The Times Debate at the Cheltenham Literature Festival

Chelt Lit Fest

By Alexandra Kirienko

The Times Debate took place on Saturday, 5th October in, appropriately, the Times Forum. As an event in one of the largest venues of the festival, it attracted a diverse audience since the topic chosen for the debate was very far-reaching and controversial: ‘Britain Great or Small? What Does the Future Hold?’ One can easily imagine the scope for discussion that could be triggered by this not-so-rhetorical question. Indeed, Douglas Alexander (the Shadow Foreign Secretary), Tim Montgomerie (Comment Editor for The Times), Maggie Aderin-Pocock (space scientist) and Jonathan Miller (opera and theatre director) found much to discuss.

At the start of the debate, the audience was asked to indicate whether they were optimistic or pessimistic about the future of Britain in 17 years’ time. The question of the significance of Britain on the global scene now, and in the future, is controversial. After Mr Putin’s remarks about the ‘declining little island,’ many might have been forced to consider the inferences that were implied by the Russian president (and not just those stemming from the political tension between the two countries). Yet Britain does have many assets that contribute to its image of a prospering country. ‘The British passport will get you into more countries than any other passport in the world,’ claimed Mr Alexander. The country is now a pioneer in the area of synthetic technology and green technology, explained by Ms Aderin-Pocock. The value of art and culture is what makes Britain a place that attracts so many people from across the world, as Mr Miller pointed out. The vitality of the English language is unquestionable, contributing to the ‘knowledge economy’ that the country has maintained throughout centuries, and continues to do so with shrewd public investments in areas that include higher education.

Despite a few highly contentious issues being raised, including religion and the reluctance of the younger generation to pursue science-related career paths, these were not discussed in detail until the floor was invited to make their contribution to the course of the debate. The influence of media and its changing role in the British society sparked off an evaluation of the path which the BBC seems to be pursuing in a world of changing values and fluctuating interest in current affairs and politics, particularly amongst those ‘who never came across a radio receiver.’ The issue of Islamic extremism and rising fundamentalism led to a discussion of religion’s place in the world of 2030; some gloomy forecasts were vocalised, predicting 20 years of irreducible terrorism that the world was to face, and in Britain in particular.

Trying to predict the future is a matter of speculation, and identifying a direction of likely developments is probably as close as one may ever hope to get to the truth. Cameron’s ‘big society’ plan seems to be a wonderful, if somewhat unrealistic, way to maintain the ‘greatness’ of Britain; it links well with the idea that an ultimate goal for a national society should be to achieve an equilibrium in which no one would be excluded from benefiting from the wealth of the country. Whether Britain will attain that goal, or even advance towards it rather than away from it, is a prediction which none of the speakers was willing to make.

A show of hands from the floor at the end of the debate indicated that the outcome of the debate had changed some of the optimists’ point of view on the future. This would be a rather depressing end of the event – yet it was brightened up by a remark from Libby Purves who chaired the debate: ‘Whether our common humanity is more important than our individual differences, it is in the hands of the new generations to decide what happens in 2030.’ Indeed, it is.

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