“Like the Internet, but in real life” – Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park

Caitlin and I wanted to arrange a little YEM activity in London the day following the Annual General Meeting, so that there would be more of a reason to stay in the city for a day longer. We decided to go for the Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, so we could do little talks about Europe. Neither one of us had been to the place before, but the chance to proclaim some federalism seemed too good to be missed.

It was a chilly, rainy and windy morning, which discouraged some YEM people, as well as evidently members of the general public, from coming. Nevertheless, after a bit of initial hesitation, we decided to take the bull by the horns. The idea in Speakers’ Corner is that you start talking, and people passing by will stop to listen, and so I started talking about the European project.

Talking about Europe in Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park. Photo by Luke Fernandes.
Photo by Luke Fernandes.

With a European flag on my shoulders, I began with the observation that once the Brexit turmoil is over one way or another, the UK will have to look itself in the mirror and ask itself how it ended up here. That will be a time for a debate on the EU that goes beyond the current yes/no binary, and which will instead ask what kind of a European Union the UK wants, and how it can best shape the EU in its preferred direction.

Beforehand, I had expected Speakers’ Corner to be a place where you could practice public speaking, and where you could deliver a talk that can be filmed for future use. However, I quickly learned that the place bears closer resemblance to a Debate Club than it does to a Toastmasters. Irritated by the sight of a blue and yellow flag, the numerous Brexit supporters patrolling the area came around to ask me questions about why I support a communist dictatorship, and about other similar topics. That was all good, though – I felt capable of making reasoned arguments, whether or not someone around me absorbed them.

I was confronted by people with 'strong' views at the Speakers' Corner.
My face when a far-right blogger starts talking about the “de-whitening” of society? Photo by Luke Fernandes.

There was a bit of a grimmer side to Speakers’ Corner as well, though. The quote in the post title is from me as I was witnessing a shouting match between a middle-aged man clad in a military-style camouflage jacket, and a Muslim preacher who was giving a talk. Overall, Tommy Robinson was perhaps the most popular man amongst people wandering in the area, and confrontational conversational tactics were employed by some of the far-right sympathisers, including an apparently slightly intoxicated adolescent carrying a large Donald Trump flag who half-shouted in Caitlin’s face about how she ‘looked like a leftie’.

An interesting moment was when a young person with well-combed hair approached me to ask whether I was “susceptible to conversation”. A phone with multiple English flag stickers on it was soon pointed at me as I was asked a series of questions. The topics introduced included the “de-whitening” of society, and the interviewer’s concern that my beloved EU symbols were embraced by friendless left-wingers who secretly envied good-looking, confident white men. (We were able to find common ground in agreeing that I was good-looking.)

The interviewer was also keen to know if I’ve ever met a far-right person. Our definitions of what constitutes ‘far-right’ differed. In what has become a recognisable strategy, it seemed that the person (whose Facebook profile – which I found later – reveals that he is a keen Tommy Robinson supporter) was seeking to slide the definition of ‘far-right’ as far as possible, until virtually no-one fits in it anymore. A shift in the boundaries of what is considered ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ can be perilous indeed – that’s when the banality of evil steps in. If you’re at the extreme end of the ideological spectrum, numbing the public’s sense and conscience is what you should aspire to; the more people know this trick, the more resilient our societies are.

I was expecting the video recording to be cut to include snippets that suit the interviewer’s agenda, and published thereafter, but I didn’t see it on the relevant channels. It may be that it ended up on a closed Facebook group with some 4,000 members; however, I didn’t join, and I’m not sure if a European federalist would be let in anyway.

A YEM colleague was acting as a tour guide for a group of teenagers and he took his group to Speakers’ Corner in the afternoon. They didn’t stay around for long!

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