250 years ago Birmingham could quite correctly be described as the centre for debate in Britain. The Lunar Society was in full swing, clubs and meetings debating science, religious freedom and radical politics were going on all over the city, in taverns, coffee houses and inns. The radical fervour of the period saw riots and battles in the street between conservatives and supporters of the French revolution which James Watt described as “dividing Birmingham into two parties who hated one another mortally”.
The city, during this period, has been described as having ‘freedom built into it’s self-image’, making Birmingham the place to settle for radical dissenters from all over the country. It all came to an end rather abruptly when Joseph Priestley (of the Lunar Society) was forced to flee the city following a full scale riot at his house in protest at a dinner he was giving to celebrate the second anniversary of the storming the Bastille (It is thought these rioters were in the pay of conservative city officials).
The Birmingham of today is a little quieter but recently the city’s history of debate has had something of a revival.
Cafe scientifique meet once a month to discuss issues in science and research, providing a valuable insight into the workings of science practice and debunking some common misunderstandings. For someone like me who doesn’t know his Periodic Table from his Bunsen burner, a night in the pub with these popularisers of science is an education.
Skeptics in the pub meet twice a month at the Queen Victoria to contemplate the meaning of life through a variety of issues. Birmingham Humanists have had some very interesting debates this year, and after an absence of over 200 years the Lunar Society set up again a few years ago to continue the tradition of the original dissenters.
Last month also saw the first birthday of the Birmingham Salon. Inspired by the Institute of Ideas' annual debating festival The Battle of Ideas which takes place in London in October each year. It was formed in the belief that Birmingham needs the same channels for intellectual debate. Each salon meeting is led by expert speakers and involves anyone who is interested.
“Our aim to get away from the stale affairs so often witnessed on Question Time or Any Questions, where adversarial politicians engage in point scoring and one-upmanship. The salon aims to get to the bottom of controversial ideas. We try to attract an audience who are prepared to challenge speakers, and be challenged themselves by new ideas, so we have a genuine public conversation. If this approach upsets some apple carts and challenges some orthodoxies all the better”, said Jason Smith, the salon’s organiser.
Over the last 12 months Birmingham has had open public debates on ‘What is the new Birmingham library for?’, ‘Is Childhood in Crisis?’, ‘Therapeutic culture: are we all on the depression spectrum?’, ‘Can Aids medicine work forever?’ and a ‘History of tattooing’, as well as many others.
The Lunar men and others of that period saw debate as integral to democracy. Voting every 4 or 5 years was the technical bit, debating and having a personal commitment to seek the truth was the actual practice of democracy. Active citizens were the key to the future. Perhaps Birmingham is again starting to find it’s radical voice.