The secret to a good council meeting?

I love this story from a New Hampshire council meeting. (The article disappears behind a paywall eventually, so here’s a PDF version.) Essentially protesters against the town rules against street drinking decided to protest by turning a council meeting into a drinking game – having a drink whenever certain phrases were uttered.

About six members of the libertarian Free Keene movement drank in unison from brown glass bottles, soda cans, paper coffee cups and metal flasks every time City Council members or officials said certain words or made certain actions.

Aside from the huge debate underneath the article, the suggestion by the police that they can’t tell if something is alcohol (a sniff, maybe even a swig, perhaps) or the fact that the argument is that blanket bans are often ineffective, what got me was that the council meeting was attended by 50 people!

Even if you discount the people playing the drinking game (6) and the people mounting a counter-protest (3) that still leaves 41 people attending to watch their town’s democracy in action. Given they have a population of around 23,000 if Wandsworth had a proportionate turnout we’d need a public gallery of something like 500.

While alcohol might make our meetings almost bearable, I don’t think it’s the answer, but I’d love to know what they are doing to get so many people along to see how their town is run. What would make you go to a council meeting?

It is not a terribly fashionable thing for anyone who is British to admit, but I am, and always have been, a great fan of America. And today, I believe, shows all that is great about the country.

The United States Capitol, Washington DC

I’m not particularly speaking about Barack Obama, but instead about the inaugural process.

That is not to say I am not a fan of the British political system, which has a lot to commend it. But when it comes to the transition of one government to another we have always been fairly ruthless. A party loses an election, and within hours its leader will be at the palace handing in their resignation. Meanwhile all his (we’ve never had a female Prime Minister defeated at an election) belongings will be packed up and moved out the back door while the incoming Prime Minister comes in the front. It is unceremonious.

And perhaps this is where we can learn something from the Americans. The process of transition allows a degree of separation, you can recover from the exhaustion of campaigning before you have to get down to the business of government, you can reflect and take stock rather than react immediately. But most of all I think there is something very special about the act of inauguration.

It’s a transparent (you get to see the President-elect become the President), open celebration of democracy – not a celebration of a particular candidate or party but of the peaceful democratic process as one government ends and another begins.

And it can serve as a rallying point – partly because of the distance from the electoral process the partisan politics can be left behind and a country’s President, rather than a party’s candidate, can speak.

A classic example is Kennedy’s first, and only, inauguration. Most will have heard phrases from it like “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”. Few remember that he had won the preceding election only narrowly – winning fewer states than Nixon and with only a 0.1% lead in the popular vote.

Indeed, how many today discuss the hard battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination. If anything it was that process (and the peculiarities of the Democrat’s primary process) that meant today’s ‘history-in-the-making’ will be the first African-American, rather than female, President.

But the sordid details of electoral politics are behind us now. And rather than dwelling on the past there is a poetry to the occasion, which gives it the ability to unite and focus a nation. Something clearly apparent today as millions crowd into DC to see Barack Obama become the 44th President.

It is incredibly self-indulgent of me to offer my thoughts on the occasion. There will be no shortage of opinions on the media or the internet about the significance of today’s event. And while I don’t want to take anything away from Obama’s achievement (and know I couldn’t even if I did) it is worth reflecting on and celebrating the system that made it possible, just as much as the man who did it.