the Conservative Party, despite his long years of services to the cause, because — as William Hague explained it — he had made his allegations ‘against an individual who is a good friend of the Conservative Party and against a party (the PiS) allied to the Conservative Party in the European Parliament.’  By your friends you will be known, William. As a consolation prize, Kaminski was given the leadership of the ECR group in the Parliament. Pass the sick bag, Alice.

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