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George Mitchell: Long may Speakers’ Corner continue to allow freedom of speech

Speakers' Corner in London attracts people of all beliefs.
Speakers' Corner in London attracts people of all beliefs.

Situated in a corner of London’s Hyde Park, close to Marble Arch tube station, Speakers’ Corner is an open area where debate and discussion are allowed and encouraged.

It is the oldest free-speech platform in the world, and its origins can be traced back to 1866.

Anyone can go, anyone can speak about anything they like. Within reason of course.

Some people wrongly believe that you have immunity from the law at Speakers’ Corner. Not so. Hate speech is not tolerated and the police will and do intervene if they get a complaint. But as long as you are within the law, you can spout off about any belief you wish.

But how this all works today in our “woke” environment, I simply do not know. Anyway, that aside, we should call Speakers’ Corner, historically anyway, a bastion of free speech.

As I said, anyone can go, you don’t need to join up or book, you just take along your soap box – yes some still do physically have one – put up your placard if you like, get on your box and go for it.

Speakers’ Corner: Soap box and placards are optional.

Technically you can do so whenever the park is open, but most only do so on Sundays.
Famous people over the years have taken the stand at Speakers’ Corner. They include none other than Winston Churchill, Karl Marx and George Orwell.

Oh, what I wouldn’t have given to be there when the likes of these giants spoke. It must have been enthralling. Orwell himself described Speakers’ Corner as “one of the minor wonders of the world”.

George Orwell is known to have spoken at Speakers’ Corner.

I remember as a kid when on holiday in London with my parents, my dad taking me to Speakers’ Corner. I was gobsmacked. A kid from Inverurie, standing in a famous park in London watching people rant and rave about God or nuclear armageddon, I was hooked.

Could this have been where my interest in politics and the wider world started?


What’s been fascinating to learn, and I did not know at the time, Speakers’ Corner is not only in London’s Hyde Park. It may be the famous one we all know about, but there are Speakers’ Corner in not just other places in the UK, but all over the globe including Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand and the US.

There are a number of Speakers’ Corners around the world. This one is at Hong Lim Park in Singapore.

Years later, when I lived in London in the ’90s, I’d often go and watch. It was fascinating. The good the bad, the ugly. End of the world, you’re all going to die; end of capitalism; pro very left-wing; pro-Israeli, anti-Israeli you name it, they were all there venting their spleens and their fury. I loved it.

I never saw any violence. Heated debates for sure, but nothing more thankfully. And when I say heated debates, I mean heated – burning in fact.

There were always police there but they kept a respectful distance, and only got involved if it got too heated. This usually happened, not because of the behaviour of any individual speaker, but when others got wound up and challenged them.

Oh yes, the temperature often did rise at Speakers’ Corner on a mid-Sunday morning.
However, once the police made a few gentle reminders, it mostly all calmed down again.

The police are always on hand to ensure tempers are kept under control.

The best speakers were always the ones who didn’t let the mob get to them, didn’t get rattled as others laughed and mocked their deeply held belief of whatever they were proclaiming. That takes guts, not to get wound up and blow your top as people heckle and laugh at you and your views in public. Not easy; not sure I could do it.

But violence does occur. Usually when someone gets “offended”, which unless you’ve been living on the moon, you’ll know seems to be everywhere in our society these days. But more about that next week…

There have been numerous incidents at Speakers’ Corner. To give you just two examples, in the 1970s Irish republicans were arrested under the treason act, and only last year, a speaker was attacked with a knife by someone who felt she “insulted” their religion.

Regulars at Speakers’ Corner that I’ve seen include the Socialist Party of GB, and loads of individual Christians claiming we are all doomed. But it was the supporters of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam, that made me somewhat uncomfortable.

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, centre, surrounded by supporters.

Immaculately dressed in suits, the preacher would get on his soap box and do his thing. He was always surrounded by guys who looked like bodyguards and wore dark glasses.

It has to be said they were never violent, but to me anyway, looked menacing. Like bodyguards guarding a president. I stood and listened, but never got too close.

In 1999, Lord Justice Sedley, said of Speakers’ Corner: “The tolerance which is both extended by the law to opinion of every kind and expected by the law in the conduct of those who disagree, even strongly, with what they hear.”

In Britain today, a world of political correctness gone mad, which has morphed into the far more dangerous “woke” where everyone is offended at everything, for the life of me, I cannot see how Speakers’ Corner survives.

But it does, it’s still going.

How or why, it really baffles me. I mean writers and comedians, to name but two categories, are constantly being cancelled by universities, online, theatres and news debate panels, all because of their opinions.

Some people draw larger crowds than others.

Next time I’m in London, I’m determined to pay Speakers’ Corner a long overdue visit, and see how it does manage to survive in our modern-day world of woke.

I’ve said it before and will say it again, freedom of speech in our country is rapidly going down the pan. And I believe that should terrify us all.

Yes, even more so than climate change or the cost of living crises.

For once we have lost freedom of speech, that’s it, we are doomed as a fully functioning democracy.

And what we need to tackle first is the current very British obsession of being “offended”.

This, I feel, is what is currently stifling our once proud, open and tolerant society.

Next week – No one has the right to not be offended.