From the 28th – 29th October 2017, the Academy of Ideas‘ annual Battle of Ideas festival of debate took place in London’s Barbican Centre, addressing a wide array of topical areas in a refreshing and thought-provoking fashion.
A time of change
In a rapidly changing world, debating ideas matters more than ever.
Politics is currently in a very fluid state, as was illustrated by the outcome of the UK General Election in June. Going into the election, the Conservatives were the clear favourites, but they ultimately blew their huge lead in the opinion polls and ended up losing their overall majority. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour entered the election with a radical manifesto many said would lead to be the party’s downfall and emerged with a surge in support. And, more broadly, there is a palpable sense that long-lasting political alignments are now starting to change.
Recent events have shown that political life doesn’t follow a preordained script, that democracy throws up unexpected results and that voters cannot merely be called upon to provide mandates and then be put back into their boxes. This trend has been well illustrated by the surprise Brexit vote, the elections of Emmanuel Macron in France and Donald Trump in America, the collapse of mainstream parties in many countries and by Theresa May’s fall from strong and stable to precarious and powerless in the new hung parliament. If once we were told that we were living in through the end of history, dominated by TINA (There is No Alternative), now there is a sense that the centre will not hold; a widespread feeling that, after years of economic stagnation and political failure, the status quo is not good enough. The very future of traditional political parties has been called into question.
The need for an antidote
Yet, this sense of a changing world can be as disorientating as it is exhilarating. The ability to debate and to discuss the shifting trends is an essential antidote to knee-jerk posturing over everything from Islamist terror attacks to the horrific tragedy at Grenfell Tower.
For example, what are the wider consequences of the decisions that voters are now making? The question of Brexit, which opens up challenges for the UK in relation to the economy, scientific cooperation and much more, still remains central to political life in the UK. Trump’s election has caused enormous debate on a wide range of issues, like immigration, international relations, the future of world trade and the nature of contemporary democracy.
Meanwhile, the continued assault on free societies from homegrown jihadis, including attacks in Manchester, in Westminster and at London Bridge, raises uncomfortable questions about everything from Western values to identity politics, from policing cyberspace to the limits (or not) of free speech. Such an atmosphere creates both new uncertainties and possibilities right across society, asking questions of artists, philosophers and educators as well as politicians, academics and commentators.
A unique forum
The Battle of Ideas 2017, therefore, aims to be a uniquely open forum for debating these issues. Much of the shock at recent events can be traced back to people getting stuck in echo chambers and becoming unable – perhaps unwilling – to hear and discuss other points of view. This is never a problem at the Battle of Ideas. Since 2005, the festival has promoted open, wide-ranging public debate on the issues of the day. Under the motto of Free Thinking Allowed, the Battle of Ideas brings together a range of speakers for passionate, serious-minded discussion of the contemporary world.
Of course, the big questions facing society go way beyond Brexit, Trump and ISIS. On the international stage alone, we’ll be looking at important developments in Russia, France and China. In our schools and universities, there are heated debates about what should be taught, diversity and inequality, even about the nature of truth. In the arts, there are big questions to be discussed: theatre, literature and galleries are embroiled in conflicts about cultural appropriation, representation and whitewashing. In science and technology, there are disputes about genetics, evolutionary psychology, the consequences of automation and the pros and cons of big data for privacy, healthcare and even democracy.
This is also a big year for anniversaries. It is 500 years since Martin Luther famously helped to unleash the Reformation, when he nailed his famous theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg. What now for religious belief and freedom of conscience? It is also 100 years since the Russian Revolution. What impact did it have on politics and culture and how should it be viewed today? 2017 also brings the 50th anniversary of the legalisation of abortion in the UK. Are abortion rights now under threat around the world?
All this just skims the surface of what was discussed at the festival in London and at Battle of Ideas satellite events throughout the rest of the UK and across Europe. For more of a flavour of the debates which took place, check out our full programme below.
Time to Talk was the official partner of two events at this year’s Battle of Ideas and these were both live streamed.
To find out more about these debates and to access their recordings, click on the titles below.
Saturday 28th October, 10:00 – 11:30 GMT
Sunday 29th October, 16:00 – 17:15 GMT