Wednesday 9 February 2011

Final score from the think-tank clash 2011

We like to think that Next Left is something of a Sky Sports for the pointy-headed scene, though without the pictures, subscription fees or the unreconstructed sexism.

So here is our now traditional full-time report on the "think-tank clash 2011" at the South Bank Centre. After last year's inaugural fixture, the clash was once again played in front of a Purcell Room capacity crowd, waving their red and blue voting cards at match referee John O'Farrell.

There were three bouts, with each think-tank and guest advocate getting two and a half minutes to pitch their case.

On "revenge", ResPublica v Demos debated whether, after the crash, we should break up the banks. Phillip Blond of ResPublica argued that it would create a more diverse banking sector; Kitty Ussher of Demos that the size of banks had nothing to do with the crisis. The audience voted narrowly for ResPublica which, given that Demos had the uphill task of appearing to 'defend the banks', suggested to me that Kitty had had the better of the argument.

On "equality", the Fabian Society v Policy Exchange on the proposition that the answer to the broken society is a radically more equal Britain. The Telegraph's Mary Riddell was, as last year, guest advocate for the Fabiansto argue that inequality was an important cause of social fracture (though neither side believes that Britain is 'broken"). Neil O'Brien countered with the argument that there was a trade-off and choice between reducing inequality or tackling the causes of poverty, while Peter Saunders pursued his critique of The Spirit Level. The Fabians won the audience vote, probably in front of a home crowd.

On "liberty", the IEA v ippr saw the pro-market liberals of the IEA put up the case for "economic liberty. Mark Pennington and Phillip Booth arguing this had been much neglected by governments, while ippr's Nick Pearce argued for a liberalism which allowed collective democratic choices, particularly to offer protections against economic exploitation. Pearce characterised his opponents as "market fundamentalist". Two and a half minutes tends to crowd out too much nuance, but given that the case had been made for the abolition of all barriers to freedom of exchange and contract, and against the principle of taxation as coercive, it didn't seem an unfair characterisation to me. Martin Bright, supporting Pearce, pointed out a significant barrier to the libertarian argument in a democratic society was that most people don't want it.

The audience vote was easily the clearest result of the three bouts, with a landslide vote for ippr, somewhat assisted by the supreme certainty of tone of their opponents' advocacy, as well as Pearce pithily deploying one-line counter-arguments where other wonks would have used paragraphs.

A short film on Britain in the six decades since the 1951 Festival of Britain saw a final round in which the ResPublica, Fabian and ippr directors were asked what had changed most in Britain since 1951.

For Phillip Blond, rehearsing the thesis of Red Tory, it was the interaction of the big state from the left and the market fundamentalism of the right.

I argued that we had become a more civilised society, because we didn't imprison gay people, because women had much wider opportunities, and because we were a much less racist society than a generation or two ago.

Nick Pearce endorsed the greater social liberalism, but emphasised too the increased economic inequality and a loss of the collective faith in the possibilities of political change.

The audience were overwhelmingly of the view that Britain was a better society to live in than it had been in 1951, with barely a handful of votes against, but a clear (though much narrower) majority were pessimistic rather than optimistic about whether we would be able to say the same again in sixty years time.

The audience voted ippr's Nick Pearce the winner of the think-tank clash, so he can be hailed as King of the Wonks for 2011. This well deserved ippr victory saw the centre-left think-tank's supporters dancing in the streets around its Embankment offices to celebrate this triumph long into the night.

1 comment:

Rob said...

Great event. This is my speech seconding Kitty Ussher