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We Won't Rehabilitate Politics Until We Restore Citizenship

18/06/2014 14:21 BST | Updated 18/08/2014 10:59 BST

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It's hard to imagine how the Royal Parks Agency could have devised a less appropriate 'official reopening' of the new, improved Speakers' Corner. But tomorrow the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will be there to cut the metaphorical ribbon.

I've nothing against Sajid Javid. I'm sure he'll be well briefed about the history of this iconic space and that his warm words about the importance of free speech will be heartfelt. But that a Government Minister should be there at all, appropriating a space and a freedom traditionally reserved for the powerless, the dispossessed and the dissident illustrates a profound misconception of everything Speakers' Corner has stood for and ought to mean today.

It would be a different matter were the Minister to take to a soapbox and submit his politics and policies to the scrutiny of the idealists and malcontents who gather there on a Sunday afternoon. But the celebration of the RPA's modest environmental improvements will take place early and briefly on a Thursday morning and none of the doyens of Speakers' Corner have been invited lest their lack of decorum offend the VIPs.

As the RPA should know, the right to free expression at Speakers' Corner, as with almost all our civil liberties, was secured despite rather because of the establishment. Indeed, Hyde Park was chosen by the Chartists and the Reform League as the arena for their mass demonstrations not least because the high-born and wealthy regarded the royal park as their own exclusive domain. It was the power and privilege of the ruling elite that the radicals of the day were challenging and which their successors on soapboxes contest today.

But it's not just the history that's important. While Speakers' Corner is no longer the cockpit it was when Marx, Morris, Lenin, Garvey and Orwell spoke there, it remains a beacon for freedom the world over. More still, it offers a timely rebuke to those of us whose preoccupation with consumption leaves so little time for citizenship.

For while politicians of all parties are often genuine in their attempts to engage with the public, they are doomed to fail if they think that it's just a matter of trying until they find the magic medium for their own message. We will not be able to rehabilitate politics until we restore citizenship. Until neighbours are talking to neighbours about the issues that matter to them, why would they want to discuss them with politicians?

That's why Speakers' Corner Trust believes that the right place for a new generation of Speakers' Corners is on the high street not in the park, because citizenship should be an everyday experience and not just reserved for weekends.

Politicians, least of all Cabinet Ministers, don't need more platforms. Citizens do and the greater their needs and the stronger their beliefs the more important that they have opportunities and spaces that are genuinely publicly owned and not just temporarily leased to them on the establishment's terms.

That's why just last Saturday, a group of volunteers representing a broad cross section of the community in Reading launched a new Speakers' Corner in the heart of their town centre by inviting members of the public to speak about anything under the sun - from the need for social housing to the future of telephone boxes. Next week, the community in Croydon will launch a similar initiative and another will follow in July in the Medway towns.

It's why earlier this month, people flocked to Brighton & Hove's Speakers' Corner to debate topics as diverse as nuclear disarmament, the state of the NHS and, with the World Cup looming, the urgent need to abolish football; it's why Nottingham is planning a debate on the implications of Scottish independence for the rest of the UK; it's why in Lichfield, to his credit and not for the first time, the local Police & Crime Commissioner will shortly present himself for public cross examination at the city's Speakers' Corner.

Are these events wrecked by political and religious extremists as it's often feared they will be? On the contrary: our experience has been that when 'ordinary' people are allowed to set their own agenda and can speak on their own terms and on their own platforms, they are almost invariably constructive and considerate as well as cogent.

But creating opportunities for expression and debate also presents challenges to citizens. A true state of democracy does not exist simply because civil liberties are protected by law. Rights are like muscles: if they are not exercised, they become weak and ineffectual. SCT's mission is to remind people distracted by modern materialism and by the promises of all the political parties that they should and can have more, that the communities, the society, the democracy in which we live are all only as good as we collectively make them.

Building the consensus and the respect for diversity on which a stronger, happier society is founded starts not with inculcation in the classroom of the values held dear by Ministers but with a much wider public debate about issues and ideas than we're currently having. The first step is to get people to start communicating with each other again face to face - literally coming back down the garden path to talk to each other.

That's why free speech is so important. But it's also why engagement starts at the bottom not the top.

How much better had the RPA invited a random sample of Londoners and a smattering of Hyde Park stalwarts to rededicate Speakers' Corner. Sadly, the well-meaning Secretary of State will have to do.