Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Occupy London is reviving St Paul's history of free speech

The Occupy protesters are defenders of a democratic heritage we must remember if we are to reclaim our freedoms

By Dan Plesch
Tuesday 25 October 2011

The Occupy London protest site at St Paul's has been a 'seedbed of free speech' for generations.

The protesters at St Paul's are the latest in a line of heroes speaking there for the conscience of the nation, stretching back to the 12th century. The churchyard is "where generations of Londoners played their role in fomenting public opinion and the preaching of the Christian faith", according to the cathedral's website. An Edwardian plaque explains that this was "whereat amid such scenes of good and evil as make up human affairs the conscience of church and nation through five centuries found public utterance", until eradicated by Cromwell, that is.

By the 1600s, however, this seedbed of free speech had produced the world's leading printing industry, which thrived around the church for further centuries often at odds with anti-democratic monarchs. My own ancestor James Watson, an author of the People's Charter in the 1830s, was convicted of the crime of printing, among other seditious tracts, the works of Shelley from his shop in Paternoster Row adjacent to the churchyard.

Sadly, there is nothing modern to educate Londoners and tourists about this democratic heritage, although the memorial cross erected in the early 1900s sought to "recall and renew" it. Modern protesters can call upon this history as a moral argument for staying put in that particular part of London – and it may be that church and local law gives them a legal right to remain.

Restoring the lost history of free speech at St Paul's is just a start. Once we engage in this restorative archaeology of our culture we will find much of use today – not least in the constructive criticism of capitalism. In past times politics was addressed with a precision and wit we have lost. Satire, like sex, did not start in 1963. The Edwardians were quite good at both. Of relevance in the City today is Gilbert and Sullivan's popular evisceration of corporate law in the 1893 operetta Utopia Limited which expressed public hostility to the limited liability company. Then a controversial violation of human rights which even the Economist took until 1927 to accept, today limited liability sits unquestioned and unquestionable as a natural good. In the Cambridge Journal of Economics my colleagues and I sought to end the silence, but it remains deafening. Perhaps one of the Gilbert and Sullivan societies could put on a performance at St Paul's.

The issue is that while all normal owners of property – down to Leylandii trees – are liable for the impact they have, the owners of shares are not. An anathema to Adam Smith, today through the use of shell companies and anonymous ownership limited liability has been transformed from an engine of enterprise into a corrupt protection of the 1%. On the grand scale it has become a fraud – when the banks lose their shirts at the stock market, it is you and I who must pay them off and provide them with new table stakes.

A better sense of our democratic heritage may assist the immediate situation of the protesters at St Paul's and give them and our compatriots around the world a pressure point for change. But our cultural amnesia over democracy needs to change. Our democratic heritage needs to be established alongside our royal, military, artistic and scientific heritage if our freedoms are to be reconnected to their roots

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