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.

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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?