Tuesday, December 16, 2014

How could I forget the Red Lion talks?

This is becoming something like "Chapters from my life in euroscepticism" - a tragicomedy. When I wrote yesterday about the many eurosceptic publications that I uncovered on the top shelves of my study and the depression inspired by those failed hopes I forgot about the Red Lion Talks. How could I?

As a matter of fact, I did mention them once, in my obituary of Sir Robin Williams, the Secretary of both the CIB and of the Anti-Maastricht Alliance for many years.

Some time between the two Danish referendums on the Treaty of Maastricht Alan Sked and I were invited to address the various groups that were fighting for a second no vote in Copenhagen. The meeting was very different from the ones we were used to: instead of the usual format of audience and speakers on the podium we spoke informally (in English) in a cafe. People turned up, ordered drinks, sat at tables and chatted to us afterwards.

What a good idea, I thought, and raised the subject at the next Anti-Maastricht Alliance committee meeting. Of course, in England the meetings would have to be in a pub rather than a cafe but apart from that there need to be no difference. A format of that kind might well attract an audience who would not bother to fight its way through security in Parliament or attend meetings at the LSE. If the talks turn out to be successful other people in other cities might start some, too.

Financially, only a very small outlay was required and I started organizing. The Red Lion Pub is the nearest pub to Westminster, on the corner of Whitehall and Derby Gate, well known to all in the political world and easy to get to for other people. As it happens, at the time they did not serve dinner in the upstairs room and one could hire it for a small sum, assuming that many of the audience would patronize the bar.

The talks ran for several years, as I asked various people, some of whom spoke at other eurosceptic meeting, some of whom kept away from them, to cover subjects related to the European Union. I have particular memories of Noel Malcolm (now Sir Noel) talking about the common foreign policy and, another time, about the EU and the Balkans; of Professor Kenneth Minogue (alas, no longer with us) speaking to an audience that filled the room, the corridor outside and the stairs that led to the staff quarters about democracy and bureaucracy; of Peter Shore talking about British history (on the whole, I did not want MPs pontificating at the Red Lion but I made exceptions for Peter and for Sir Richard Body). Many others come to mind as well: Professor Antony Flew, Dr Martin Holmes, then Co-Chaiman of the Bruges Group, a slightly less likely speaker, Caroline Ellis from Charter 88, Bill Jamieson who explained very clearly the economic advantages of being outside the EU, James Sherr who talked about the EU and Russia, Christopher Booker speaking to another crowded room and corridor about the regulatory disasters and, of course, the Boss. And so on, and so on.

The talks went on for several years. I produced a six-monthly programme and advertised wherever I could, including Time Out and various other outlets. The bar made good money and, sad person that I am, there were even pitta bread sandwiches that I prepared.

All but one of the talks were recorded but only two have been transcribed, one of Noel Malcolm's and Peter Shore's, which was published in the European Journal. The box with the tapes are also among the many objects I have to sort out as I restore my study. They will not be thrown out. (The various pamphlets and papers were not either.)

After several years I noticed that the talks mostly consisted of the same people saying the same things to the same audience. Time to bring them to an end, I decided, and I did. This was one of the most sensible decisions I made. It is all too easy to carry on with something because it is there, beyond what might be called the sell-by date.

Should I revive them? Would anyone be interested in the age of Farage versus Brand? I have serious doubts. But, maybe I should transcribe them and publish them on line, just to remind everyone of what the eurosceptic debate was like once upon a time.


  1. Helen,

    Time has moved and new people are around, I think your audience will be largely different from your original crowd. Those of us who are new do need access to that knowledge already gathered or you will only see the same old newly "discovered" information because of our ignorance in thinking that what we have come up with is all new.

    Unfortunately much of EU-cynic support is outside of the SW1 bubble. A road show might be appreciated.

    On your second point, transcribing &/or podcasting the talks would be a wonderful resource.

  2. There does seem to be some interest. The idea of doing the talks in SW1 was quite simple: easy to get to and people did from various places. I did suggest at various times that others should have meetings of that kind in other parts of the country but apart from one or two they never happened. The EU-cynical support may be out there but the effort was too much for people. That might have changed.

    First things first: I must locate that box and work out whether it would be better to transcribe the talks or to put them on line as they are. The second would be easier, I expect.