The “Big Tent Ideas Festival”
Babraham, Cambs, 8 September 2018.
Some thoughts the “Big Tent” event attended recently by TCC Member Kimon Roussopoulos.
The event was co-chaired by George Freeman MP (Con, briefly was Life Sciences minister) and (Baroness) Sally Morgan, sometime Blair advisor in Number 10 and other capacities. It was the second iteration of the event, and while the original was regarded as a Tory version of the “Jezza fest” Labour organised, or perhaps a reaction to his success in Glastonbury, the organisers had made an attempt to be cross-party in this instance. While rather dominated by middle-aged middle-class tweedy Conservative types (audience and stands), I think there was a respectable effort at inclusivity – I saw Tory ideas booed in a couple of tents, and Labour booed at others! Many Labour MPs were scheduled to talk but didn’t show finally, and the word on the street was that the Party banned them from talking, which if so is regrettable IMHO. Zeichner was present but not talking. The format was 8 tents in the pleasant gardens of the old house in Babraham Research Campus, each with a theme – “Hopes and Fears”, “Politics”, “Society”, “Arts & Culture”, “Economy”, “Global Britain”, “Innovation” and “Tech”. Obviously I only saw a small fraction of the event. Some pictures and the full programme are currently still available at https://www.bigtent.org.uk/.
The first talk I went to was an amusing right-wing love fest, on “Renewing Capitalism – is it redeemable”. Liz Truss (Chief Sec to Treasury) led the Tory charge, asserting that the trouble was government getting in people’s way, why were we taking so much of their money, etc etc – I found it a scary echo of Reaganism simplifications, and a bit terrifying that she has that job. Generally the panel was more or less Tory (James Timpson of Timpsons the most human – but very anti regulation), and generally the comments were along the lines of “Capitalism/the free market is the most successful thing the world has ever seen, apart from” [insert flaw], “and if we don’t support it we’ll end up with that latter day Stalin, Corbyn”. The flaws named included failure of wages to rise, banking crisis, housing crisis, multinationals avoiding tax, failure of companies to have human face…. My take-outs were (a) if one accept all the flaws this Tory lot posited, pure free market capitalism isn’t looking that great, and (b) they’re all scared of Corbyn, or at least using him as a bogeyman! The audience were, in a genteel manner, baying for lower taxes and less regulation. I was depressed at the whole thing, but fortunately it turned out to be an outlier session. But Liz Truss was given a rather hard time about housing prices, land banking, planning, etc, which is probably a good thing. (“We’re going to deal with it” – “What have you been doing for 7 years?” etc).
There was a sensible session on planning for innovation, including the chief planning officer from Herts, Kit Malthouse (Planning Minister, since July), and “our own” David Cleevely, among others. A canter around housing, commuting, etc, with much mention of the “golden triangle” (London-Oxon-Cantab) – sensible but the usual discussion with the usual problems. An interesting session on “will a wave of green tech lift most boats in the harbour or sink them”, with Norman Lamb (LibDem MP, chair of science and tech select committee) and other notables. I rather blithely challenged Lamb when he claimed that green innovation will save the British economy (pointing out that whatever we invent, someone else will probably make it – cf solar panels, wind turbines etc). I also raised a frequently made point in our circles, that the notion that we can have “green growth” and effectively tackle climate change with no impact on conventional growth was a bit of a fantasy – the answers were along the line of we need to optimise “national well-being” not wealth, we need new accounting methods, etc.
Robert Peston gave a talk on his new book “WTF”, essentially laying into the ineptitude of all our leaders in this most uncertain of times (very popular message). A session on “Artificial Intelligence – to fear or not to fear” should have been interesting but most of the panellists (inc Trevor Phillips – huh?) didn’t actually know much about it. There were a bunch of session on “Global Britain” – as far as I can tell, largely special interests fantasising about us using the Commonwealth to become part of the Pacific, Africa, or China’s new silk road – and much talk about “fastest growing trade areas”, ignoring the actual magnitudes. Perhaps I’m being unfair, I only dipped in and out.
A session on “is this the end of the Liberal Era”, with Peston, Hobsbawm, David Runciman and Ryan Shorthouse (as the token neo-liberal!) was lively but depressing. Maybe liberal democracy has run its 60 year or so course, and totalitarian technological government (China) will bury us all while we fiddle and Syria burns. Some pointed out that what Liberal Democracy does best is war, be it WW1, WW2 or the cold war… now it’s foundering without an intellectual justification/cause to unite against. I think they were fighting the last war though, online and AI will bury their arguments. Apparently we’re all doomed though, one way or another. I guess no one gets out of life alive.
A final “highlight” was an unscheduled discussion between the Chair and George Osborne, who’d jetted in from the US overnight (after breakfast with Kissinger and others… would that be the Bilderberg, or the Illuminati?) wanting to show up. He gave off slightly the usual whiff of sulphur, but to be honest was sharp and eloquent and weirdly impressive at the same time. Very regretful about the referendum outcome. (And to be fair, Cameron and Osborne did campaign quite hard for remain, unlike Corbyn, who made no effort whatsoever and could certainly have swung 2% and saved the nation if he’d lifted a finger, grrrr). Asked his biggest achievement, he interestingly cited NOT cancelling some Labour spending projects (esp. Crick Institute, also Crossrail, HS2, etc) when he came to the Treasury during the financial crisis, and when he was urged to do so. Also support for the arts. In discussion with a few acolytes afterwards (I evesdropped) he talked more about Brexit, said he expected we’d end up with an EEA membership (aka Norway), which he considered far and away the best course left (I can’t disagree), although his acolytes (I’ve no idea who they were) seemed to believe this would only fly with a 5 year or so time limit. He argued Chequers and no-deal were non-starters. (Also made a wry comment about how the UK had said it’d negotiate hard, and then how now we’re complaining when the EU talks tough in return.) I don’t agree with the guy’s politics and hold his partisanship (as reported by various LibDem ex-coalition ministers) in contempt, but you’ve got to respect his “smarts”, I guess.
Hope this is of interest to someone!
Some people reacted to an early version of this review with comments along the lines of “how depressing”. In some respects it was. But it was a well organised event on a mostly sunny day in the beautiful gardens of a former country house, surrounded by modern labs where genuinely transformational world-beating research is going on in Britain. Perhaps 1,000 people from all over the world showed up to listen and debate, and very many experts and opinion formers gave up a Saturday to come and be subjected to debate and scrutiny. There is something good in that.
17 Sept 2018