The Guardian – 27 February 2008
Public opinion turns to a new corner
by Robert Bullard
Tony Benn once announced that he was leaving parliament “to devote more time to politics”, and now another parliamentarian is continuing in the same vein. Last Friday, Peter Bradley, the former Labour MP for The Wrekin, Shropshire, saw a similar dream come alive with the creation of a new speakers’ corner – based on the one in Hyde Park, London, which was established in 1872. It is the start, Bradley hopes, of a string of fresh public debating forums.
“Politicians cannot tackle the challenges we face on their own, and pretending otherwise simply leads to failed expectations and public disillusion,” Bradley says. “There can be no effective response to climate change which doesn’t involve action by individual consumers; we cannot confront terrorism without broad agreement about the proper balance between scrutiny and liberty.”
What we need, says Bradley, is not smaller government but “big” citizenship – initiatives just like speakers’ corners to help generate greater public participation and debate. “If citizens are not engaging with each other they are hardly likely to be engaging with politicians,” he says.
To test public interest in a new speakers’ corner, Bradley spent eight months nurturing his ideas in Nottingham, and last Friday, with support from the city council, England’s new speakers’ corner was born.
Seizing the opportunity for a public platform at the launch were a poet and protesters against the EU constitution, supermarkets and foie gras. The audience listened politely rather than heckled.
“If this was my country, you would all be arrested,” said Adrian Lunga, a Zimbabwean human rights campaigner at the official opening. Free speech is like muscles, he reminded the audience of around 200, if you don’t exercise them, they become weak and ineffectual.
But the biggest applause was for local community activist Jackie Morris, who seemed to hit Nottingham’s raw nerve: “If people use this platform, perhaps there would be less violence in the city. Let’s start talking to one another.”
With interest from several other councils, Bradley is excited about replicating Nottingham’s experiment elsewhere. His ideas may not pull in the size of crowds attracted by Benn yet, but he shares his viewpoint, saying: “I think what I am doing is potentially far more significant than what I could have done as a backbench MP or junior minister.”