Nottingham Evening Post – 26 February 2008

Peter Bradley on Speakers’ Corner in Nottingham

When people come together to pool their ideas, experience and energies in a common cause, there’s very little they can’t achieve.

The Nottingham Speakers’ Corner which we launched just a few days ago in Old Market Square is testament to that. The city holds some very good memories for me: I was here when England beat Germany 5-1! But nothing prepared me for the enthusiasm, commitment and goodwill I’ve encountered over the eight months we’ve worked on this.

It’s precisely that spirit of optimism and adventure that the Speakers’ Corner initiative is designed to support. We live in an age in which our sense of community seems so much weaker than in previous generations and we worry about that. And while the internet can connect us to people on the other side of the world, we’re beginning to realise that it can separate us from our neighbours.

Yet if we’re to deal effectively with the modern world’s demands, we need more than ever to be talking to each other and strengthening our capacity for understanding and cooperation from street to global level.

After all, politicians can’t tackle the challenges we face on their own: there can be no effective response to climate change which doesn’t involve us all as consumers; we can’t confront terrorism without a broad agreement about the proper balance between security and liberty; we won’t be able to harness the promise nor avoid the risks of scientific progress if we can’t get beyond headlines about Frankenstein’s monsters. None of these challenges can be met without the kind of open public debate which is the lifeblood of healthy democracies.

That’s why it’s so important to find new ways to encourage people literally to come back down their garden paths and engage with their neighbours in a face-to-face exchange of ideas and opinions about the issues that matter most.

We hope that Nottingham’s Speakers’ Corner will stand in the heart of the city centre as a powerful symbol of citizens’ rights, a platform for public debate and a new focus for civic pride. But the project is much broader than the space at the bottom of King Street where it will stand alongside Brian Clough’s statue when the works are completed in the autumn.

Last Friday, hundreds of Nottingham people also came together to join in debates across the city on topics ranging from the common ground between the generations to the future of football. From the comments I heard, they really enjoyed the experience: some learned something new: some met old friends or made new ones; others seized the opportunity to get over their own point of view or hear someone else’s. No one told me they wouldn’t want to do it again!

And as the dust settles on the launch, the conversations will continue because Nottingham’s Speakers’ Corner Committee, made up of representatives of the city’s public, private and voluntary sectors and its communities, will shortly begin organising a long term programme of debates. These won’t just be at the Speakers’ Corner but in meeting places around the city, building on Nottingham’s great reputation for pioneering ideas and strong opinions.

It’s because of Nottingham’s proud freethinking tradition that we chose the city for our pilot project. So last Friday, when we came together to launch the UK’s first Speakers’ Corner for almost 150 years, we were not only paying tribute to the city’s great heritage but also, we hope, creating a model for the future which other towns and cities will come to imitate.

What a bonus then, that on that day, one influential national newspaper devoted an editorial to the city’s historic strengths, commenting that it had “fittingly been chosen to pilot a brave new adventure in free speech”. The piece was aptly entitled, In Praise of Nottingham.

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