I have never visited Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, London. I first heard about it during English lessons in school while growing up in Germany. Learning at the age of about 13 of this unique and idiosyncratic institution of individual freedom, this outward sign of a truly tolerant society, added to my sense of pride in my English heritage, my mother being a daughter of the island nation. I was also intrigued; it chimed with my budding interest in politics. However, for some reason, even after moving to Britain permanently 17 years ago, I’ve never got around to actually going there and listening to some orators. I knew it was there, but I ignored it. And now it, and what it represents, are in grave danger. So what happened?
What happened had a long build-up and can be summarised thus: Self-destructive madness. In the face of mounting manifestations of internal contradictions of its multicultural outlook and philosophy, the ruling class of Europe, including Britain, is displaying growing signs of sheer lunacy and shameful abrogation of responsibility. Brexit was, if anything, a reaction of its supporters against the madness they perceived taking hold of their government and political representatives in their country and across the whole continent. Precisely because in Britain the tradition, or at least the memory, of free speech is still alive, the local branch of the ruling class could not avoid calling a referendum on EU membership forever. Hubristic and arrogant, they were sure they would win. When they lost, David Cameron, the prime minister responsible for calling the vote, resigned, remarking that at least he had managed to institutionalise same-sex marriage. But the ruling class as a whole did not resign. It has essentially remained in place.
Nothing has highlighted the continued rule by an aloof class of politicians and media grandees more clearly than the recent detention and subsequent deportation of Martin Sellner from England, and the deafening, shameful silence this was met with in most of the mainstream media. The Austrian activist of the Identitarian movement simply wanted to speak about freedom of speech – at Speakers’ Corner, on Sunday 10th March. Where Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and George Orwell had spoken, where anyone can speak about anything, Sellner was denied this right – on the basis of anti-terrorism laws.
This has now backfired in a very major way. For the state, and for those who manipulated its institutions to act against Sellner.
The problem for the British state was this: Left-wing activists were threatening to cause mayhem if Sellner was allowed to speak. Ever since last summer, the 29-year-old Austrian has been complete anathema to the whole European Left. That was when Sellner led an expedition on a boat in the Mediterranean to investigate the doings of certain NGOs who were supposedly rescuing refugees from drowning. The Identitarians claimed that in reality they were basically offering a ‘taxi service,’ ferrying migrants to Europe. Sellner’s expedition, which the Identitarians called ‘Defend Europe,’ apparently helped put a stop to the NGOs’ activities, and that is why Sellner is hated and feared by the Left in Europe almost as much, I imagine, as Steve Bannon is in the US. So, whenever and wherever Sellner’s appearance is announced, the Antifa do their worst to shut the event down.
Initially Sellner was to speak to the Young Independents, the UKIP youth organisation, last October. Antifa threatened the hotel where the Austrian was to speak. The hotel cancelled the booking. When the event was cancelled a second time – after trying to keep the Austrian’s planned appearance a secret –, Sellner decided to use his flight ticket anyway and go to Speakers’ Corner instead. In an experience that somewhat mirrors mine, Sellner says his mother had once told him in his childhood about this place, and how he had marvelled at the thought of it. So when Antifa effectively shut him down twice, he remembered Speakers’ Corner.
What happened next is well documented: Sellner and his American girlfriend, conservative activist Brittany Pettibone, were detained at Luton airport north of London. They were held in a detention center which, according to Sellner, is “not unlike a prison,” apart from the lack of prison uniforms. Three days later the couple were put on a plane back to Vienna. This happened the weekend before last.
If Antifa and the wider Left celebrated this as a victory, they were profoundly mistaken. Sellner’s move was straight out of Saul Alinsky’s playbook, ‘Rules for Radicals’: The action is the reaction. Alinsky was a man of the Left, but now the Right have learnt his lesson. The authorities’ reaction was so absurd, excessive and revealing that a huge and international backlash followed on social media. British observers were particularly shocked that someone was thrown out of their country for wanting to speak at Speakers’ Corner of all places, and about free speech of all things. There is no denying now what activists have been saying for years: In Britain, free speech, and with it many other freedoms, are in mortal danger.
It is clear that the authorities wanted to set a warning example. However, it seems that in this case, they were pressured into action. The embarrassing illiteracy displayed on the ‘notice of refusal of leave to enter’ handed to Pettibone (e.g. “insight” instead of “incite”), and the non-reason given therein (“member of a right-wing organisation” – so what?) suggest little planning and preparation had been done beforehand.
The Left will, of course, at this point repeat their brain-dead mantra that ‘hate speech is not free speech.’ But Sellner had not yet said anything – so why deport him? There are no incidences known to me of Sellner actually uttering ‘incitements to hate.’ And he has posted a lot of videos in the last few years. It’s quite clear: The British state opted for an easy path. This is what bureaucrats always do. They didn’t want a huge, potentially uncontrollable riot at speakers’ corner. They did not want bad news. They did not want this news to go around the world: Speakers’ Corner is open to Muslim preachers – and quite rightly so, as long as they are peaceful –, but when European and American activists want to defend western values in a speech, all hell breaks loose.
So the state opted for what it considered a lesser embarrassment: keep the leftist thugs happy, and throw out the peaceful activists. The bureaucrats did this in the hope that the national mainstream media would play along and cover the story up. Which, to their eternal shame, they did – apart from the Daily Mail, which ran a short article, and the BBC, which posted an piece some days later on their website that only thinly veils their full support for the state’s measures.
Until last Saturday, the interim bottom line was this: The British government has, by its actions concerning Sellner and Pettibone, admitted that it is either unwilling or unable to uphold the rule of law. Speakers’ Corner, of all places, seems to have become a no-go-area for people who defend western values.
Or has it? Tommy Robinson, another person the Left, and the establishment, love to hate – in his case for exposing their hypocrisy and complacency with regard to the dangers posed by radical Islam –, vowed last week to deliver Sellner’s prepared speech on the following Sunday, 18th March at Speakers’ Corner. As a British citizen, he can’t be denied this right in principle. He might have been arrested on some trumped-up charge. (The police told him to leave when he reconnoitered the place last Thursday.) But that didn’t happen.
Instead, several thousand supporters of Robinson and free speech turned up with him. The visible police presence numbered maybe two dozen. I followed the event live on a Youtube channel. Robinson delivered the brief speech Sellner had planned shortly after 3 pm. It was all about how Britain can be proud of the tradition of free speech, and that it is endangered by the radical left, radical Islam and the establishment.
The Sellner incident, and the backlash it induced reminds me, like many other events in the past few years in Britain, Germany, the US and other Western countries, of happenings in Eastern Europe that ultimately led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet empire. The arrest of Sellner and his girlfriend is reminiscent of the arrest of striking Polish trade unionists in 1980. A socialist country arresting trade unionists is as contradictory as a country of the supposedly ‘free world’ arresting and deporting a defender of western society for wanting to exercise his right to free speech.
I remember the fall of the Soviet empire. I observed it from close by, growing up as I did not far from the Iron Curtain, on the western side. The rulers of East Germany could deny individuals and small groups the right to leave their country – by catching them, imprisoning them, even shooting them. But when thousands turned up at the same time, the state caved in. It’s happening again. Europeans are on the move, just like they were in the Eastern Bloc in the 1980s. This time it’s the western establishment that’s on the receiving end. And, let’s not forget: the Wall, and then the empire, came tumbling down because, during a situation of extreme volatility and insurmountable inner contradictions, one bureaucrat made one ‘stupid mistake.’
There are three more points the London free speech incident highlights. The first is the usual one in cases such as this: The establishment and its mainstream media are seriously losing their ability to shape the debate. Sellner and Pettibone are current superstars of political social media. Along with Robinson. A man the establishment wanted to destroy. By the way, the establishment is currently losing control of another important story, and that is, who exactly is guilty of the nerve gas attack on the Russian ex-spy and his daughter in Salisbury.
The second point is this: The British state is the moral loser of this episode. As soon as Sellner and Pettibone returned to Vienna, they posted a video of themselves describing their ordeal at the hands of the British authorities. Observing them, you might ask: what ordeal? They look like a relaxed young couple talking about their recent mini-break. They don’t seem shell-shocked or fazed by the incident at all. And, if what Pettibone tells us about the American embassy’s reaction is true, they are going to let the UK know of their displeasure. And the two of them, plus Canadian Journalist Lauren Southern, who was also detained and refused entry into the UK for similar trumped-up reasons, have announced they are going to sue the United Kingdom.
The third point is this: Even in the modern digital age, physical presence counts. Had Sellner just posted a message about the importance of free speech to his British supporters on the Internet, no one apart from the most immature leftist trolls would have kicked up a fuss. Their fuming too would have been restricted to a practically sealed off bubble in the virtual world. Because of Sellner’s courage to take on the Left and whole might of the British state, Tommy Robinson was inspired to take the baton from the Austrian and deliver the speech for him. This in turn inspired thousands of supporters to turn up, on an untypically cold March Sunday afternoon in London. At an almost forgotten, sometimes even ridiculed, but still highly symbolic place.
Whatever you may think of their aims and means, Sellner and Robinson have the natural right to speak. They have the right to speak by invitation in hotels. The government abrogated its responsibility to guarantee that right for Sellner. Anyone has the historically established right to speak without invitation at Speakers’ Corner. The government denied Sellner that right, but it could not stop Robinson and the thousands that turned up. A cowardly mainstream media didn’t call out the authorities on this, and so continued their slide into irrelevance.