It is a dread of conference-goers everywhere to see an audience member grasp the microphone during the interactive section, only to announce their contribution “is more a comment than a question” before rambling at a tangent for five painful minutes.
The Battle of Ideas, a political ideas conference held in the Barbican arts centre in central London at the start of November, is rare in tolerating such behaviour, which would be swatted away by stricter organisers. But in allowing for this the event crudely tracks the descent of British public discourse, where the quantity of debate is imperilling the quality.
Parliamentary debates, and especially prime minister’s questions, increasingly see opponents talk past one another as divisions over Brexit grow only deeper. Broadcasters on College Green, near the Palace of Westminster, are often interrupted by shouty protestors, backing both leave and remain.
Thus the term ‘battle’ has scarcely been more apt for the weekend conference, which is organised by the Academy of Ideas, founded and run by former members of the UK’s Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). Although the event has been going since 2005, it has taken on new relevance of late, as its director Claire Fox became a Brexit Party MEP in May when her party won a plurality of British seats in the European Parliament.
Fox’s success has been accompanied by similar triumphs for former RCP colleagues. A trend for broadcasters to seek pundits with more diverse politics has seen much airtime for the self-described “Marxist libertarian” Brendan O’Neill, who also writes for the Spectator, a conservative magazine once edited by the current prime minister Boris Johnson.
The conference itself confers respectability on political outsiders, with the programme ranging across worthy subjects like modern slavery, knife crime, artificial intelligence, Hong Kong, and England’s North-South divide. While some of the discussion is suitably wonkish, the temperature rises over debates about ‘the people’, ‘the establishment’ and, of course, Brexit.
Stewart Wood, erstwhile advisor to prime minister Gordon Brown and now a Labour peer, made a nuanced pitch for a diverse ‘people’ with many views. “Claiming that ‘the will of the people’ is the same as democracy is not just dangerous, it’s wrong,” he said, adding that democracy could include concepts of limited government, the rule of law and guards against majority rule. For this he was slated by several audience members, with one criticising his membership of the House of Lords, which remains unelected but able to influence legislation.
When Wood rhetorically asked why the Lords remains in place, one of his critics raised his hand with his thumb rubbing against his fingers, evoking the greed of politicians. The peer countered that there has long been a majority for abolishing the Lords in Westminster, but “they can’t agree on what to replace it with” – a pragmatic anathema to some in the audience.
For other conference attendees the scheming of the political class is not limited to Brexit or parliamentary reform. A session on world government prompted similar complaints, after three panellists noted national governments’ struggle to tackle climate change, the regulation of national corporations, and nuclear weapons.
“You need a world characterised by rule of law and characterised by human rights, and you need to solve global problems,” said Mary Kaldor, emeritus professor of global governance at the London School of Economics, who called for global taxes to fund global government. Amid howls about Western elites imposing their ideas on the world, one questioner called the idea to abolish the nation state “deeply reactionary” and “medieval”, ignoring that the panellists had emphasised a role for national governments in any global arrangements.
Centrist champions will have a task talking round these critics, who once languished at the sidelines of British democracy, but are increasingly centre stage. The rowdy outsiders can no longer be ignored.