Now in its fourth year, the Battle of Ideas festival comprises 75 debates and a dozen satellite discussions confronting the big issues and unresolved questions facing society. From the banking crisis to the new cold war rhetoric around Georgia, from the implosion of the Labour Party to the contest to lead the most powerful country on earth, from the new ethical questions surrounding biomedicine to the thorny question of knife crime and young people – the need for clear thinking and rational debate has never been more urgent.
SERIOUSNESS, IDEAS AND CHANGE
A year ago, newly crowned Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a plea for substance and seriousness in politics. No matter how hollow that plea sounds today, there certainly is a need for those things. Indeed the festival was devised by the IoI as an annual event with the serious intent of shaping intellectual life. We are unapologetic in putting ideas centre stage; as an antidote to policy churn, slick soundbites, managerialism and opportunism.
Those who espouse big ideas are frequently dismissed as ‘idealists’ - a term that has acquired negative connotations. Ideas associated with important moments in history - the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the American and French Revolutions - are often dismissed as pompous rhetoric or impossible myths. Instead we have the mantra of Change with a capital C.
The argument goes that the world is changing so much that every insight from the past must be dumped or revised. We are told we must ‘change to keep up with Change’, as though we are passive victims of changing forces ‘out there’. But change is not a force in history; it is the outcome of human intervention. Historically, it is ideas that have enabled people to change the world. One key aim of the Battle of Ideas is to scrutinise the ideas that make history.
As the name suggests, the Battle of Ideas rejects anodyne consensus. Taking ideas seriously means questioning and criticising one another. It can mean saying the unsayable and challenging received wisdom. It certainly means holding true to the Battle of Ideas’ motto ‘Free Speech Allowed’. Importantly, however, the Battle of Ideas is not about Punch and Judy-style formal debating.
Today’s big questions rarely lend themselves to black and white positions, as is clear from this year’s festival programme. When it comes to the changing role of the family or concerns about antisocial behaviour, ‘for and against’ positioning would be unhelpful. There is no simple way to understand the significance of emerging economies such as India and China. And the fracturing of traditional loyalties means identity is contested in everything from rows about cricket to diversity policies in the arts. Meanwhile, the collapse of traditional communities means that how we educate and socialise children, relate to each other at work and welcome (or not) new immigrants are highly charged issues.
How should we interpret the greening of politics when environmentalist thinking questions the very ideas of progress and development? Is there more to truth than scientific evidence and hard facts? Is there more to radicalism than harking back to ‘68? Is there more to leadership than speechifying? Is the credit crunch or anti-consumerism the greater challenge to capitalism? The IoI believes that through asking these and other difficult questions, a more enlightened and deeper culture of public debate can emerge.
The success of the Battle of Ideas to date has revealed an appetite for this kind of thought-provoking and lively public debate. The high level of audience contributions - in quality and quantity - is something that marks out the Battle of Ideas. It is also clear from the verve and wit of attendees that seriousness is not synonymous with being po-faced or sanctimonious. The festival has light and shade, and stimulating intellectual exchanges can be lots of fun. All ages are welcome, and it is refreshing that so many young people - from school pupils to postgraduates - attend and defy their ‘whatever’ caricature. However old you are, come along and pitch in. Free thinkers are welcome.
The Battle of Ideas is more than a ‘talking shop’, or indeed a festival. It’s a declaration: ideas matter and it’s time to get serious. We certainly aim to make a mark beyond one weekend. But it all starts 1-2 November 2008. Let battle commence!
Claire Fox, director of the IoI and the Battle of Ideas Committee 2008
"A rare opportunity to debate first hand with those involved in the great issues of our time."
Chris Rapley, director, Science Museum