I like to think about strategy and I like to think I’m a hard headed pragmatist. Maybe I am but I’m also sentimental and I’m a story-teller. In recent months I’ve been inspired by two statues, outside two houses, of two men. Really I’ve been inspired by the organisations they built. I’m inspired by how they built their organisations and about the story that tells me about how the Reform Movement can prosper in the UK.
The first is a a statue of John Wesley in Bristol. It stands in the courtyard of the New Rooms, the chapel and meeting rooms and hostel built by the Methodist community in Bristol. Being a Methodist in Bristol was hard work in the 18th Century. If you were against slavery Bristol was not the place to go for an easy life. The New Rooms are designed with no low windows, so that it was harder for mobs of irate Bristolians to break them. The pulpit is only reachable by going up into the gallery and then down into the pulpit, to make it harder for irate Bristolians to drag the preacher out of the pulpit and beat him.
The New Rooms are very elegant, simple and beautifully light, they are a lovely place to contemplate God, or in my case Reform. Above the chapel is a hostel and office space. Here the Wesley’s stayed when the were in Bristol. Any one of the hundreds of Methodist preachers could stay there as they criss-crossed Britain bringing their message of faith and social justice to the peoples of Britain. Every Methodist preacher in Britain passed through the New Rooms and ate a meal at the table in the refrectory.
Then the preachers would continue with their circuits, gathering their congregations. They would gather their congregations whereever they could find them and talk to them outside, in the sunshine or the rain. They would talk with whomever would listen.
The New Rooms were a nexus for the Methodist movement. It is where the conversations happened. All the little conversations about who is doing what, and all the big conversations about how their community worked, and lived. They broke bread together and shared their lives, both in word and deed. Then they went out to talk with people who wanted to talk, and to talk with people who didn’t want to talk.
The second statue is of John Cartwright, the Father of Reform. His statue stands in the garden of a square where he made his final home in Bloomsbury. Cartwright created the London Corresponding Scociety, The Hampden Clubs and others like them, which brought working men and women together, physically and through correspondence to talk about Reform, about Universal Suffrage and how they might achieve it. The clubs and societies he founded were often persecuted and eventually outlawed. He was due to speak at a large public meeting of the Manchester Patriotic Union in 1819. This became the Peterloo Massacre. Cartwright died in 1824, eight years before the Great Reform Act of 1832 widened the franchise and for the first time Britain approached democracy.
What links these men and what I find inspirational about them and useful for the Reform Movement is that they both set out to create spaces for conversation. Spaces for people to talk who didn’t already have a voice. They each put time and effort into walking the land talking to people, encouraging and facilitating a wide, diverse and deep conversation. They encouraged other people to go out and facilitate their own conversations. Out of that conversation, out of the structures they put in place for conversation grew organisations that lead to profound social and political change in our country.
In the 21st Century we don’t necessarily need to gather congregations or found clubs. I don’t see myself tramping from town to town for the next ten years. The method of the 18th and 19th centuries are not necessarily the methods for the 21st. The lesson I take from John Wesley and John Cartwright is this. The Reform Movement needs to talk. The Reform Movement needs to talk amongst itself. We need to talk about our goals and our aims and our methods. We need to talk about our values and aspirations. Then, we need to go and talk to people who are not in the Reform Movement. We need to ask them about their values and aspirations. We need to talk with them about our common goals. We need to have thousands and thousands of conversations. Conversations between two people. Conversations amongst hundreds of us gathered togethered. Quiet pints in dark pubs, Skype calls after hurried dinners, rowdy curries after conferences, emails, blogs, pamphlets, facebook status. Conversations with friends, with colleagues, with allies, conversations with those undecided or uniterested or focused on something else, conversations with enemies.
What I take from Wesley and Cartright for myself is this. My role in this is to be one of the people who helps the conversation to happen.