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I also blog at Huffington Post's new UK site; please click here to read my posts there.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Oil crisis in Gaza

Only when you read the story (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/mobile/world-middle-east-17487388) do you discover that "a lengthy fuel crisis" in the Gaza Strip is caused not by Israel, but by "a dispute between Egypt and the Hamas government in Gaza over whether Gaza can trade with Egypt openly, or only via Israel". I suggest it might be a good idea if the Egyptian Government and Hamas sort this out. Another story about Gaza (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/mobile/world-middle-east-17028000) says that: "Last year Egypt eased restrictions allowing people to travel more easily, but all legal trade is still forbidden and the tunnel industry continues to thrive." So Egypt is forbidding all legal trade between its citizens and the Palestinian people of Gaza?! I assume that everyone reading this knows that Egypt and Gaza share a border? I write here in a personal capacity.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Fw: [Matthew Harris] New comment on Who is Terry Jermy?.

You'll see below that this Breckland Labour councillor Terry Jermy has responded to my previous post about him. I had received an email from Cllr Terry Jermy to say that I had signed some Labour petition about parking in his part of Norfolk. As a non-driving Liberal Democrat who lives in London, I had of course never signed. So, Cllr Jermy, if my alleged signature was 'fake', then how many of the others were? I understand that you have obviously not deliberately forged any signatures (it is presumably an internet spam type thing), but it would clearly be most regrettable if people in Thetford or Breckland thought that lots of people agreed with you and had signed your petition, when, actually, they hadn't.
------------------

From: TJUK2011 <terry.jermy@googlemail.com>
Date: Thu, 22 Mar 2012 17:14:59 +0000
To: <matthew.harris@hotmail.co.uk>
Subject: [Matthew Harris] New comment on Who is Terry Jermy?.

TJUK2011 has left a new comment on your post "Who is Terry Jermy?":

How weird. I've not seen this post until now. Your email was used on the No to car parking charges in Breckland petition via Petition Buzz - and everybody that signed up to support it received this follow up email from myself. Regardless, I am glad that it assisted with your insomnia, please do let me know if you need any further help with that. I wouldn't have thought that it would have been an issue, what with you being a Lib Dem. Best wishes, Terry



Posted by TJUK2011 to Matthew Harris at 22 March 2012 17:14

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Sabbath suspended for Olympics

As news breaks of a likely eight-week suspension of Sunday trading laws for the Olympics (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/mobile/uk-17419351), are we to expect a decree from the London Beth Din suspending the Jewish sabbath (shabbat) on Saturdays? As an agnostic, I mark the sabbath on a God-given eighth day of the week, which might or might not actually exist.

To declare a disinterest, although some of my best grandparents were Anglicans, I am myself Jewish, leading a largely secular lifestyle and not being 'shomer shabbat' (observant of the Jewish sabbath). Of course, I shop on Sundays, and actually nothing makes me grumpier than when all the newsagents in New Barnet shut (for lack of custom) on large parts of Sunday afternoon, just at the time when (to select a purely hypothetical example at random) a man matching my description might want to buy a copy of The Observer and sit reading it in a public house.

So praise be to the much-maligned supermarket convenience stores that now mean that I can buy a Sunday newspaper in Barnet. However, I do buy the idea that we can arguably do with one day when we take a break, or at least a relative break, from the pressures of consumerism, so I understand the arguments of Keep Sunday Special.

The Sunday trading laws are not an inseparable package, so we ought to be able to suspend some without suspending all of the others. The law allowing Christians to opt out of working on Sundays is a form of anti-discrimination law. We don't suspend anti-discrimination laws for the sake of the Olympics. There may be a case for suspending those Sunday trading laws that relate to opening hours, etc, but not those that relate to employment and Christians' right not to work on Sundays.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Dear BBC, Lord Fellowes is a politician...

The BBC reports (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-17396825) that Lord (Julian) Fellowes, the writer of Downton Abbey, supports Chancellor George Osborne's mooted tax breaks for UK TV drama production. Well of course he does. He's a Conservative, professional politician. He sits in Parliament as a Conservative (http://www.parliament.uk/biographies/lords/julian-fellowes/90418). You cannot sensibly report that a Tory politician supports the Tory Chancellor without mentioning, as an important background detail, that the Tory politician concerned actually IS a Tory politician. It's like if you said that "the historian Tristram Hunt" agrees with Labour's policy on history teaching, without mentioning that Mr Hunt is a Labour MP. I'm sure that Lord Fellowes might support the mooted policy even if he was not a tame Tory politician (I probably support it myself), but you cannot report that a Tory Parliamentarian supports a Tory policy without putting that support in its proper context. Anyone who does not know that Lord Fellowes is not only a writer, but also a professional politician, will not be in a position to make up their own mind about this BBC News story. Basic error and very sloppy.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Another big Clegg foreign policy speech

With my finger on the pulse of events that, er, happened a week ago, I was very interested to read this speech (http://www.dpm.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/deputy-prime-minister-speech-hague) by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, in which he said: "The world, as I see it, is not split along traditional lines: North/South; East/West; Developed/Developing. It is divided into those societies which are open and those which are closed." Worth a read if you are interested in Liberal Democrat foreign policy in terms of the UK's Coalition Government. Oh, and to anyone who might ever suggest that British politicians have a tendency to talk about Israel/Palestine to the exclusion of talking about other important issues, I would point out that the subject is not directly mentioned once in this speech.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Poll: 68% back tough sanctions on Iran

Fascinating to read online (http://www.theisraelproject.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=ewJXKcOUJlIaG&b=7717029&ct=11663321&tr=y&auid=10449770) about a new poll showing that 68% of British people support the EU's tough economic sanctions against the Iranian nuclear programme. Some Guardian/Independent readers doubtless move in circles in which 'nobody' thinks that Iran's nuclear programme is a threat. This poll shows that most people think that it is. I write here in a personal capacity.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Louise Phillips: Lib Dem activists need to start to grow up

The other day, I blogged about the vote at Lib Dem Conference on health. I said that Lib Dem activists think that THEY are the party, but actually, they are not the party, they are the party's fans (http://matthewfharris.blogspot.com/2012/03/shock-as-lib-dems-prove-fractious.html?m=1). Over at Huffington Post, the Lib Dem blogger Louise Phillips has written a superb, must-read piece about what is wrong with the activist culture of my party. Boy, is she right, including about the Glee Club (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/blackberry/p.html?id=1340235). The party's democratic structure is first-rate; what is problematic is the culture that has grown up within that structure. How do we begin the process of changing that culture?

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Shock as Lib Dems prove fractious

Great drama on British streets as people react to the news that a bunch of Lib Dem activists have voted against something. Cars screeched to a halt. People who were outside ran indoors. People who were indoors ran outside. Fights are breaking out in pubs, and television sets that were showing some sort of important Rugby Football match have been switched off in anger.

I am confused - they (we, although I'm not there) voted to reject the changes to the bill that the Lib Dems had secured (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/mobile/uk-politics-17330939); I thought the changes were the bits that we actually liked? And I thought that Shirley Williams was the patron saint of critics of the bill, and that if she was now happy with it, they were happy too?

The electorate punishes divided parties. Sometimes, even in a democratic party, we should allow the leadership to lead, instead of giving the public the impression that we are a disorganised rabble that opposes what its own ministers are doing in government. Why would anyone vote for a party if that party is going to try to stop its leaders from doing the things that the leaders say that they will do?

If even the massive concessions secured by Nick Clegg and Shirley Williams were not enough for these activists, then the activists concerned look like spoilt children demanding another ice cream when they've already (as a special treat) been allowed two today.

And who is this man who, having voted against Nick Clegg's line in the debate, claims to have put a weapon in Nick Clegg's hands in his negotiations with David Cameron? A weapon that Nick Clegg specifically asked not to be given, but for which he is now supposed to be grateful? That is what offends me most: that those who vote against the leadership claim that they are doing so as a way of supporting the leadership, when the best way to support the leadership is, you know, to actually sometimes agree with what the leadership is doing.

Having said that they believe that the revised Health Bill is good for the NHS, are Nick Clegg and Shirley Williams now supposed to pretend that they have changed their minds and don't believe in it after all? We've basically voted to say that we think Clegg and Williams are wrong, and we are presumably inviting the public to agree with us on that - how does that encourage people to vote for the party that Nick Clegg leads?

These activists think that they are "the party", but they are not - they are the party's fans, and this was their equivalent of being at a Doctor Who convention. Just as Doctor Who is not owned by its fans (it is owned by the general viewing audience, most of whom are not 'fans'), so the Liberal Democrats are not owned by activists, but are owned by the millions of people who vote for us, and the millions more who seriously think about voting for us but have not yet done so. Those people don't have politics as a hobby and have a sense of perspective that puts the activists to shame.

I realise that this will offend people, and I am writing here in a personal capacity.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Lib Dem motion on Syria

I am not at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in Gateshead (or "Newcastle-Gateshead", as some are calling it). A lot of the media coverage focuses on the Emergency Motion that will be debated tomorrow, Sunday morning. There's been a ballot of people at the conference to choose which one of four motions gets debated tomorrow. Two are on health, one is on criminal justice and the other is on Syria. The members rarely vote for foreign-policy to be the subject of this one and only Emergency Debate; they usually vote to debate either this week's big UK news story (which is obviously NHS reform) or something that they are campaigning on locally at home. So I suspect that Syria won't be the one picked for debate. But isn't it an excellent motion? Nuanced, measured and accurate on detail. People often accuse Liberal Democrats of talking about some foreign policy problems more than others, and that is sometimes true, but it is also true that a lot of Lib Dems do actually make noises about a very wide range of foreign policy matters, even if it doesn't always get reported very much. The motion reads:

Emergency motion 3: Violence in Syria

Conference condemns:

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brutal slaughter of his own people and his repeated targeting of civilians, resulting in the loss of over 7,500 lives.

Syrian government officials, including Bashar al-Assad, who are responsible for ordering crimes against humanity and other gross human rights violations, including executing deserters and torturing detainees, as reported by the United Nations-appointed independent international commission of inquiry on Syria.

Continued Iranian, Russian and Chinese backing of the Assad regime.

The Russian and Chinese veto in late January of a UN Security Council Resolution, proposed by the Kingdom of Morocco on behalf of the Arab League, which called for a peaceful end to the crisis in Syria.

The Assad regime hindering humanitarian organisations reaching those Syrian civilians caught in the violence and in need of food, water, sanitation provisions and medical attention.

Conference welcomes:

A. The diplomatic effort the UK Coalition Government is making to coordinate pressure on the Assad regime, particularly in working with the European Union, United Nations, Arab League and Friends of Syria group.

B. The appointment of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as the joint Special Envoy to Syria for the UN and Arab League.

C. The Government's decision on 29 February to suspend the services of the British Embassy in Damascus and withdraw all diplomatic staff.

Conference calls for:

1. Continued political momentum and peaceful international pressure, with support from the Arab League, for an immediate ceasefire and unhindered access to the Syrian men, women and children affected by the violence and in need of humanitarian relief.

2. Continued support for the Syrian National Council to encourage a more united and representative Syrian opposition toward a peaceful and more democratic Syria.

3. The Government to support the UN High Commission for Refugees in its efforts to assist the thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

4. The Government to engage more actively and directly with our NATO ally Turkey to address this situation on its borders.

5. The Government to build on the EU sanctions agreed on 27 February, which further restrict the Assad regime's sources of revenue.

6. Those Syrian officials accused of crimes against humanity to be brought to justice.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

My moment of lame on Voice of Russia

As previously discussed, I yesterday recorded a discussion programme on the radio station Voice of Russia, about Israel, Iran, the USA and the Palestinians. You can now click here to hear the programme (throughout which I demonstrably had something of a frog in my throat). I do not necessarily accept the premise on which the discussion was predicated and I repeat my strong dissociation of myself from the abhorrent writings of the person calling himself "Israel Shamir", who I believe is the same Israel Shamir who was on this programme. Being a complete bitch, I note that the guest from the self-styled Stop the War Coalition, John Rees, referred to Ayatollah Seyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei as "Ayatollah Khatami", which was presumably a mistaken reference to Iran's former president (not ayatollah) Mohammad Khatami. Oh, and did I say "we" when referring to something involving the UK Government?! A Freudian slip (perhaps a Clement Freudian slip) as I am not yet the Foreign Secretary. I meant "we British" or "we people of good will and common sense". Or something.

"Is there a future for the Arabs in Israel?"

Writing here in a personal capacity, one reads that a group of Lib Dem party members called Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine is organising a fringe meeting with this title at this weekend's Liberal Democrat Spring Conference. I shall not here attempt to answer what is surely a rhetorical question, beyond saying that I have blogged here previously about the issues facing Arab citizens of Israel, and would refer anyone who is interested to the excellent work of two particular British organisations: the UK branch of New Israel Fund and, most of all, the UK Task Force on Issues Facing Arab Citizens of Israel. As a British taxpayer, I am pleased that the UK Government is funding efforts to promote better ties between Jews and Arabs in Israel

Glorious obit of Lord St John

There are one or two Tories in the current government who wouldn't say boo to a goose (who was that gangster a few years ago who, giving a character reference in court for one of his professional contemporaries, said: "Not only would he not say boo to a goose, he wouldn't say boo to two gooses"?). This is doubtless good news for the nation's geese, none of whom has ever expressed to me a desire for anyone to say "Boo" to them. But these utterly blameless individuals (Tory ministers, not geese), in whose mouths fat-free non-butter wouldn't melt, do sometimes seem a little bit boring to serve as ministers of the crown. Lives so utterly straightforward as to almost seem not quite real...The same can most assuredly not be said for Norman St John-Stevas, whose Telegraph obituary (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/9124613/Lord-St-John-of-Fawsley.html) is very funny and was, I suspect, written in part by the late Auberon Waugh. Definitely worth a read - what a life. One could almost (but not quite) imagine having been a Tory if they had all been like this. Was he the Conservative Party's answer to the Liberal Sir Clement Freud? I doubt either man would have relished the comparison.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

I've lost my voice (of Russia)

Following my earlier post (http://matthewfharris.blogspot.com/2012/03/media-alert-voice-of-russia-at-9pm.html?m=1) about my exciting broadcast on Voice of Russia, I know that many millions of you were gathered around your wireless sets waiting to hear it. The programme that I'd been told was on at nine turned out to be on at ten thirty, and just as it was about to begin on my digital radio, it switched to Radio Australia (Voice of Russia, it transpires, is broadcast in the UK on something called World Radio Network, currently airing a genuinely boring programme called Pacific Beat live from Melbourne). Does anything better sum up the glorious bathos of my career than this latest episode? Does the World Radio Network not know who I am (who am I?)? Am I at this moment being broadcast to the English-speaking masses of the FSU? Sniff. I shall post a link to it when they put it on YouTube. UPDATE: Here it is if you wish to listen.

Media Alert: Voice of Russia at 9pm today

UPDATE: Here is the programme if you are interested in hearing it.

I just came out of recording a discussion programme for a radio station called Voice of Russia (http://english.ruvr.ru/), discussing Israel, Iran, AIPAC and the Palestinians, and then who should walk past me in the street on a sunny St James's Square? None other than BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen. Anyway, it goes out at nine o'clock tonight (Wednesday 7 March 2012) and the website (http://english.ruvr.ru/) says that it can be found on UK digital radio on DAB, 23/7. It is broadcast through their website as well, although I'm not sure whether that includes the variant of the station that I was on - they're putting it on YouTube, so I'll post that when I have it.

I went on as a "pro-Israeli Liberal Democrat" and was therefore speaking for myself and not for Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel or for any other organisation. When I arrived, participants in the discussion turned out to include "Israel Shamir" (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israel_Shamir), on the telephone from Moscow. I strongly dissociate myself from Israel Shamir and from the disgusting things that he frequently writes. I was on the programme to oppose his views in debate and I deplore all that he stands for.

Also, Professor Rosemary Hollis (http://rosemaryhollis.com/) said that she believes that it is increasingly unlikely that a two-state solution can be achieved, at which point the programme ended - had we gone on, I would have explained why I disagree with her on that. There was also a chap on from the Stop the War Coalition and I disagree with most of what he said too...And Michael Fish just walked past me in the street. Perhaps I agree with him on something. Yes, I agree with Nick Clegg, Michael Fish and myself.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Who is Terry Jermy?

No to Breckland car parking charges; Final push to collect signatures Perhaps the email below is computer-generated spam, and I am doing a complete injustice to this person, but a Labour councillor in somewhere called 'Norfolk' appears to have emailed me accusing me of signing some sort of petition connected to the parking of motor cars. I am not Labour, I am not in Norfolk and I do not drive (let alone park) a motor car. I have at least one good friend who is from Norfolk and I have reason to believe that it is a very fine county, but I have no memory of signing a petition involving the urgent matter below. Perhaps my Lib Dem friends in South Norfolk will be interested in the email below? Google tells me that Mr Jermy has some sort of weblog called Jermy's Journal, but I haven't looked at it, as I fear that it might be too much for a person of tender conscience such as myself. Incidentally, Cllr Jermy's email doubles most effectively as an insomnia cure.

Ed Fordham right on Tonge

Over at http://www.oyvagoy.com/2012/03/05/guest-post-my-thoughts-on-jenny-tonge/, my Lib Dem friend Ed Fordham has written an excellent piece about Baroness Tonge's resignation of the Lib Dem whip. Well worth a look.

Lord Carlile speaking in Barnet in May

Great to see a poster (see picture) for a (non-party) church meeting at which Alex Carlile is speaking in Barnet in May. Lord Carlile used to be the Government's independent reviewer of terrorism legislation (and is also a Lib Dem peer). Should be interesting, might well go along.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Two well-reasoned pieces on Baroness Tonge

In The Independent, Howard Jacobson writes with his usual insightful brilliance about Baroness Tonge's resignation from the Liberal Democrats. All I ask, colleagues, is that you read his column with an open mind, one sentence at a time, and give serious thought to what he is saying, even if it differs from what you might previously have thought about this issue. To anyone who now says "Well, Howard Jacobson would say that, wouldn't he, he's Jewish", I'd say that that is like saying, if a black or gay columnist commented on an issue to do with racism or homophobia, "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he, he's black/gay". Are Jews to be the only minority group that is accused of bias when it comments on the prejudice faced by that minority? And to those who say "It's nothing to do with prejudice, it's to do with criticism of Israel", I would say that you remind me of a saloon bar bore saying: "You can't say nothing about immigration without them calling you a racialist." You can say a great many critical things about Israel without being accused of antisemitism and people do, all the time. It is when certain lines are crossed that reasoned criticism of Israel can stop being that and can become something else, just as reasoned criticism of Saudi Arabia, or of the governments of African countries, or of proposals for gay marriage, can stop being that and can become something else. Also, my Lib Dem colleague Iain Sharpe has blogged about this with his usual moderation and good sense and is definitely worth a read

Friday, 2 March 2012

Siobhan Benita and Oxbridge

Hilarious parody in the Standard of one of those independent candidates who make a big thing of being 'ordinary and not like other politicians' - never, ever trust a politician who makes a pitch on that basis. It is so funny that I almost believed it. The best bit is when the candidate, Siobhan Benita, who is running for London Mayor, talks about having chosen not to go to Oxbridge because the lavatories are inadequate (she went instead to Warwick, which she says "had very nice toilets (sic)". She says: "I visited Oxford and chose not to go to Oxford because I didn't think it would have been the right place for me to go. They did medieval German which I thought wasn't useful. I wanted to do modern German and they didn't do it so I thought 'sod you then'." I believe that Oxford might offer modern languages as a subject for study, but what I love most of all is that Ms Benita makes no mention of having done anything so vulgar as to actually APPLY to Oxford, it therefore being more accurate (and less arrogant) to say that she chose not to apply, rather than to say that she chose not to go. To choose not to go, one has to have been offered a place in the first place. Her decision not to go to Oxford is reminiscent of my decision not be Foreign Secretary, my decision not to win an Oscar and my decision not to marry Selma Hayek.

Gareth Epps censors me on Tonge

A Liberal Democrat party member called Gareth Epps blogged an open letter to Nick Clegg about Baroness Tonge and free speech. I posted a comment including a link to my own blog, and Mr Epps responded with a comment (http://www.garethepps.org.uk/2012/02/29/dear-nick-clegg/comment-page-1/#comment-24268) in which he wrote:

"I have removed the link to your blog as I will not be held responsible for aiding people to read such nonsense. I can see I will have to tightly moderate further comments."

It is interesting to see that Mr Epps' impassioned defence of free speech only extends to nonsense with which he agrees, and not to nonsense (like mine) with which he disagrees.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

BBC World Service and Russell Johnston

BBC just had a party to celebrate eighty years of World Service and an imminent goodbye to the World Service's HQ, Bush House. A magnificent building and a very good evening at which I heard some spectacularly good (and sadly unrepeatable) gossip about this week's political news, and some genuine insights into diplomatic matters, a self-consciously pompous observation which underlines the extent to which large parts of my life increasingly resemble an Olivia Manning novel, although with fewer shortages, a smaller prospect of a German invasion and less time spent waiting in hotel lobbies. Anyway, one thing that struck me for the second time in recent years was that a senior person from another European country was keen to tell me, as I am a Liberal Democrat, how much he respected Russell Johnston. Russell Johnston (whom I never met) was a Liberal MP and peer who, of course, never held ministerial office (what Liberal did, after 1945 and before 2010?), but who was, I believe, a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, in which role he encouraged and mentored liberals and others in countries that I think included Lithuania and Kosovo, playing a role in such emergent democracies that, in terms of influence, was somewhat in excess of anything that was achieved by several post-war British Foreign Secretaries. He remains greatly respected and warmly remembered among politicians and diplomats in the countries concerned; I am unsure of the extent to which his efforts were the result of official encouragement from the more interesting parts of Her Majesty's Government. His career is a fascinating example of what a backbench MP can achieve if s/he specialises in foreign affairs and blends moral authority with deep intelligence.