Living outside of the country where one was raised creates a strange alienation to events going on there. Even in an age of instant global media residing abroad buffers one from the daily saturation of events and results in an odd 'informed detachment'. I have experienced this feeling since moving to Switzerland from the UK almost five years ago.
Although I always kept abreast with British politics I never felt the need for a more active involvement - not that I'd been politically 'active' when living in the UK. However, the prospect of a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU awakened within me something new: a desire to participate. A referendum is somehow different to the every day political machine. The vote is on a single, complex, issue on which everyone will have an equal vote with the result sure to have prolonged international repercussions.
But distance is a great hindrance to political involvement. How could I play any part in the debate when I was not even residing in the country? While contemplating this a promotional offer dropped into my inbox from a website design company offering me a free webpage (I later learnt out that it wasn't strictly free). I saw this as an opportunity and over the course of the evening set up 'Pub Talks: debating the EU referendum over a pint'.
The premise was simple: a website that encouraged people to hold their own EU referendum debate at their local pub. I could provide a template for a debate, the campaigns contact details and a list of potential questions - then sit back content in the knowledge that I'd done something. With the website adorned with stock images of pints and pubs I eagerly emailed my friends back in the UK to see who was up for organising some initial events.
The reaction I received was at best muted and it became clear that if anything were to happen I would actively have to get things rolling myself. I planned a short trip back home to moderate three consecutive events at three oft-frequented pubs in Brighton, Willingdon and London. The landlords loved the idea, particularly holding it on an unpopular day. Securing speakers was a little trickier but after countless frantic emails, unsolicited phone calls and a stubborn resistance to accept tentative rejections, I managed to land representatives for both sides for all three events.
Fifteen minutes before the start of the first event in Brighton faced with an expectant audience of six I began to doubt the appeal of the venture. Had I been away so long that a political debate in a pub was no longer tempting to my fellow countrymen? Thankfully my pride was saved by a late surge bringing the number to a cosy crowd of seventeen who proved to be an engaged and vocal public. The debate was intense but civil and following the closing statements I finally relaxed and gratefully ordered a pint of cider.
In my sedate home village of Willingdon things were rather different. I'd expected a fairly modest turnout of friends and family but as the start time approached the Wheatsheaf Inn was full to bursting and everyone there for the debate. It was a raucous affair with a group of Leave campaigners continually interrupting with some choice expletives. I rose again and again to call for order emulating the role of teacher rather than moderator. At the end of the debate I felt like I'd been beaten up but was greeted by handshakes, even from the group I'd been attempting to quieten. There seemed to be a general satisfaction that the event had taken place at all whether or not anyone's minds had been changed. The landlord offered me a free pint and enthusiastically asked if I'd be interested in making it a more regular thing.
After the challenging environment of Willingdon I spent the day before the London debate with a sense of a dread. Would there be a mass turnout breaking out into something more dangerous than hurled insults? There would not. The London debate was, lucky for my nerves, more akin to the one held in Brighton.
Obviously I couldn't do this every week, not least because multiple air flights would make my carbon footprint soar. I therefore reached out to others and began contacting university-debating societies to see if they'd be keen on taking up the idea. The platform had always been about encouraging others to host events and it eager students proved to be the perfect partners. More events are now planned, still in pubs, across the country all to be moderated by local student debaters.
In some ways I have a pang of regret that I won't be able to attend each event but I am also chuffed that the platform I set up is playing some small part in the debate by encouraging discussion perhaps where it wouldn't have taken place before.
Since setting up the site I have learnt of a similar initiative called Politics in the Pub (https://politicsinthepub.wordpress.com). The group was founded in the wake of last year's general election with a similar aim of getting more people engaged in politics. Perhaps Pub Talks can take on a new guise after the EU referendum particularly if good turnouts get landlords on-board.
I would live to hear from anyone who is interested in organising their own debate at their local or helping out in any other way. You can find details on the Pub Talks website: http://www.pubtalks.co.uk.