Speakers’ Corner: London’s free speech spot?

Speakers' Corner, a free speech hotbed for arguments and discussion. All photos: Ruth Ingamells

On a rainy Sunday in Hyde Park, the speakers are here, ranting, raving, debating with passers-by. “You!” shouts an evangelist, “Are you a Christian?” A reply in the negative and one is confronted by more yelling accusations of being ‘brainwashed’ and ‘ignorant’.

This is the Speakers’ Corner, a small spot in the northeast corner of Hyde Park, where the evangelical Christians preach their gospel alongside radical Marxists in a tradition that has shaped Britain.

Throughout its history, Speakers’ Corner has been visited and used by such figures as Karl Marx, George Orwell, and Marcus Garvey. Starting as a rallying point for workers’ protests, the Corner has always attracted firebrand idealists and pursuers of free speech the world over.

“Speakers’ Corner is therapeutic for me,” says a speaker who has been coming since the 1970s. “But beware of being converted to Christianity,” he adds, smiling.

As one of the more measured and peaceful speakers in Hyde Park today, he plays opera and talks about his interest in feminist theory. But most of the speakers are not as keen to answer questions as he is.

Arguments and differing views

Opera loving, Feminist theory speakers are normal in Hyde Park.

A follower of the Black Israelite philosophy, when asked some questions, insists that visitors listen to his prepared text. Asking questions to a group of Muslim clerics yielded no results. When asked how long they’d been speaking there, they answered: “We are here to talk about Islam, do you have any questions about that?”

Before long, as the rain continues to pelt down, the heated arguments which Speakers’ Corner is famous for begins to permeate the otherwise peaceful discussions taking place. “Jesus is lord! Jesus is better than you!” shouts a bearded evangelist at a Muslim speaker who takes issue with Christian doctrine. A shouting match ensues, with neither side ceding any ground – this is Speakers’ Corner in a nutshell.

A haven for free speech?

Don’t expect to change any minds or even get a word in edgeways – ad hominum attacks are all-too-often resorted to. Speakers’ Corner may represent a sort of symbolic free speech zone, but as a participant pointed out to a zealous pseudo-philosopher, “not allowing me to speak isn’t exactly democratic.”

All views are different in the Corner, despite the religious undertones of it all.

The absence of females and young people is also noticeable – when the question was raised with the aforementioned feminist speaker, he said: “It’s often all about machismo really, middle-aged men heading down to Hyde Park to engage in shouting matches.”

George Orwell once wrote that: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” And this is the spirit of Speakers’ Corner. No matter how mad and zealous many of the speakers are, and how horrifying it is engaging in a debate with one, Speakers’ Corner is an exhilarating and interesting experience.