Now in its third year, the Battle of Ideas comprises 70 debates about the big themes facing society. The festival was devised by the Institute of Ideas (IoI) as an annual event bringing together different strands of social, political and cultural discussion to meet the growing demand for high-level, thought-provoking and lively public debate that cuts across particular issues and fields of interest. This reflects the IoI’s interest in broad themes that affect a variety of debates – such as the shift from grand political visions to micro-management of individual behaviour, or contemporary doubts about economic growth and development.
As the name suggests, the Battle of Ideas avoids being anodyne in the name of consensus, reflecting instead the IoI’s commitment to robust debate. Taking ideas seriously means questioning, criticising and interrogating one another. This does not mean Punch and Judy-style formal debating, however. Today’s big questions do not lend themselves to neat, black and white positions. The IoI believes that through asking difficult questions and opening them up to scrutiny, a more enlightened and deeper public discourse can emerge.
Politics is certainly in need of an injection of substance. It is refreshing that the new prime minister Gordon Brown promises to distance his reign from celebrity culture. Yet it was this same celebrity-bashing Gordon Brown who urged us all to vote for Shippa Shetty in the ‘Big Brother’ house, and who has kowtowed to St Bono and Bob Geldof in their ‘save Africa’ crusade. Brown is right that there is ‘a new thirst for seriousness’, and yet one of the first acts of his administration has been to emasculate the school curriculum. Do five-minute lessons and the subordination of subject disciplines to faddish political concerns mark a new era of seriousness?
But let’s take Gordon Brown at his word and ask some hard questions. Today’s managerial politics, from Brown’s government of ‘all the talents’ to Cameron’s A-list candidates who previously have shown no interest in Conservatism, are clearly failing to inspire. Might the solution be ‘participatory’ schemes like local decision-making and citizens’ juries, or are these actually compromising representative democracy and the very idea of political vision? When does the much-vaunted ‘moral compass’ spin into moralising about private behaviour? ‘You can’t do that!’ is a familiar hector as we light up, sip a pint, eat a burger. Worse, too often we are told, ‘You can’t say that!’. The climate of inquistion that stifles ‘new heretics’ who challenge today’s orthodoxies, whether on climate change or offensive speech, is anathema to the IoI’s aim of fostering open argument. It is free speech that enables different interpretations of the world to be debated on their merits. That is why the Battle of Ideas’ motto is ‘Free Speech Allowed’.
The high level of audience contributions – in quality and quantity – is something that marks the Battle of Ideas out. That’s why we have introduced new formats that allow even more audience participation. Look out for poetry and play readings followed by discussions about the arts and politics, Bar-Room Rants on Iraq and ‘revolting students’ in the RCA Student Union, and Battle Talk ‘in conversation’-style sessions on citizenship education and China. These run alongside the regular keynote debates, café conversations, breakfast banters, provocation lectures, screenings and themed strands of debate on Africa, music, new technologies, science and film.
As ever, the promise to give renewed vigour to intellectual life is a lot to load on one weekend, but the success of the previous two Battle of Ideas festivals proves it is possible. And the Battle of Ideas is more than a weekend. Through ‘Battles in Print’, satellite events, media discussions, filmed vox pops and live debates on Friction TV, Fora TV and 18 Doughty Street, podcasts on The Times online and monthly forums on everything from parenting to literature, the Battle of Ideas aims to set the intellectual agenda far beyond the festival. But it all starts this October. Let battle commence!
Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas and the Battle of Ideas Committee 2007
Each to his iPod or Great Music For All [Opens in new window]
"Exactly what debate and diatribe should be about in these challenging days."
Prof Phillipe Sands QC, author, Lawless World