Following eight months of consultation and development and with the wholehearted and active support of Nottingham City Council and other key partners, SCT’s first UK project was launched in Nottingham on 22 February 2008.
Nottingham was chosen for SCT’s pilot partly because of its status as a major city with a celebrated freethinking tradition but not least because of the rich diversityof its communities which, from the days of the legendary Robin Hood, have played an important part in the campaigns for individual freedom and social justice.
SCT consulted extensively throughout the summer and autumn of 2007 with key representatives of Nottingham’s public, private and voluntary sectors. On 2 October, the public had their first chance to have a say about SCT’s plans at a ‘Coffee House Challenge’ meeting organised by the Royal Society of Arts at Starbucks in Clumber Street.
The RSA’s Coffee House Challenge, co-sponsored by Starbucks and T-Mobile, is designed to bring local people together over coffee to talk about the community issues they care about. The Clumber Street event was a great success with an impressive attendance of Nottingham people of all ages and backgrounds, a great deal of enthusiasm for the Speakers’ Corner project and several original ideas on how to take it forward.
There was broad consensus about the need to provide opportunities for people to exchange ideas and opinions about anything from global warming to the most local of issues – and to create new platforms, particularly for those who have had little opportunity in the past to speak or be heard.
There was agreement too about the project’s potential to provide both an important community focus and a new image for Nottingham. When asked what it would take to get people involved in the project itself, a fairly typical response was “just ask!”
Nottingham’s Speakers’ Corner
Just a few months later, in January 2008, representatives of a wide range of public, private and voluntary organisations and the community came together to form the twenty-strong Nottingham Speakers’ Corner Committee which now ‘owns’ and steers the initiative.
And just weeks later, the Committee made a historic decision. Following a comprehensive review of options, it adopted the Council’s recommendation, supported by the police and SCT, of the proposed location for what became the first Speakers’ Corner in the UK since an Act of Parliament paved the way for the original in London’s Hyde Park almost 150 years ago.
The site is at the junction of King Street and Queen Street at the edge of Nottingham’s historic Market Square. The space has now been paved and landscaped and will also provide the home for a new statue of Brian Clough, the legendary, straight-talking former manager of Nottingham Forest FC.
Announcing the Committee’s decision, its founding chair Tim Desmond, who is also chief executive of the Galleries of Justice, emphasised one crucial difference between Nottingham’s proposed Speakers’ Corner and the original in Hyde Park when he explained that “we considered the options very carefully and are confident that King Street is the right site for Nottingham’s Speakers’ Corner. There are larger and perhaps more flexible spaces elsewhere but they’re outside the city centre and that reduces their value. The whole point of our Speakers’ Corner is that it should be accessible to all and that if something interesting or important is happening there it can attract and engage people as they go about their daily business. That’s what makes it different from Hyde Park and, we believe, it’s what will make our Speakers’ Corner such an important feature of Nottingham life.”
The new public space in effect extends Market Square which throughout Nottingham’s history has played an important role as a centre of radicalism and reform.
From the eighteenth century onwards it featured as a rallying point for the campaign for working people’s rights and political enfranchisement and there was an informal Speakers’ Corner there as recently as the 1960s.
Support for Nottingham’s Speakers’ Corner has been almost universally enthusiastic. The editorial of the Nottingham Evening Post declared on the day the Speakers’ Corner site was announced (11 February 2008), “how wonderful to see Nottingham reviving the tradition of a speaker’s corner in the city centre. And how appropriate that it will be sited at the bottom of King Street and Queen Street alongside the promised statue of Brian Clough. Nowhe could talk …Older readers may remember speakers doing their soapbox routines in Old Market Square in the 20th Century. The paving of the new square will be extended into the new speaker’s corner and we look forward to hearing orators sound off on their pet subjects. With a little regulation and promotion the spot could become a real destination for city centre visitors.”
Nottingham people – and not least Robin Hood – have played a leading part in shaping the British tradition of radical thinking, among them Lord Byron and DH Lawrence.
Both, in their different ways, campaigned for the cause of freedom. Byron was not only an advocate of social reform at home but also played his part in the Italian struggle against Imperial Austria. He died of fever at Messolonghi in 1824 while fighting with the Greeks in their War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire.
In one of his greatest poems, Childe Harold (canto IV, st. 98), he wrote of the inevitable triumph of freedom’s cause:
“Yet, Freedom! yet thy banner, torn, but flying, / Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.”
DH Lawrence came from an altogether less privileged background and rebelled against what he saw as the suppression of the free spirit by grind of industrialisation and the dead hand of the prevailing social order.
Lawrence was himself the victim of persecution for his forthright views and often explicit novels which, though now regarded as literary masterpieces, were condemned and, in the case of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, censored as recently as the 1960s. Indeed, Lawrence lived much of the last ten years before his death in 1930 in voluntary exile abroad.
He was keenly aware of the price to be paid in struggle for freedom. He warned in his poem Liberty’s Old, Old Story, “Men fight for liberty, and win it with hard knocks. / Their children, brought up easy, let it slip away again, poor fools. / And their grandchildren are once more slaves.”
Nottingham can also boast that it elected, in 1847, the first and only Chartist Member of Parliament, the radical agitator Feargus O’Connor. He presided over the last great Chartist demonstration in London the following year but died in an asylum in 1855.
Today Nottingham is home to the National Centre for Citizenship & the Law, part of the Galleries of Justice exhibition based in the city’s old courthouse in the historic Lace Market.
Coaching Nottingham’s Orators
In the run up to the launch, Nottingham Playhouse organised a series of workshops, both in the theatre’s rehearsal room and in the community, to help members of the public take advantage of the new opportunities for self expression and debate which the Speakers’ Corner project will bring to Nottingham.
The workshops schooled Nottingham’s would-be orators on how to overcome stage fright and how to gather their thoughts and speak confidently in public.
Robin Kingsland, the actor and writer who led the workshops, said, “it may sound daunting to some, but once you’ve learned a few basic skills, you never look back – and being able to express yourself with confidence is one of the most liberating and exhilarating experiences I know”.
Eddie Izzard Backs Nottingham’s Speakers’ Corner
Just a week before its launch, Nottingham’s Speakers’ Corner received a tremendous boost when it won the personal endorsement of Eddie Izzard, the stand-up genius turned Hollywood star, in a major TV interview.
Speaking about the Speakers’ Corner initiative on BBC1’s flagship Politics Show (Sunday 17 February), Eddie saluted Nottingham as the first UK city to adopt a modern day Speakers’ Corner. He said:
“Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing and it matters because I think the strength of Britain is based on it. It’s good that Nottingham is doing this and I think other towns should do it too. It’s a great thing.”
Welcoming Eddie’s backing, Speakers’ Corner Trust’s director Peter Bradley said:
“We’re all really thrilled by Eddie’s support. I’ve always wanted to involve him somehow in this project. He’s not only just about the country’s freest thinker but he’s also living proof that ideas can be fun as well as serious and they can take you on unpredictable and sometimes amazing journeys – and, what’s more, sharing them brings people together.”
Tim Desmond, Chair of the Nottingham Speakers’ Corner Committee, added:
“We see our Speakers’ Corner not only as a new platform for debate in the city but also as a flagship for Nottingham and it’s great to see the positive publicity it’s already attracting. To have someone like Eddie Izzard backing us like this is a wonderful boost for Nottingham.”
To see Eddie Izzard’s interview with Jon Sopel on BBC1’s Politics Show (Sunday 17 February) please click here.
22 February 2008 – The Launch of Nottingham’s Speakers’ Corner
Friday 22 February saw the launch of Nottingham’s Speakers’ Corner in an open air cermony on Market Square. The speeches formed the focus for a Day for Debate which took place across the city in venues as diverse as the Hermitage Community Centre in Sneinton, the United Hebrew Congregation Synagogue on Shakespeare Street and the Chamber of the Council House on Market Square itself.
The half-hour ceremony was led by the Sheriff of Nottingham, Jeannie Packer, and included contributions from Tim Desmond, chair of the Nottingham Speakers’ Corner Committee, SCT’s Director Peter Bradley, and Cllr Jon Collins, Leader of Nottingham City Council.
Adrian Lunga, the Zimbabwean human rights campaigner, reminded the large crowd of the importance to those who are denied them of freedoms which many in Britain take for granted. He remarked that if such an event had taken place in Nottingham’s twin city, Harare, everyone participating in it would have risked arrest.
The community activist Jackie Morris, a NSCC member, spoke of the importance of the Speakers’ Corner for Nottingham’s communities when she said: “I do as much as I can in my local community, like so many others. But sometimes I feel that no one is listening to the ordinary person. That’s why I am so supportive of Nottingham’s Speakers’ Corner. It will give people a place to come and talk about anything that is bothering them, to share their opinions and to understand that their opinion counts and that they matter, that everyone in the City of Nottingham is important and so are their opinions. It will be there for everyone no matter what intellect, background, race or religion. People of Nottingham this is your platform.”
To the delight of the crowd, the event closed with a special video message from Eddie Izzard broadcast on a giant screen – and, by public demand, encored several times over the next couple of hours.
To see Eddie’s message of support for the launch of Nottingham’s Speakers’ Corner, please click here.
The ‘Day for Debate’
The launch ceremony was the centrepiece of a Day for Debate across the city, engaging different sectors of the community in debates on topics as diverse as the ethical implications of technological progress, the common ground between Britain’s major faiths and the future of football.
When the day’s programme was announced earlier in the month, NSCC chair Tim Desmond said:
“We see this as a day of celebration for Nottingham on which we can showcase our heritage as a great free-thinking city and our future as a centre of innovation and above all take pride in the people who make up our community.
“We’ve tried to organise a day with something for everyone. We all have strong views but we rarely get the chance to express them. The whole idea of the initiative we’re pioneering in Nottingham is to bring people together to exchange and enjoy ideas and opinions, to learn from each other and to have a greater say in how our lives are run.”
The programme featured:
Listening to Mothers – a discussion at the Red Lion Community Centre in Bulwell on the challenges of parenthood and the needs of young mothers. Representatives of the City Council and the Primary Care Trust came to listen and learn and by the end of the event, the mothers who attended had set up a self-help group.
The Best of Both Worlds – a packed discussion in the Council Chamber in which older people talked about the advantages of modern living and younger people speculated about how life might have been better in past times. The debate, which also compared the generations’ lifestyles and values, was such a success that it overran by half an hour.
Common Ground – a discussion in the United Hebrew Congregation Synagogue on Shakespeare Street about the articles of faith and principle which unite Britain’s mainstream religions, brought together members of Nottingham’s Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Baha’i and Christian communities.
Future Gazing – a discussion in the Council House Ballroom led by four distinguished academics on the direction in which science and technology are taking us, how they may change our lives and how we may have to change our thinking and our values both to exploit and control progress.
Getting the Best Out of Our Neighbourhoods – in the Hermitage Community Centre in Sneinton, in which members of the local community asked, what are the strengths of our community and how can we play to them? What do we need to improve the quality of life in the short, medium and long terms?
The Future of Football – in the Council House Ballroom, uniting Nottingham Forest and Notts County fans and a panel including the former Forest player and manager Frank Clark to ask what’s right and wrong with football? Do the fans get what they deserve? What will it take for England to win again? What changes would make football a better experience? Again, the meeting was so successful that it overran its schedule so that everyone who wanted to contribute to the discussion could do so.
Beyond the Launch
The launch of Nottingham’s Speakers’ Corner was a great success, attracting an impressive turnout at all its events and winning overwhelmingly positive local press and media attention. National coverage was topped by a Guardian leader, aptly entitled In Praise of Nottingham. In celebrating the city’s historic virtues, the editorial concluded that Nottingham had “fittingly been chosen to pilot a brave new adventure in free speech”.
The First Big Debate -
How is Nottingham Tackling its Crime Problem?
Nottingham Speakers’ Corner Committee organised its first major debate on the challenge of crime in Nottingham, how the community is fighting back and what more needs to be done and, while an impressive panel of experts was on hand to offer its insights and to listen, the main contributors to a lively but highly constructive two-hour debate were the Nottingham public themselves.
The debate, which took place on September 29 at the Galleries of Justice (part of the National Centre for Citizenship and the Law) in Nottingham’s historic Lace Market, explored local success stories in tackling crime as well as taking a hard look at the problems which remain. Among the themes the debate addressed were
How big is Nottingham’s crime problem – and is the city’s reputation as a crime capital a fair reflection of local life?
- How has Nottingham reduced its crime rate – what’s worked and what hasn’t and what’s next?
- How do we continue to reduce crime and the fear of crime and whose job is it anyway? What’s the police’s role, and the media’s, the politicians’ and the courts’ – and what’s ours as citizens?
The debate, which was recorded by the BBC, was chaired by Steven Fletcher, News Editor of the Nottingham Evening Post, and featured contributions from:
Vernon Coaker, Gedling MP and Home Office Minister with a special responsibility for crime reduction
- Howard Roberts, Deputy Chief Constable, Notts Police
- Cllr Jon Collins, leader of Nottingham City Council
- Judge Andrew Hamilton
- Maggie Blyth, chair of the Nottingham Youth Justice Board
- Roger Hopkins Burke, criminologist, Nottingham Trent University
- Larry Waller, Nottingham City Council, Youth Inclusion Project
- Young people from Radford, Broxtowe Estate, Clifton, and Bulwell
Chair of Nottingham Speakers’ Corner Trust, Tim Desmond said:
“Crime is the number one issue in Nottingham and this was a really high quality debate. The courtroom was packed but everyone got a chance to speak and though people have strong views on crime and how to fight it, the event was remarkably calm, considered and constructive.
“The whole idea of Speakers’ Corner is to bring people together to exchange and enjoy ideas and opinions, to learn from each other and to have a greater say in how our lives are run. I think we’ve got off to a tremendous start and that both the decision-takers and the public will have left the event with new ideas and new insights.”
Freedom of Expression – A Critical Celebration
On Saturday 31 January 2009, a hardy crowd braved the cold to attend the first event to be held at the site of Nottingham’s new Speakers’ Corner ahead of its official inauguration in February. Organised by Jamie Turner of Nottingham University’s Human Rights Law Centre as part of the build-up to the Centre’s conference on Freedom of Expression and its Contemporary Challenges in March, the ninety minute event featured speakers with a range of views about the state of Britain’s freedoms but with one theme in common: that the quality of democracy depends on the preparedness of citizens to make their contribution to it.
Nottingham South MP Alan Simpson addressed what he described as “the myth of the free society”, urging communities to take greater control of their own governance, while Louise Third, a member of the Nottingham Speakers’ Corner Committee, asked “how do we act responsibly especially in public office, in the media and in business? Should we forfeit these freedoms if we act irresponsibly?”
The editor of Ceasefire magazine, Hicham Yezza, spoke about the need to use the right to free expression as a means of holding governments to account and Makesh Joshi highlighted the plight of refugees whose rights are at risk in the asylum process.
Other speakers included Richard Hawthorne, Secretary of Nottingham’s Interfaith Council, Nichelle Gibney of Nottingham Pride and SCT’s director Peter Bradley.
Jack Straw Inaugurates Nottingham’s Speakers’ Corner
Three weeks to the day after the original cermony had been snowed off, Justice Secretary Jack Straw kept his pledge to come to Nottingham to inaugurate the city’s new Speakers’ Corner. He told a large gathering:
“This is an innovative site – at the heart of the city – for both the local community and people from further afield to come together to discuss issues and ideas. I am delighted to have the chance to speak here.
“The Government wants to increase opportunities for people across the country to become more involved in their communities and better engaged in discussions about the things that matter to them. Nottingham Speakers’ Corner is leading the way.
“It has already held a succession of thought-provoking debates and I look forward to hearing about future discussions. I am a great believer in the value of this kind of direct democracy.”
Mr Straw joined other speakers including Nottingham’s Lord Mayor, Cllr Gul Nawaz Khan, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Cllr Brian Grocock, Tim Desmond, Chair of the local Speakers’ Corner Committee, Committee member Jackie Morris, City Council Chief Executive Jane Todd and SCT Director Peter Bradley, before unveiling the plaque which marks the Speakers’ Corner with an apt quotation from local author DH Lawrence which reads: “Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot”.
Mr Straw then chatted to students from Fairham School who had earlier themselves addressed the large crowd of guests, press and public who attended the ceremony.
Refugee and Postal Workers Bring Their Campaigns to Speakers’ Corner
To mark Refugee Week, Nottingham’s Refugee Council, working with the Speakers’ Corner Committee, held an event at the Speakers’ Corner on 13 June to tell the personal stories of refugees from all over the world who have found a home in Nottingham and to campaign for their rights.
And on 26 June 2009 the Communications Workers Union brought its national campaign against post office privatisation to Nottingham’s Speakers’ Corner. The event featured a fifteen foot high inflatable post box and a petiton which had already attracted 10,000 signatures before it reached Nottingham. The following week, the Government announced that it was deferring its privatisation plans!
Nottingham’s Inspired to Speak!
Nottingham Speakers’ Corner Committee has launched two new guides designed to inspire local people – and others – to speak their minds whether at the city’s Speakers’ Corner or elsewhere.
Louise Third, a member of the Committee and a recently appointed trustee of Speakers’ Corner Trust, has coached hundreds of people who thought they would never survive giving a presentation or speaking in public. Now she has written Inspired to Speak, a brief guide to encourage and enable people in Nottingham and elsewhere to grasp the opportunity offered by Speakers’ Corner projects to speak out confidently and effectively about their ideas and opinions.
Louise has also worked with the popular actor and broadcaster Des Coleman on a short film of the same name and the same aim. As Des says, “everybody’s got a voice and we’ve all got freedom of speech: use it or lose it – the choice is yours!”
In collaboration with the Nottingham Evening Post the Speakers’ Corner Committee hosted an evening of cricket talk. On 28 July 2010, the eve of the England v Pakistan test match at Trent Bridge, cricket enthusiasts gathered at The Approach in the city centre to debate Twenty20: Sounding the Death Knell of Test Cricket? Nottinghamshire CCC chief executive Derek Brewer and former county cricketers Darren Bicknell and Amanda Bacon led a lively discussion, chaired by Post deputy editor Steve Fletcher, which ranged far and wide and continued long after the event itself was over.
Why Are Young People Always Shown in a Negative Light?
This was the question a group of young people involved with the youth engagement project Just Ask wanted answered. So Catch 22, the organisation which manages Just Ask, teamed up with Speakers’ Corner Nottingham to provide an afternoon of training in the art of public speaking followed by a debate sponsored by the Nottingham Evening Post at Djanogly City Academy.
As Youth Coordinator Rebekah Leedham explained, “we asked a group of young people what they most wanted to debate and this was their chosen topic. Ever since the disturbances in the summer, the talk has been of how the perception of young people might be changed. Dialogue between young people, local communities and policy-makers is essential to understand one-another. Creating a safe environment for people to debate this issue could effectively lead to changes in attitudes, behaviours and negative stereotypes”.
The training session was a great success with the young people exploring a wide range of techniques in discussing issues, formulating arguments and expressing opinions before some stood up and performedto great effect in front of the group.
The evening saw a lively debate with a panel of nine experts, including Chief Superintendent Simon Nickless, Cllr David Mellen and Charlie Walker from the Post, answering searching questions from both young people and adults in the audience.
Speakers’ Corner Committee chair Louise Third, who coordinated the initiative and led the training, said after the event, “this was great fun and a real success and we’ll definitely be repeating the exercise.
“We want to encourage discussion to bring about understanding, tolerance and positive citizenship and it’s crucial that we give young people as many opportunities as possible not just to speak their minds and, crucially, to be heard but also to cross examine people in authority. I thought they were superb and I hope they got a lot out of both the training and the debate.
“This experience has given us great encouragement and now we’re looking forward to working with Catch 22 on similar sessions next year.”
James Walker, the Books Editor of LeftLion magazine, Chair of the Nottingham Writers’ Studio and a committed champion of the city, is working on a project with Paul Fillingham called Sillitoe: Then and Now for the Space, a new multimedia platform for the BBC and Arts Council which celebrates an author who did much to give voice to ordinary people and would, James believes, have been a strong supporter of Nottingham’s Speakers’ Corner.
One Billion Rising
Nottingham’s Speakers’ Corner was one of the thousands of venues around the world at which One Billion Rising, the global protest against the abuse of women founded by playwright Eve Ensler, author of the Vagina Monologues, celebrated its 15th anniversary.
Appropriately held on Valentine’s Day, the Nottingham event organised by Sarah-Lee Reed and Janine Pounder featured guest speakers Maryam Saghir, Lincoln LBGT Womens representative, and Nottingham women of substance nominee Esme Knight.
Proceedings were rounded off by an energetic belly dance routine led by Janet Rose who was joined by many in the large and enthusiastic crowd.
Nottingham Debates Scottish Independence
Just twelve days ahead of the historic vote on Scottish independence on 18 September, Nottingham Speakers’ Corner provided campaigners, academics and local residents with the opportunity to debate the issues and their consequences for the whole of the UK.
Speakers’ Corner committee member Louise Third argued in the support of the Union that “it is clear that several major issues remain unresolved, not least the matter of currency and whether North Sea oil and gas reserves will be sufficient to cover an independent nation’s expenditure. Will we need border controls, and what might independence mean for Trident and membership of the European Union?”
Former deputy leader of Labour for Independence Steven Syme, countered that “in the event of a Yes vote, might we see the concept of regional assemblies brought back to England and Wales? And with the possibility of the rest of the UK leaving the EU in the next Parliament, might Scotland become the ‘safe haven’ for business and investment?”
Chaired by BBC East Midlands politics editor John Hess, who later blogged about the debate, the hour-long event attracted a lively audience which included a number of local Scots emigres and several members of the public took the chance to cross-examine the speakers as well as expressing their own views. A show of hands at the end revealed a three to one majority for the Union. But that is not the vote that matters…
Letters To The City at Speakers’ Corner
Loudspeaker is a three year project based at Nottingham Contemporary and in partnership with the community charity, Changing Lives. Funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, it aims to raise the voices and aspirations of local women through contemporary art.
Members of the public joined the performers at Nottingham Contemporary Gallery before walking together to Speakers’ Corner where they read their letters. They then returned to Nottingham Contemporary for free Christmas drinks and nibbles, a free limited edition of Letters to the City and a viewing of the poster campaign of the women’s work on the streets of Nottingham.
People’s Hustings Brings Open Air Democracy to Speakers’ Corner
Nottingham Speakers’ Corner mounted its own People’s Hustings on the morning of Saturday 25 April when a sizeable crowd gathered to hear representatives of a range of local groups, including NHS and welfare campaigners, advocates for small business and a Nottingham University student, set out their agenda for the next government.
With the BBC’s East Midlands political editor John Hess chairing the event, Conservative, Labour and UKIP candidates for three local constituencies responded before the public joined a lively debate which, as the Nottingham Post reported, was dominated by concerns about the future of the NHS.
Nottingham’s 21st Century Magna Carta
As one of the series of events organised by Unlock Democracy to celebrate Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary, Nottingham Speakers’ Corner hosted a public debate on The Great Charter 2.0: Democracy for a Digital Age at Nottingham University on 22 May.
A panel of Dr. Marianna Poberezhskaya of Nottingham Trent University, Andrea Raimondi from the Italian Coalition for Civil Rights and Freedom and Jim Killock, Director of Open Rights Group, led a lively discussion of questions including
– How does the internet shape the way citizens think about politics?
– Can social media help to re-engage disillusioned voters?
– How do online platforms change our political dialogue?
– Do we need better online protection to enable all citizens to participate fully?
– Do we need a Magna Carta for the Internet?
Dr Poberezhskaya argued in her paper Digital Democracy – What changes and challenges does our system face in dealing with rapidly changing connectivity and communication? that the internet is no more than a medium for communication and that its contribution to civil society depends on the intentions of its users.
As she observed, “we should remember that whilst new technologies can act as an extremely powerful tool in both authoritarian regimes and democratic ones, such as the United Kingdom, we should still remain slightly sceptical about the extent of its powers. My argument is informed by the idea that the internet is still just a tool, which can be used both for enhancing democratic processes and for disrupting them, or even slowing democratic development down.”
In his paper on Security and Democracy, Andrea Raimondi warned that the UK’s Government’s proposals for increased surveillance are more likely to secure political than public security:
“Censorship and mass surveillance do not make people safe, they make government safe from people; especially when people have better ideas than government on what public policies should be. That’s why resisting censorship and mass surveillance requires and informed and motivated citizenry. Public security should not be coextensive with political security; this would come at the high cost of suppressing any civic ability and changing human rights into political one.”