Free speech allowed: Why Europe needs debate

Independent Voices is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest articles on the key questions of our time.

Share
Related Topics

 

While the latest round of austerity measures intended to stabilize the Eurozone generates more civil unrest on the streets of Spain and Athens, it is strange that UK headlines have been governed by Andrew Mitchell’s rude exchange with a policeman and the BBC apologising to the Queen for publishing tittle-tattle.

Indeed, outside of the inspirational excitement of the summer Olympics & Paralympics, the past year in politics has often been disheartening, with the optimism which greeted the Arab Spring in short supply in 2012 and even the famed British free press facing the chill of Leveson. Little wonder that the return of Downton Abbey to our screens, with its heroes and villains in familiar historical terrain, has been greeted as the return of an old friend.

Yet challenging time should be met with difficult questions, no matter how tempting it is to retreat into yesterday’s certainties or heated debate over seemingly trivial issues. The Battle of Ideas festival, initiated by the Institute of Ideas and supported by a wide range of partners, now has a new home. For our eighth year we are delighted to be at the Barbican, one of the world’s leading arts centres. While the festival venue has changed, the purpose remains to make virtues of free-thinking and dissent, and spark public conversations on the key issues facing society. We aim to foster an atmosphere of intellectual freedom, and the open-ended exploration of the ideas that are shaping policy and culture.

How does the pursuit of new ideas go beyond the shallow rhetoric about finding the next ‘Big Idea’, so fashionable in research, policy and think-tank circles? Many seem to believe blue-skies thinking is conjured up in brainstorming sessions; that new ideas lurk in laboratories. What about the wealth of ideas at our fingertips in our shared intellectual legacy?

Unfortunately, marshalling these intellectual resources to give important ‘old’ ideas meaning in the twenty-first century is seen as futile, even dangerous. Society seems estranged from the important intellectual legacy that has helped secure human progress to date. Certainly many of the insights that have guided human development in the past can no longer be taken as self-evident. Some of the most precious ideas that emerged with the rise of the Enlightenment - liberty, equality, solidarity - now appear emptied of their critical and subversive content, little more than barren slogans.

One idea easily taken for granted is freedom, a particular focus of this year’s festival. Of course we all pay lip service to valuing liberty. Even in the recent past, the Cold War pitted a free society against totalitarianism, European cooperation was supposed to guarantee liberty, and today Western society favourably contrasts itself to parts of the world that lack a tradition of individual freedom. And yet it is difficult to assert the importance of freedom in 2012 without people raising a range of caveats: do we mean unregulated freedom to exploit? Aren’t the media, bankers and big business too free? How can we trust organisations that want the freedom to hide their secrets?

Ironically one of the French Revolution’s three core ideas - égalité - is used to clip its sister liberté’s wings. In the name of equality, everything from freedom of religious belief to who is admitted to university has become a matter of controversy. Many panels at the Battle of Ideas will explore how those two concepts are now seen as goods to be traded off against one another, in the process losing their original creative content.

To help in this endeavour of debating freedom, we have invited a range of European speakers to join festival panels. Sadly the mere mention of Europe today can elicit a yawn; the bureaucratised EU hardly seems an inspiring home of intellectual life. Meanwhile, Brussels and the Eurozone are seen more as limiting freedom rather than championing it. In contrast to the land of technocracy, the Battle of Ideas aspires to create Europe anew. Following a series of weekend Battle satellite events in European cities throughout October, we have invited independent intellectuals from Portugal, Greece, Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, Ireland, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and elsewhere to gather in London to create a modern, pan-European public salon. This will create a potent mix of perspectives from 400 speakers, thrashing out difficult ideas and shaking up orthodoxies.

No doubt many of the ideas expressed at the festival will be contentious; no doubt sensibilities will be offended. But let’s hold our nerve. After all, as the name suggests, the Battle of Ideas is not afraid of dissenting opinions and encourages people to speak their minds. Above all, tolerating dissent is an essential precondition for any commitment to developing ideas beyond soundbites. The festival’s slogan is FREE SPEECH ALLOWED, and we mean it.

Following on from last year's success on Independent Blogs, Independent Voices is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest articles from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas. The Battle of Ideas international satellite programme starts in Lisbon on 29 September with Cities without cities?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: KS2 Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is a two form entry primary schoo...

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

‘They’ve seen the future – and got it for a song’: the unlikely history of Canary Wharf

Jack Brown
 

i Editor's Letter: Science versus religion in the three-parent baby debate

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee