Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Saturday at the Battle of Ideas

I spent Saturday at the Battle of Ideas, an annual two-day intellectual event put on by the Institute of Ideas, It is best described like a party conference without the main hall –  you are offered is several streams of enticing fringe meetings throughout the weekend.

And the lack of partisanship is welcome. Last year, for instance, I listened to a panel that included Anne Atkins. She is not to my taste, and I suspect she was not to the taste of most people in the audience, but she was received with perfect politeness, which is something hard to imagine at a Labour or Liberal Democrat event.

The Institute of Ideas grew out of the website Spiked, which in turn grew out of the magazine Living Marxism (LM). In the days before the internet that magazine brought a welcome draught of libertarianism to the debate, even if those ideas are now pretty commonplace.

And Living Marxism grew out of the old Revolutionary Communist Party. For this reason some see the group of people around Spiked and the Institute of Ideas (Clare Fox from The Moral Maze is now the best known amongst them) as sinister. But I once wrote a couple of articles for Spiked! and never received any Serbian slush money.

My complaint against Spiked these days is that it offers contrarianism by numbers: you know it will take the consensus view on any subject in the news and argue the opposite. But at least these people are being good Marxists in wanting to see the capitalist system developed to its fullest, because Marx himself argued that revolution would not come until that stage has been reached.

Anyway, Saturday. The event took place at The Barbican in London, and everything they say about the place being a maze is correct. But I managed to navigate it tolerably well even so.

After collecting my free press pass I entered the room halfway through a discussion with Frank Furedi (another key Spiked! and LM figure), Zoe Williams from the Guardian and David Lammy the Labour MP.

When I came in the discussion was cantering on Lammy’s recent book Out of the Ashes: Britain after the riots. In it, someone was arguing, Lammy recognises that the last Labour government’s attempt was trying to do too much – attempting to “nationalise society” – yet he ends by calling for the state to have more powers.

Zoe Williams was having none of it: Labour had not nationalised society but privatised it. Look at local authority children’s homes. Perhaps this is another instance of Calder’s Second Law of Politics: the more power the government takes for itself, the more arbitrary the exercise of that power becomes. So Labour took on too much and found it had to make some functions over to the private sector.  We should not be so surprised that those functions were chosen more or less at random.

I found Lammy more impressive than I expected, with his emphasis that poor children need help that goes beyond the purely academic if they are to make their way in life. He also said that if you come from a middle-class family and have good parents and a good school then a little gangsta rap will do you no harm.  But if that is the only influence you are subjected to then you are in trouble.

Given the labyrinth of the Barbican, I decided to stay in my seat for the next session. This was a panel discussion on parenting that included the filmmaker Roger Graef. The panel contained a wide variety of views, which was good in its way but meant that there was little meeting of minds. If a theme emerged it was in the contributions from the floor that suggested that, yes, some families did need professional help, but that the most extreme cases were being treated as though they were typical and showing that no parents could cope.

After that I wandered off to a pub for lunch, unwinding a ball of wool behind me as I went. When I returned I happened upon a discussion on the situation in Syria.

Then I went to a session on “Telling off the grown ups”. Again the panel held a very diverse set of views, but this time the discussion took off. And a lot of it chimed with my fogeyish view that our modern concern to hear the views of children is in part due to our lack of confidence in ourselves as adults.

Finally, I listened to Frank Furedi talking about the Jimmy Savile affair. I have long been an admirer of Furedi and his 1997 book Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation in particular. Its analysis of the way that our preoccupations with abuse and risk have harmed society and left us feeling no safer was acute and prophetic when you looked how Britain developed under Blair.

But on Saturday Furedi offered a canter around these themes without really engaging with the strangeness or enormity of the Savile story. Only when he touched upon the absurdities of celebrity culture did he add something new

Still, Saturday was a good day and I am grateful for the free press pass I was given. If you find yourself frustrated by the tribalism of party politics, the Battle of Ideas offers a welcome change.

1 comment:

David Sea said...


The Battle of Ideas and those behind it are an intriguing bunch. I was studying at North London Poly back in the 80s when Claire Fox was the RCP organiser there. Their tactics then were to talk for as long as possible at every meeting and to out 'left' the SWP, regardless of the issue. So it was always difficult to really pin down what their end game really was. However, the RCP were a trendy bunch. We non-trots referred to them as 'the SWP with hair gel'. If you haven't seen before, this LRB article may be of interest and makes a far less charitable assessment than your own: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n13/jenny-turner/who-are-they