Academy of Ideas
Extinction or progress? Visions of the future

Extinction or progress? Visions of the future

December 6, 2019

Recording of a debate at the Battle of Ideas festival 2019.

Today’s political culture seems obsessed with dark, apocalyptic visions. From young people staging ‘die-ins’ to protest about the environment to talk of an ‘insect apocalypse’, fears and threats loom large. Extinction Rebellion argues that the threat of catastrophe means we must reject growth and material progress in favour of a new eco-austerity. Even proponents of new technology often see it as a means of avoiding environmental catastrophe rather than transforming the world for the better. What can we learn about the present from our attitude to the future? Do we need to recover our faith in the future – and by extension, ourselves?

home affairs spokesperson and former deputy leader, Green Party; author, Why Vote Green 2015

professor of history, Royal Holloway, University of London; author, Searching for Utopia: the history of an idea; fellow, RSA

senior lecturer in sociology and social policy, Swansea University; author, Semiotics of Happiness and Significant Emotions (forthcoming)

editor, spiked; host, The Brendan O’Neill Show; writer, the Sun and the Spectator; author, A Duty to Offend

partnerships manager, Academy of Ideas; co-convenor, Living Freedom and The Academy, boi charity

The Life of Brian at 40: are we more easily offended today?

The Life of Brian at 40: are we more easily offended today?

December 4, 2019

Listen to the debate from the Battle of Ideas Festival 2019.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian was released in the UK on 8 November 1979. The film had problems from the start, with its funding withdrawn by EMI films at the last minute, but it was rescued by former Beatle George Harrison putting up the money for it to be made. Forty years later, it would be nice to say that we’re more relaxed about religion and comedy. But in truth, while Christianity is considered fair game (notwithstanding the later controversy over Jerry Springer: The Opera), satirising Islam remains deeply controversial, as illustrated by the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the mealy-mouthed reaction to the killings by many supposedly liberal commentators and artists. Could Brian be made today? Why does it still work today? Have we lost the ability to ridicule the dominant ideas of our society? And have comedians, writers and producers lost their edge for fear of causing offence?

comedian; regular panellist, BBC Radio 4's The News Quiz

award winning standup comedian; former forensic IT investigator, Serious Fraud Office; former research scientist, Herpesvirus bioinformatics

director and producer, FrackNation; co-author and co-producer, Gosnell; producer, FBI Lovebirds: UnderCovers; co-host, The Ann and Phelim Scoop

associate professor of sociology and anthropology, Moravian College, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; author, The Erosion of the American Sporting Ethos: shifting attitudes toward competition

co-founder, Comedy Unleashed

science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, AoI Economy Forum

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Titania McGrath: satire in the age of social justice

Titania McGrath: satire in the age of social justice

December 4, 2019

Listen to the debate from the Battle of Ideas Festival 2019.

‘Humour is a weapon of the patriarchy.’ So says Titania McGrath, the Twitter superstar who describes herself as an activist, healer and radical intersectionalist poet. Titania has become famous for her ‘woke’ words of wisdom, such as ‘heterosexuality is a hoax’. Of course, those of us who have been following Titania’s rise to fame will know that she is, in fact, fictional – a satirical character dreamt up by the author and comedian Andrew Doyle. Boasting a Twitter following in the hundreds of thousands, Doyle’s parody of a ‘typical Guardian reader’ has managed to fool some so-called ‘social-justice warriors’ into believing Titania’s cries of oppression, as well as revealing uncomfortable truths about the degraded state of identity politics. But not everyone is a fan of Titania. Doyle has been accused of ‘punching down’ with his satire of contemporary ‘leftie’ politics. Is poking fun at social-justice campaigns merely a right-wing ploy – even though Doyle himself is a self-declared leftie? And what has it been like for Doyle, to be a comic writer in a world that sometimes seems unable to laugh at itself? Now that Titania’s real identity is out, where does she go from here?


writer and comedian; author, Titania McGrath's Woke: A Guide to Social Justice



co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; journalist and frequent commentator on TV and radio; author, What Women Want


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Interrogating anti-Semitism with Deborah Lipstadt and Frank Furedi

Interrogating anti-Semitism with Deborah Lipstadt and Frank Furedi

November 26, 2019

Listen to the debate from the Battle of Ideas Festival 2019.

A recent EU report found 89 per cent of Jews living in member countries feel anti-Semitism has increased over the past decade, while 85 per cent believe it to be a serious problem. Anti-Semitism has traditionally been associated with the political right and with national chauvinism, but today it is often radical Islamists or even leftists, rather than nationalists, who are accused of prejudice against Jews. But can alleged anti-Semitism in the British Labour party really be compared to the fascist Oswald Mosley? Is anti-Zionism a distinct and legitimate position? How best can we define anti-Semitism? As Israel descends into political and, some would say, moral crisis, is it possible to criticise Israel without being anti-Semitic? And most importantly, if anti-Semitism is on the rise, how can we best combat it?

sociologist and social commentator; author, How Fear Works: culture of fear in the 21st century and Populism and the European Culture Wars

professor of Holocaust Studies, Emory University, Atlanta; author, Antisemitism: Here and Now; defendant, Irving v Penguin UK and Lipstadt (2000)

director, Academy of Ideas; Brexit Party MEP; author, I STILL Find That Offensive!

Are the old political parties dying?

Are the old political parties dying?

November 26, 2019

Listen to the debate from the Battle of Ideas festival 2019.

Many commentators have observed that Britain enjoys, by European standards at least, a uniquely stable party-political system. In many other European countries, collapsing empires, social uprisings or world wars fuelled new parties and shifting popular allegiances. Britain, on the other hand, is notable for the longevity – and adaptability – of its established parties. But amid rising volatility, fragmentation and polarisation in the early twenty-first century, are we reaching a historic moment of change? Are new-style political ‘movements’ such as the Brexit Party or independent, local initiatives a promising way forward? Could we be on the brink of a new political landscape and, if so, how should we seek to shape it?

special projects writer, New Statesman

journalist and commentator; deputy editor of opinion pages, Financial Times; former Liberal Democrat advisor

columnist and commissioning editor of comments, Daily Telegraph

economist and entrepreneur; author, Left Behind: why voters deserted social democracy – and how to win them back

deputy editor, spiked; regular commentator on TV and radio; editor, Unsafe Space: the crisis of free speech on campus

associate fellow, Academy of Ideas

The Education Culture Wars: what should be the role of schools today?

The Education Culture Wars: what should be the role of schools today?

November 20, 2019

Recording of the opening remarks from a Battle of Ideas festival satellite event on Monday 18 November 2019.

Schools are unique institutions. Their most obvious role is in relation to education and the generational transfer of knowledge. However, they also mediate between the state and parents in shaping the next generation. Schools enforce behavioural expectations and instil particular values while preparing children for the responsibilities of adulthood.

Schools have always played this role. However, over recent years the values and expectations championed by schools have become more explicitly political and more contested. From lessons on climate change and recycling to cultural awareness days, it can appear as if schools, through children, aim at broader social change.

In this respect we seem to now be witnessing the emergence of the ‘Culture Wars’ in Education. One consequence is that tensions between schools and parents spill out in conflicts over contentious issues such as teaching of sex and relationships education. However, from the contents of lunchboxes to disputes over ‘gender neutral’ school uniform policies, few area of school life now seem beyond controversy.

In this special lecture and discussion, Joanna Williams, author of Consuming Higher Education: why learning can’t be bought, explores how these conflicts might be resolved. Should it be the state or parents who decide which values and behaviours to inculcate in children? And how should schools mediate between the two?

Dr Joanna Williams
author, Women vs Feminism and Consuming Higher Education: why learning can’t be bought; associate editor, spiked

Tearing up the rule book: the end of the new world order?

Tearing up the rule book: the end of the new world order?

June 7, 2019

Recording of a debate at the Battle of Ideas Festival 2018.

Since the fall of communism, the dominant narrative around international politics and economics has been that of a stable order defined by liberal, free-market values and agreements. In recent years, faith in the liberal international vision seems to have been shattered. In response to the rise of China and resurgence of Russia, populists across the world, most famously President Trump, have denounced free-trade agreements and collective security arrangements. Are we really moving into a more protectionist world, or will free-trade ideology make a comeback? How will the rise of China and the ‘global south’, alongside the apparent slow decline of the US, change things?

deputy editor, Foreign Policy

PhD researcher on identity politics, Sheffield University; columnist; member, Editorial Working Group, Review of African Political Economy

chair of international relations, University of Bath

lecturer, international politics, University of Leicester

partnerships manager, Academy of Ideas; co-convenor, Living Freedom; organiser, Debating Matters

The moral case for abortion

The moral case for abortion

May 17, 2019

In 2019, over than a dozen US states have either passed or attempted to pass stricter abortion legislation. Georgia's new law bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. Alabama's new law would more or less ban abortion entirely. How should those who are pro-choice respond? This Battle of Ideas debate from 2016 remains very relevant.

Original introduction

In her new book, Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and a veteran campaigner for abortion rights, sets out the ethical arguments for a woman’s right to choose, drawing on the traditions of sociological thinking and moral philosophy. This discussion will consider the moral and philosophical foundations on which Furedi builds her case. We will also explore the relevance of this approach to the pro-choice cause, particularly the current campaign to decriminalise abortion altogether. Is it moral for women to choose abortion? Should campaigners for abortion focus on issues of health and mental well-being or argue for an absolute right to abortion?


chief executive, British Pregnancy Advisory Service; author, The Moral Case for Abortion


journalist and author

reader in social policy, University of Kent, Canterbury; director, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies

president, Catholics for Choice

The crisis of diplomacy in the era of Trump

The crisis of diplomacy in the era of Trump

May 10, 2019

Recording of the debate at the Battle of Ideas Festival 2018.

Visiting Europe in the summer, President Trump lambasted Germany’s relationship with Russia, took a dig at Theresa May’s Brexit strategy and seemingly sided with Vladimir Putin against America’s own intelligence agencies. The UK’s former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, also famously made numerous diplomatic gaffes. Once diplomacy was regarded as a careful art, furthering national interests through back-channels and coded language, and pursued by highly educated diplomats. But in recent years, politicians have seemed keener to make loud public statements at the expense of cool negotiation. Why do politicians seem to respond to events on the hoof rather than pursuing a long-term strategy? Are they playing with fire?

former foreign correspondent in Moscow, Paris and Washington; special correspondent in China; writer and broadcaster

chair of international relations, University of Bath

senior lecturer in History, Anglia Ruskin University; author, First World War for Dummies

author, The Leaderless Revolution; executive director, Independent Diplomat

Feminism: in conversation with Camille Paglia

Feminism: in conversation with Camille Paglia

May 3, 2019

After three decades teaching at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, there have recently been calls from campus activists for Camille Paglia to be sacked from her post for having 'dangerous' views. Listen to this discussion at the Battle of Ideas Festival 2016, with Paglia in conversation with Claire Fox, and decide for yourself.

Original session introduction

Internationally renowned American social critic Camille Paglia has been called ‘the anti-feminist feminist’. A staunch defender of individual freedom, she has argued against laws prohibiting pornography, drugs and abortion. Describing contemporary feminism as a ‘reactionary reversion’ and ‘a gross betrayal of the radical principles of 1960s counterculture’, she stands firmly on the side of free speech and against political correctness. She has argued that though today’s feminists strike progressive poses, their ideas emanate from an entitled, upper-middle-class point of view. This has led Paglia to become one of the US’s foremost critics of contemporary feminist orthodoxies such as the idea of ‘rape culture’, which she believes stifles women’s autonomy.

Instead, Paglia is keen to stimulate reasoned discussion about some of the most controversial and inflammatory issues dominating campus politics and debates about threats to young women. She is calling such fashionable concepts such as ‘rape culture…a ridiculous term…not helpful in the quest for women’s liberation’. She is associated with a brand of feminism which encourages women to embrace the dangers of being in the world and has argued that the current enthusiasm for things such as compulsory sexual consent classes in colleges illustrates how sex is being policed by ‘drearily puritanical and hopelessly totalitarian regulatory regimes and codes’.