Optimism rising: what an amazing weekend!


Well, what an extraordinary weekend!

From the brilliant extemporary speech by Tim Smit describing his new Eden Project of the north – at Morecambe in Lancashire – right through to the final congratulations at the end of the session on the politics of food – this year’s Big Tent summit and festival, in the very shadow of York Minster – and in the brilliant sunshine – was an excellent reminder of four things:

  1. Towards a unifying agenda

The broad outlines of a winnable set of joined-up policies that could unite the kind of people who come to events of this kind is becoming discernible.

Because. there were people there from all possible age groups, from the toddlers rebuilding York in Lego at the JRF stall, and upwards. There were so many different kinds of people – who all seemed to vote differently -yet remarkably little ideological disagreement.

  • The format works!

This was my fourth Big Tent event – and I first attended before lockdown and before I had linked with them – at the park on the Isle of Dogs – where I nearly trIpped over Rory Stewart holding a kind of impromptu seminar on the grass.

Something rather magical happens halfway through the Saturday – and it certainly did again this week.

  • Optimism is infectious

It is true that, so often, chairs of the meetings asked specifically the speakers for a final optimistic thought at the end. This may seem to evidence for pessimism.

But equally there was a sort of hunger for optimism, which is why people were so keen on Tim Smit, and especially when he was down on any kind of pessimism.

  • The transport system is in crisis

My task in York was to organise the ‘rapporteurs’, who were charged with writing up the ideas that emerged from the sessions. Two of them got stuck in a traffic jam for more than three years, when they were just 20 minutes south of York.

That is par for the course, wherever people drive cars. For those of us going south by trains at the end of things on Saturday evening. Two other rapporteurs got back before midnight. One was heading to Stroud, and he left not long after lunch but had a train cancelled and was badly delayed. The other one was heading home to the Cotswolds, had her train cancelled at Birmingham and had to  get home via Cheltenham. She had left York at teatime, and didn’t get back until after 11pm.

I got back to London from York in just an hour and three quarters – which was pretty impressive – but then I eventually had to catch my Southern train to Shoreham-by-Sea.

As I moved from the ticket from the ticket machine to my train at 2146, an announcement ,explaining without apology that – because there was no staff at the Lancing signal box – there were no trains along the West Sussex coast.  

This wasn’t strictly correct because the Southern staff at Brighton encouraged me to go to Hove, apparently unaware that the next train had been cancelled and I would have to wait for 45 minutes with nobody but a group of pissed types for company.

So I spent £40 on a cab home instead. As I walked up the stairs from Hove station, a man was mouthing off beside me about how it was insane and infuriating that nothing worked these days.

I have to say that I agreed with him. Not every journey I now have to London and back is now disrupted, but still a high proportion are.

And I suspect that – when I have heard any excuse for the first time, like there being nobody in a signal box – that it probably has something to do with a change in policy by the train operator.

I am sure that signal box keepers have been taken ill unexpectedly before. But there used to be a system for dealing with it. Rather as the disastrous collapse of Southern rail services in 2016 could be traced back to the decision for making most of their ‘spare’ drivers redundant.

More on this later.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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