Saturday, October 29, 2011
The Battle of Ideas
Battle of Ideas, which is being held today and tomorrow at the Royal College of Art, next to the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington. It is organised by the Institute of Ideas, which is descended from the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) via Living Marxism magazine and the website Spiked (for which I have written in the past). And the Institute kindly offered me a press pass for the weekend.
Despite this parentage, the event is notably diverse in the subjects it tackles and the speakers it invites. I was impressed with the number of people who were there - over a thousand had registered for the weekend, one of the organisers told me - and the range of sessions on offer. It felt like a political conference with lots of fringe meetings and no set-piece speeches in the main hall.
I went to three sessions. The first was "What is Nature for?" with a panel of speakers including the poet Ruth Padel, who is Charles Darwin's great great granddaughter. The tenor of the discussion was that nature is not really "for" anything, that it certainly cannot teach us how to live but that we have to come to terms with it and, many contributors insisted, find our greatest satisfaction in contact with it.
Josie Appleton is one of the leading lights of the Institute of Ideas (there seemed to be one of them on panel or in the chair in each session), but her emphasis on mankind using nature to improve his life seemed out of kilter with much of the rest of the debate. She called this the view of "modernity", but in many ways it is a dated view.
But it did at least give a clue to how the RCP evolved into the turbo-libertarians of Spiked, because this is a view that is shared by many Marxists and capitalists. And doesn't Marx say somewhere that capitalism will not disappear until it has reached the fullest state of development? Perhaps the way to hasten its demise is therefore to give it free rein.
The second session I attended was "Remaking Citizens for the 'Big Society'", where I was interested to hear Steve Reed, the Labour leader of the London Borough of Lambeth. I found much of what he has to say about community involvement in the running of public services was close to my sort of Liberalism.
I made a brief intervention from the floor, saying that initiatives are "local schemes for local people". Where they are successful it is generally because of individual, local circumstances and often because of a few remarkable individuals. They cannot be reduced to a set of PowerPoint slides that can be rolled out across the country.
And the final session I attended asked whether the sexual liberation of earlier decades has given rise to unintended and unwanted consequences in the shape of "Coarse Sex and Cheap Lives". I will admit that one reason for choosing this one - there were seven different strands running all day - was to hear Anne Atkins, the dragon of "Thought for the Day".
It turned out that what impressed me most about this session was the politeness with which Atkins was received. I suspect that if she had spoken at a political conference - at least a Labour or a Lib Dem one - she would have been heckled or shouted down.
Besides, as the American journalist William Saletan remarked, some things are true even though the Church of England says them.
The chairing of the sessions was good, with neither panellists not speakers from the floor allowed to waffle. So if you want a stimulating day's discussion, I suggest you go along to the Battle of Idea tomorrow or next year.