The Municipal Journal – 26 March 2008
Nottingham’s new speakers’ corner
It’s an age-old problem… what can politicians do about the democratic deficit and declining public participation in the running of councils and communities?
But a former MP has a new and surprising solution – politicians shouldn’t blame themselves over the issue, but demand more debate from the population.
So believes Peter Bradley, former MP for The Wrekin (Shropshire), whose dream of a national network of public debating places became real earlier this month with the launch of a speakers’ corner, in Nottingham.
‘Politicians cannot tackle challenges we face on their own, and pretending otherwise simply leads to failed expectations and public disillusion, Mr 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 Mr Bradley, is not smaller government but ‘big’ citizenship – initiatives such as speakers’ corners to help engender greater public participation and debate. ‘If citizens are not engaging with each other, they are hardly likely to be engaging with politicians,’ he says.
Mr Bradley spent eight months nurturing his ideas in Nottingham, and on 22 February, with support, in particular, from the city council, a speakers’ corner was born.
The idea has the backing of justice secretary, Jack Straw, and free-thinking comedian, Eddie Izzard, and it’s the first speakers’ corner to be formed since the one in London’s Hyde Park in 1872.
Why Nottingham? The city has a free-thinking tradition, In the 18th century, it was a rallying point for campaigns for working people’s rights, and in 1847 it returned the country’s only Chartist MP, Feargus O’Connor.
It’s other challengers to convention – in addition to Robin Hood – have included poet Lord Byron, author D H Lawrence and, of course, football manager Brian Clough.
‘If this was my country, you would all be arrested,’ said Adrian Lunga, a Zimbabwean human rights campaigner, when speaking at the platform’s official opening.
Free speech was like muscles, he reminded the audience of around 200. If you didn’t exercise them, they would 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.’
Also seizing the opportunity provided by the new public platform were a poet and protesters opposed to an EU Constitution, supermarkets, and foie gras.
The audience – still new to the experience – listened politely, without heckling. But there was plenty of support among them. ‘I like a good debate,’ said John Coates, aged 75. ‘It’s no good just talking to yourself. You’ve got to take things to a higher level.’ And Jenny Grant, 48, who wants to tell the Government where she believes it is going wrong in its support for young people, adds: ‘I am going to get up there as soon as I can.’
Away from the speakers’ corner – not in a ‘corner’, but just off the city’s Market Square – the day included six organised debates. The subjects and venues were chosen to attract people who, traditionally, would not participate in political discussion, such as young people and single mothers.
More than 40 people participated in a lively two-hour discussion on the future of football; half-a-dozen women attended ‘Listening to mothers’, which concluded with the setting up of a self-help group; and people from 11 different religions met in a synagogue, to share the common ground between their respective faiths.
‘Some people warned us that we would not be able to attract people,’ says Mr Bradley. ‘It took time and effort, but I am delighted that we proved them wrong.’
Mr Bradley looks back on his parliamentary days with scepticism. ‘Much of it was about point-scoring rather than finding common ground,’ he says.
But he still puts a high value on parliament’s face-to-face approach to debate. Indeed, he dismisses the contribution he believes the Internet can make to public participation and debate, saying ‘it may transcend distances, but it slams doors on neighbours rather than encouraging them to go down their garden paths.’
Of the future, he is more positive, and already several other councils have expressed interest in replicating Nottingham’s experiment. ‘What I am doing is potentially far more significant than what I could have done as a backbench MP or junior minister,’ he says. ‘Citizens should be enabled and perhaps even required to do more, and politicians should be more honest about their limits.’