The Guardian – 22 April 2008

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Speak for yourself
by Peter Bradley

The other evening I caught a snatch of a Five Live “debate” on the day’s affairs. The first caller excoriated Gordon Brown. He called the PM a liar for sending aid to Africa while claiming that protecting the UK economy was his top priority. He went on to compare him unfavourably with Robert Mugabe who, he claimed, at least had the guts to call an election.

Even the presenter seemed a little taken aback – though only a little. After all, strong opinions, even if nasty and irrational, make good radio.

Who’s to blame for the parlous state of debate in this country – the politicians whose parliamentary point-scoring sets such a poor standard, or the media for its obsession with trivia and conflict?

And how much blame should we, as citizens, bear for our diminishing interest in our own rights and growing impatience with the political system that guarantees them?

Surely a participative democracy is only as good as we make it. If we stop participating, society stops working. And given the challenges we face we need a functioning, consensus-based civil society more than ever.

From climate change to national identity, from terrorism to technology, none of the problems we need to tackle can be met without informed, rational and sustained public debate. But if citizens aren’t talking to each other, they’re hardly likely to be engaging with politicians.

The internet is part of the solution. But it’s part of the problem too. It can connect us to people on the other side of the world, but it can also isolate us from our neighbours; and while it provides countless forums for comment and opinion, its anonymity and unaccountability can also undermine genuine debate.

The Speakers’ Corner initiative aims to get 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 to them. That experience can not only be empowering and often enriching but it’s also the best way to develop the respect for diversity and the sense of common purpose which underpin successful communities.

And when people come together to pool their ideas, experience and energies, there’s very little they can’t achieve. The success of our pilot in Nottingham – where work is under way on the first speakers’ corner in the UK since an act of parliament paved the way for the original in 1872 – provides the evidence. The enthusiasm of the volunteers who make up the project’s steering committee, the city council, which has supported them and the public who flocked to the six events we organised recently show that there is a real appetite for debate and participation if only opportunities can be created.

The rights of citizens to hold and express opinions lie at the heart of Britain’s democratic way of life. But if we allow those freedoms to fall into disuse or abuse and if the involvement of citizens in debating and developing a common vision for their society continues to decline, who – apart from Brown – will we have to blame for the consequences?


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