Speakers Corner - The Real Thing
On Sunday, July 1st, 1855, a demonstration against the ‘Sunday Trading Bill’ was held in Hyde Park. The Chief Commissioner of Police had placards posted announcing that this meeting would not be allowed to take place. Nevertheless, nearly 150.000 people assembled, around 40 policemen appeared and arrested 140 rioters. The Bill was withdrawn, but a further meeting was held in the park the following Sunday.
Ten meetings followed during the year at varying intervals on subjects such as proposing an address of sympathy to the Emperor Napoleon on the course he had taken with respect to the war in Italy, one to express sympathy for General Garibaldi and protest against the French occupation of Rome.
The most important meeting was the last, on July 23rd, 1866, when the Reform League advertised a meeting in Hyde Park and the police issued a ban on any such demonstrations or meetings on that day. When 18.000 people had arrived by 5 o’clock the gates of the park were closed, leaving as many people inside as outside. Shortly after 7 p.m. Mr Edward Beales, Lieut. Colonel Dickson, and other leaders of the Reform League, advanced to Marble Arch, yet the police hindered them from getting into the Park. The men raised the question of by what statute or law or principle of law the Commissioner was acting in declaring the meeting illegal, but then proceeded peacefully to Trafalgar Square to hold a meeting there.
On July 25th the Reform League held another meeting and gathered in force. Mr Beales informed the people present that his visit to Mr Walpole had resulted in his promising that the right of public meeting in the Park should be legally tested. The test came when on May 6th 30.000 people assembled under the slogan ’The Parks are the Peoples’’ and the meeting went off orderly, without the slightest disturbance, with little more than a dozen policemen around.
A great victory for free speech which the British have enjoyed ever since! Btw, the police can still be seen there, but the law protects the groups of people listening and not the speaker!
The following section is based on a text I found on the net written by a Sri Lankan, not only because it is the most enthusiastic appraisal I‘ve read so far, but also because it shows that SC is not limited to the location in Hyde Park any more, but has become an idea.
"SC is the most famous location in the world symbolising democratic rights. It is also probably the most democratic, successful and influential university in the world.
Among those who have attended meetings there, are some of the most influential figures in world history like Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin and Orwell. SC has had a more powerful influence than any university in the world, because here there are no entry requirements, no rules of intellectual formality and above all no class restrictions.
There are tens of thousands of people who come to SC once or twice a year, many thousands who come 5-10 times a year, and hundreds who come virtually through hell or high water. When you consider that there is nothing to buy here, there is no music, just human interaction without the mediation of machines and without any protection from the weather you begin to get a small glimpse of the significance of this place. SC is perhaps the most dynamic mirror of human consciousness in the world, a microcosm of the entire planet."
And what is SC like today, does it live up to this eulogy?
During the last decade I’ve been to London with groups of students every other year taking turns with a colleague. We always include a visit to SC in our programme - of course, we go there only once a year, but when we observe the same every time we go, it can’t be completely wrong, can it? What we’ve observed during the last eight years or so is the following: Gone is the variety of subjects, SC has been taken over by religious fanatics. I’ve read that the hecklers have become worse, meaning weaker, less inspiring, but why should they be better than the speakers proper?
The last time the students were enjoying themselves immensely, they could follow the speeches, they even joined the discussions, reacted on the hecklers. What the students didn’t bother, because they couldn’t compare, was that there were exclusively speeches on religious subjects. One highly intelligent and learned Englishman spoke about a religious experience he had had some years before, it was a pleasure listening to him even if I’m not extremely interested in the subject. He spoke in a normal voice and so didn’t attract as much attention as two American Christians with cowboy hats who alternately climbed their soapbox and cried, shouted, roared and hollered about Jesus Christ.
A dark skinned man, a Pakistani as we later learnt, a speaker himself who had left his soapbox to heckle for a while, looked at the crowd of listeners and picked out ME! Why ME? He begged me not to listen to the two American cowboys. That made the one of the two who wasn’t speaking at the moment jump to/at us and shout into my other ear that the man was the devil incarnate and that I should listen to them, i.e., Jesus Christ, instead.
First it was quite funny, the bystanders were laughing and applauding, but then it was getting on my nerves as we were moving around in circles and whenever I tried to turn away, one of the two was shouting at me, so I called some of my students, 18-year-old tall and strong young men, to act as my bodyguards, which they willingly did. The whole incident looked like a rehearsed show of stand-up comedians, one student even asked if they were paid for what they did.
Later, when we were gathering to go away to our next destination, Camden Lock, the Pakistani came over to us and we had a serious conversation with him. He’s one of the regulars and told us that these fanatics had been coming for years, always in fat mercs, according to him paid by the CIA. I didn’t get what he was driving at, what the CIA might have to do with them, and he said that their aim was not to preach Christianity, but to undermine Islam. He said that the Muslims speaking at SC only ever speak about Islam and never against Christianity, but not so the Christians. I laughed that away pointing out that everybody listening to them could only take them for clowns and certainly not seriously.
Well, I don’t know about the theory that the CIA is behind those preachers, but when we went away one boy remarked that what the American Christians had said against Islam was certainly true. So, our Pakistani friend might be right when he pointed out that they were dangerous because they could influence young people.
The last speaker I’d like to mention was an elderly lady in a flowery dress who said something along the lines "God is a HE thing", a fascinating subject, to be sure, but once again I had the problem that listening to a woman is harder than listening to a man. Forgive me, sisters, but it’s a fact that when a woman speaks up her voice tends to become higher and a bit squeaky and it hurts listening to it. Yes, it’s unfair, unfair, unfair, but what can we do? Amplifiers are not allowed at SC.
Where are all the young Africans and Asians who envisaged a brighter future for their countries, where is the Brit who used to analyse the current political situation of the United Kingdom, using more swear and four letter words than I’d heard before in all my life? One of the unwritten rules for SC is that no obscenities are allowed, but who comes to check? Where is the nutty president of the imaginary banana republic with his alternative utopia, where are the quacks?
The next time I’d like to hear speeches about Climate Change, Vivisection, the Monarchy, Capital Punishment, Taxation, British Agriculture, Eating Disorders, Immigration, the Euro, Alternative Energy, Asylum Seekers and, and, and... It’s up to the Brits what’s going to become of this venerable institution the whole democratic world admires and envies them for!