But he was in for a surprise. As soon as he began speaking, two Hyde Park regulars, angry at a lack of consultation over the changes to their weekly meeting place, started heckling him mercilessly – and he had no idea how to respond. Face-to-face argument, rarely possible between governors and governed, is what Speakers’ Corner is about, and this one took place in front of the TV cameras. The Hyde Park speakers are a hard bunch to organise, but Tony Allen and Heiko Khoo, well-practised debaters who have been speaking in the park since 1978 and 1986 respectively, were voicing widely felt resentment at the failure to deal with noise from nearby summer music events and the Marble Arch traffic, the cycle lane that runs through the concrete area on which speakers and crowds currently gather, and the lack of public toilets. Javid didn’t stand a chance. He continued doggedly to the end, his prepared speech rendered largely inaudible, without once acknowledging the existence of his boisterous interlocutors.
The incident was a perfect illustration of the difference between real public debate and the usual, carefully choreographed appearances of our elected politicians. Lord Donald Soper, Methodist minister, socialist and pacifist, who spoke regularly at Speakers’ Corner from 1926 until his death in 1998, called it‘s the fellowship of controversy’. As he put it, ‘You can be compelled to say what you mean, and cannot get away with the fact that it sounds important. The great difference is: you can’t answer back to the television!’
Despite the visit of the Secretary of State, present day Speakers’ Corner has no meaningful connection with mainstream political discourse, but that was not always the case. It played a central role in the nineteenth and early twentieth century campaigns for the widening of the franchise, serving as a venue for many political meetings and protests including, amongst others, two hugely important Reform League demonstrations in 1866 and 1867. These led directly to the passing of the Second Reform Act, which extended the vote to 40% of the male population and, in 1872, to the Parks Regulation Act, which established the legal status of Speakers’ Corner as a public speaking and meeting place – a milestone in the fight for freedom of expression and assembly, and the origin of its worldwide reputation as the home of free speech.
None of this rich history is immediately apparent to the first-time visitor. The cacophony of competing preachers, shouting to be heard from ladders and upturned milk crates, suggests one might have arrived at an outdoor asylum for the religiously insane. But that first impression is misleading. Although the majority of speakers take the Bible or Koran as their set text, and the platforms of even the smallest groups on the political fringe no longer make an appearance, there are others who talk on a range of political and philosophical subjects. And at the edges of the crowd, small knots of people engage in intense discussions, oblivious to the mayhem around them. It is here one can experience the unique buzz generated by the intensity and eccentricity of face-to-face argument. This is what genuine, unmediated public debate looks and sounds like. It’s a far cry from Question Time.
By Philip Wolmuth