Why the Battle of Ideas 2018?

The Battle of Ideas is an acclaimed annual festival that draws together 400 speakers from the UK and across the world each year. Since 2005, the Battle of Ideas has challenged speakers and audience alike to ‘shape the future through debate’. Over 3,000 people from all walks of life dispute and discuss the key issues and ideas of our time at a hundred different sessions across the weekend.

As one of our speakers, Simon Evans, a comedian, presenter and regular panellist on Radio 4’s The News Quiz, said of last year’s event: ‘To my knowledge, the Battle of Ideas is a unique and enormously valuable phenomenon, such a reassuring openness to heretical positions and thorny points of view. It is the most invigorating public forum I’ve ever encountered and I only wish it were monthly.’

This year’s festival will be our fourteenth, and as ever we will be hosting a no-holds-barred interrogation of future political, social and cultural trends. This opportunity for debate has never been more pressing – and there is much to discuss.

Democracy under pressure

Long regarded as a central ‘British value’, democracy has come under more sustained criticism in the past two years than at any time since the establishment of universal suffrage in 1928. The vote for Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of populist parties and politicians across Europe have led many commentators to question the value of giving everyone the vote. The author of a new ‘state of the world’ bestseller has argued that there should be qualification tests for voters. More broadly, there is an assumption in some quarters that ‘experts know best’, part of a long-running trend encompassing everything from quangos to run important aspects of government to central bank independence.

There are also controversies over Big Data being used to influence elections, underpinned by the assumption that voters can’t tell ‘fake news’ from the real thing or, at least, that voters are easily swayed by Russian Twitter bots and targeted advertising based on sophisticated psychological profiling. There have been renewed efforts to increase press regulation, too, with the potential to stifle reporting of the great and good. Is it time to restate the importance of democracy or is it a flawed ideal?

Then and now

There are some major anniversaries to reflect on, too, from the introduction of limited women’s suffrage and the end of the Great War in 1918 to the legacy of the political protests of 1968 and a decade on from the financial crisis. It is also 50 years since the publication of the high-profile, neo-Malthusian tract, The Population Bomb.

While it is important to understand and reflect upon history, our discussions will be as much about the state of play today. For example, a century on from establishing the right of (some) women to vote, is there still a role for feminism today when women are widely regarded as equals to men, where systematic discrimination seems to be a thing of the past? Have we really understood the causes of the financial crisis, have we learned the right lessons and are we facing the possibility of another global downturn soon? Are there too many people on Planet Earth today or should we welcome a rising global population?

Understanding the Culture Wars

If recent political developments have created divisions, the wars over a variety of ‘cultural’ issues have been, if anything, even more heated. Where once there was an aspiration to a ‘colour blind’ society, now there seems to be an ever-greater focus on race, from accusations of cultural appropriation to claims of endemic ‘institutional’ racism. As threats to Jewish people appear to be on the rise across Europe, the Labour Party has tied itself in knots over the issue of anti-Semitism. The rise of ‘trans’ politics has left society questioning what would once have seemed self-evident: what is a woman? With political life increasingly dominated by such issues, those who have little interest in such concerns have become more and more alienated by such debates, creating something of a ‘them and us’ in politics, too.

As a result, we’ll be looking at what lies behind the Culture Wars, why they have become so heated in recent years and how such disagreements can be resolved.

It’s time to talk

Whether it is questions of politics, culture or even science, we live in an era where discussion is increasingly confined to ‘echo chambers’, with like-minded people speaking only to each other. The Battle of Ideas aims to be an antidote to these ‘intellectual silos’, a unique opportunity to bring different points of view together and challenge each other’s ideas. As our partners and hosts, the Barbican, have noted in relation to their Art of Change season, this is a moment to discuss how we ‘respond to, reflect and potentially effect change in the social and political landscape’.

Unlike so many other ideas festivals and public debates, where audiences are expected to sit passively while absorbing the insights of experts, the Battle of Ideas strives to make each and every session a ‘public meeting’ in its own right, where the audience’s ideas and questions are central to the debate. Whether we are discussing the latest developments in technology or the meaning of a classic work of literature, there is something to interest everyone across the weekend. If you want to be part of the conversation at the festival with the motto ‘Free Speech Allowed’, buy a ticket and join us at the Barbican.