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Devolution – making the most of the opportunity

April 14, 2017

My first political act was to wear a “Yes” badge during the 1979 referendum on devolution to Wales. Prime Minister Callaghan’s plans for both Wales and Scotland failed. We had to wait until 1997 before any government tried again. The Blair government devolved powers to the nations of Wales and Scotland and also to Northern Ireland and London. But devolution to English regions outside London stalled. Worse, the Labour government continued the practice of its Conservative predecessors and emasculated and hobbled local government.

The Coalition Government began the reversal of this trend and localism was championed by Liberal Democrat ministers, including myself. A report prepared for the coalition recommended that the practice of central government handing out grants after a bidding process should end. The replacement would be a network of directly elected regional mayors, who would receive devolved budgets and spend them according to their local priorities. In the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish referendum the cabinet committee on devolution, of which I was a member, decided that solving the “England Question” was urgent.

England is the most centralised country in Europe. Paddy Ashdown used to joke that only Malta was under more central direction from its capital. In May 2017 that joke will be redundant. Most of the English city regions will elect a mayor, responsible for managing large devolved budgets and exercising strategic control over some key policy areas. This is an exciting opportunity for Bristol, Bath and the surrounding towns and villages in South Gloucestershire and North East Somerset. We will be able to shape our local economic development and crack some of the transport problems that have remained unsolved for decades. We will be able to plan strategically and holistically how to grow our communities, with new homes and places of work.

Our region may be small, compared to London or the West Midlands. But we pack a big punch. The West of England, centred on its cities of Bath and Bristol, is the most prosperous city region outside London. Our vibrant economy is a net contributor of taxes to the Treasury. Our products are consumed the world over and people from around the world visit us. Yet we are often over-looked by central government. Investment in public transport goes elsewhere. Our achievements in culture and technology are undersold compared to other regions, let alone London. Some of this neglect is our own fault. We haven’t shouted loud enough about our attributes. Our voice is muted as it has been so fragmented.

Once the regional “metro” Mayor is elected, this shyness must end. If I am elected I will bring our cities, towns and villages together and speak on their behalf with one clear voice. I will bring together the three local councils that make up the Mayoral Combined Authority. The role of regional mayor will require skills of diplomacy to bring people together to agree strategic solutions to our common problems. The mayor will also be the principal voice for the region in the corridors of power in London. The strength of that voice will be amplified if the mayors of all the city regions, including London, are able to collaborate. My experience as a councillor, MP and government minister means that I am strongly equipped to achieve effective collaboration.

I will use the mandate derived from the people of all our communities to bring together Bath and Bristol. Our cities have their own special characteristics but together they are stronger than their parts. I want to make Bristol and Bath a world beating brand, a favoured location to live, work, invest and visit. As Mayor I would build strong working relationships with all our English neighbours and put joint cases to London for investment in local transport. For instance the traffic congestion in east Bath requires action in Wiltshire on re-opening local rail stations. I will also seek to have a constructive relationship with the government of Wales on the significant number of cross border issues, such as rail electrification and the Severn Bridge tolls.

English devolution is now finally underway. I will make the best possible use of the powers that are being transferred in 2017. I will bring together all of the MPs and councillors, regardless of party, to make devolution work. I will consult them, the business community and the public as to how we want devolution to develop in the future. We are starting an exciting journey and our final destination must be the sort of local empowerment for both the councils and the region that our European neighbours take for granted.

My plans for a prosperous and sustainable West of England economy

March 20, 2017

My ambition is to make Bristol, Bath and the West of England the most dynamic, pleasant and sustainable place to live, work, invest and visit. I will use the office of Metro Mayor to work with businesses and other political leaders to establish the region as the best place to start and grow a business. Investors and employees will be attracted by a high quality of life, with good connectivity to the rest of Europe and the world beyond.

The Bristol and Bath cities region economy is already the most prosperous in England outside London. It contributes over £25billion to the national economy. The taxes its people and businesses pay subsidise the rest of the country. I am not attracted by prosperity for its own sake. Our region’s wealth must be grown in a sustainable way, with opportunities for everyone to share in our growing success.

The Strategic Economic Plan produced by the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership in 2014 identified five sectors that are strong in our region and are of European significance. Professional and business services employ over 50,000 people. I started my own professional career with PWC, after graduating from Bristol University. The most iconic sector worldwide would be our advanced engineering, especially in aerospace companies such as Airbus and Rolls Royce. We are also well known for our creative and digital expertise, with Aardman Animations being the most famous. It’s less well known that Bristol and Bath is the largest cluster of silicon chip designers outside California. The SEP rightly recognises that the low carbon sector is well established here and has huge potential as we all transition to a more sustainable economy.

I will work to showcase and grow all of the above sectors. I would add that our universities are critical to our knowledge driven economy. They are especially strong when they collaborate, for instance in the Bristol and UWE joint Robotics Lab, the Bristol and Bath Science Park or the SET Squared Business Incubator. I will work to promote the tourism potential of both Bath and Bristol. The region is home to a strong agricultural and food and drink sector and I will work hard to sustain a strong rural economy. The West is also known for doing things differently and I see huge potential for the growth of social enterprises.

Here are some of my ideas for growing and sharing the opportunities of our strong local economy:

• Leading trade delegations of local businesses to win more inward investment, capitalising on what should be a world renowned brand of Bristol and Bath
• Establish Bristol and Bath as a national hub for the creative and digital industries, with new opportunities for growth at Temple Meads and Bath Quays
• Work with the Welsh government to make the Severn Estuary the world leader for clean energy from tidal lagoons
• Use part of the £30million annual investment fund that comes with devolution to create affordable space for start-up creative and high tech businesses and also for social enterprises
• Improve road connectivity with a new junction on the M4 to serve the Science Park, ensuring that villages north of the M4 are protected by a new direct link to Yate
• Share the growth potential more evenly so that north Bristol and South Gloucestershire do not overheat. There is potential for employment and housing growth in South Bristol and in the Somer Valley, with enhanced road links and new bus services
• Rail connectivity will be improved with at least four new stations (Ashley Hill, Portway, Charfield and Saltford) and I will lead a delegation of our MPs and business leaders to the Department of Transport to get electrification back on schedule
• The devolution deal allows the Metro Mayor to ask government for an increase of 2% in business rates in the region. I will work with the business community, including the Federation of Small Businesses, to prepare an investment schedule that would be financed by the increased revenue, before pursuing this option
• Jointly request with the Welsh Government that the Severn Bridge tolls should be scrapped, rather than reduced in 2018
• Bring together the cultural and hospitality sectors in Bath and Bristol to grow the number of domestic and international visitors to the cities
• Set up a joint house building social enterprise between the three local councils in order to build homes for sale and private sector rent with the surplus invested in homes for social rent. The home affordability gap in the West of England is one of the worst outside London and holds back our economic potential.
• Support Bristol Airport with a study into the potential for a tram link to Bristol
• Skills funding is devolved in 2018, I will work with local business leaders, colleges and other training providers to plan for a skills system that meets the business needs of the economy and also contributes to social mobility and social cohesion
• Work with DCMS to roll out broadband to all of the region’s villages so that business growth in a diversified rural economy is maximised
• I will be a strong voice for the 30,000 workers from other EU countries that are essential to our economy and public services. I will press the government to avoid a hard Brexit, which will be deeply damaging to our economy.
I will be publishing a full manifesto at the end of March and in the meantime would welcome feedback and other ideas for how we can grow a prosperous and sustainable economy.

My plan for West of England trains and trams

March 14, 2017

Bristol and Bath must be the two cities with the worst local rail services. Cardiff, Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow and so many others have amazing suburban train services. Cities like Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield have tram networks as well. All that Bristol has is the Severn Beach Line, serving the west and north west of the city plus a couple of stations in Bedminster on the line to Weston. Bath has local stations on the main line at Oldfield Park and Freshford. That’s it. Pathetic. No wonder only 2% of people commute to work by train, lower than anywhere else.

Plans have come and gone for the last 30 years. I remember the idea of the Avon Metro. While I was an Avon county councillor we had worked up plans for new trams, with the routes called the West Way. I still have the promotional brochures. The fragmentation of local government in 1996 killed the plan. We’ve never had the big regional transport authority, like Transport for London or Mersey Rail, which makes possible the planning for local passenger services. That will change on 4th May with the election of the new Metro Mayor to head up a new regional West of England combined authority. The Metro Mayor will be able to thrash out a transport plan for Bristol, Bath and the towns and villages of North East Somerset and South Gloucestershire.

Delivering rail improvements is much harder than enhancing bus services. There are lots of agencies with fingers in the railway pie. As Metro Mayor I would have to convince the Department of Transport, their agency Network Rail and the various private rail service providers. I would also have to bring on board our neighbours in Wiltshire and other counties. But there are some obvious quick wins. There are also some trickier projects. Here are some of my ideas:

• Open new local stations. The early priorities will be new stations on existing passenger lines that currently operate diesel trains. In Bristol these would be the old Ashley Hill station, between Stapleton Road and Filton Abbey Wood plus a park and ride on the Severn Beach Line as it abuts the Portway, taking traffic from the M5. In South Gloucestershire the front runner is Charfield, on the line between Yate and Gloucester. A dedicated bus would have to link with the nearby town of Wotton under Edge. Between Bath and Bristol I want to re-open Saltford station.
• Opening more local stations on existing lines depends on one very big factor – getting rail electrification back on schedule. Early on in my Mayoralty I would put together a deputation of MPs and business leaders to meet with the Secretary of State for Transport, who threw a spanner in the electrification works in 2016. This is not just about the London services from Bristol Temple Meads and Bath. Electrification of the main lines and some local lines would enable faster local electric trains. This would allow the timetable to be flexed to permit opening extra stations, for instance at St Anne’s and Winterbourne.
• New services on current lines. A direct link between Clifton and Bath would be very popular, with both commuters and tourists. Yate is a very popular station but the trains are overcrowded at peak times and there is only one train an hour. Extra carriages and twice hourly services would benefit Yate and Chipping Sodbury.
• New services on old lines. The line to Portishead must be re-opened. The town has seen a huge increase in residents, with many new homes. The road into Bristol is seriously congested. The rail line exists to the Port of Bristol and could easily take passenger services. I would work with North Somerset to secure the investment.
• The freight line across north Bristol, through Henbury, could also be opened up to passenger services. Stations along this route would serve the huge number of new homes being built adjacent to the old Filton Airfield. If the Port’s needs can be addressed then it could be possible to have a Bristol Circle Line, running services via the Severn Beach Line and Filton Bank.
• Commission a feasibility study on a rail link for Thornbury. The town is scheduled to have many new houses. The A38 and M5 are already under pressure. There is a rail line running from Yate to Tytherington Quarry. There is obvious potential for a passenger service into Bristol, where many residents will work.
• Commission a feasibility study into a tram link to Bristol Airport. The airport is badly served by roads and buses are often delayed in the Bristol built up area. The rail line between Bristol and Weston is not far away. The contours of the land make it difficult for a traditional rail spur, from Long Ashton. However, trams can cope with more severe gradients than trains and this could be a solution.
• Work with Wiltshire to make the case for new stations at Corsham, Box and Royal Wotton Bassett. Enhanced rail services in Wiltshire would greatly relieve car traffic pressure on east Bath.

I will be publishing a full manifesto at the end of March and in the meantime would welcome feedback and other ideas for how we can get a more extensive local rail network.

My plan for West of England buses

March 13, 2017

Bus services have been upsetting people for decades in the West of England. In my 25 years in politics in Bristol they have been a constant feature on the doorstep and in my mail. They are costly compared to many other cities. They don’t run late enough to the towns and villages in Gloucestershire and Somerset. In most cases they only take cash, slowing up the journey and causing hold ups along the route for other people. As they are all diesel propelled they contribute to poor air quality in both Bath and Bristol.

There has been very little that local politicians can do about these problems. Until now. The election of the West of England region’s first “Metro” Mayor will be followed by the awarding of new transport powers by central government. The Metro Mayor will be able to set franchises for bus services and insist on integrated and smart ticketing. This means that any bus company that wants to operate in the region will have to agree to the Mayor’s terms and conditions.

This is a big opportunity to transform local bus services. I have several ideas:

• A rapid move to a cashless payment system. This would include people being able to pay on entry to the bus with their debit card, a smart phone as well as other dedicated pre-paid cards and concession passes.
• A review of late night buses to the towns and villages around Bristol and Bath. This would take account of the needs of employees working late at various locations (eg Cribbs Causeway) and of people enjoying an evening out in both our cities.
• A review of Park and Ride sites and services. In some areas park and ride is an appropriate intervention to take cars off the roads into both cities. They work well at Newbridge and Brislington on the A4. The case for new sites should be rigorously tested to make sure that extra car journeys are not being created in the countryside and that air pollution is being reduced in the cities. Secure cycle parking facilities should also be available at all sites. Later services should be introduced for people leaving the theatres and other attractions of Bath and Bristol.
• Greater integration between bus routes and railway stations. Making sure that the three mainline rail stations are well served by buses. Some local stations could be better linked to the bus network. I plan to open a new rail station at Charfield, in the north of the region. To avoid an increase in rural car journeys this would be supported by a dedicated bus link to Wotton under Edge, the nearest town.
• A move to cleaner fuel and electric powered buses. Diesel fumes are a major public health issue. I will work with the Mayor of London and the other English regional Metro Mayors to develop a market for cleaner buses.
• Increased confidence in the timetable and information at the bus stop and on board. Buses should run to the published timetable but it is useful to know the real time arrival of the next bus when there are delays. Signage and voice information on board buses should be clear and take account of everyone’s needs.
• Making a success of “Metro Bus” in 2017. We’ve been enduring the disruptive roadworks and now we need to see the benefit of this huge investment in a dedicated route. I will consider carefully the case for further bus based rapid transit, for instance to Yate and Thornbury.

I will be publishing a full manifesto at the end of March and in the meantime would welcome feedback and other ideas for how we can get a high quality, reliable bus service.

Together, with one voice. My ambitions for the West of England

February 10, 2017

My campaign to be the first regional Mayor of the West of England has got off to a flying start. After the selection of weak and inexperienced candidates by the Conservatives and Labour, I’ve been heartened by the reaction of people saying that they are glad the Liberal Democrats have put forward a strong choice. I have the right mix of local knowledge and experience of national power to make a success of the role of regional Mayor.

The Liberal Democrats are poised and ready to fight an upbeat campaign, ambitious for our region. I will work to grow our economy in a sustainable way. I will prioritise affordable homes and decent public transport. I can win an election in the West of England. The bookies agree! After my candidacy was announced Ladbrokes made me favourite to win, just ahead of my Conservative rival. The candidates from Labour, Green Party and UKIP are rank outsiders.

The Metro Mayor will work with a new Mayoral Combined Authority (MCA) made up of the council areas that cover Bath, North East Somerset, Bristol and South Gloucestershire. The Mayor and MCA will have new powers that are currently exercised by government ministers in Westminster. This is the latest step in making Britain a less centralised country. The West of England and several other English regions are at last catching up with Wales, Scotland and London. The new West of England Mayor will be on a par with the Mayor of London.

The primary duty of the Mayor and MCA will be to grow and develop the region’s economy. To support this task, the Mayor will take on powers over roads and public transport, the allocation of land for jobs and homes and the provision of skills and training for adults. In the coming weeks I will be setting out my ambitious plans for using these powers. I will be publishing my vision in a detailed manifesto. This will not be based solely on my own ideas and experiences. I will draw on the ideas of my liberal colleagues and also a wide circle of local business leaders, social entrepreneurs and experts in the policy areas for which I hope to become responsible after the election on 4th May.

The following is therefore just a taster of my forthcoming plans for the West of England. I will set out some broad principles for the policy areas that fall within the remit of the Metro Mayor and also how I would work with others to achieve my aims.

The Economy

The West of England is already the most prosperous city region in England. We could become even more prosperous if the factors that hold us back are tackled. These are mainly the shortage of affordable homes of all types and the woeful state of our public transport.

I also want our growing prosperity to be shared more evenly. There are some social groups that have been left behind. I will work hard with employers and training providers to widen the opportunities for single parents, newly arrived communities and those who have led dysfunctional lives. I see an enhanced role for social enterprises in tackling the issues that can hold people back.

Prosperity is also uneven in a geographical sense. The northern fringe of Bristol has seen an economic boom. The poor transport infrastructure has put huge pressure on local roads and made it difficult for people living in south Bristol or North East Somerset to access the new jobs. I will work with employers and investors to focus on the Temple Meads Enterprize Zone and other areas that would benefit from new employment. I see the priorities as Severnside, south Bristol, the Norton-Radstock area and Bristol Airport.

I will work with Business West and UK Trade and Investment to bring international investment to our region and also to grow our exports. Tourism and the creative industries are already making a great contribution but I believe the twin strengths of Bath and Bristol can be optimised by marketing them together as a world renowned brand.

The West of England’s prosperity has been underpinned by membership of the European Union’s Single Market and Customs Union. I worked with others to secure a strong Remain vote in the area. As Metro Mayor I will continue to fight against the damaging hard Brexit being pursued by the Conservatives, with the connivance of Labour. I will defend the rights of the tens of thousands of EU nationals who live and work in the West of England. Their contribution is essential to many of our key industries, our universities and our public services.

Affordable homes for everyone

As a country and a region we have failed to build enough homes in the last 40 years. The rate of house building in the West of England has not been enough to cater for our growing region. This puts huge financial pressure on people. House prices in the West of England are on average 10 times the level of salaries, with the ratio worst in Bath.

There is a draft “spatial plan” for the housing needs of the next 20 years, produced by the local councils. It is flawed and I will review it if I am elected. It puts a huge amount of pressure on the towns and villages of South Gloucestershire, the area that is already over-heated. The MCA is an opportunity to plan holistically for the economy, housing and transport. I will insert several guiding principles.

Firstly, a presumption in favour of development first within our two cities and several towns on brownfield land. I will establish a Mayoral Development Corporation to assemble land. I would prevent any urban sprawl of Bristol north of the M4. The green belt between city and country must be stoutly defended in that area. Similarly, I do not want to see towns and villages blended into each other. This is not a city versus country issue. The character of our towns and villages is appreciated by Bristolians and Bathonians as much as it is treasured by town and village dwellers.

New homes must be accompanied by enhanced bus and rail services to make the communities sustainable. I will help the councils raise the finance necessary for them to build more homes for social rent. The state must be more interventionist in the housing market as private sector providers will not plug the gap. I will also provide for a growing appetite for customised and self-build homes.

Sustainable transport

Public transport in the West of England is shockingly inadequate. Our bus services are not integrated, the largely cash based payment leads to slow journeys, congestion and pollution. The local rail services for Bath and Bristol are the worst of any city region in England.

I will use new bus regulation powers to push through cashless payment on board buses. More park and ride is needed around both cities but must not blight the rural landscape, such as the proposed Bathampton Meadows site.

Rail services must be expanded, with extra services for Yate, plus new stations at Ashley Down, Charfield and Saltford. I will also press ahead with the long hoped for new passenger services on the existing freight lines across north Bristol and to Portishead.

Rail and road services do not stop at the West of England boundary so I will work with the leaders of Wiltshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire to champion our wider regional case to central government. In particular, I will lead a deputation to Westminster to demand that our rail electrification is put back on schedule.

New housing areas will be built on existing transport corridors, making them more viable and strengthening the case for new transport investment. I will encourage the councils to continue enhancing cycle routes.

Adult skills

The post 19 skills budget transfers from central government agencies to the Metro Mayor in 2018. In the meantime I will plan with employers and colleges for the transfer. I will be particularly interested in proposals to tackle the gender imbalance in some apprenticeships. I also want to alleviate the pockets of long term worklessness in parts of Bristol and Bath. I will draw on my experience as Communities Minister to make sure that newly arrived immigrants have the language and other skills necessary for integration.

My style as Mayor

I know some people are sceptical about the need for another directly elected Mayor. However, devolution in England has been painfully slow and so we must seize this opportunity, make it work and demonstrate that our region can take on more responsibility in the years ahead.

As West of England Mayor I would firstly seek to work harmoniously with the leadership of the three council areas. I will welcome strong scrutiny from the 200 councillors and also draw on their detailed community knowledge. As someone who has served as a ward councillor and a national government minister I will be able to reconcile community interest with strategic vision. I will also want to harness the abilities of the nine constituency MPs in the West of England. I will be accessible to residents with public meetings across the whole area, urban and rural. I will be a strong voice for the region, meeting directly with senior members of the government, many of whom were my colleagues in the coalition.

Finally, the West of England has been a region too long over-looked by successive governments. We have not shouted loud enough for investment. The new Metro Mayoral office will bring this regional reticence to an end. I will bring together Bath, North East Somerset, Bristol and South Gloucestershire – Together, with one voice.

Trump – a clear and present danger to international order

January 30, 2017

Donald Trump’s arbitrary ban on immigration from seven Muslim states and his slamming of the door to all refugees will cause huge damage to the US around the world. Rather than make America safer it will deepen hatred among its enemies. I will also trigger revulsion among its friends. By imposing a blanket ban on Muslim immigrants Trump is handing a propaganda victory to the dangerous fundamentalists who hate western democracies. By shutting out refugees he is tearing up the treaties between civilised states that say we have a duty to save and welcome those in danger. Trump is a New Yorker. How the Statue of Liberty must be weeping…

Trump is behaving as President just as he did on the campaign trail. Some people might welcome a politician keeping their promises…but Trump’s campaign rhetoric was so extreme that few people expected him to be as extreme in office. Yet so far he has almost destroyed diplomatic relations with Mexico. He has spoken approvingly of the use of torture. In his inauguration speech he said his trade policy would be “America First”. This should make shudder those who thought Britain would be better off outside the EU.

What next? If I lived in Ukraine or Estonia or Latvia I’d be pretty worried. Trump wants to cosy up to Putin. He has questioned the fundamental principle of NATO, that an attack on one is an attack on all, with a duty to respond. East European NATO members honoured this commitment after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. Trump seems little inclined to listen to his security chiefs, bumping one of them off the National Security Council to make way for an “alt-right” journalist and Trump devotee.

The majority of Americans (and let’s not forget Hillary Clinton got more votes) will be horrified by the image of their country being shown to the rest of the world. Those of us actually in the rest of the world should be even more worried. America and Britain have both made plenty of foreign policy mistakes. But America has mainly been a force for good, standing for democratic freedoms against tyranny in Europe and elsewhere. An American retreat into an isolationist, selfish country would be a disaster for the world. America using its power to be a global trade bully is a frightening prospect.

I am embarrassed that Theresa May was so eager to dash across the Atlantic to pay homage to Trump. It’s even worse that she immediately gave him the highest diplomatic honour of an invitation for a full state visit. I’m glad that over a million people have signed the petition to stop this visit.

Trump’s behaviour is a warning to the world that we could be plunged into a new era of global insecurity. Britain should think again before walking away from the deep trade and cultural links that have secured peace and prosperity with our fellow members of the European Union.

The American President is often referred to as the Leader of the Free World. Trump doesn’t deserve that accolade and maybe he doesn’t want it. It will be up to Europe, Canada and other freedom loving states to take up the mantle. I want Britain to be part of that liberal world order, standing up for freedom, tolerance and trade that brings peace and prosperity.

The petition against Trump’s state visit can be signed here https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/171928

A Tale of Two Speeches

January 19, 2017

I’ve listened to two speeches in the last few days. One motivated me to redouble my efforts to support a cause I’ve long supported. The other left me depressed and worried about the future direction of our country. It was a rather dry lecture from a philosopher that gave me hope. It was the Prime Minister who gave me cause for worry. Prof AC Grayling told an audience in Bristol that Brexit was a national emergency to which we should respond with all forms of peaceful resistance. Theresa May set out her Brexit plan and it’s much harder to bear than I feared.

After losing my seat in the 2015 general election it would have been easy to have melted into the political background. But the calling of the EU referendum meant that I quickly rediscovered my political mojo. I threw myself into campaigning for a Remain vote in Bristol. I worked with Liberal Democrat colleagues but also was one of the founders of Bristol Stronger In. Working with people from other parties and none was uplifting. But in the early hours of 24th June I was despondent again. The ballot papers in front of me showed that Bristol had voted comfortably (62%) for Remain and my former Bristol West constituency had done so with an emphatic 80% vote. But the TV screens at the counting centre told a different story. Once again I was to leave a count just after dawn with a heavy heart.

What came next took me by surprise. First there was an influx of new members into Bristol Lib Dems. Then I was asked by a Labour member if I would meet with some people who wanted to fight together against the madness of Brexit. In the last six months I have been involved in the growth of a small band of people meeting every Friday evening to plan protest rallies, a march and petitioning. Some of the core group were political animals, most were new to politics. Now Bristol for Europe has over 2000 signed up supporters. At our Saturday street stalls we meet people with a real worry about where our country is going and a desire “to do something” to stop a hard Brexit. There’s also the occasional row with an unforgiving Leaver, which livens things up!

Hundreds of people have turned out to our rallies on Bristol College Green to hear speeches from me and Labour and Green Party representatives. We brought Bristol City Centre to a halt with our march, well supported despite the torrential rain. Last night we held our first evening speaker meeting. I was sceptical as to whether people would turn up to listen to a philosopher and what’s more, pay £5 to get in. But the Lantern Room at Bristol’s Colston hall filled to its 250 capacity and we could have let in many more. The lucky audience got quite a treat.

Prof Anthony Grayling is a well-established philosopher and media commentator. He is Master of the New College of Humanities, a London college set up as a result of the reforms put in place by Vince Cable and David Willets during the Coalition. Being his own boss clearly gives him the freedom to speak clearly and fearlessly, without the “on the one hand and then on the other” guff we often gets from academics worried about institutional reputation.
Grayling certainly spoke his mind. Each sentence was “like a perfectly crafted arrow” directed at our government, as someone put it to me in the bar afterwards. Grayling speaks with a soft voice so a velvet fist might be a better description of his duffing up of Theresa May, her government, the Labour Party and indeed the majority of the political class. His main charge was of the cowardice of Parliament to stand up for its own sovereignty. The referendum was advisory. MPs had been told so by the (superb) House of Commons Library. Now every letter he writes to MPs, asking them to do their jobs, is met with replies of “the country has voted” or “the people have spoken.”

But Grayling believes that the people have not spoken, at least not in sufficient numbers to force MPs to capitulate and wave through Brexit. He quoted the statistic that only 37% of “those given the opportunity to vote” had supported the Leave option. He went on to say that the opportunity to vote was denied to millions of people who would be profoundly affected by the outcome. These included 16 and 17 year olds (many of whom had voted in the Scottish independence referendum) plus EU nationals living in Britain and many British ex-pats living elsewhere in the EU.

So on the basis of an advisory vote that excluded many people and showing minority support for Vote Leave, Grayling said “Britain is being hustled out of the EU with undue haste” by Theresa May’s government. He went on to say that we are all “being hijacked by our own government!”

Grayling believes the rush to the Brexit door is a national emergency. In a democracy those of us who disagree have the right and the responsibility to offer peaceful resistance. He offered three approaches. First, bombard all MPs with letters. He believes MPs and Ministers eventually crumble under the weight of correspondence from angry constituents. Governments, he said, were like the Wizard of Oz, all sound and fury. But behind the Whitehall curtain lurk some less formidable people.

Second, there’s the recourse to law via the courts. At the time of writing we await the Supreme Court’s verdict on whether MPs must be given a vote on the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the opening of our departure negotiations. His third suggestion was less orthodox. He would like to see various forms of civil disobedience. He was not advocating a general strike, as had been reported in the press. Indeed, he joked that many of us in the audience probably did things that might not be missed by the public if we went on strike. Perhaps he thought we were mainly academics…

There is something in Grayling’s third suggestion. He pointed out that the communist regimes in Eastern Europe crumbled in the face of civil disobedience that often started with a regular city centre gathering of dissidents that grew into an unstoppable force. I have explored this with Bristol for Europe colleagues at this week’s meeting. Watch this space!

However, my personal experience makes me doubt the impact of Grayling’s plea for mass letter writing. This may once have been true. In my early years as Bristol West’s MP I read most of the incoming letters. That was because they were usually paper based and signed by a constituent. But soon the volume of emails became too great for me to read more than a selection. The staff team read them all and drafted replies that came from me. Once the likes of 38 Degrees started to bombard MPs’ offices with standard emails and repetitive phone calls I think MPs became immune to the force of numbers and saw it as simple bullying. The Wizard needs a different approach if we are to avert being blown away in a Brexit twister.

After the meeting I advised Anthony that it was far more effective to meet MPs in person, in their surgeries or Central Lobby. Remain supporting MPs will appreciate the personal encouragement. Leavers or those Remainers resigned to the finality of Brexit, need to see the whites of the eyes of constituents whose lives will be blighted by Brexit. He promised to incorporate this advice into his next talk.

Grayling gave me renewed determination to resist Brexit. On Tuesday morning I listened live to Theresa May, speaking at Lancaster House. My mind flashed back to 2014 when I spoke in the same room, as Communities Minister welcoming the President of Bosnia. I spoke of how a war ravaged Europe had come together, how the communist East was now in the EU and that the Balkans were now joining too. Peace and economic prosperity are the huge achievements of the EU.

Theresa May’s vision was rather more bleak. But at least she finally gave us some details of her plan. Her words were so damaging that she has had even more of an effect on me than Grayling. We know now that we are to jump out of the Single Market and probably the Customs Union too. Yet the Prime Minister says she wants a comprehensive free trade deal with the EU. Is she really so blind to the fact that our existing arrangement is the best deal we could possibly hope to secure? She went on to say that we would refuse to abide by European Court rulings on trade rules and that we would not pay (like Norway and Switzerland) for market access. This is a cake and eat it negotiation opening gambit. It will surely be met by a giant raspberry from the other 27 EU members.

So Theresa May’s new mantra is Brexit means Hard Brexit. Those of us who think this is a dangerous threat to the liberties of our citizens and will undermine our national prosperity, cannot stand idly by. Hard Brexit must be met by Hard Resistance.

NOTE

A shorter version of this blog was published by Lib Dem Voice at http://www.libdemvoice.org/a-tale-of-two-speeches-52995.html