War Memorial Gary Trouton

A Citizens' Think Tank

July 2003

A non-party political discussion group is proposed

Ray Thompson's excellent editorial in June's Village Pump proposed increasing the political content. I strongly agree but still like the lighter material. There should be a good mix of the homely stuff and the clever-clogs stuff.

In Chris Hollier's Up Beet section, I was intrigued to read of the Wissey Village History Group due to meet on 11 June at The Miller's Arms in Stoke Ferry. This triggered memories of my own experience of leading a Citizen Think Tank in Barnet a few years ago. It was just a bunch of volunteers producing a quarterly journal on unemployment. At its peak it had hundreds of members and contributors, including Christopher Hill and other distinguished academics. Membership was open to anyone and there were plenty of talented writers with no academic distinction.

The journal's ideas came to notice on high. The group was mentioned in a House of Commons debate. Its ideas attracted written comment from number of prominent politicians, including Tony Benn: "I agree 100 per cent with your analysis"; Mo Mowlam: "Both informed and informative -very clear and persuasive argument"; and Donald Dewar: "It is time we had a long look at a situation which almost everybody sees as unsatisfactory. I recognise that there is a very genuine debate about the right to work".

My point here is that, if a group is happily meeting at the Miller's Arms to discuss local history, why not also a non-party group meeting regularly to discuss political matters? Part of each meeting could be a celebrity speaker talking about anything he or she wishes - or even a non-celebrity speaker from the locality; everybody has something interesting to say for ten minutes. The new Citizen Think Tank would be a good source of material for the Village Pump

The first step is to find a volunteer to organise the project. I am happy to advise in the light of my experience in Barnet but not to lead it as I am getting too old and doddery. It could be an exciting project, setting the pattern for Local Citizen Think Tanks all over the country.

The political impact could be dramatic if they followed the pattern set by the London Corresponding Societies of 1792/9. For a while the network of those London Corresponding Societies had huge influence on public opinion until they were eventually crushed by repressive government. Information about them is contained in The London Corresponding Societies 1792-99, edited by Michael T Davis (six volumes, June 2002, Pickering and Chatto) but that is 2,328 pages long and costs £495. It would suffice to read the review in the London Review of Books of 5 June 2003 or ask the library for a shorter book.

Perhaps the idea of a local Citizen's Think Tank can be discussed at the next meeting of the Stoke Ferry Environmental Group. What has it got to do with the environment? Well, discussion groups can contribute to neighbourliness and neighbourliness is an important part of the environment.

Returning to Ray Thompson's stimulating editorial, I have written to our MP Gillian Shephard expressing my support for it, enclosing a copy of it. Ray deplores the Prime Minister's unwillingness to have a referendum on a new European Constitution. He might more explicitly have said that this is tantamount to the loss of our democracy, as well as the danger he bemoans of the loss of liberty, independence and sovereignty.

Mrs Shephard responded by saying that the Conservative Party was going all out for the referendum and that Michael Howard had spoken extremely well on that issue in the House of Commons. A copy of the relevant Hansard (for 9 June 2003) was provided.

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