This page outlines the rationale for SCT’s UK programme and summarises its aims and activities. More detailed information on a number of the topics covered in brief here is provided in a range of materials on the Guidance page.
Why Speakers’ Corners?
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The rights of citizens to hold and express opinions lie at the heart of Britain’s democratic way of life.
But almost 150 years after popular campaigning and an Act of Parliament led to the creation of the original Speakers’ Corner as a platform for debate and a symbol of those freedoms, the importance we attach to them has diminished and so has their power to inform and enrich our society.
But if we allow those freedoms to fall into disuse and if the involvement of citizens in debating and developing a common vision for their society continues to decline, how are we to overcome the challenges we face, how do we resolve divisions and disagreements between us, how will we sustain the consensus on which a strong and confident democracy depends?
SCT believes that the re-engagement of citizens in the exchange and development of ideas and opinions – with each other and with the decision takers among them – is a key to rebuilding trust and participation in our civil society.
Speakers’ Corner Trust seeks through its UK programme to work with the public, private and voluntary sectors and local communities to
- help restore public and political commitment to the principle and constructive practice of free speech
- promote open debate and the free, face-to-face exchange of ideas and opinions about society, politics and other issues
- strengthen relationships between citizens
- encourage politicians and other opinion formers and decision takers to engage more directly with the public
- encourage citizens to play a more active part in civil life and governance and their own communities.
While there is considerable scope for interplay between the project and the internet, it is a central feature of the Speakers’ Corner initiative that the debate which it promotes should be face-to-face.
The internet has given us unparalleled access to information and to each other. It can educate, enlighten and enfranchise. But it has limitations too. As well as engaging people in genuine interaction, it can also detach them from it. It can offer a wide diversity of information and opinion but cannot guarantee that we will seek or find it. It can give us the opportunity to participate in debate – often across cultures and continents – but the anonymity of email can also undermine the accountability of what we encounter or express. It may make us feel that we have engaged with the democratic process but in fact our activity may have been a substitute for it.
SCT believes that it is vital to bring people out of their houses and into unmediated, spontaneous personal contact to express, test and develop their opinions and those of their neighbours in real places, in real time – and with a real prospect of enhancing the understanding, tolerance and capacity for consensus which underpin vibrant communities and successful societies.
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In its initial UK programme SCT has developed and tested a model which can be adapted for use in a wide range of settings, from the national, as in Nigeria, to the neighbourhood, as in Walthamstow.
In all cases, the design and programme of each Speakers’ Corner will be determined, within guidelines, by steering committees (the Speakers’ Corner Committees) made up of local people. Where appropriate, they may decide to create a Speakers’ Corner as a physical space but every project will feature of a rolling schedule of events.
The Educational Programme
SCT, in collaboration with Stephen Coleman, Professor of Political Communication at the University of Leeds, and supported by the BAFTA-winning creative agency Bold Creative is working on an exciting new project to develop innovative, web-based resources to support citizenship learning and teaching.
Expressing Citizenship, generously funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, will develop attractive and accessible educational resources to help young people improve their speaking and listening skills and overcome the lack of experience and confidence which prevents so many from expressing their ideas and opinions and engaging with community and civic life.
Two sets of resources – a web-based animation aimed principally at young people and a related series of written guides for teachers and youth leaders – will focus on three core needs among young people:
- Expression – how to identify issues, organise thoughts, express themselves in public and influence others
- Common Cause – how to relate to and learn from the needs, interests and opinions of others, develop consensus and build support and cooperation for shared agendas
- Influence – how to engage effectively within their community, in a range of settings including work and with the decision-making process.
It will be undertaken over nine months, probably starting in September 2011, and based on work with four groups of young people in West Yorkshire to
- gain insights into their knowledge and experience of the democratic system and the issues which matter to them
- support them in acquiring skills in speaking and listening (as outlined above)
- design the educational resources, with the young people’s input, for use both within and beyond school settings.
SCT/UoL’s proposals are set out in more detail in Expressing Citizenship – A Project Summary.
Speakers’ Corner as a Public Place
In major cities it may be appropriate to designate defined public spaces as Speakers’ Corners both as landmark symbols of our citizens’ rights and as actual forums for debate and exchange.
The significance of creating such civic spaces should not be underestimated. In some places they could become a powerful focus not only for local democracy, but also of civic identity and pride. Moreover, they will provide platforms for the purest and most spontaneous expression of the right to speak freely, within the law, and to attract and engage an audience of fellow citizens.
The original Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park is certainly the inspiration for the Speakers’ Corner project but it does not provide the model SCT seeks to adopt. Because of its relatively isolated location in a royal park rather than in the hustle and bustle of every day life, it has become more of a tourist destination than a vibrant platform for debate and exchange. SCT recommends that Speakers’ Corners should ideally be established in prominent and accessible locations in town and city centres where speakers can be heard and seen, where they have the chance of engaging the interest of their fellow citizens as they go about their daily business and where crowds of a reasonable size can gather safely without infringing the rights or interests of others.
SCT encourages local authorities to lead the process of identifying and assessing potential sites, but subject to the views of the police and other stakeholders, the final decision should rest with the Speakers’ Corner Committee. The Committee may wish to design a Speakers’ Corner for the space or even mark it with a work of public art though careful thought must be given both to the planning process which may apply and the funding of such initiatives.
Speakers’ Corner as a Public Programme
In smaller towns such spaces may be unavailable or impractical and in rural areas population sparsity would almost certainly make them unrealistic. Here the use of a mobile Speakers’ Corner may provide a better option.
But in any event, the ability to designate a space will not in itself deliver the project’s objectives. Speakers’ Corners, after an initial flurry of interest and activity, would quickly fall into disuse if not misuse.
In all cases, a locally organised and sustained schedule of events will provide the core of the project.
Local Speakers’ Corner Committees will draw up rolling programmes of events (for example in town or village halls, community centres, schools and places of work or worship) designed to reach every community in their area.
Events might include, for example,
- discussions, with or without speakers, on any topic of interest to local people
- debates between politicians or the representatives of opposing interest groups, or between individuals with strong or informative views on a range of issues from the global or national to the local or cultural
- presentations or discussions in which the public would be encouraged to participate, led, for example, by academics or others with expert knowledge or insights
- interactive entertainments.
They could also serve a number of different functions, for example for
- government departments, local authorities, parish councils and other public service providers, such as NHS trusts and police authorities, seeking to consult, inform opinion or stimulate debate on issues of policy or questions of public priority
- politicians seeking to consult the public or test their own opinion on current or local affairs
- practitioners, such as faith leaders or health workers, seeking to raise and discuss ethical issues
- campaign groups promoting their views or engaging in debate with others on all manner of local, national or global causes
- individual or membership organisations sharing their enthusiasms with a wider public
- academics and others seeking to broaden the appeal of their subject
- people simply wishing to explore ideas and exchange opinions for their own enlightenment, enjoyment or entertainment.
The central uniting principle in all these events is that they are accessible to all, strictly non-adversarial and non-partisan, welcome diversity and seek to engage, inform and enrich opinion.
Speakers’ Corners Committees
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The success of individual Speakers’ Corners will depend to a large extent on their local ownership and stewardship.
SCT aims to establish a network of Speakers’ Corner Committees, in most cases covering a defined local authority area. Each Speakers’ Corner Committee will take responsibility for
- maintaining a membership representative of the local community
- developing the Speakers’ Corner format most appropriate to its own community
- promoting the Speakers’ Corner objectives within its community
- designing, organising and sustaining a balanced programme of events in every part of its area
- funding its activities (though costs are usually limited)
- where possible over time creating localised sub committees
- monitoring and reporting activity and events in its area.
Each local Speakers’ Corner Committee, which might typically include representatives of the local authority, schools and colleges, amenity, interest and faith groups, the political parties and the business and voluntary sectors, would work with SCT to establish its own initiative and, having done so, take overall responsibility for its programme.
In doing so it might delegate responsibility for specific neighbourhoods to local sub-groups and work with existing organisations, such as students unions, faith groups, trade unions, Rotary Clubs and Women’s Institutes, to stimulate and coordinate a network of events throughout its area.
Speakers’ Corners and their organisers do face a challenge. Most people believe that they have better or more entertaining things to do than attend public meetings unless the issue under discussion directly affects their interests. The task is to convince them otherwise – and that their views and opinions do after all matter. That will require imagination and ingenuity and SCT will draw on the experience of others, particularly in its pilot projects, to identify the most successful means of attracting and maintaining interest.
In organising events, particular thought should be given to
- venues – where do people feel comfortable? Which venues are accessible and what times suit people? The answers may be different for different groups.
- formats – how should events be organised to ensure that they run smoothly but nevertheless feel relaxed and inclusive?
- issues – are local issues more likely to attract attention than broader or more theoretical topics?
Committees must be prepared to fail as well as succeed. But it is precisely because the challenge is difficult that meeting it so important.
Joined Up Debate
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The Speakers’ Corner project is intended to complement rather than compete with the internet. There is, for example, considerable potential for stimulating face to face engagement via the web and then encouraging and enabling participants to continue the debate across the internet.
Over time, SCT will develop this website to
- provide guidance on the running of Speakers’ Corners
- showcase best practice and local innovation
- suggest topics for debate and provide balanced briefings on them
- carry news of national and local Speakers’ Corner events
- feature audio or audio-visual recordings of local debates
- link the network of local Speakers’ Corners
- host an online forum for debate.
It will also offer opportunities for third parties to propose and facilitate debates and provide resources and links for participants both before and after the Speakers’ Corner event has taken place. A number of think tanks have already expressed interest in contributing to this programme.
Similarly, in time, debate or consultation on topical issues could be stimulated simultaneously across the network of local Speakers’ Corners via the SCT website (or on their own) by a wide range of organisations, including governments, political parties or faith or interest groups.
Local Speakers’ Corner Committees will also be encouraged to host their own websites. Indeed, SCT has developed a template which they can adapt for their own use.
A Day for Debate
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SCT is proposing, once it has developed a sufficiently wide network, to discuss with a major broadcaster the possibility of promoting an annual debate on a major topical issue to be determined by SCT’s Advisory Council which might itself be guided by proposals submitted by the network of local Speakers’ Corners.
The national event, which could become a feature of the annual Local Democracy Week, would be used to activate similar debates throughout the network and the outcomes would be posted on SCT’s website.
Speakers’ Corner Principles
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It will be important to allow as much autonomy as possible to local Speakers’ Corner Committees. However, SCT’s model set rules of engagement provide guidance on the conduct of debates according to a set of core principles, namely that they should
- be promoted and organised to ensure that they are accessible and attractive to all
- encourage the participation and contribution of political parties, faith communities and interest groups, but be independent of all of them
- afford equal rights to all those expressing an opinion, so long as it is lawful
- be conducted at all times calmly and without personal rancour or abuse
- seek common ground and compromise rather than confrontation
- celebrate diversity rather than conformity.
A model code also offers guidance designed to ensure that all those wishing to participate in a debate have a fair opportunity to do so, including guidance on
- the length of formal speeches and contributions from the floor
- the way in which interventions should be made and accepted
- circumstances in which votes should be taken and/or resolutions proposed or adopted.
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The Speakers’ Corner concept has met with widespread and frequently enthusiastic support. There is broad recognition that levels of participation in and commitment to civil life are dangerously low and that drawing citizens back into a relationship with each other and with their system of governance is a high, even an urgent priority.
There is acceptance too that while electronic communication presents extraordinary opportunities for accessing and exchanging information, ideas and opinions, the virtual relationships and conversations it facilitates should complement but not substitute for the interaction of real people in real places and in real time.
There is a strong consensus that engagement between citizens and their own neighbours in their own communities is a civilising, moderating and enriching experience and one which is essential to the restoration of a vibrant and healthy civil society.
That is what the Speakers’ Corner project seeks to achieve.